With NCAA basketball’s March Madness beginning its first round March 17, the competition looks to be dramatic. A year after Shabazz Napier set the tournament ablaze in leading the UConn Huskies to the championship, it looks like their challenger – the Kentucky Wildcats – will be at it again. While the Wildcats may have lost the championship game, they seem to be the unanimous team to beat, having occupied the spot of No. 1 in the AP Top 25 for the entire year, steamrolling everyone in their way.
The University of Kentucky Wildcats have been practically unstoppable this year, with its roster filled to the brim with NBA-quality talent. Almost every position is filled with a player who will be drafted, particularly at the center position, where freshman sensation Karl-Anthony Towns and defensive savant Willie Cauley-Stein hold down the paint. The duo is one of the main reasons the Wildcats are second in points allowed and blocks per game. Sophomore twins Andrew and Aaron Harrison join another freshman stud, sharpshooter Devin Booker, on the perimeter. Having won every single game of their regular season and setting records along the way, the Wildcats are undoubtedly the team to beat.
“They are basically an NBA team playing with college kids,” Jac Durr, a freshman at the State College of Florida, said about Kentucky. “They have the makeup of an NBA team in college, which is very impressive.”
The No. 2 team on the AP Top 25, the Duke Blue Devils, figures to be the biggest challenger to the favored Wildcats. Led by the freshman freight train Jahlil Okafor – one of the Naismith Player of the Year Award semi-finalists and favorite to win – who brings unstoppable post offense to an already potent offense. Freshman Tyus Jones brings electrifying quickness from the point, while – another freshman – Justise Winslow provides the elite perimeter defense and aggression. Blue Devils fans hope their prized freshman trio can bring them the trophy, and if Jahlil Okafor can continue his post dominance, they just might have a chance.
The Virginia Cavaliers are No. 3 on the AP Top 25 and are there because of their stifling defense. The best defensive team in the country, the Cavaliers are holding their opponents to a country-leading 50.1 points allowed a game. Their junior leader, Justin Anderson, only recently returned from a series of unlucky injuries having recovered from surgery on his fractured finger before having to undergo an appendectomy. The bulldog defender and newly discovered sharpshooter will be back to wreak havoc as the key cog in coach Tony Bennett’s system.
Another all-around team based on system instead of stars, Villanova ranks No. 4 in the AP Top 25 poll, but often does not get the title contender status it deserves. While the Villanova Wildcats only have one player 6’11” or taller in junior Daniel Ochefu, Villanova has a terrific systematic offense based on ball movement and perimeter scoring. The Villanova Wildcats are 20th in the entire country in points scored per game at 76.9, with their ball movement displayed in their 16 assists per game, which would rank at 13th in the nation. While not exactly equipped with the personnel that you would expect in a championship-caliber team, their system has only seen two losses this year.
“Their ability to score and shoot the three very well is impressive,” Durr said. “They don’t have great big men, but they are dangerously good scorers.”
The No. 5 team in the nation according to the AP Top 25, the Arizona Wildcats also look to be a threat to Kentucky’s crown. Ranking in the top 16 teams in the nation in both points allowed and rebounds per game, Arizona’s Wildcats hope that their dynamic duo of freshman Stanley Johnson – an elite perimeter defender and leading scorer – and sophomore Rondae Hollis-Jefferson can lead them to the title. Hollis-Jefferson’s offense is often called into question, but as one of the most versatile defenders in the game, he could be the answer to shutting down any opposing player.
With the Kentucky Wildcats dominating the regular season and heading into conference tournaments and March Madness with a gusto, they look to make up for their championship round loss last year with a win this year. However, Duke, Virginia, Villanova and Arizona stand in Kentucky’s way, along with several other impressive teams. With the tournament looking like it is going to be Kentucky vs. the world, March Madness has rarely looked more promising.