The madness of March is just around the corner. With the 2015 NCAA tournament's Selection Sunday looming on March 15, it's time to look ahead at the projected No. 1 seeds.
One obvious squad is the Kentucky Wildcats, unquestionably the best team in the country. Kentucky's roster is stacked with blue-chip recruits, several of whom will soon move on to the NBA.
Who will stand up to the national championship favorites? Several capable contenders stand in the way of coach John Calipari's talented bunch. Whether any of them get a crack at knocking off the undefeated Wildcats remains to be seen, as upset traps loom all the way to the Final Four.
Below is a closer examination of this year's Kentucky outfit, along with the other predicted top seeds who figure to be the biggest impediments to the Wildcats cutting down the nets in Indianapolis.
No team boasts more depth than Kentucky. Unlike last year's bunch that struggled with chemistry, only to still wind up national runners-up, the new Wildcats have been firing on all cylinders for most of the season.
The Harrison twins' collective decision to stay in Lexington no doubt helped in that regard. Continuity is difficult to achieve with the caliber of recruits Calipari brings in.
Athletic center Willie Cauley-Stein, who was injured down the stretch of last year's NCAA tournament, will be eager to get back to the grand stage this time around. His presence has been a fine complement to Karl-Anthony Towns—perhaps the best NBA prospect in the 2015 class.
The pair of Cauley-Stein and Towns has helped mold Kentucky into an elite defense. Getting numerous stops creates plenty of breezy transition opportunities for the Wildcats' superior athletes.
Kentucky Basketball referenced how freshman forward Trey Lyles has led a balanced scoring effort as of late:
Kentucky Basketball @KentuckyMBB
Five Cats are averaging double figures over the last five games, led by Trey Lyles at 12.6, and seven are posting 7.0 pts or more. #Balance2015-3-1 14:39:19
Asking a group of alpha, high school All-Americans to jell isn't an easy task. Calipari has managed to push the right buttons better than ever with his 2014-15 batch of stars.
Towns hinted at this phenomenon in recent comments recorded by Rivals.com's Brett Dawson:
Brett Dawson @BDawsonWrites
Towns asked how Kentucky finds its energy when it’s lacking: “A man by the name of Coach Calipari. He’ll get that energy out of you.”2015-2-26 02:08:54
Whenever these Wildcats have faced adversity, they have found a way to win. Every time. Last year's team needed the win-or-go-home urgency of the NCAA tournament to ultimately bring out its best.
Although Andrew Harrison has continued struggling to live up to the hype as Kentucky's floor general, Tyler Ulis has been stellar off the bench to alleviate any of those concerns.
The arrival of another first-year stud in Devin Booker has given Kentucky a viable perimeter scorer, an area in which the Harrisons have fallen short in terms of efficient shooting. There aren't any other real concerns to be had, and Kentucky is the no-brainer choice to be the top overall March Madness seed.
As defensively sound as Kentucky has been, Virginia is every bit as good on that end of the court—if not better.
KenPom.com's adjusted defensive efficiency ranks the Wildcats second behind the Cavaliers, as the two teams yield 84.9 and 84.6 points per 100 possessions, respectively. This has helped Virginia overcome the loss of star guard Justin Anderson, presently recovering from surgery on a broken finger.
ESPN Stats & Info noted just how incredible the Cavaliers' Pack-Line defense has stifled the opposition:
ESPN Stats & Info @ESPNStatsInfo
Virginia beat Wake Forest 70-34 on Wed. It's the 6th time UVA held a D-I opponent under 40 pts this season, twice as many as any other team.2015-2-26 18:35:15
Despite being without Anderson over the past six games, coach Tony Bennett's resilient players have found a way to win to ensure there remains just one loss on the record.
Virginia is 7-1 against ESPN.com's RPI top-50 teams and has only fallen victim to Duke, courtesy of a Blue Devils hot streak from the perimeter late in the game.
Most teams are going to be forced into tough, contested shots versus the Cavaliers. No matter how cold they get on offense, and even if Anderson (13.4 PPG) isn't around to provide points production, Virginia has the tools to make a deep run and still be a worthy first-seed candidate.
Being a prisoner of the moment could cause Villanova to get the nod over Wisconsin, but based on the veteran presences of Frank Kaminsky, Sam Dekker and coach Bo Ryan, the Badgers get the nod.
Gonzaga has a strong case too, with an overtime defeat by Arizona the only blemish on its record. However, the West Coast Conference competition just isn't as strong.
Ryan has been due to deliver a championship to Madison for quite some time. Other than its most recent loss to Maryland on the road, Wisconsin has navigated the difficult Big Ten gauntlet commendably.
A cold start was mostly to blame for the slip-up versus the Terrapins, as Kaminsky alluded to afterward, via Wisconsin Basketball:
Wisconsin Basketball @BadgerMBB
"We're upset. That second half is the way we have to play all the time and we know that." - Frank Kaminsky2015-2-25 02:29:59
The Badgers' tournament resume is still stout. They have had a target on their back in conference play as a reigning Final Four team and have played at a high level throughout.
Kaminsky is the type of player who can take over a game, and sophomore forward Nigel Hayes' progress has given Wisconsin more offensive firepower. The combination of size and athleticism that Kaminsky, Dekker and Hayes bring to the hardwood creates excellent spacing, allows for shots to be more easily contested on defense and gives the Badgers a unique makeup.
Wisconsin is a deserving No. 1 seed, and the selection committee should see to that regardless of what happens in the conference tournament.
Duke Blue Devils
A rough patch in January featuring back-to-back defeats didn't derail or discourage Duke. Coach Mike Krzyzewski's Blue Devils fought back and have only a road loss to Notre Dame since.
Victories over two other prospective No. 1 seeds in Wisconsin and Virginia—the Cavaliers' only loss of the season—only aid Duke's NCAA tourney resume.
Shooting just a shade under 39 percent (38.7) from three-point range, the trademark precision from downtown is present in the ACC powerhouse's latest squad. The big difference is the presence of impending NBA lottery pick Jahlil Okafor on the inside.
The praise Krzyzewski heaped on Okafor (per Jim Rome) accentuates just how valuable the massive freshman is to Duke's cause:
Jim Rome @jimrome
Mike Krzyzewski tells us Jahlil Okafor is "...as good as anybody I've coached at Duke." http://t.co/5AGcknu5SL2015-2-27 02:36:25
Sam Vecenie of CBSSports.com lauded Okafor's toughness following an overtime road win at Virginia Tech:
Sam Vecenie @Sam_Vecenie
Jahlil Okafor is so beyond is absurd. Game-time decision and the guy drops 30. That’s not normal.2015-2-26 04:06:31
Okafor has added a rare paint presence that has made the Blue Devils balanced and borderline unstoppable. Duke hasn't had a physical specimen like Okafor, who can take over a game and dominate down low, in a long time.
Precocious floor general Tyus Jones gives Duke a calming presence and abundant leadership. Jones and senior Quinn Cook feed off of each other as part of an excellent backcourt, and freshman forward Justise Winslow is a matchup nightmare. Winslow poured in a season-best 23 points in the team's most recent win versus Syracuse's celebrated defense.
The big question with Duke is depth and whether Okafor can avoid foul trouble in a one-and-done Big Dance scenario often enough for the Blue Devils to successfully navigate the March Madness terrain.
With the importance of guard play in the tournament, it's hard to find a more proficient backcourt than the tandem of Jones and Cook among the No. 1 seeds. Without as much living and dying by the jump shot as in years past, Duke has the makings of a championship-caliber team in 2014-15.