UK all the way: John Calipari's Wildcats are overwhelming favorites in NCAA tournament

UK all the way: John Calipari's Wildcats are overwhelming favorites in NCAA tournament

March 19th, 2015 by David Paschall in Sports - College

Kentucky head coach John Calipari directs his team during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Florida, Saturday, March 7, 2015, in Lexington, Ky. Kentucky won 67-50. (AP Photo/James Crisp)

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Photo by The Associated Press/Times Free Press.

Struggling to pick anybody other than Kentucky to win the NCAA basketball tournament in the annual office pool?

You're not alone.

John Calipari's enormous and deeply talented Wildcats are 34-0 entering tonight's expected blowout against Hampton and are overwhelming favorites to become the first 40-0 team in the sport's history. So overwhelming, in fact, that the biggest dilemma in this year's 68-team extravaganza is whether you would take Kentucky or the rest of the field.

"I'm going with the Wildcats, because I just think they're on a mission," ESPN analyst Sean Farnham said. "One thing about Kentucky that doesn't get talked about nearly enough is just how unselfish this group is. In a day and age where you've got guys like Kobe Bryant talking about AAU basketball and how it creates a selfish culture, you have this team filled with nine McDonald's All-Americans who have sacrificed minutes and statistics to try to win and accomplish something as a group that will be lasting and memorable."

Kentucky enters NCAA play having won nine of its last 10 games by double figures, with the exception being the 72-64 comeback triumph at Georgia. The Wildcats have 28 double-digit wins in all, including a 72-40 nonconference lambasting of Kansas, which is the No. 2 seed in the Midwest Region headed by Calipari's crew.

Talk of Kentucky versus the field evokes the not-too-distant memories of Tiger Woods, who conquered the competition in winning seven of 11 major golf titles from the 1999 PGA Championship through the 2002 U.S. Open.

Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings was posed the question this week and quickly picked Kentucky. Stallings added that the last time he felt so strongly about a team was back in 1976, when he was a teenager and Indiana was completing a 32-0 season.

"I don't remember a team that I thought was this good," Stallings said. "I'm optimistic for Kentucky, because they can still play better, which is hard to believe. I think John has done a great job in pushing the right buttons with this group this year, and those players have done an equally good job of responding to what he and their coaching staff have wanted."

Las Vegas oddsmakers earlier this week set even money on Kentucky winning the tournament, so if you bet $100 on the Wildcats and they cut down the nets in Indianapolis, you would win $100. By comparison, if you were to put $100 on either Duke or Wisconsin, the two No. 1 seeds with the next best odds, you would win more than $700.

To bet on Kentucky simply reaching the Final Four for the fourth time in five years, you would have to bet more than $300 just to win $100.

"John Calipari has a ton of versatility and can match up with any style of offense," said Farnham, who was a guest this week on "Press Row" on ESPN 105.1. "You saw some of that in the substitution pattern leading up to this tournament, because Tyler Ulis was out on the floor with Andrew Harrison a little bit more, and how they play together I think will be very important."

Said Calipari: "Whatever that group is that we can ride for a while, we will. I'm playing nine guys, so it's not exactly a platoon, but the reason I want to play nine right away in a game is because I want to know who is ready to go and who is timid. I want to know who isn't playing aggressive or isn't emotionally into it. If you're not, you won't play that much."

To make significant money on Kentucky, you have to tackle larger risks. Wagering that the Wildcats will win all six NCAA tourney games by double digits will pay more than $500 on a $100 bet, and wagering that they will never trail throughout the tournament would pay more than $2,000.

That would certainly enhance interest in the first few minutes of every Kentucky contest, but the most common question as the games begin en masse is whether it's the Wildcats or someone else.

"When you play Kentucky, the first thing you have to do is overcome the mental part, and Wisconsin had them beat in the Final Four last year until Aaron Harrison hit that 3 with seven seconds to go," said ESPN commentator and former Wake Forest coach Dino Gaudio. "I think Wisconsin would have the mental part, and (Frank) Kaminsky and (Sam) Dekker can draw the bigs from Kentucky out on the floor. They play at a pace where they can win a game in the high 50s, so that could be a good Final Four matchup.

"That said, I'm still taking Kentucky over the field. I've seen about eight or nine of their practices, and that's a really good basketball team."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524.


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