There’s a way to beat Kentucky.
So far, 34 game plans to defeat the Wildcats have been put together. Every one of them fell short. There’s no shortage of theories on how to beat them — spread them out, pack the paint, shoot plenty of 3’s, attack the rim — which all sound good, but none have actually panned out for an entire game on the floor.
If someone’s going to actually throw the upset punch, now’s the time. No. 1 Kentucky (34-0) is the top overall seed going into the NCAA Tournament that begins this week, the favorite to win it all and become the first undefeated national champion in the men’s game since Indiana in 1976.
“Let me tell you, it’s a one-game shot,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “Foul trouble, struggle, injury, have a bad game, someone else play out of their minds, which we have seen happen with us. ... It’s not best-of-five. It’s one and done.”
True, if someone makes 10 3-pointers, or scores 40, or the Wildcats all go cold simultaneously, millions of brackets will likely go poof at the same time.
Two teams took the Wildcats to overtime and six others found a way to keep the final margin within 10 points. But the Wildcats are perhaps the NCAA’s biggest favorite in years isn’t a fluke.
“They know how to win and they figure out how to win,” Missouri coach Kim Anderson said. “When they get behind they figure out how to get ahead, and obviously that’s good coaching, that’s good players, but it’s an attitude. I think that is the most impressive thing.”
So here’s three tips on how to beat them:
— LIMIT THE 3’S: Excluding the two overtime games, all six of the other teams who stayed within 10 of Kentucky for 40 minutes held the Wildcats to an average of 3.5 3-pointers in those games. That was, on average, about an eight-point savings over all other Kentucky games this season.
— GET GOOD SHOTS: Mississippi, Florida, LSU and Georgia all shot 47 percent or better in a game against Kentucky this season, losing those four games by an average of only 5.0 points. In Kentucky’s other 30 games, the average margin at games’ end was 23.1 points.
— ATTACK: In the eight “close” games, opponents shot 46 percent from 2-point range against Kentucky. In all other games, opponents shot 36.8 percent from inside the arc. And in the last three Wildcats’ games decided by 10 or fewer, teams shot a staggering 57.4 percent on 2’s.
Then again, they all lost.
“They’re pretty doggone physically imposing,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. “Somebody said that Portland Trail Blazers are the only team in America that was taller.”
Shabazz Napier of the Miami Heat — he led Connecticut past Kentucky in last year’s national title game, the Wildcats’ last loss — believes defensively elite teams like Wisconsin and Virginia would have a realistic shot.
“During March Madness, it’s more about who has the best guards,” Napier said. “You have to play their game, get up a couple points and then slow it up. But it’s definitely going to be tough. I’ve seen some of their games — they’re super-talented. They’re the No. 1 team and undefeated for a reason.”
What makes Kentucky so difficult to stop is there’s no absolute key guy on their team.
The Wildcats are the most balanced team in the country. And that depth is lethal.
Aaron Harrison is their leading scorer, his average of 11.3 points per game good for only spot No. 623 on the national rankings. He logs more minutes than any other Wildcat, and there are 1,134 other Division I players who average more minutes than he does. Combined, Kentucky has had players post a total of four 20-point games all season.
They come at teams in waves, and opponents don’t know who to guard.
“You only have so many tricks up your sleeve to keep you in it when you are playing a team this good,” Boston University coach Joe Jones said.
And that’s the reality. For someone to keep Kentucky from cutting down the nets in Indianapolis, two things will almost certainly have to ring true.
One, some team is going to have to play close to perfectly.
Two, that team is also going to need some help from the Wildcats.
“I had said this during the course of the season,” Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said. “I told my team, I said, ‘We can beat any team in the league — except Kentucky.’”