It’s no stretch to call the Kentucky Wildcats the decisive favorites for the national championship. After all, John Calipari’s team has been ranked No. 1 in both polls since late January, and its only loss came on a buzzer-beating three-pointer at Indiana.
With such lofty expectations, it’s reasonable to ask whether the Wildcats will crumble under tournament pressure and succumb to an early exit. With the talent and versatility in Kentucky’s lineup, though, an upset in the first few rounds just isn’t in the cards.
Herein, a look at 10 reasons that Kentucky is a safe bet to last until at least the Elite Eight when March Madness opens next week.
History has shown that having a lineup loaded with future NBA stars is no guarantee against an NCAA tournament upset. That said, it can’t hurt, either.
Anthony Davis is a likely No.1 overall pick whenever he comes out, and all four other Wildcat starters are (at a minimum) in the running for first-round spots in the draft.
There are very few teams in the country that can even come close to matching up with Kentucky, and none who will be seeded low enough to face the Wildcats in the early rounds.
As successful a recruiter as John Calipari has been, the talent he brings in comes with a major caveat: no coach in the country sees more of his freshmen jump to the NBA after a single season.
It’s certainly possible that some of this year’s starters (three frosh, two sophomores) will stay in Lexington, but there’s no realistic chance of keeping all of them.
That being the case, Kentucky only has one shot to win with its current, magnificent lineup. The players are going to be well aware of that fact, producing more of a sense of urgency than one would normally expect from such a young team.
Not all 30-1 records are created equal, but Kentucky’s is no mirage. They’ve faced serious tests from some of the best teams in the country in 2011-12, and (with the exception of the Indiana loss) come out on top.
A 75-65 win over Kansas in the Maui Invitational was a good sign for UK, but the biggest game of the season was the home win over North Carolina.
Not only did the Wildcats beat one of the nation’s best teams, but they did it by coming through in the clutch in a tight finish, a situation they'll likely face again come tournament time.
Even the best college teams often have a single player who can be attacked by a bad matchup. With these Wildcats, though, finding such a vulnerability is no small task.
Even Marquis Teague—the most obvious candidate for a weak link in his capacity as a freshman point guard—is a skilled passer who’s put up a respectable 1.7 assist-to-turnover ratio.
With his solid 6’2”, 189 lbs. frame and outstanding quickness, he won’t be much easier to attack on defense, either.
Although coach John Calipari’s reputation hasn’t been built primarily on his motivational abilities, his track record shows that he knows how to get the best out of the magnificent talent he recruits.
Calipari’s teams have made it to the Sweet 16 in each of the last six tournaments, reaching the Elite Eight in five of those trips.
The last time Calipari suffered an early-round upset, he was still building the Memphis program and was in his first NCAA tournament at that school in 2003. He’ll have his team ready to play, regardless of who they face in the first few rounds.
Even if Kentucky somehow loses in the SEC tournament—an unlikely occurrence in itself—it’s almost impossible to imagine the Wildcats earning anything less than a No. 1 seed for the Big Dance.
That status alone will be a big step toward securing a deep tourney run.
After all, no 16th seed has ever won a game, and they’re hardly likely to start against a team as loaded as Kentucky.
Moreover, the Wildcats have been largely immune to the parity seen around the rest of the country this year, so even a Sweet 16 matchup with a No. 4 seed shouldn’t be a cause for much concern.
Even as young as Kentucky is, this lineup knows what it’s like to win in March. Terrence Jones, Doron Lamb and Darius Miller are all veterans of last year’s Final Four run.
That on-court leadership will compensate for the Wildcats’ three freshman starters and help Kentucky stay calm if it does get challenged early on.
After surviving last year’s first-round scare against Princeton, UK isn’t going to find itself vulnerable to a similar threat in 2012.
As the basketball truism goes, you can’t teach height. Kentucky boasts one of the nation’s tallest lineups, making it tough for even the most talented opponents to mount an inside game on offense or stop the Wildcats in the paint on defense.
Murray State, the prototype of the kind of highly-skilled small-conference team that poses an early-round upset threat, starts two post players who stand 6’7”.
Against Kentucky, the Racers would be giving up an average of three inches at every position in the starting lineup.
A team that relies on one overpowering scorer (say, Creighton and the brilliant Doug McDermott) is always vulnerable to being stopped if that player goes cold or finds himself matched up with a particularly tough defender.
That won’t be an issue for Kentucky, which features one of the nation’s most balanced offenses.
The six core players in John Calipari’s rotation are all scoring between 14.4 and 9.8 points per game for the season, giving the team threats in the post and on the perimeter.
Even if leading scorer Anthony Davis isn’t hitting his shots, there will be plenty of other Wildcats ready and able to pick up the slack.
There isn’t a tougher defense in college basketball this season than Kentucky’s. The Wildcats are tied for 10th in the nation in scoring defense (58.5 points a game) while leading the country in field goal percentage allowed (36.5) and blocks (8.9 per game).
The easiest way for an underdog to pull an upset is to get hot from three-point range, but even that is far from an easy task against this D.
Not only are the Wildcats skilled at challenging shots, but their extraordinary perimeter length—6’4” Doron Lamb, 6’7” Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, 6’8” Darius Miller—makes for nightmarish matchups for opposing backcourts.