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Wojciak: Just how good is Kentucky?

| Friday, February 13, 2015

Down by two points with 3.2 seconds left, the 35-0 and No. 1-seeded team in the NCAA tournament inbounds the ball to its starting point guard and conference MVP, who takes one dribble and pulls up from a few feet beyond the arc for the 3-pointer and the win.

The shot has a little bit too much on it and clangs off the back of the rim and into the hands of the opposing team’s power forward. The buzzer sounds — game over. Kentucky moves on.

Wait … what?

How does Kentucky move on? Aren’t the Wildcats supposed to be the undefeated team and No. 1 seed?

On March 23, No. 8 Kentucky defeated previously undefeated Wichita State to advance to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament in an instant classic. After starting the season as the country’s No. 1 team, Kentucky struggled mightily during the regular season but appeared to finally display the level of talent that many projected the team would have by going toe-to-toe for 40 minutes with the Shockers and ultimately reigning victorious. The Wildcats eventually lost to UConn in the NCAA championship, but this game laid the foundation for one of the greatest teams in college basketball history.

This season, the Wildcats are off to their second-best start in school history, with a 24-0 record and No. 1 ranking in every major poll. Many think this team has the best shot to go undefeated and win the NCAA championship since Indiana did it 39 years ago.

But just how good is this Kentucky team? Coming off a 39-point demolition over UCLA, Bruins coach Steve Alford went as far to say, “In my 24 years of coaching, this is the best team I’ve coached against.”

Regarding pure basketball talent, this Kentucky team might just possess the most of all time. Of the 12 players on scholarship, eight were five-star recruits coming out of high school, two were four-stars and the remaining two players were three-stars, according to ESPN. Nine of these players were McDonald’s All-Americans, and there is so much talent on the roster that coach John Calipari has resorted to using two “platoons” to balance playing time among the team’s 10 best players. At this point in the season, ESPN’s Chad Ford projects that at least four Kentucky players will be drafted in the first round of the upcoming NBA draft, with the potential for more depending on the amount of Kentucky players that declare for the draft after the season’s end.

With that said, talent doesn’t always lead to championships. In order for this team to go undefeated and win it all, it must have good team chemistry and buy into Calipari’s system. So far, Calipari said that hasn’t been an issue. After throttling Kansas earlier in the season, Calipari raved about the Wildcats’ teamwork in his post-game press conference.

Statistically, Kentucky’s offense has been relatively average through this point in the season. The Wildcats are 48th in the NCAA in points per game (73.5) and 66th in field goal percentage (46.1 percent), but they make up for this on the defensive side of the ball, where they are absolutely remarkable. Kentucky is currently second in the NCAA in opponent points per game (52.2) and in blocks per game (7.1) and first in team defensive efficiency rating (0.788) and opponent field goal percentage (34.2 percent).

Opposing teams have hardly any chance of scoring inside on Kentucky’s imposing frontcourt, composed of 7-foot junior Willie Cauley-Stein, 7-foot sophomore Dakari Johnson, 6-foot-11 freshman Karl-Anthony Towns, 6-foot-10 freshman Trey Lyles and 6-foot-9 sophomore Marcus Lee. This has been frustrating for opponents, especially when finding open looks on the outside over 6-foot-6 sophomore guards Andrew and Aaron Harrison comes seldom.

With 16 games left to pull off the undefeated season, there are still some questions surrounding the Wildcats. The inconsistent play by the Harrison twins has been a concern for some fans, and close calls against Mississippi, Texas A&M and LSU could be reasons to believe this Kentucky team won’t be able to go all the way without a loss.

But these games also serve as examples of a great team underperforming on the road yet still walking away with a win — something not often done in college basketball. Tough games will still be in the Wildcats’ future, but with this much talent along with enough experience to compliment it, along with a great coach leading the way, Kentucky will finish this season 40-0 and win the NCAA championship.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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