LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — Good teams have tried various ways to beat Kentucky. The game plans have included getting physical with them, trying to force the unbeaten Wildcats to take jump shots, double-teaming post players, playing up-tempo so Kentucky can’t set its defense, pressing them.
These tactics and others have worked to some extent in box scores, just not on the scoreboard.
No matter who Kentucky plays or how well they play, the consensus seems to be if the Wildcats play to their potential, they won’t lose.
That makes Kentucky’s toughest opponent, well, Kentucky.
Fifth-seeded West Virginia might be Kentucky’s stiffest challenge so far, with the Mountaineers expected to try and use their defensive pressure and physicality to derail the Wildcats (36-0) in Thursday night’s NCAA Tournament regional semifinal in Cleveland.
One of the burning questions in college basketball this season is how to beat Kentucky.
The answer seems to rest with the Wildcats. For Kentucky to lose with its length, depth and experience, it feels like each player in John Calipari’s nine-deep rotation needs to have an off night.
It’s possible, just seems unlikely it’ll happen in the same game.
“The good news is there’s enough guys that, if two or three aren’t playing well, we can still survive,” the Kentucky coach said after watching his team shoot just 37 percent and get out-rebounded 45-38 by Cincinnati, and still advance to the Sweet 16 with a 64-51 win on Saturday.
Calipari isn’t just spewing coach speak, the stats back up his observation.
Eight of the nine players in the rotation are averaging between 5.8 and 11.1 points per game. Eight different players have been Kentucky’s leading scorer this season.
Even when a team has some in-game success against Kentucky, Calipari has enough talent to mix and match lineups until he finds a combination that works. Having “reinforcements,” as the coach calls them, has also succeeded in wearing down opponents.
“Every team always plays us with different strategies,” 6-11 freshman Karl-Anthony Towns said. “Everyone has different stuff they do. We don’t get much time to scout and we just have to get into the groove while the game is going on. You just feel them out. That’s how it always is.”
Cincinnati tried to take the physical route, but the Wildcats’ height and length makes beating them up a difficult proposition.
The approach did help the Bearcats beat the Wildcats on the offensive glass. Florida also played Kentucky tough in two regular-season meetings, forcing the Wildcats to fight through several bodies on the way to the basket. The teams exposed an area of vulnerability for the Wildcats — defensive rebounding. But with five frontcourt players 6-foot-9 or taller on the roster, Kentucky’s size allows them to overcome the deficiency.
Against Cincinnati the Wildcats had nine blocks including six in the second half, several 50-50 situations and a lot of contested shots as the Bearcats shot 32 percent and committed 14 turnovers.
Teams have also tried to show they’re not intimidated with a lot of chatter when the game starts, something very noticeable against Cincinnati and Arkansas.
“A lot of teams want to do that,” said junior 7-footer Willie Cauley-Stein, whose two-handed slam dunk over Cincinnati’s Quadri Moore late in the first half was the turning point for Kentucky. “But with our guys and the way we play and the way we are all for each other, there is kind of a barrier around us. You just kind of laugh at it. I would do the same thing. . I mean, you’ve got to do something. You got to try something.”
The Wildcats have enough guard play to break through full-court presses.
Kentucky point guards Andrew Harrison and Tyler Ulis combined for 12 assists and just two turnovers in the championship game of the Southeastern Conference Tournament. West Virginia (25-9) likes to use its disruptive defense to create turnovers. The Mountaineers succeeded in forcing 23 turnovers with 15 steals in Sunday night’s 69-59 win over Maryland.
Kentucky also has used its athleticism and size to turn the table on opponents.
“If you turn the ball over against them, they are great at finishing because they’ve got eight or nine guys that are pro prospects,” Cincinnati associate head coach Larry Davis said, “and they’re going to go finish it on you if you turn it over and get it in open court.”
None of that fazes Mountaineers coach Bob Huggins, who acknowledged the tall challenge but offered no hints of how his team will try to meet it.
“I can tell you that we’re not going to be scared,” said Huggins, who’s 8-2 against Calipari.
Not many teams have been “scared” of Kentucky — though all have been overmatched in the end.
“You’re going to have to be the better team for 40 minutes,” Hampton coach Edward Joyner Jr. said after his team’s 79-56 opening-round loss to Kentucky. “You don’t have to go in being the best team, you have to be the best team for that night. But it’s going to take a great 40 minutes to beat those guys.”
Translation: If anyone beats Kentucky, they’ll need a major assist from the Wildcats.