BBN: March Madness Predictions

Story by Larry Vaught, Photo by Jeff Houchin

 

In this wacky college basketball season filled with upsets, could the trend hold into the NCAA Tournament? History indicates otherwise. The 72 Final Four teams since 2002 have included 36 teams that were No. 1 seeds and 70 of the 72 teams have been no lower than a No. 8 seed.

Kentucky is not going to be a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. That's a given. Still, the Cats have shown at times that they can play as well as any team likely to be a No. 1 seed and have the right pieces to be a March Madness contender. Unfortunately, UK has also had lapses where it has looked like a team that may not even reach the second weekend of NCAA play.

Mississippi State coach Ben Howland, who took three UCLA teams to the Final Four, says the Cats are a "definite" Final Four quality team.

"Nick Richards is really one of the dominant bigs in all of college basketball with the way he shoots the ball. They do a good job tonight protecting the paint. They're good. This is a very, very good Kentucky team. Their guard play is outstanding; they don't turn it over," Howland said.

Kentucky coach John Calipari has pointed to the parity in college basketball all season. He's noted that some year maybe eight teams had a chance to win the national title and up to 20 with an opportunity to reach the Final Four.

"I'd tell you right now that there may be 25 teams that could win the national title. There may be 60, 70 teams that could get to a Final Four," Calipari said in late January.

Obviously, the coach has been known to embellish, but the weekly upsets in college basketball and lack of a traditional dominant team has a lot of teams — including Kentucky — believing a hot streak in March could put a national title in play.

Calipari believes a Final Four team needs a "terrific guard that can bust it and shoot balls and a couple of bigs to provide toughness, rebounding and defense."

Many feel Kentucky has the best guard trio — Ashton Hagans, Immanuel Quickley and Tyrese Maxey — in college basketball. Hagans can be a lockdown defender, Quickley is a 3-point threat and lock at the foul line, and Maxey can score in a variety of ways.

Richards has to be the SEC's most improved player and has been dominant at times. EJ Montgomery has shown flashes of big-time play.

Inconsistency has been a problem for the Cats who have had a propensity to fail to put teams away. UK has also been prone to getting knocked around by more physical teams on the boards. Both could be fatal flaws in tourney play.

ESPN analyst Jimmy Dykes believes UK is "built to win on a neutral floor" like the NCAA Tournament.

"You've got the three guards that aren't going to turn it over. They're going to guard their tails off, they give you nothing from the 3-point line. That's really big at tournament time," Dykes said. "Kentucky has a legitimate post presence in Nick Richards. To get to a Final Four, you have to be able to hold your own around the rim, and Nick has shown he can do that."

Calipari has shown he can get teams to the Final Four — he did so at UK in 2011, 2012, 2014 and 2015. He always gears what he does for March, not regular season play because titles matter at Kentucky.

Can UK get on that Final Four type run this year like 2011 and 2014 when the season had a lot bumps? Maybe, but this team has a very small margin of error and won't be able to afford a horrific shooting game, a key injury, deep foul trouble or getting overpowered on the boards.

"Kentucky could still get there (Final Four), but there are no givens this year," ESPN analyst Dick Vitale said. "Then again, that's kind of true for everybody in a year that has been as crazy as any I can remember.