How does a team beat Kentucky? Nobody has defeated the Wildcats in 33 tries this season, though several have had their chances in the final minute.
Bringing down the nation's most dominant team will require the right combination of size, shooting ability, poise and grit, be it in the final regular-season game, the SEC Tournament or the NCAA Tournament. These teams -- none of whom have faced Kentucky yet -- could pose a threat, should they run into the Wildcats in the NCAA Tournament.
Arizona’s physicality and mixture of bigs up front could pose a problem for Kentucky. The 6-8 Brandon Ashley can step out beyond the arc, the 7-foot Kaleb Tarczewski is best around the rim but has a decent mid-range game and the 6-7 Rondae Hollis-Jefferson is a bundle of fearless energy.
The Wildcats also have a tough-nosed point guard in T.J. McConnell and a shooter in Gabe York. The 6-6 Stanley Johnson, their leading scorer and rebounder, is a possible top-five NBA draft pick.
Nobody limits opponents’ second chances better than Arizona, which ranks first in offensive rebounding percentage allowed (22.7 percent), according to the advanced stats site kenpom.com. That has helped Arizona rank near the top of the country in defensive efficiency. In a grind-it-out type of a game, Sean Miller’s Wildcats could upset Kentucky.
This is the wild-card pick, but the Bears do a few things that could disrupt Kentucky’s success.
First, they have a 6-8, 280-pound bruiser in Rico Gathers who leads Baylor’s elite pursuit of offensive rebounds. Kentucky, surprisingly, is fairly weak on the defensive glass (31.8 percent offensive rebounding allowed), and Baylor has the nation’s best offensive rebounding percentage at 42.6 percent.
Second, offensive rebounds often lead to open looks beyond the arc as defenders scramble to relocate their assignments. Baylor is one of the country’s better three-point shooting teams. The 6-6 Royce O’Neale has the length and accuracy (45.7 percent) to shoot over Kentucky’s guards and wings even in a standard halfcourt set, and Taurean Prince, Lester Medford and Kenny Chery can all shoot from deep.
The Blue Devils have shooters — Quinn Cook, Tyus Jones, Justise Winslow and Matt Jones — and space the floor well. They have 6-11 power forward Jahlil Okafor, a potential No. 1 pick in June’s NBA draft, and a solid complementary big in Amile Jefferson. On a good night, with Okafor clear of foul trouble and the guards and wings knocking down threes, Duke can beat anybody in the country. Kenpom.com ranks Duke’s offensive efficiency just behind No. 1 Wisconsin’s.
The Blue Devils’ problem areas are depth and defense. If they foul, their bench is thin, especially up front. If they don’t convert enough shots, their defense likely won’t lift them to a win.
The Bulldogs have three cold-blooded shooters in Kyle Wiltjer, Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr. They have a bona fide slasher in Byron Wesley, and two legitimate big men in Przemek Karnowski and Domantas Sabonis, the son of NBA Hall of Famer Arvydas Sabonis.
Though the Bulldogs play in the West Coast Conference, they went toe-to-toe with Arizona in non-conference, losing 66-63 in overtime on Dec. 6. Their size and shooting ability make them dangerous, and they have personnel with experience — including Wiltjer, who was a freshman on Kentucky’s 2012 championship team.
The Bulldogs can thrive at any pace, and if they find themselves in a grind-it-out game against Kentucky, they’ve got the weapons to knock down the clutch three.
Virginia is on pace for the most efficient defensive season since kenpom.com began tracking stats in 2001-02. The Cavaliers allow about 84 points per 100 possessions, thanks to a harassing pack-line defense predicated on keeping opponents away from the rim. They trap. They pressure. They force difficult shots.
Kentucky’s Karl-Anthony Towns, a gifted passer, should be able to handle aggressive traps on the block. Kentucky’s other bigs? Maybe not so much. The Wildcats would likely need to knock down three-point shots to beat Virginia, and their accuracy beyond the arc is mediocre (34.1 percent).
Virtually the same Wisconsin team lost to a weaker Kentucky squad in last year’s Final Four, but the Badgers have the pieces to return the favor in a near perfect game. Nobody in the country takes better care of the ball than Wisconsin, and Kentucky creates lots of its scoring opportunities by forcing turnovers. The Badgers also have plenty of size up front and the nation's most efficient offense on a per-possession basis, according to kenpom.com.
Frank Kaminsky, a 7-foot center and national Player of the Year candidate, could cause problems because Kentucky’s bigs would need to guard him beyond the arc. Willie Cauley-Stein and Karl-Anthony Towns are versatile enough to defend him 20 feet from the hoop, but doing so would open the lane and path to the offensive glass.