Youth a double-edged sword for Kentucky
It’s tempting to crown the Kentucky Wildcats as NCAA tournament champions after their 90-60 decimation of Wake Forest on Saturday night.
Kansas, the clear favorite and No. 1 overall seed, is gone after a shocking loss to Northern Iowa. No one left in the field can come close to matching the Wildcats’ awesome athletic ability, or beat opponents with as many terrific plays on both ends of the floor. You blink, and you might miss another highlight-reel moment from these guys.
Kentucky’s least renowned starter, sophomore Darius Miller, single-handedly turned an early six-point deficit against Wake Forest into another Wildcats romp by scoring 11 spectacular points in a 3:29 span of the first half. The Wildcats didn’t need anything in that stretch from their freshman phenoms — SEC Player of the Year John Wall, SEC Freshman of the Year DeMarcus Cousins and postseason leading scorer Eric Bledsoe — or standout junior forward Patrick Patterson.
Yes, it’s tempting to toast Kentucky, but it’s too early.
Don’t cancel the rest of the tournament just yet.
As amazing as the Wildcats looked during the second round of the NCAA tournament at the Superdome, they continued a season-long trend by facing two teams that barely registered a pulse.
First-round victim East Tennessee State, weak even by No. 16 seed standards, finished fifth in the Atlantic Sun regular-season standings.
Ninth-seed Wake Forest lost five of six games entering the NCAA tournament, including an 83-62 humbling by last-place Miami in the first round of the ACC tournament. The Demon Deacons were still alive Saturday only because they faced fellow cliff-diver Texas (7-9 since mid-January) in the first round, rallying from an eight-point overtime deficit in a game neither team deserved to win.
Kentucky raced through a non-conference schedule loaded with big names but light on solid games.
Traditional power Indiana has become one of the dregs of the Big Ten. North Carolina finished tied for second-to-last in the ACC. Connecticut failed to make the NCAA tournament. Louisville snuck in as a No. 9 seed only because of its sweep of Syracuse. The Cardinals, who had several bad losses, went out meekly to California in the first round.
The Southeastern Conference did not produce a true litmus test, either.
No. 4 Vanderbilt, the highest NCAA tournament seed the Wildcats faced all year, bowed out in the first round to Murray State. Tennessee, the only Kentucky opponent to reach the Sweet 16, entered as a No. 6 seed, and the Vols handed the Wildcats (34-2) one of their two losses.
John Calipari, a proven tournament winner, knows he has the most talented team in college basketball, and he knows how opponents will try to stop the Wildcats.
“What you do is try to shorten the game, you try to hope you are making threes and that we make no threes,” he said. “That’s how everybody has played us all year.”
When Tennessee beat Kentucky, the Wildcats went 2-for-22 on 3-pointers and the game still was tied at 65 with two minutes left. In their rematch at the SEC tournament two weeks later, the Wildcats hit eight of 22 threes and were up by 30 in the second half.
They can do everything, but they’ve had long stretches in games where they did next to nothing. They are only six days removed from needing a buzzer-beating put-back from Cousins off a Wall air-ball to force overtime against Mississippi State in the SEC tournament championship game. They won eight games by six or fewer points this year.
In other words, their performance against Wake Forest was abnormal. Calipari talked repeatedly this week about his young team just needing to land the plane. Saturday, that Big Blue jet landed right on top of the Demon Deacons, crushing them.
Kentucky’s five starters combined to shoot 67.4 percent.
Miller scored a career-high 20 points, 14 above his season average. The Wildcats hit five 3-pointers in the first 15 minutes.
“I’ve been in the ACC 10 years, and that’s as a good a team as we played against in the 10 years I’ve been here,” Wake Forest coach Dino Gaudio said. “Defensively, they change and alter so many shots, and they have skill guys on offense.”
Wake Forest was done the second power forward Al-Farouq Aminu picked up his third foul at the 11:39 mark of the first half. The score was tied at 19, but the Wildcats went on a 25-9 run the rest of the half.
It was hard to pick the most dazzling play. Was it Wall’s casual 3-pointer when he did not square up to the basket? Or was it the 6-foot-11, 270-pound Cousins beating everyone down the floor for a massive dunk in transition?
Maybe it was Miller capping of a 16-point half with a leaning jumper in traffic off of one foot.
The second half should have been garbage time, but Kentucky converted it into high art, with Wall (seven assists) and Bledsoe (five assists) making one no-look pass after another for dunks and layups.
They won’t have it that easy for the rest of the tournament. This is the same team that shot 3-for-16, 2-for-22, 1-for-13 and 4-for-16 from 3-point range in games played in the last 30 days.
“We’re still a bunch of freshmen and sophomores,” Calipari said. “It’s their second NCAA tournament game. They’ve never played in any other games.”
Their youth showed despite their brilliance.
Wall, who can do just about anything with the ball, coughed it up four times in the first 12 minutes. Cousins, a dominant post presence offensively and defensively, missed his first six free throws.
Those types of miscues almost tripped up Kentucky several times in the regular season and might derail the Wildcats against better teams than Wake Forest.
They have the right coach, the right players and the right attitude to cut down the nets in Indianapolis, but the best team does not always win a single-elimination tournament.
Kentucky has a higher ceiling than anyone else in the tournament.
Let’s see how the Wildcats react when they have to crawl on the floor before labeling them anything more than a Sweet 16 participant.