The road to the Final Four is never easy. Kentucky’s 2018 NCAA Tournament draw is difficult, familiar territory for John Calipari.
Following the likeliest route to a ninth National Championship, Kentucky will first face Mrs. Tyler Thompson’s beloved alma mater, Davidson. If Kentucky can get by the
fighting Steph Curry’s Wildcats, up next is Arizona. The Pac-12 Tournament Champions are led by DeAndre Ayton, an athletic seven-footer widely regarded as the No. 1 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft. Waiting in the Sweet 16 is the tournament’s No. 1 overall seed, the Virginia Cavaliers. If Kentucky makes it that far, a rematch with Tennessee or possibly Cincinnati awaits.
It’s ridiculous that two Power Five conference champions can meet in the second round. It’s even more gut-wrenching when UK’s potential opponent has won eight of their last nine games and is arguably the hottest team in the country.
The challenges Virginia potentially presents are many. The Cavaliers always have one of the best defenses in the country. What makes this team different is their athletes. Kyle Guy, Ty Jerome, Devon Hall and DeAndre Hunter are no joke. They only lost twice in the league that put nine teams in the NCAA Tournament. There’s a reason why the Wahoos believe this is the year Tony Bennett finally gets the Cavaliers to the Final Four.
The task is daunting, but it’s one Calipari has conquered before as Kentucky’s head coach.
Nobody expected John Calipari’s second Kentucky team to make a run to the Final Four, especially after seeing the Cats’ draw.
Kentucky did not have it easy against the Ivy League Champs in the opening round. Brandon Knight’s buzzer-beating layup carried Kentucky to a 59-57 win over Princeton. A familiar foe was next, the West Virginia Mountaineers. Eliminated in the Elite Eight by Bob Huggins’ team just a year before, a victory was far from a sure thing. Luckily, Kentucky got revenge with an eight-point win.
Waiting for Kentucky in the Sweet 16 was the tournament’s No. 1 overall seed, Ohio State. Kentucky’s role players answered the call. DeAndre Liggins had 15 points and shut down the Buckeyes’ elite scoring swingman, William Buford. Josh Harrellson did not get pushed around inside by Jared Sullinger.
Most importantly, when Kentucky needed a hero, Brandon Knight was prepared to make March magic.
The Cats drew the second-seeded North Carolina Tar Heels in the Elite Eight. The favorite to win the National Championship the following year, some how, some way, Kentucky had enough left in the tank to conquer the 2011
East Region bracket of death.
If you think Arizona is a tough second round opponent, talk to the 2014 Kentucky Wildcats. After a rocky regular season, they had to go through an undefeated Wichita State team to advance to the second weekend of the tournament.
Wichita State did not have a DeAndre Ayton in their frontcourt, but the No. 1 overall seed did have three excellent scorers – Cleanthony Early, Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet. None of them presented a particularly difficult mismatch, but all three rarely missed. The only way for Kentucky to win was to keep up, and that’s exactly what they did.
After surviving in St. Louis, the Cats met Louisville down the road in Indianapolis. The defending National Champions (well, not anymore) had only lost once in two months. Even though Kentucky won the regular season match-up at Rupp Arena, the Cards had Russ Smith and Luke Hancock, senior firepower with Final Four experience. How do you combat experienced offensive firepower? With a little March magic, courtesy of Aaron Harrison.
It did not get any easier for Kentucky after the Sweet 16, but thanks to Harrison’s grande huevos, Kentucky beat the defending National Runner-Ups in the Elite Eight and an All-American laden Wisconsin team in the Final Four.
It took a lot of magic, but Coach Cal survived the bracket of death to reach the National Championship game.
There was one bracket of death John Calipari could not conquer. This year’s South Region feels a lot like the 2016 East Region.
This year Kentucky will travel to an obscure location, Boise, as a five-seed, while the team they just beat in the SEC Tournament Championship received a higher seed. In 2016, Kentucky traveled to an obscure location, Des Moines, as a four-seed, while the team they defeated in the SEC Tournament Championship received a higher seed.
In 2016, Kentucky did not have a problem with Stony Brook in the opening round. If they could survive through Des Moines, arguably the most talented team in the country was next, North Carolina. The Tar Heels were not the No. 1 overall seed, but they were good enough to come within a buzzer-beater from a National Championship. However, Kentucky did not survive to the second weekend, thanks to Indiana.
Tom Crean’s team won the Big Ten Regular season title behind Yogi Berra, Thomas Bryant and Troy Williams. The key to the high-scoring Hoosiers’ success vs. Kentucky was simple: feed Bryant.
Kentucky had no answer for the Indiana big man. A complete mismatch in the post against Skal Labissiere, Marcus Lee and Alex Poythress, Bryant could not be stopped. The only two shots he missed were three-pointers. He finished with 19 points, 5 rebounds and a 73-67 win.
Folks, Thomas Bryant is no DeAndre Ayton. The Wildcats’ seven-footer can do just about anything on the court, and right now he’s playing his best basketball. This season he’s averaging 20.3 points and 11.5 rebounds, but he’s scored a career-high 32 points in each of his last two games.
Ayton isn’t the only Arizona player that will be a problem. Alonzo Trier (18.4 ppg) and Rawle Alkins (13.4 ppg) are efficient scorers that have helped the Wildcats become the No. 3 shooting team in the country (50.3 percent).
John Calipari has fought through difficult draws to the Final Four with teams that clicked at the right time. This year’s team is rolling, but they also need a little March magic from an unexpected hero to make a deep run in the 2018 NCAA Tournament.