The Kentucky Wildcats find themselves in a familiar position during March Madness 2016. On the heels of another SEC championship, they are one of the favorites to win the national title.
Going 26-8 overall with a 13-5 conference record, Kentucky was named the No.4 seed in the East region. The Wildcats haven’t been nearly as dominant as they were last season, but only three teams began the NCAA Tournament with better championship odds. Kentucky has better title odds (10/1) than No.1 Oregon and No.1 Virginia, as well as three No.2 seeds and all four No.3 seeds.
The Wildcats’ biggest challenge on their way to the Final Four will be No.1 seed North Carolina. The favorites in the East are coming off a conference championship of their own, and the Tar Heels will be slight favorites over Kentucky if the two teams meet in the Sweet 16.
Failing to make it to the second weekend of the tournament would be considered a failure for Kentucky. The team shouldn’t have much trouble in their first-round matchup on Thursday night against No.13 Stony Brook, who is a 13.5-point underdog. Assuming No.5 Indiana defeats No.12 Chattanooga, the Wildcats will face the Hoosiers in Round No.2. A win for Indiana is no guarantee, considering the history of 5-12 matchups during March Madness, and Kentucky would be favored against the Big Ten regular-season champs.
Since John Calipari took over as Kentucky’s head coach in 2010, it’s become a near certainty that the Wildcats will make it to the second weekend of the tournament. Missing the NCAA Tournament just once in the last seven seasons, Kentucky has never failed to reach the Elite Eight when they've gotten a bid. Kentucky made it to the Final Four as a No.4 seed in 2011, and they lost in the national title game as a No.8 seed three years later.
After nearly posting a perfect record a year ago, Kentucky’s regular season could be considered a bit of a disappointment. The team wasn’t as good as their No.2 ranking in the preseason AP Top 25 Poll indicated they might be, but they are playing their best at the right time. Calipari has been able to get Kentucky to peak around tournament time, and he seems to be doing the same thing in 2016.
Few teams have as much talent as Kentucky, and they are difficult to beat when their top players are performing up to their potential. Most notably, Tyler Ulis has stood out, becoming the shortest player to ever be named SEC player of the Year. The point guard is averaging 17.2 points and 7.2 assists on the season, and he’s totaled 55 points in his last two games.
Kentucky has three-potential first round picks in June’s NBA Draft. Jamal Murray is the team’s leading scorer with 20.1 points per game, and he’s a prolific three-point shooter, making 42.1 percent of his 7.7 attempts per contest. Freshman Skal Labissiere could be a lottery pick, as well, though he’s struggled and plays less than 16 minutes per game.
Calipari has become known for recruiting “one-and-done” players, but this year’s Kentucky team is one of the most experienced Wildcat teams in recent seasons. Only two of their top five scorers are freshmen, and two of their most important players are juniors.
With a good mix of talent and experience, Kentucky could make another deep run in the tournament. Should they can squeak by top-seeded North Carolina in the Sweet 16, the Wildcats probably have enough to defeat the likes of No.2 Xavier or No.3 West Virginia in the Elite Eight. The East Region has plenty of traditional powers, but Kentucky boast more talent and excellent coaching.
A potential Final Four matchup with No.1 Virginia or No.2 Michigan State could spell the end of the road for Kentucky, but they have what it takes to defeat any team on their best day.
Predicted Finish: Final Four