At this point, there really is no other way to put it: After seven straight wins, a dominant victory over Kansas on Saturday and a bludgeoning of Vanderbilt on Tuesday night, Kentucky is very much back in the national championship conversation. Admittedly, it probably didn’t take until Tuesday to establish that. But if there was any doubt, a 25-point lobotomizing of Vandy at Memorial Gym proved it.
That’s right, it hasn’t always been easy for the Wildcats, but here we are in mid-January, the Wildcats are ranked No. 7 nationally, arguably the hottest team in the country and the proverbial “club no one wants to play right now.” And it’s time to begin discussing them among the best teams in college basketball and figuring out how they match up.
Which is exactly what I have done here over the last couple days: Tried to figure out how Kentucky matches up with college basketball’s true national title contenders.
Yesterday I went in-depth on three of the title contenders, Michigan State, Virginia and Gonzaga. I looked at those team’s strengths and weaknesses and how Kentucky would fare in a potential matchup with them.
And today, it’s time take a look at the rest of the contenders.
Here is Part II of a two-part series I like to call “How does Kentucky match up with the contenders” as I look at the Wildcats’ potential matchups with Michigan, Tennessee and Duke.
And again, if you missed Part I, click here.
Who Are They?
John Beilein’s Michigan Wolverines really are college basketball’s little engine that could. It was just one year ago that the Wolverines once again got hot in March, won the Big Ten Tournament and went to the Final Four… but after losing three of their top four scorers (including first round pick Mo Wagner) just about everyone expected the Wolverines to take a major step back.
Instead, they have done the exact opposite: Michigan enters their game Friday night at Iowa sitting at 20-1 overall and tied for first place in the Big Ten.
Still, what might be most impressive about the success of this year’s Michigan team it is, to be blunt, that they are completely different than a season ago. While so much of the focus last year on Wagner, this year’s team is probably a bit deeper, more versatile and can beat you in more ways. While they have no true star like Wagner last year, they do probably 3-4 players who can be a star on any given night.
Yet as much as things change, they stay the same in Ann Arbor. This team plays hard, suffocate you on defense and don’t beat themselves. In other words, they are a vintage John Beilein team. And one that is once again capable of winning big in March.
Think of Michigan as a slightly more interesting version of Virginia. Like the Cavaliers, they are basically a basketball instructional video come to life, the team that does all the little things needed to win, the stuff that doesn’t show up on SportsCenter’s Top 10, but does result in victories. They do it with a bit more flair than Virginia, and with a better collection of overall prospects. But the concept is the same.
Like Virginia, the numbers back it up for the Wolverines.
On the season, Michigan ranks No. 2 nationally in scoring defense (behind only Virginia) and No. 16 in field goal percentage defense. They also commit the fourth fewest turnovers, and the seventh fewest fouls in all of college basketball.
Therefore when it comes to Michigan basketball, it boils down to simple math: When you play great defense, take care of the ball, and don’t give away possessions or points on the other end of the court, chances are pretty good that you’re going to win a lot of games. The Wolverines are proof of that.
But to just talk about the little things would take away from the talent that John Beilein has assembled in Ann Arbor. Point guard Zavier Simpson doesn’t get the hype of Tre Jones, Ashton Hagans or Cassius Winston, but for what Michigan needs, he is just as good. The junior averages nine points, six assists and two steals per game, and is arguably the most underrated on-ball defender in college basketball. Like Hagans and Jones, he creates nightmares for opposing point guards.
And with Wagner gone, freshman Iggy Brazdeikis has stepped up in his place in the front court. Although Brazdeikis is built like a linebacker, he has a soft touch and smooth moves around the basket. And the Wolverines also have a stable of wings that are as good as anyone in college basketball. Kentucky fans may remember Charles Matthews (from his one season in Lexington), and Jordan Poole is the Wolverines next out-of-nowhere NBA Draft prospect. Despite being Michigan’s third leading scorer, some believe Poole could be a first round pick this season. Isaiah Livers is best known as the dude who hit a wild buzzer beater to send Michigan to the Sweet 16 last year.
When you think Big Ten basketball, you generally think of teams that play a slower, plodding pace, ones that try to out-tough you in the half-court, out-physical you in the paint and win games in the 50’s and 60’s. That might not always be an accurate perception, but it remains the perception none the less.
With Michigan though, that perception isn’t all that unfair, and does raise some big concerns for them. One, they aren’t a super-explosive offensive team and rank just 233rd nationally in points scored. Now part of that is because they simply play at a slower pace than most teams. But when talking about national title contenders, it is also always fair to be worried about a team that can’t always manufacture points in the half-court. As I said with Virginia yesterday, when you get to the NCAA Tournament there is always one opponent that gets crazy-hot shooting the ball and you’ve got to find a way to keep up. I’m not sure if Michigan has the guys to do that if someone goes crazy against them.
Furthermore, despite the great defense they play, Michigan isn’t actually all that good on the glass. Michigan ranks just 111th nationally in rebounding margin, with no player averaging more than six boards per game. By comparison, Kentucky ranks seventh in rebound margin, with P.J. Washington averaging over eight rebounds per contest.
Beyond the raw stats though, I think it’s fair to ask a legitimate question about the Wolverines’ title-contending chops: Based on their schedule, are we sure they’re a national title contender?
It sounds crazy, but think about it. Part of Michigan’s reputation as a true title contender comes from a strong early start to the season. Reflecting back though, some of those wins don’t look as good today as they did when they happened months ago. Michigan crushed Villanova when the Wildcats were struggling (remember, Nova lost to Furman and Penn in the out of conference), and a home win against North Carolina doesn’t look quite as good when you consider that both Kentucky and Louisville dominated the Tar Heels in recent weeks. Beyond that, Michigan’s best wins (Purdue, Ohio State) came at home, and they really haven’t been challenged away from Ann Arbor. Their toughest road game this season (Wisconsin) resulted in their only loss so far.
Now admittedly, with two games left against Michigan State, and road trips to Iowa and Maryland (both teams are currently ranked), Michigan will have a chance to prove me wrong on this.
But I guess I just won’t believe they’re a true title contender until I see them against the better teams in the Big Ten, especially on the road.
How does Kentucky match up with them: Well
Again, part of asking this question is wondering if Michigan is a true national title contender. And while I think they probably are, it isn’t a slam-dunk, no-doubt-about-it lock like it would be if we were talking Duke or Tennessee.
Still, for the sake of the argument, let’s say that the Wolverines are a title contender. And with that, I think that a potential matchup with Kentucky could work out well for the Wildcats. Michigan doesn’t have the overwhelming size to suffocate Reid Travis and P.J. Washington, and if anything, it’s kind of the opposite: Kentucky would likely control the glass. Ashton Hagans is cut from the same cloth as Michigan point guard Zavier Simpson and feel like they would largely neutralize each other.
Furthermore, I kind of feel like Kentucky has proven to be just as good at Michigan’s game as Michigan is. We know the Wolverines want to keep it in the half-court, grind out possessions and win with defense. That’s great for Michigan, but Kentucky has proven in recent weeks that they can win playing that style as well. Kentucky’s defense has improved exponentially over the last month, and they’ve won low-scoring, grind-it-out games against the likes of Kansas, Texas and Vanderbilt (the first time) in recent weeks.
It’s important to remember that no game in late March is easy. But I do think that if we’re talking about a potential Elite Eight of Final Four showdown with Michigan, the Wildcats should feel pretty good.
Who Are They?
Unless you’ve been living under a rock the last six months you probably know the story with the Tennessee Volunteers. The Vols went from “picked to finish 13th out of 14 teams” in last year’s SEC preseason poll straight to “regular season co-champ” and are now somehow even better this season. To date, Tennessee only has one loss, and that came in overtime against Kansas, when Kansas was at full-strength and when Tennessee lost their best player (Grant Williams) to foul trouble.
Point being, the Vols are a play or two away from being undefeated. And when you factor in that they also beat Gonzaga and have won their seven SEC games by an average of 18 points per contest, there really is no other way to put it: The Vols are very much deserving of their No. 1 ranking and buzz as a national title contender.
Trying to pick out Tennessee’s biggest strength is like trying to pick out your favorite casino in Las Vegas. Honestly, there really is no wrong answer.
So where to begin?
Well, they are one of the most efficient offensive teams in all of college basketball, and currently rank No. 2 in field goal percentage offense. That shouldn’t be a surprise when they have a legit All-American candidate in Grant Williams collecting buckets down low. They distribute the ball insanely well (they are third nationally in assists) and protect the rim on the other end, as they rank second nationally in blocks per game. They have the No. 14 field goal percentage defense in college basketball.
Those stats back up a point you can’t help but notice when you watch the Vols: Tennessee is so damn tough, because they don’t necessarily rely on one specific player, and can beat you playing any type of game. This isn’t Duke, who isn’t the same without Zion Williamson on the court – the Vols have seven players who can legitimately be the best guy on their team on any given night. They aren’t Virginia who can only win games when the score is in the 60’s. They won at Florida in a game that was mostly played in the 60’s (free throws made it look more one-sided than it really was), beat Gonzaga in a game played in the upper 70’s, and put up 102 points in a high-scoring victory over Memphis.
It isn’t just Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield who can’t beat you. The Vols get production from all five spots on the court, and can beat you in a number of different ways.
Again, there honestly aren’t many. If I’m really getting nitpicky, they aren’t a great three-point shooting team. But even still, three of their top seven guys (Admiral Schofield, Jordan Bowden and Lamonte Turner) all shoot at least 35 percent from beyond the arc. Schofield is hovering around 40 percent as we speak.
In terms of other weaknesses, Grant Williams can be foul prone at times. But again, when you have so many guys who can step up in his place, it’s not as big of a deal.
If anything, my biggest concern with Tennessee right now might be this: Are they fully engaged? In the last month Tennessee has gotten a little complacent at times, and easily could have lost to Alabama and Vanderbilt, although to their credit they were able to pick up wins. Heck, just this week Rick Barnes asked his team point blank: Is our best basketball ahead of us or behind us?
Therefore, when looking at the big picture, this is a team that is probably overdue for a loss, and honestly, it would probably do them some good to get one. To remind themselves that they aren’t unbeatable.
Still, even if they pick up a loss or two between now and March, that will probably only re-focus the Vols, which will only make them deadlier come the NCAA Tournament.
How does Kentucky match up them: Reasonably well
I don’t love this matchup for Kentucky because honestly, I’m not really sure anyone matches up “well” with the Vols. Again, when all five guys on the floor can beat you, and they can win playing any style, it makes it hard to figure out what the exact “blueprint” is to beat the Vols.
Still, on paper, the two teams trend pretty evenly. They both have big, physical players down low, meaning a matchup between Williams and Reid Travis really might look more “Royal Rumble” than basketball, but it won’t be a disadvantage to Kentucky that it is for some other teams. P.J. Washington adds versatility, and Ashton Hagans would be a tough matchup for Jordan Bone at point guard. Although Bone had 19 points the other night, he has struggled of late and can be a bit turnover prone at times. You’d like for Kentucky to have an answer for the shot-blocking presence of Kyle Alexander down low, but that isn’t necessarily something that would swing the game would way or the other.
To me, what a potential matchup with Tennessee will come down to is a few things: Can either Reid Travis or P.J. Washington neutralize Grant Williams in the post? You’re never going to hold him scoreless, but holding him in check does help your cause (even if Tennessee has so many guys who can beat you). Also, can Kentucky get scoring from its wings? To beat Tennessee, Tyler Herro and Keldon Johnson will need to play to every bit of their capabilities. And it’s the same with Ashton Hagans. Can he run this offense, while making Jordan Bone’s life miserable?
The good thing for Kentucky: The Wildcats will have two cracks at Tennessee (and maybe three) before they see them in the NCAA Tournament. If Kentucky does see the Vols in the Big Dance, they will at least be prepared.
Duke Blue Devils
Who Are They?
I mean does this one really need explaining? Kentucky has already seen Duke this year, and even if they hadn’t, it’s not like it’s hard to find information on them. Hell, you can’t turn on an ESPN broadcast and go 10 seconds without hearing the names Zion Williamson, R.J. Barrett or Coach K.
In defense of ESPN though, Duke has warranted the hype (unlike say, Trae Young last year). The Blue Devils enter Saturday’s game against St. John’s at 18-2 overall, with their only loss at full-strength coming to Gonzaga over two months ago. Since then they have blitzed through the ACC (minus a loss to Syracuse where they were down two key players) and have also beaten Texas Tech, Auburn, Indiana and some school called “Kentucky” to open the season.
The Blue Devils enter the home-stretch the title favorite, and on top of everything else, they also have history on their side: The last two times the Final Four has been played in Minneapolis, Duke has won it (then again, Kentucky also won a title in Minneapolis back in 1951).
None of those random historical notes guarantee anything. But Duke is the favorite in Vegas to cut down the nets right now. And with good reason.
When it comes to “strengths” it is probably fair to start with the simple fact that Duke has the two best players in college basketball. Zion Williamson is the heavy favorite to win National Player of the Year right now and R.J. Barrett will probably be in the conversation for a first-team All-American nod. And outside of whatever hardware they bring home, they create the biggest problem in college basketball: They can basically score the ball whenever they want. That was never more apparent than when Duke played Virginia a few weeks back. In that game, it felt like those two could get to the basket any time they wanted, as the pair finished with 57 combined points. Not bad. Especially when you consider that Virginia only gives up an average of 54 per game on the season.
And the problem is that it isn’t just about Zion and R.J. Barrett who can beat you when you play Duke. Cam Reddish is the best “No. 3 guy” in college hoops, and because of the three of them, Duke is the second-highest scoring team in college basketball behind only Gonzaga (Barrett and Williamson alone are averaging nearly 44 points). Tre Jones is right up there with Ashton Hagans as the best on the ball defender in college basketball and thanks to Zion, the Blue Devils also lead college basketball in blocked shots.
Add in one of the most explosive offenses in the sport with some truly elite defensive pieces, and you can see why the Blue Devils are so deadly.
For all the Duke hype, I will say this: They do have some legitimate flaws. As I explained up top, I’m not exactly sure what the blueprint is to beat Tennessee. It’s the same with Gonzaga. But there is a blueprint to beat Duke.
And it starts with forcing Duke to make three-point shots. On the season, Duke is shooting just 31 percent as a team behind the arc, and of their “Big Four” freshmen, none is shooting better than 33 percent. Duke also isn’t a particularly good free throw shooting team either, making just 68 percent as a team. Their point guard Tre Jones – who will obviously have the ball in his hands late – shoots just 58 percent.
Oh and one other thing: As we’ve all seen by now, R.J. Barrett become a bit selfish and iso-heavy late in games. He took 25 shots against Gonzaga and 30 against Syracuse – the two games that Duke lost. In Barrett’s defense, Duke was without Tre Jones and Cam Reddish against Syracuse. But at the same time, 30 shots is still an insane number of attempts in a 40-minute college game.
Barrett is a star, no doubt. But at times he can be his own worst enemy.
How would Kentucky match up against them: Man, do I want to see
Look, all of America will never forget the first Kentucky game (how could they). But after the loss I remember saying, “There is a very realistic chance that this is the best game Duke plays all year.”
And if we’re being perfectly honest, that’s exactly what happened.
While that’s not intended to take anything away from Duke, it’s worth noting that they shot 46 percent from three in that game, despite the fact that – as mentioned above – Barrett, Williamson and Reddish aren’t really known as three-point shooters – Duke is hitting just 31 percent from beyond the arc as a team on the season. They also turned the ball over just four times, an insanely low number for a team that plays four freshmen (it also probably says quite a bit about Kentucky’s defense that night). Considering that Barrett alone turns the ball over nearly three times a game, it isn’t a stretch to say that Duke probably isn’t matching that number again the rest of the season.
So yeah, Duke played their best game of the season against Kentucky, and the Wildcats played their worst. And that’s exactly what would make a rematch so fascinating: You can’t take much from the first game. Especially with Kentucky, which is a completely different team than they were two-and-a-half months ago.
Look, at the end of the day, Zion is still Zion and R.J. Barrett is still R.J. Barrett. But this Wildcats team is like night-and-day from when they played in November. Kentucky is defending their you-know-what’s off, just about everyone is playing with more confidence, Ashton Hagans has taken complete control of this offense, P.J. Washington has become a star and Kentucky’s wing players have been awesome. They look nothing like the team that played Duke in November.
So when you add that in, with the numbers I mentioned above, you’d have to expect a different result.
Again, in reflecting back on when these two teams played the first time, here are some things to consider: 1) Duke probably isn’t going to shoot 12 of 26 from three-point land 2) They will probably turn the ball over more than four times 3) Kentucky will probably shoot better 4 of 17 from three (considering they’re hitting 36 percent as a team this season) and with Hagans at point guard the offense will run smoother.
In the end, I’m not sure if we will get Kentucky-Duke Part II at any point during the 2019 NCAA Tournament.
But I for one can’t wait if it happens.