There was some talk that West Virginia might be able to stun Kentucky Thursday night in the Sweet 16. Shane Battier was among those picking the Mountaineers to take down the mighty Wildcats.
I didn’t buy West Virginia’s chances at all. The ‘Neers are a team that can’t shoot and isn’t great at handling the ball. Kentucky has been drilling teams like them since they plowed through Kansas–another talented, athletic, somewhat undisciplined team–back in November. Kentucky can outrun, outwork, and outjump any other school in the nation. They pressure teams into turnover after turnover. They get easy buckets without even breaking a sweat. They lob alley oops. They crash the boards. They swat seemingly every shot that goes up around the rim. They’re hard to score on and they’re just as tough to stop when they get out in the open court. They’re basically West Virginia on steroids. And it showed as Kentucky thrashed the ‘Neers, rolling to a 78-39 win. West Virginia shot brick after brick and failed spectacularly to stop UK in the post.
While the undefeated Wildcats have shown few flaws this year, they have shown the most cracks against teams that execute, shoot the ball well, and avoid turnovers. Columbia, of all teams, nearly pulled off an upset on Big Blue in December when the Lions rode some hot shooting, an effective 2-3 zone, and a relatively low turnover tally to a halftime lead. A few weeks later, Ole Miss shot 53% from deep and took ‘Tucky to overtime. UK escaped only thanks to hot shooting of their own (11-20 from 3). While simply shooting the lights out isn’t the only way to beat Kentucky–Texas A&M and LSU both took the Wildcats to the wire without hitting a barrage of threes, but both kept the turnover battle at least even–hitting jumpers and taking care of the ball is probably the most plausible strategy. So, what’s a team that shoots spectacularly, handles it well, and is generally unflappable? The Wildcats’ Elite 8 opponent, Notre Dame, of course!
Now, I’m not going to call for a Notre Dame upset of John Calipari’s crop of diaper dandies. Kentucky has been my national champion pick since the start of the dance, and I don’t have the chutzpah to predict anybody to stop the Wildcats’ train. But I do think that Notre Dame has a very real shot.
First of all, the 32-5 Fighting Irish are really good. They’re gritty. They fit the bill I’ve been describing: no team in the country is better, or more surgical offensively. They reflect the steady demeanor of their cool, unshakable coach Mike Brey. They don’t commit carless turnovers.
The Irish are also wicked hot. They have won eight straight, taking down Louisville, Duke, and North Carolina along the way and grabbing an ACC ‘ship. Most recently, they have looked impressive in two thoroughly different NCAA Tournament games. First there was their Round of 32 overtime barfight against an excellent Butler team playing inspired basketball. It was a truly outstanding game of college hoop, with Butler star Roosevelt Jones putting forth a memorable performance. Neither team shot it well from the outside, and it was the type of defense-first game that high scoring teams like Notre Dame tend to wilt in come tourney time. The two veteran teams both left it all on the court, and nine guys logged 40+ minutes. In the end, though, it was the Irish that came out victorious, as defensive rock Steve Vasturia dropped in 20 for ND and studs Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton shook off rough shooting nights to make big plays at both ends down the stretch. The Irish are undefeated in overtime this year, and they showed some serious toughness in their win over Butler.
Notre Dame got back to classic Notre Dame ball against Wichita State in the Sweet 16. Against an outstanding defensive Shocker squad, Notre Dame didn’t miss a beat, leading for most of the night and hitting on 55% of their shots in an 81-70 win that wasn’t even that close.
The Irish have shooters galore. Jerian Grant hits crazy shots. Pat Connaughton is as good a catch-and-shoot guy as you’ll find. Demetrius Jackson, Vasturia, and V.J. Beachem are all 40%+ three point shooters too. And they move the ball faster than Bill Raftery says “man to man.”
Notre Dame’s weakness happens to matchup with a strength of Kentucky: size. Notre Dame lacks somewhat in that area, and while they defend outside decently, they’re not, well, Kentucky in the paint. That’s OK. If they get hot from the outside, and 6-10 forward Zach Auguste plays big, Notre Dame can still pull off the upset.
I’m not saying the Irish are going to get it done. But the ACC Champs are the real deal. And I’m not sure if Kentucky has faced a team as dynamic offensively as ND all year. Could Notre Dame be Kentucky’s kryptonite? Well, it is March, after all.