1 Kentucky Wildcats vs. 8 Cincinnati Bearcats
2:40 p.m. ET, CBS
Sometimes 1-seeds play below their potential and have trouble with 16-seeds for a time. Kentucky played below its potential and still blew the doors off of Hampton. Such is life as the nation's best and most talented team. It might be a worrying sign, but the Wildcats have messed around with lesser opponents before and still gotten up for the good ones.
Cincinnati barely squeaked by 9-seed Purdue in the opening round, needing a buzzer beater to force overtime and still winning by just a point at 66-65. UK and Cincinnati are close to each other geographically, but they never play thanks to an odd story about an odd game from the '80s. If you haven't heard yet, the major storyline around this team is that head coach Mick Cronin isn't able to attend games due to an unruptured aneurysm diagnosed in January.
Kentucky is the top overall team in the KenPom ratings, while Cincinnati is No. 34. UK is a balanced team, in that there's not really a thing it doesn't do well. The Wildcats are fifth overall in offensive efficiency and first in defensive efficiency. The hard nosed Bearcats are 90th in offensive efficiency but are 17th in defensive efficiency.
I don't expect a lot of scoring, and it's not just because both teams are adept at defense. Kentucky averages 63.7 possessions per 40 minutes, which is below the national average but not by a tremendous amount. UK is 230th nationally in that category, but Cincy rates 340th at 60.1 possessions per 40 minutes. It's slow enough that the team is only 1.1 ahead of Wisconsin.
Kentucky has played 12 games against teams in Cincinnati's neighborhood, which I define as being within 10 spots in the KenPom ratings either way. The Wildcats have also played three games against teams notably better than the Bearcats and four more against teams noticeably worse but not by a ton.
|North Carolina||H||15||W4||W, 84-70|
|Ole Miss||H||47||W11||W, 89-86 OT|
|Texas A&M||R||48||-||W, 70-64 2OT|
Obviously, Kentucky won all of these games. Only one of the games against teams in Cincinnati's neighborhood finished within a possession, and just three more ended in the single digits. Interestingly, the only teams to take UK to overtime came from the below-Cincy range, not above-Cincy range.
The Bearcats haven't played anyone within 10 spots of Kentucky. They haven't even played anyone within 20 spots. These are the best opponents they've played this year.
Sweeping SMU is a good sign, as far as they go, and the loss to Xavier was very close. Cincinnati hasn't played any true elite teams this year, but against those from the tier below, they've done all right.
Players to Watch
Normally I'd point out individual players that shine above the rest here, but how do you do that with Kentucky? The single best of them is probably Karl-Anthony Towns, who averages 10 points and 6.8 rebounds per game while shooting great percentages both from the floor (56%) and the line (81.5%). Really though, all nine guys in the Wildcats' rotation are players any other team would love to have.
Cincinnati has a couple of good things going for it as far as challenging Kentucky goes. It has an eight-man rotation, which is better suited than, say, a six-man rotation would be for opposing UK's waves of players. Further, the team's best player is 6'10" Octavius Ellis, who scores 9.9 points and grabs 7.1 rebounds per game. What isn't good for going up against Big Blue's bigs is that Ellis is one of just two players taller than 6'7" in that rotation.
John Calipari has never failed to make it past the first weekend as a 1-seed in five such appearances in the tournament. In fact, he made at least the Elite Eight in all five of those turns as a top seed. He has gone out in the Round of 32 once each as a 2-seed and 3-seed, but that was back in his UMass days. Mick Cronin isn't actually coaching courtside, so his past history is of less importance for this game. He's guided seven teams to the tournament including this one, two a Murray State and five at Cincy, but only his 2012 squad made the Sweet 16.
Cincinnati has hung tough against the best teams it has played, but the NCAA Tournament is a tough time to be facing what is easily the best team it's faced this year.
The fact that the Bearcats are so much smaller than Kentucky is could be an advantage if they played a quick style to put the Wildcats' big men in bad spots, but they don't. I don't like this matchup for UC, and its lower offensive efficiency is a bad thing to bring into a game with the Wildcats. A sub-20 point half is definitely on the table, and if Cincy reaches 30 without being aided by garbage time, I'll be surprised.
Kentucky 65, Cincinnati 51