The NCAA Tournament changed Thursday night. The overriding question entering this Big Dance was, “Who can beat Kentucky?” After the Wildcats’ double-the-score destruction of West Virginia, the issue isn’t so much who as how.
Kentucky was so overwhelming — it led 18-2, and if the Wildcats hadn’t scored a second-half point they still would have won 44-39 — as to inspire utter awe. One shot by BillyDee Williams was blocked by two Wildcats — Trey Lyles and Willie Cauley-Stein. One lob from Tyler Ulis was collected by Marcus Lee, who leaped over teammate Devin Booker to dunk it home.
One day earlier, West Virginia’s Daxter Miles Jr. predicted Kentucky would be 36-1 after the Mountaineers got done with them. Afterward a dazed Devin Williams said, “You can’t stop something that’s destined.”
Granted, it was one game. But it was one game that lifted the Wildcats to 37-0, one game the likes of which the Sweet 16 almost never produces. (The 78-39 victory matched the record for point differential in a regional semi.) ACC champ Notre Dame, which was 4-1 versus Duke and North Carolina, will face Kentucky in Saturday’s Midwest final, and the Irish score enough to have a puncher’s chance. But does any team have a realistic chance against the Big Blue?
West Virginia coach Bob Huggins, who’s not given to flights of fancy, was asked Thursday if Kentucky could be had. “They’re going to have to have a bad day,” he said. “They had a good day today and we had a miserable day, so we lose by 40 (almost). If they have a really bad day shooting the ball, you can pack it back in and try to keep the score down and close, but when they’re making shots they get you spread, and they’re too big and too skilled inside.”
Then: “You’ve got to be able to create some offense in transition or something because it’s really difficult to score against their half-court defense. Georgia kind of did the best job (March 3 in Athens), kind of got them spread — but they still didn’t win. That’s probably as well as Georgia’s played all year and probably (coach John Calipari) would say Kentucky didn’t play very well, and they still win.”
Notre Dame scored 48 second-half points while making 75 percent of its shots against Wichita State on Thursday. But Wichita State isn’t Kentucky, which is no slur because no team is Kentucky. No team has such size — the Wildcats’ smallest starter is 6-foot-6 — and depth (eight active McDonald’s All-Americans).
“Teams think, ‘We got ’em,’” Calipari said Friday, “and then they see a dozen tanks coming over the hill.”
And it’s not as if Kentucky is a collection. Huggins again: “Everybody gets caught up in their size, which is certainly a part of it, but to get those guys to play as hard and to play together the way they do. … John’s done an incredible job of managing them, getting guys to play together and to care about one another.”
Then: “They’re just terrific defensively. That’s the best defensive team I think I’ve ever coached against. And when they’re making shots, there’s nobody going to beat them.”
Back to the Georgia game: The Wildcats trailed by nine with nine minutes remaining. (They won 72-64.) Georgia was a guard-driven team, same as Notre Dame, but the Bulldogs used spacing and penetration to score inside against towering Kentucky — until they stopped scoring. The Wildcats outscored Georgia 16-2 over the final five minutes.
The Fighting Irish start four guards. (Only one starter is taller than 6-5.) They spread the floor and let guards Demetrius Jackson and Jerian Grant drive and find 3-point shooters Pat Connaughton and Steve Vasturia. Kentucky’s big men — Lyles and Cauley-Stein and Karl-Anthony Towns — will be forced to defend the perimeter, which isn’t easy for a big man. But Kentucky’s big men can and do.
If Notre Dame gets off to another flying start — it scored 18 points on its first seven possessions against Wichita State — this could get interesting. But Kentucky is 37-0 because it hasn’t allowed flying starts. It hasn’t allowed much of anything. The more these Wildcats play, the more they do appear destined to win.
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