John Calipari didn’t wait for the selection committee to reveal the NCAA tournament bracket Sunday evening before predicting how the final push to perfection might look for his undefeated Kentucky team.
“I can guess the bracket,” Calipari said after his team went unbeaten in the regular season and SEC tournament. “Do you want me to guess it for you?”
Sure, fire away.
“I bet you they slide the Lakers in there,” he said, smiling.
Alas, the committee didn’t resort to something that drastic in attempting to challenge college basketball’s runaway express train. The 34-0 Wildcats nabbed the tournament’s No. 1 overall seed — shocker, right? — but their road to history actually might not be a cakewalk.
Joining Kentucky in the Midwest Regional are Kansas (No. 2 seed), Notre Dame (No. 3), Maryland (No. 4) and Wichita State (No. 7). Notre Dame potentially presents the biggest challenge of that group after winning the ACC tournament title over the weekend.
Villanova, Duke and Wisconsin received the other No. 1 seeds. The Badgers earned their first No. 1 seed in program history after winning the Big Ten tournament championship Sunday.
The toughest region might be the West, which features Wisconsin, Pac-12 champion Arizona, No. 3 seed Baylor and North Carolina as the No. 4 seed.
Arizona and Virginia, the ACC’s regular-season champion, built strong résumés as potential No. 1 seeds, but the committee viewed them slightly below the top four teams.
Of course, every team not named Kentucky enters March Madness as an underdog as the Wildcats pursue the first undefeated season by a Division I team in nearly four decades.
“I think there’s a lot of parity in college basketball this year outside of Kentucky,” said Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg, whose team won the Big 12 tournament and looks capable of a deep run as a No. 3 seed in the South.
Other than boredom, can anything derail Kentucky’s bid for a ninth national championship in the program’s rich history?
“I think I have the best team and the best players,” Calipari told reporters Sunday night. “Does that mean we’ll win? No, it doesn’t.”
Calipari certainly has the most talented team in the field, the tallest, the deepest, the best on defense and probably the most confident, which begs one question: Would you take Kentucky or the field?
The Wildcats stormed through the regular season and SEC tournament to become the 19th team to enter the NCAA tournament without a loss. But only seven of those teams won the championship.
The sky would have to fall for Kentucky to stumble against a long shot, but here are four teams that could end the quest for perfection, if they play at their best:
The Badgers lost to Kentucky by one point in the Final Four last season on Aaron Harrison’s three-pointer with 5.7 seconds remaining.
Wisconsin wouldn’t be intimidated by Kentucky’s talent or aura. The Badgers are a veteran team that grinds opponents to sawdust with their methodical style of play.
Wisconsin owns one of the most efficient offenses in college basketball, which would be a battle of wills against Kentucky’s stifling defense.
Wisconsin moves and shares the ball as well as anyone, and national player of the year candidate Frank Kaminsky is a nightmare matchup with his inside-outside game.
The Badgers also could get an emotional lift with the return of senior guard Traevon Jackson, sidelined since suffering a broken right foot in mid-January.
“I think they have a chance to win a national championship, so I don’t think there’s a lot of people that can say that,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said.
The Blue Devils have defensive issues, but they can score in bunches when they get on a roll. Their dynamic duo of Jahlil Okafor and Apple Valley’s Tyus Jones are freshmen, but they’re fearless and elite talents. Okafor is a national player of the year candidate and likely No. 1 overall NBA draft pick.
Jones turned in several superlative performances against ranked teams this season. including Wisconsin and North Carolina.
Duke was the fourth-highest scoring team in college basketball, averaging 80.6 points per game. Okafor would have his hands full inside against Kentucky’s size-XXXL front court, but the Blue Devils could use their quickness to offset Kentucky’s size advantage.
A Virginia-Kentucky matchup might not reach 100 combined points. Virginia coach Tony Bennett has transformed the Cavaliers into one of college basketball’s toughest defensive teams with his “pack line” scheme.
In essence, Bennett’s system is a team defense concept that requires defenders to sag in the lane in order to cut off dribble penetration and force kick-outs to outside shooters.
Virginia held opponents to only 50.7 points per game, which led the nation. The Cavaliers also held opponents to 36.1 percent shooting, third nationally.
The Cavaliers control the pace on offense and smother teams on defense. They held three teams to less than 30 points — Rutgers (26), Harvard (27) and Georgia Tech (28).
Yes, for the game.
Sean Miller’s team has good size and is one of the best defensive and rebounding teams in the nation. The Wildcats wouldn’t be overwhelmed by Kentucky’s length and size.
Everything revolves around senior point guard T.J. McConnell, one of the best players in the Pac-12. Kaleb Tarczewski, a 7-0 center, emerged as a viable inside presence in the final month of the regular season.
Only one name resides on the marquee, though, as the tournament begins later this week. Kentucky will remain March Madness’ front-page story.
Win or lose.