Without question, Kentucky is the favorite heading into the conference tournaments and eventually the NCAA tournament. Such is to be expected of the undefeated, undisputed No. 1 team in the nation that is so deep it could probably field two Final Four teams out of its roster.
Ah, but who can knock Kentucky off of their perch come March Madness? Which teams are the biggest threat to steal a national championship from the grasp of the Wildcats?
Let's find out.
In every other season, Virginia would be the consensus top team in the country. They've lost just one game on the season (to an excellent Duke team), they have quality wins over Maryland, Notre Dame, North Carolina, Louisville and Pittsburgh and they have the nation's best defense.
They don't have the depth of Kentucky, but they can roll 10-deep in the rotation if necessary, though Justin Anderson will be out for some time with a broken finger, while London Perrantes is recovering from a broken nose. They don't have the talent in the frontcourt that Kentucky possesses, though Anthony Gill, Mike Tobey and Darion Atkins all do work on the block.
Sure, Virginia isn't very fun to watch. Nate Scott of For the Win perhaps put it best as to just how difficult it is for many basketball fans to watch the Cavaliers in action:
I’m not just talking boring for college basketball. I’m not just talking boring for sports. I’m talking boring, period. Virginia basketball is the guy at your dinner party who won’t shut up about his jet ski. It is the first hour of The Desolation of Smaug. It is the small talk at the hotel’s continental breakfast before an accounting conference.
UVA basketball is paint-drying, grass-growing, sixth-period-algebra boring.
Ah, but maybe that's the point. In the age of short attention spans and instant highlights, of dunk compilations on YouTube and Swaggy P, the Cavaliers are no flash and all substance. They grind out wins. They grind down opponents. They are a game of chess in the age of Call of Duty. They don't need to look good winning, they just need to win.
There are reasons to wonder if they could beat Kentucky head-to-head. Do they have the scorers to keep pace with the Wildcats if they go on a run? Do they have the athleticism to deal with the long, freakish Kentucky stars?
Maybe, maybe not. But the Cavaliers do have an identity, and each and every game they step out on the court knowing who they are, what they want to accomplish and how they, as a team, can accomplish those goals. That self-awareness, combined with their grit, intelligence and stifling defense makes them as capable of beating Kentucky as any team in the country.
Whereas Virginia would have to rely on grit and defense to knock off Kentucky, Duke is perhaps the only team in the country with the pure talent to knock off the Wildcats.
Jahlil Okafor is the best player in the country. Quinn Cook and Tyus Jones combine to give the Blue Devils arguably the nation's best backcourt. Justise Winslow is a beast on the wing.
Virginia Tech coach Buzz Williams put into perspective what it is like facing Duke before the teams played this past week.
“We’ve got to figure out what is the best poison for us to swallow,” he told Mike Barber of the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “It’s not only Tyus. It’s the rest of those guys. It’s not just Jahlil. It’s not just Quinn Cook. All of those guys are going to put an extreme amount of stress on us, both offensively and defensively.”
And of course, you can't forget about the Mike Krzyzewski factor, either.
On paper, Kentucky is the deeper, more talented team, but Duke has the offensive firepower to beat any team in the nation on any given night. From a pure talent perspective, no team outside of Lexington stacks up better than Duke.
Quietly, very quietly, Villanova is in the top 25 of both offensive and defensive efficiency at Kenpom.com, practically a prerequisite for winning a national title. Gonzaga can't make that claim. Wisconsin can't make that claim. Heck, Duke and Virginia can't make that claim.
It's no secret that Villanova can score, but the fact that they also play efficiently on the defensive end makes them dangerous. So does their balance, as six players are averaging eight or more points per game this season and eight players give them at least 13 minutes per contest.
This isn't just the run-and-gun, guard-heavy attack that 'Nova has featured in the past, either. Yes, the Wildcats normally go as their guards and wing players go, but Daniel Ochefu and JayVaughn Pinkston give them players who will cause problems for opposing frontcourts.
They are also very experienced. Darrun Hilliard II and Pinkston are seniors. Ryan Arcidiacono, Dylan Ennis and Ochefu are all juniors. The big stage won't intimidate Villanova.
Neither will a talented opponent. This year, the Wildcats have knocked off VCU, Temple, Syracuse, Butler (twice), St. John's, Georgetown and Providence (twice). Those teams aren't Kentucky, but night in and night out, 'Nova shows up.
This is a very good team, even if they don't get the buzz of Kentucky or Duke. You get the feeling watching Villanova play that they would give Kentucky plenty of headaches. Ultimately, Kentucky's superior talent might win out, but don't be surprised if 'Nova has a very deep run in the NCAA tourney or even wins the entire thing this year.