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Kentucky Basketball: Teams the Wildcats Don't Want to See in the NCAA Tournament

Rob GoldbergFeatured Columnist IVJanuary 8, 2017

Kentucky Basketball: Teams the Wildcats Don't Want to See in the NCAA Tournament

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    Despite some setbacks, the Kentucky Wildcats have what it takes to make a deep run in the NCAA men's basketball tournament. In order for this to happen, though, the Wildcats have to be healthy, play smart basketball and get a fortunate draw in the bracket.

    Unlike a year ago, the 2015-16 season features few unbeatable teams in college basketball. The championship will be decided by matchups, which could be either very good or very bad for a team like Kentucky. This group certainly has talent, but a lot of squads could cause serious problems for the Wildcats based on personnel and style of play.

    Obviously, Kentucky will prefer to avoid No. 1 and 2 seeds as long as possible, but here is a look at some potential tough challenges in the early rounds of the tournament.

Valparaiso

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    Kentucky isn't usually worried about the first round of the NCAA tournament, but losses to Auburn and Tennessee showed no matchup will be a guarantee this year, especially if Valparaiso ends up being Kentucky's opponent in the round of 64.

    The Crusaders were a popular upset pick a year ago but fell just short of a first-round victory over Maryland. This year, they returned most of their roster and are even more dangerous, earning wins over Oregon State and Rhode Island while putting up a good fight against Oregon.

    Former NCAA tournament hero Bryce Drew has coached Valpo to be one of the best defenses in the nation. The squad has allowed just 60.3 points per game (sixth-best mark in the country), and opponents have shot just 37.9 percent from the field (fifth-best).

    Unlike most mid-majors, the Crusaders have enough size up front to compete with power-conference foes, starting with 6'9" forward Alec Peters, 6'10" center Vashil Fernandez and 6'7" wing Shane Hammink.

    Based on the latest projections from the Bracket Matrix, this could be a No. 5 vs. No. 12 or No. 4 vs. No. 13 matchup in the first round. If that ends up being the case, Kentucky better be prepared from the start.

Baylor

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    This is more of a potential second-round battle in either a No. 3 vs. No. 6 or No. 4 vs. No. 5 gameand one that should frighten Kentucky.

    One constant in recent Wildcats losses has been their inability to contain their opponents on the defensive glass. Texas A&M finished with 20 offensive rebounds, including Tyler Davis' game-winning putback, in the Aggies' 79-77 overtime win Saturday. Tennessee and Kansas each finished with 14 offensive boards in their wins over Kentucky, using second-chance opportunities to beat the Wildcats defense.

    Baylor would be able to continue this trend as the No. 4 offensive-rebounding team in the country, according to KenPom.com. The 6'8" Rico Gathers alone is No. 1 in the nation, bringing in 19.6 percent of missed shots when he is on the floor. Taurean Prince (6'8") and Johnathan Motley (6'9") also viciously attack the glass to give themselves extra chances to score.

    Baylor's frontcourt might not be as tall as Kentucky's, but the players have the strength to push around skinnier opponents such as Skal Labissiere (6'11", 225 lbs), Derek Willis (6'9", 220 lbs) and Marcus Lee (6'9", 224 lbs).

    With the Bears also making 37 percent of their three-point shots this season, it will be tough for the Wildcats to match up against them, which could lead to an early exit for Kentucky.

Purdue

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    Similar to Baylor, Purdue excels thanks to its frontcourt with great rebounding on both ends. However, the size can be even more dangerous in this case, with the 7'0" A.J. Hammons and 7'2" Isaac Haas, among others, patrolling the middle of the court.

    On the perimeter, the 6'8" Vince Edwards and 6'6" Rapheal Davis, who is the reigning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, can make things difficult for guards Isaiah Briscoe and Jamal Murray.

    The length inside and on the perimeter makes this team almost impossible to score against, even for an efficient squad like the Wildcats.

    Meanwhile, the frontcourt stars can cause problems defensively as well. Hammons and Haas are skilled scorers in the post, and when they aren't getting baskets, they are drawing fouls. According to KenPom.com, Hammons draws 5.8 fouls per 40 minutes, and Haas draws 8.4. For comparison, Tyler Ulis leads the Wildcats at 4.8.

    Kentucky has dealt with foul trouble all year and now has even less depth with Alex Poythress (knee) and Willis (ankle) both questionable with injuries. The Wildcats could end up running out of players in this matchup and falling apart.

Arizona

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    Fans would expect to see Kentucky face Arizona in the Final Four in most seasons, but this year's version could happen as early as the second round. These two top programs are loaded with talent thanks to quality recruiting every year, but poor losses earlier in the year could lead to an early battle of NCAA powerhouses.

    The difference between these teams, however, is the fact that Arizona is peaking at the right time. Kentucky has played well in recent weeks, but the Pac-12 squad has been better, with six wins in a row, and is again in position to win its conference.

    Point guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright has quietly been improving as a floor leader, while the Feb. 6 return of freshman Allonzo Trier (hand) provided the team with one of the top pure scorers in the country. Adding in the versatile Ryan Anderson, this is a squad that no one should want to face in the NCAA tournament.

    As for this battle of Wildcats, the West Coast version might be better suited for the individual battles on the court. Anderson and Kaleb Tarczewski have a lot of experience in the post, while Arizona's backcourt is deeper than Kentucky's.

    Although Kentucky would have a chance to win this matchup, it would be more of a challenge than the team is probably hoping for in the first weekend.

North Carolina

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    If the Wildcats reach the Sweet 16, an elite opponent will likely be waiting for them. Teams such as Villanova, Oklahoma, Virginia and Michigan State would all be tough matchups, but arguably the worst-case scenario would be a battle against North Carolina.

    Like many others on this list, the Tar Heels have a great frontcourt, starting with All-American candidate Brice Johnson. The big difference is the depth they have at every position. If Johnson struggles, Isaiah Hicks or Kennedy Meeks can pick up the slack on both ends, while even Joel James and Luke Maye can provide quality minutes.

    In the backcourt, Marcus Paige gets the most attention, but he has struggled in conference play. Joel Berry II and Justin Jackson have done as much damage, while Theo Pinson and Nate Britt are also capable of posting big numbers.

    North Carolina takes advantage of its depth by utilizing a lightning-quick pace offensively, which could wear down Ulis and Murray—who often play close to 40 minutes—by the end of the game.

    Although the Tar Heels have their own problems defensively, Kentucky might not have the personnel to combat this experienced, deep group of talented players.

     

    Follow Rob Goldberg on Twitter for year-round sports analysis.

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