(1) Kentucky 82, (3) Baylor 70 [71 possessions]
Baylor had the best opening four minutes imaginable, at which point Kentucky woke up and dropped a 46-18 run on Scott Drew's team, effectively removing any doubt from the proceedings. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist required just 10 shots to record 19 points, Terrence Jones channeled his inner Draymond Green and sprayed six assists, and Anthony Davis opened up a can of "18-11 double-double with six blocks" on the Bears. The final score is meaningless, as the Wildcats played long stretches of the second half with their attention riveted on Davis's left knee contusion and not on their "Oh, you're still here?"-brand opponent. Happily, Davis is fine; his team is headed to New Orleans.
Things actually haven't gone very well in recent NCAA tournaments for No. 1 seeds, much less overall 1 seeds, but John Calipari's team is bucking that trend. They're the only 1 seed still standing this year. They're also the first overall No. 1 seed to even make a Final Four since North Carolina did it in 2008. (That team was famously ambushed in the first half of their national semifinal against Kansas, leading Billy Packer to proclaim the game as "over" before halftime.) Clearly the Wildcats are outliers.
At the present time the tip of that outlier's spear is its offense. National Kentucky's Offense is Even Better than its Defense Month is going better than I could have possibly imagined, by the way. Nobody even talks about this team's defense anymore. For my next trick I will eliminate accidental MacBook zoom.
Here at the luxe Google-style campus that Prospectus Entertainment Ventures maintains for us basketball types, we view with suspicion occurrences that take place when a team guaranteed the overall No. 1 seed plays in its conference tournament. By the same token we discount entirely what happens when said team plays 40 minutes of basketball in the round of 64. (Unless of course they pull a Syracuse and almost lose -- then things that happened are fair game.) But look at what's transpired since the Cats swatted Western Kentucky.
In three games against reputable name brand opponents -- Iowa State, Indiana, and Baylor -- Kentucky's scored 1.29 points per possession, a remarkable number that would doubtless be even more remarkable if there'd been less garbage time against Baylor. UK has made 53 percent of their frequent twos, and 49 percent of their rare threes. They've attempted 103 free throws against just 165 shots from the field. They've given the ball away on just 14 percent of their possessions. This is the best NCAA tournament offense I've ever observed up close, and I observed Florida in 2007.
So, you bet, Kentucky is the favorite heading into this weekend and, yes, I picked them in my bracket too.
The extent to which the Wildcats are favored is going to be overstated this week, and indeed is already being overstated. Calipari's team is preeminent, but they're not preordained. The East and Midwest regions in particular yielded arguably the most dangerous opponents available for this preeminent Kentucky team. And, simply put, there have been larger upsets than a hypothetical shocker wherein Louisville, Ohio State, or Kansas beats Kentucky. (Ask Missouri.) Don't reach for the Sharpie just yet.
(2) Kansas 80, (1) North Carolina 67 [72 possessions]
I salute Tyshawn Taylor for capably demonstrating the essential evaluative vacuity of "on paper," as in, "On paper Taylor had a great game, leading all scorers with 22 points, and adding five assists and five steals." All true enough. But if North Carolina comes back to win this game, as of course they very easily could have, after Taylor launches his 1-on-4 three-point attempt with 4:27 remaining in a game KU led by two, no one's talking about the paper. Shots attempted from beyond the arc in transition are the ultimate fair-weather friends anyway, and in the final minutes of an NCAA tournament game you can multiply that characteristic tenfold. If it falls, you're Ali Farokhmanesh. If it doesn't, you're Tyshawn Taylor.
And I also salute Bill Self for having the confidence to throw a junk defense at the opponent in the closing minutes of a nip-and-tuck Elite Eight game. If North Carolina had scored effectively against the triangle-and-two, or even if the Tar Heels had won the game merely because of their good defense, I can only imagine the beating Self would have come in for from observers deploying 20-20 hindsight as a blunt instrument.
I think Kevin Pelton is exactly right: there's no way KU would have gone to the junk pile if Kendall Marshall had been on the floor for Carolina. I did find the initial panic triggered by Marshall's injury to be excessive, but one irony of the excess was the extent to which Marshall in absentia was actually underrated as a scorer. Forget Harrison Barnes "needing" Marshall. Stillman White was able to fill the proverbial "pure" point guard duties just fine: in two games he racked up 13 assists without committing a turnover. But he couldn't score. Indeed if you want to rope off a portion of the hoops cemetery as the "perished for lack of perimeter scoring" plot, you can certainly make room for this UNC team alongside, say, Kentucky 2010. Yesterday, even with a junk defense thrown at them late in the game, the Heels connected on 55 percent of their twos, but they missed 15 of 17 threes.
The funny thing about the triangle-and-two is that it proved effective not only against the North Carolina offense but also, at first, against the Kansas offense. It's as if playing the hybrid D took all of the concentration and energy the Jayhawks could muster, because KU went scoreless for one second less than five minutes between roughly the eight- and three-minute marks. So when Elijah Johnson released a three-point attempt with 3:07 on the clock, this was a 68-67 game and, to this viewer and to tens of thousands of nervous Jayhawks with memories of the tournaments after 2008, the momentum felt kind of like it belonged to the Tar Heels. Junk defenses are nice when they work, and so are threes when they go in, as Johnson's did. KU closed with a 12-0 run.
Taylor's scoring outburst marked the end of a nasty slump, and Thomas Robinson looked appropriately beastly in a fast and fun first half where 94 of the game's 147 total points were front-loaded. But for my part I will continue to track the number of minutes that Jeff Withey plays in any given game, even if he doesn't get the ink. A player with a higher block rate than that other guy at Kentucky who can also score 15 points on five shots in 28 minutes is important.
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John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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