For Kentucky fans, March is the time of year to cheer on the Cats for another national title run. While the three most recent seasons have given us many reasons to cheer, this one didn’t quite live up to the past. Now we as Big Blue Nation find ourselves in a foreign situation as we’re not cheering for upsets to give ourselves favorable match-ups, but rather cheering for upsets to take out our hated rivals. It’s undeniable that our arch-rivals, Louisville and Indiana, are threats to take home the national title, and many around the Commonwealth are already bracing for the potential nightmare of those situations. While there’s nothing that John Calipari and company can do about this impending doomsday situation, other teams around the nation certainly have the opportunity to save Kentucky fans. Below is a list of teams which, in my mind, have the best opportunity of knocking off Kentucky’s biggest rivals.
Billy Donovan’s Gators have been a curious case this season. If you were to solely examine efficiency metrics you’d think they’re one of the better teams in the past decade. However, if you use the tool known as the eye test, you’d think the Gators would be overrated because of their struggles in close road games. Individual preferences for evaluation may differ, but it’s safe in assuming the truth about Florida lies somewhere in the middle. Regardless of road game struggles, the Gators are a strong team capable of knocking off Kentucky’s rivals because of their tremendous balance. Donovan’s squad is a highly talented shooting squad, connecting on 38% of perimeter jumpers and 55% of interior shots. They also take great care of the rock on offense with only one player, Scottie Wilbekin, averaging over two turnovers per game. Unlike years past, the Gators play stifling defense. Much like their offense, this is accomplished with tremendous balance as the Gators rank inside the top-60 in every “Four Factor” category (i.e. shooting, turnovers, offensive rebounding, and free throw rate). Their activeness on this side of the ball has given opponents fits this season as proven by their 2nd ranked defense which is just points behind Louisville.
Ohio State Buckeyes
The Ohio State Buckeyes will be a tough out for anybody in the country over the next two weeks because of their tenacious defense. As it currently stands, the Buckeyes are 7th in adjusted defensive efficiency according to Kenpom.com, and much like Florida, such a high rating is accomplished with balance across the board. This balance is achieved with their length which not only allows them to disrupt opposing shots all around the floor, but it’s also paramount to their elite defensive rebounding. As a unit, Thad Matta’s Squad isn’t the best team at forcing turnovers, ranking 125th nationally, but guards Aaron Craft and Shannon Scott have been infuriating opponents all season long with their physical presence. Both average over 1.8 steals per game which can really disrupt an opponent who thrives on guard play like Louisville does. This season, Ohio State’s perceived weakness has been their ability to score efficiently, however, they’ve improved drastically in that area throughout the season. Deshaun Thomas is their leader in all aspects of offense; he leads in points scored, rebounds, free throw shooting percentage, turnover percentage, and fouls called per-40 minutes. Not to mention, the 6-foot-7 Thomas shoots 35% from the perimeter which is a nightmare defensive scenario for just about everyone. These Buckeyes aren’t the best team Thad Matta has ever coached, but they possess the right amount of mismatches and skill to knock off anyone.
Michigan State Spartans
Tom Izzo and his Michigan State Spartans are always the trendy pick in NCAA bracket polls, and for good reason. Izzo has been so successful in March that he’s never gone four years without a Final Four Appearance as Michigan State head man. These aren’t fluke runs either, Izzo’s squads are always highly skilled and well disciplined which is a recipe for late season success. This band of Spartans is capable of living up to that billing as they’ve been difficult to stop this season due to their defense. Currently, MSU is ranked 6th overall in defensive efficiency according to KenPom.com and they’re doing so with tremendous length and balance. This length allows them to stifle opponents’ field goal efficiency and take away potential offensive rebounding opportunities (an Izzo tradition). Their offense is led by two players in particular, Keith Appling and Gary Harris, both of whom average 13 points per game. As a team, the Spartans rank 22nd overall in offensive efficiency and do so with effective shooting and offensive rebounding. These traits could prove significant as Izzo coached teams typically advance deep in the tournament when these features are present. While MSU is a formidable team for anybody in the tournament, they may not have what it takes to knock out Louisville as they have issues with turnovers.
As Kentucky fans, we may not like having to cheer for other teams to take out our rivals while we sit helplessly at home (I know I don’t), but it’s what we’ve been reduced to this season. The three above teams, in my mind, have the best opportunity at knocking out our rivals not only because of their skill, but because of the path they’ve been given. Florida is fortunate to take on FGCU in the Sweet 16 while Michigan and Kansas do battle in order to advance. Ohio State, provided they get by a tough Arizona squad, should be able to get to the Final Four. And finally, Michigan State has a real opportunity to beat both Louisville and Duke, pleasing all Kentucky fans. We may not like having to do this, but it’ll be a necessary evil for the next two weeks.