There are two ways for gamblers to begin gnawing around the edges of the feast that is the NCAA Mens Basketball Tournament. The first, which has historically been the most common, is – “Who, if anybody, is going to beat (fill in the blank)?” In the 1960s that blank was inscribed with UCLA. In the 1980s the perennial top contender was Georgetown and lately the fill-in has been some of Mike Krzyzewski’s Duke teams. The second scenario, which has been most often the case in recent tournaments, is a “Who among all these top contenders can survive this six-game meat-grinder?” In the 2015 NCAA Tournament we are definitely surveying the handicapping landscape laid out by the first set of circumstances.
Ever since the Kentucky Wildcats, who entered the 2014 Tournament as an 8th seed, walked off the court of AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas as 60-54 losers in the title game to Connecticut last April, John Calipari’s bunch has been the favorite to capture the 2015 championship. Kentucky was installed as a prohibitive 4.24 favorite before the season tipped off and those are looking like long odds as March Madness actually begins and the Wildcats await the winner of the Manhattan-Hampton play-in tussle to begin their tournament run. After five months of play,「Pinnacle Sports」now makes the Kentucky odds at avenging last year’s title loss a skimpy 2.36.
The friskiest betting action on Kentucky this season has actually not been on the Wildcats title odds but whether Calipari’s latest collection of super talented one-and-done freshmen will complete college basketball’s first undefeated season since Bobby Knight and the Indiana Hoosiers methodically orchestrated a perfect season in 1976. Odds were offered at some sportsbooks early in the season at 51.00 on Kentucky not losing a game and you would not want to be the house holding those bets today as the Wildcats wrapped up a 34-0 regular season. Talk around Lexington is not whether this Kentucky team is going to win the national championship but more along the lines of finding a comfortable resting place for them among the greatest college basketball teams of all time.
Part of the reason for the outsized comparisons is that some of last year’s precocious Wildcat freshmen, most notably brothers Aaron and Andrew Harrison, did not trade their textbooks for NBA flight schedules. The result is that John Calipari can not look down his bench without seeing a blue-chip McDonalds All-American. Kentucky has so much talent that at times Calipari’s rotation resembled a hockey team changing shifts as he substituted entire groups of five players into the game in waves. The result is that eight Wildcat players averaged more than 20 minutes per game this season and Aaron Harrison was the team’s leading scorer with only 11.3 points per contest.
It was a down year for the Southeastern Conference in 2014-2015 and contrarian bettors looking to build a case against Kentucky can start there but that would mean discounting an historically stingy defensive season by this year’s Wildcats. Kentucky surrendered only 81.7 points per 100 possessions, more than three points better than any team measured since the metric was introduced in the early 2000s. And Kentucky reserved its best games for non-conference opponents. Ask the Kansas Jayhawks who suffered a 72-40 early-season execution at the hands of Kentucky in a neutral site game.
Bill Self’s Kansas squad went on to scuffle through a season of injuries but still managed to bring the Big 12 regular season title back to Lawrence for the 11th straight year. The selection committee has dropped Kansas into the lower half of Kentucky’s Midwest Region bracket and a healthy, cohesive Jayhawk five could be in line for a rematch with Kentucky in the Elite Eight. If Kansas extracts revenge there the 49.27 odds on offer will look awfully attractive.
The other intriguing possible Kentucky matchup for basketball fans in the Midwest is with the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame. Mike Brey’s teams have disappointed backers in the Big Dance with maddening regularity but this year’s triumph in the fabled Atlantic Coast Conference tournament could portend better things ahead. If Notre Dame and Kentucky meet on the court it will pit one of the nation’s most dynamic offenses against Kentucky’s suffocating defense. Maybe fifth-year wunderkind Irish guard Jerian Grant will be able to school Calipari’s kids which would leave those punters with Notre Dame at 49.09 feeling prescient.
If Kentucky advances to the Final Four, Calipari will find any of the other number one seeds to be a formidable foe should Duke (10.68), Wisconsin (8.44) or Villanova (10.72) also be so fortunate. Duke, although luggage about a record that is speckled with inexplicable performances, is the only team in the country whose collection of talent can somewhat match Kentucky’s armada of All-Americans. Jahlil Okafor has reintroduced college basketball to the offensive center and Quinn Cook and Justise Winslow will not be waiting long for phone calls when they declare for the NBA draft.
Wisconsin is the only team that can match Kentucky’s big-game experience as the Badgers look for a return trip to the Final Four, led by the college game’s best player, Frank Kaminsky. Wisconsin polished off a 31-3 season with a win in the Big Ten Conference Championship, going to overtime against Michigan State before whitewashing the Spartans 11-0 in the extra stanza. Villanova is the only team that can match Kentucky’s conference dominance, blitzing through a Big East that was rated as the third best conference in the land with a 32-2 mark. Despite not being blessed with a single sure-to-be-NBA-player on his roster, head coach Jay Wright accomplished this by having his team execute lock-down defense and launch three-pointers more than four in every ten times down the court.
Perhaps the biggest threat to Kentucky’s pre-ordained March Madness mastery lurks on the second tier of contenders. Virginia, given 13.89 odds heading into the tournament, can go possession-for-possession with the Wildcats on defense. The Cavaliers rode a deliberate style of play and Justin Anderson’s offensive brilliance to a 20-0 start and its three losses, including a semifinal loss to North Carolina in the semi-finals of the ACC Tournament, came by a total of only 12 points. Out West, Arizona arrives at the Big Dance having won its last eleven games by an average of 22.9 points. The Pac-12 was not good this year but like Kentucky’s Wildcats, these Wildcats beat every ranked team it played.「Pinnacle Sports」is impressed enough to open Arizona at 8.84, the third favorite, as play tips off in the 2015 NCAA Tournament.
So, who is going to beat Kentucky? One that may get the opportunity is Wichita State. Last year the Shockers finished the season undefeated as well before being upended in the tournament by Kentucky by two measly points. Wichita State would dearly love to return the favor and the selection committee has obliged by giving the Shockers the No. 7 seed in Kentucky’s Midwest bracket. If the two advance to the Elite Eight in Cleveland, Kentucky may find the Shockers with a less gaudy record than last year but a better team. The oddsmakers certainly seem to think that way. Despite a championship path that would require the toppling of mighty Kentucky by someone, the Shockers are listed at 35.21, shorter odds than its potential third round opponent, in-state rival and second seed Kansas.
Well enough of the analyzing. It’s time for the hardwood to become center stage as we roll into this year’s edition of “March Madness”. Get ready basketball fans as the 2014-15 NCAA season is really just beginning!