If you haven’t heard by now (you have), Kentucky enters the tournament undefeated, looking to become the first team to go undefeated since Indiana in 1976. John Calipari’s team allows just 53.7 points per game, hanging its hat on length and athleticism. As we’ve grown accustomed to, the Wildcats are stacked with NBA talent. Willie Cauley-Stein has been the veteran leader of this team and, in my opinion, would have been right there with Frank Kaminsky and Jahlil Okafor for player of the year if his minutes weren’t limited. Freshman Karl-Anthony Towns looks to be the best NBA prospect of the bunch and sophomore twins Aaron and Andrew Harrison lead the team from the perimeter, with Aaron making multiple big-time shots en route to the National Championship game in last year’s tournament.
Five Players to Watch
Really the five players to watch in this region could be taken from the Wildcats’ roster. Kentucky’s game seems to be built from the inside-out so be sure to keep an eye on Towns and Stein in the paint.
As someone who’s seen Jerian Grant lead Notre Dame to two separate wins over a talented Duke squad, I can certainly vouch for the skill of the guard. Notre Dame has overachieved substantially in a top-heavy ACC conference and Grant is the reason why. He led the ACC in assits and can get to the rim extremely well for a guard. In the traditional sense of a “point guard” Grant might just be the best out.
Melo Trimble was one of the best freshman to play this season, which is saying a lot considering it was a stacked class. In the Terps inagural season in the Big Ten, Trimble finished fifth in points per game in a conference that does not lack any talent. Should Maryland face off with Kentucky in the Sweet Sixteen, the Wildcats D will be sure to key on the talented freshman.
Speaking of freshman, Texas’ center Myles Turner may have had somewhat of a disappointing season, mostly because of the massive hype that followed him into college. Texas is a team to keep an eye on entering the tournament, similarly to Kentucky’s highly skilled, young team that hit its stride in the tournament last year. Turner is the most talented player on a roster that is almost as talented as anyones (on paper). If the Longhorns make a surprise run, Turner will be at the center of it after leading the team in rebounds, averaging 10.4 PPG, and ranking 18th nationally in blocks.
Every college hoops fan is licking their chops at the potential of a round-of-32 matchup between Kansas and Wichita State, and if the Shockers pull of the upset, Fred VanVleet will be a major reason why. The pre-season All-American enters his third tournament, is a menace on the perimeter, and is one of the best distributors in the game, averaging 5.3 assists per game.
Round of 64 Sleepers: Buffalo
Earlier this season, Buffalo led Kentucky at halftime and played Wisconsin tough in a loss. That should be all you need to know about this Bobby Hurley (former Dukie!)-led squad. The 12-5 upset pick is always money and the Bulls come in hot with 8 straight Ws. West Virginia appears to be ripe for the upset. Although I sincerely think they have a good team, they’ve been very average away from their home court and have lost three of four entering the tourney. These are two teams headed in opposite directions.
Possible Cinderellas: Wichita State, Texas
Wichita State went to the Final Four two seasons ago and were a one-seed last season. Although this season was slightly disappointing, they still have (almost) as good a team as last year and are extremely underseeded at the 7-line. I’ve touched on the leadership of Fred VanVleet and his teammate, an All-America candidate, is a stud himself, who is an extremely good compliment to VanVleet. A round-of-32 matchup with Kansas appears to be on the horizon and is already getting loads of hype. These teams haven’t met since 1992 and Kansas coach Bill Self has seemingly ducked the matchup, claiming he “has no interest in scheduling Wichita State.” With talented Jayhawks freshman, Cliff Alexander out for the tournament, this is a nightmare second round matchup for Kansas and I have Wichita State edging them out.
Midwest Winner: Kentucky over Notre Dame
When given the choice of Kentucky or the field, many would still choose the Wildcats. Although the Fighting Irish are coming off an impressive ACC tournament title run, Kentucky has the most talented and best defensive team of the modern era, and will ultimately finish off the prefect season.