In most every bracket if we’re being honest most had the Arizona Wildcats and the Kentucky Wildcats matching up in an elite second round battle. But like all the best laid plans of mice and men, a funny thing happened on the way to chalk city. On Thursday, the Buffalo Bulls would create the storyline of the tournament (at least until Friday night) as the MAC champion dominated the 4th-seeded Arizona Wildcats en route to a 21-point win over the Pac12 champs. Sure, the Bulls were red hot from the field. But make no mistake about it, the Bulls came to play and dominated from pillar to post. This was no fluke.
The reward for their efforts is a Saturday date with the bluest of the blue blood, the Kentucky Wildcats. At 25-10, the Cats have had a somewhat disappointing season by the usual lofty standards in Lexington. Unlike years past there is likely only two players on the current roster that will hear their name called in a few months in the NBA Draft. Also bucking history is a 4-game losing streak for Kentucky in the heart of conference season, and a significant worry about even making the tournament as recently as February.
But much like the sun rising in the east, the SEC Tournament belonged to Kentucky. Fun fact: The Wildcats have won more SEC Tournament titles than the rest of the SEC combined. A football conference, indeed.
In the first round of the tournament, Kentucky somewhat struggled with the 12-seed Davidson Wildcats. Though a five-point win, it was a good example of what Kentucky struggled with much of this season: putting a team away. At several points throughout the first half and early second half, Kentucky was a shot away from sealing the door shut and breaking Davidson. Those shots never came and Davidson made it a game down the stretch.
If you’re a stats guy, Kentucky is allegedly the best three-point defensive team in the country. In the early part of the season, their perimeter defense was far from that. Their guards were susceptible to getting beat off the bounce and their defense, which switches on every screen, often left shooters open and had a tremendous time rotating through an offensive set from an opponent that was patient and constantly moving. Whether or not Buffalo can control the pacing and make Kentucky’s defense work for it may be the difference between a win and a loss.
The personnel for Kentucky is, not surprisingly, loaded with top level talent. Kevin Knox, the SEC Freshman of the Year and one of the aforementioned draft picks, and Quade Green are the two most high impact players, but throughout the postseason, there have been surprising appearances from the likes of Wenyen Gabriel and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. The dangerous thing for Buffalo is that it is hard to pinpoint a star to shutdown on this Kentucky team. Unlike years past, it’s a democracy of riches in Lexington and John Calipari, per usual, has the Cats peaking at the exact right moment.
In full disclosure mode, I’ve been a Kentucky fan since birth, long before I even knew the Mid-American Conference existed, so it is exceptionally difficult to separate the head and the heart. On paper, Kentucky has more talent, more coaching experience, and have been battle-tested throughout the season in hostile environments, which today’s atmosphere is sure to be as anyone in Boise not specifically rooting for Kentucky will be pulling for Buffalo. The Bulls, however, have more experience and certainly more confidence after Thursday night. If the Bulls are capable of another hot shooting night then anything is possible and the Bulls may just find themselves dropping some MACtion into the Sweet 16.
Your pertinent information:
Tip off: 5:15 pm EST
Location: Taco Bell Arena in Boise, Idaho
Odds: Kentucky -6, o/u 155
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