Back in August, while the rest of the country, in an effort to combat BFS (Baseball Fatigue Syndrome), immersed itself in Alabama football and mock fantasy football drafts, John Calipari took his Kentucky Wildcats to the Bahamas for six exhibition games against foreign national and pro teams. The trip, which the NCAA allows once every four years, was meant to build chemistry among yet another group of fresh-faced Wildcats. No one expected them to win more than a game or two; they were playing against grown men.
No one told the Twins. Word never made it to Karl-Anthony Towns. And if Tyler Ulis knew, he sure as hell didn't tell anybody. Because Kentucky won five games against one defeat, a game the Cats controlled for 38 minutes. And when the final buzzer sounded, there was nothing left to doubt. The Wildcats hadn't come to the Bahamas to get beachy. They'd come to send a message: we're here to kick ass and drink coconut juice; and we're all out of coconut juice.
Eight months later, that loss to the Dominican National Team, coached by former Kentucky assistant and current South Florida head coach, Orlando Antigua, remains the only blemish on Kentucky's record as it heads into Saturday's game against a Wisconsin team that wants nothing more than to prove last year's loss to Kentucky was a glitch in the Matrix.
If you listen to Wisconsin fans, and former players like Ben Brust, Kentucky has no idea what's waiting for them when they take the floor against the Badgers in Indianapolis. Indeed, the more games Kentucky won and the discussion began shifting from "When will Kentucky to lose?" to "Will Kentucky lose?" to "How to beat Kentucky," most pundits pointed to Wisconsin as the team best-suited to do it.
Lots of reasons. Lots of legitimate basketball reasons even. But what it mostly boils down to, I believe, is that Wisconsin lost a close game to Kentucky last year, and it's easy to attribute Aaron Harrison's heroics to Lady Luck, thereby anointing this Wisconsin team, which basically returns everyone, as Kentucky Kryptonite, is a no-brainer.
There's a problem, though.
This ain't your momma's Kentucky team. Well, I mean, it is. But it's not last year's Kentucky team. Not even a little. Forget about who came back and who left and who's new. I'm talking about the sum, man, not the parts. Think about it like this. Remember the SAT? You remember. It was so boring. But they did something, they did one of these:
UK 2014 Defense : UK 2015 Defense :: St. Stephen 5/6 Grade Girls Volleyball : Seal Team Six.
Kentucky's new pieces, which replaced the "old" pieces, combined with the already-there pieces, have assembled into the most formidable Sicilian Defense since that computer played Bobby Fischer.
Look, here's my point. The majority of America's opinion on this matchup has, I think, been shaped by the outcome of last year's game even though we know both empirically and anecdotally that last year's game has next to zero bearing on how tonight's game will unfold. The tournament itself is impossible to translate from game to game, much less from year to year. Wisconsin almost lost to Oregon in the Sweet Sixteen. Then they thumped Arizona, who is demonstrably much better than Oregon. Kentucky is without Alex Poythress, whose athleticism left the Badges a little wide-eyed last year.
I have no idea what matchups will/will not work in either team's favor tonight--I'm a football guy, and my basketball X/O acumen is limited. What I do know is that Kentucky is much better than they were last year, and Wisconsin, as good as they are, doesn't scare me. Notre Dame scared me because they had quick guards, and everyone on their team could shoot it (still, I admit, I didn't fear Notre Dame nearly enough). Wisconsin plays six guys--seven, tops--and they can't run with Kentucky.
Bottom line: If Kentucky comes out and plays at its mean, they'll win by 8 or more. If they play below the mean, Wisconsin, depending on just how far below Kentucky dips, will win a close one. If Kentucky plays above its mean, the Cats win by double digits. If Devin Booker gets hot and Kentucky is hitting shots, well...