Do the Kentucky Wildcats have what it takes to run the table in college basketball?
The Kentucky Wildcats are undefeated and obviously one of the best teams in college basketball history, at least through the first 11 games of the season.
Head coach John Calipari has already won a national championship at Kentucky and played in another last season; however, this team might even be better than either of those teams.
Since last year’s team is largely still intact and only lost Julius Randle and James Young, Kentucky only added some of the country’s most talented freshmen to an already ridiculously talented team. So, in that way, they’re already better than last year’s team.
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Are they better than the team that won the national championship in 2012 led by Anthony Davis, Terrence Jones, Marcus Teague, and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist?
That’s yet to be determined, but I think there’s a really good argument to be made that this team is in fact better. That’s not the question I’d like to try an answer today, though.
I’d like to examine Kentucky’s chance to run the table and become one of college basketball’s immortals. There have only been seven teams to go undefeated in college basketball history, and the feat hasn’t been accomplished since Bob Knight’s 1976 Indiana Hoosiers.
Others have made it through the regular season unscathed before losing in the NCAA tournament. The Wichita State Shockers are the most recent example of a team that ran the table during regular season but lost to none other than the Kentucky Wildcats in the NCAA tournament last season.
So, can these Wildcats go undefeated?
Their roster says, “YES!”
I have to include the entire stat sheet for the roster to prove how good Kentucky is in all areas of the game.
Calipari’s team has ten players that average more than ten minutes per game, which is basically unheard of in college basketball, with only 200 minutes to go around.
As you can see, Willie Caulie-Stein is the Wildcats’ leading scorer at 10.7 PPG. That might raise concerns, like “Kentucky doesn’t have a go-to scorer” and “Who is Kentucky going to go to down the stretch of games?”
I’d just like to point out Kentucky has like four go-to scorers, and they’re all going to default to Aaron Harrison in big moments, just like they did in the NCAA tournament last season.
On defense, Kentucky is the most dominant team in the country. The Wildcats’ have 94 steals (11th-most in the country) and 91 blocks (most in the country) in only 11 games. They’re also holding opponents to an average of 48.0 points per game, the second-best mark in the country.
With that kind of defense, there’s no question Kentucky is the best team in college basketball.
Kentucky does have one weakness, but I don’t think it will be a problem for much longer.
Kentucky lost one of its top players for the season last week when Alex Poythress tore his ACL in practice. While the injury might cause some matchup problems for Kentucky. It also could have some positive effects.
That’s no offense to Poythress either. I think he’s one of college basketball’s best players and difference-makers. There’s few players that play harder and can do as many things as Poythress can do. Kentucky will miss Poythress at some point this season, even if they do win the national championship. But, it can’t be denied that Kentucky’s lineup just changed a little bit and opened up more minutes for other players to step up, which leads into my next point.
While he’s able to do so many good things for the Wildcats, Poythress can’t shoot. He missed all seven of his 3-point attempts this season, and he doesn’t force the defense to account for him, which allows defenses to pack the paint and double Kentucky’s bigs, like Caulie-Stein, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Dakari Johnson.
Primarily, Poythress played the small forward position on the wing, although his skill set was much more set to be an interior player with a good motor and quick post moves. That restricted Kentucky’s offense and was part of the reason Kentucky is shooting 29 percent from 3 this season.
In their first game without Poythress in the lineup, Kentucky broke out of their 3-point slump and knocked down 7-of-15 3-point attempts.
Do you think that’s a coincidence?
Without Poythress, Calipari can play more “true” lineups with Tyler Ulis and Devin Booker playing alongside Harrison twins more often. Ulis and Booker are better shooters than Poythress and should be able to space the floor better for the Wildcats. Even Trey Lyles, who is going to replace Poythress in the starting lineup, can make some 3-pointers.
So, there may be a little addition by subtraction going on with Kentucky because of Poythress’ injury.
Even if Kentucky does take a slight step back, they should have a fairly easy route to the NCAA tournament. Let’s be honest, the SEC is not the ACC, Big Ten, or even Big 12. There’s few teams that will be able to challenge Kentucky in conference play. Here’s a look at Kentucky’s remaining tough games:
Remaining Tough Games
Dec. 27: @Louisville
Feb. 7: @Florida
Feb. 28: vs. Arkansas
Of course, there’s a chance Kentucky could slip up any time, but if those three games have most risk involved if you’re Kentucky.
The Cardinals present some problems for Kentucky because of their style of play. I’m not saying it’s going to have an effect or even be good enough to beat Kentucky, but Louisville’s up-tempo, full-court pressure could cause Kentucky to turn the ball over.
I think Louisville is going to have a really hard time scoring against Kentucky’s bigs in the half-court, just like Montrezl Harrell and Louisville’s guard had in the NCAA tournament last season against the Wildcats. That means Louisville has to beat them up the court by forcing turnovers and getting out in transition.
Florida has been pretty awful this season, but they do have one of the best home court advantages in all of college basketball. On top of that, the Gators do have some really talented players, although they haven’t shown it yet. If Kentucky’s still undefeated by the time they meet Florida in Gainesville, Kentucky will be lucky to survive that game. That crowd will be bonkers!
Don’t write off Arkansas after their back-to-back losses to Iowa State and Clemson. They know how to play against Kentucky, and they most definitely aren’t afraid of the Wildcats. Arkansas even beat Kentucky twice last season.
Kentucky catches a break by only having to play Arkansas once this season, and they get the Razorbacks at home. I think Kentucky will win this game, but this happened last season and Kentucky still might be a little scarred!
Kentucky might not be able to run the table this season, but if I had to bet, I’d put money on Kentucky winning every game this season and winning the national championship!
Not exactly a bold prediction, but it hasn’t been done in almost 40 years. That’s bold enough, right?