Match-up: 3 Notre Dame Fighting Irish vs. 1 Kentucky Wildcats
TV: TBS (Marv Albert/Chris Webber/Len Elmore/Lewis Johnson)
Date and Time: Saturday 3/28, 8:49pm EST (approximate)
Location: Quicken Loans Arena, Cleveland, OH
For starters, Kentucky has not lost yet. They are the first undefeated team to reach the Elite Eight since UNLV did so in 1991 before they eventually lost in the Final Four. Kentucky has dominated their way through the upper portion of the Midwest bracket, winning by 23, 13, and 39 points against overmatched Hampton, Cincinnati, and West Virginia squads, respectively. This comes on the heels of an SEC Tournament in which they won games by 15, 24, and 15 en route to an easy SEC Championship.
Going 37-0 is an unbelievable accomplishment, and the way they have dominated their way through the postseason thus far leaves few doubters regarding the inevitability of their destination. That said, their best wins this postseason have come against two 5 seeds. In fact, a 5 seed (Arkansas), is the toughest the SEC had to offer these Wildcats throughout a relatively breezy conference season.
Although they had no trouble in two games against the Razorbacks, Kentucky squeezed by in other games against the SEC's NCAA Tournament representatives, beating LSU by 2, Ole Miss by 3 in overtime, and Georgia by 8 just a few weeks ago.
The Wildcats put together a tough non-conference slate and had few issues getting through it. A 32-point embarrassment of Kansas put them on everyone's map. They famously only allowed 7 points to UCLA in the first half of their match-up en route to an easy victory. They also knocked off some opponents they hold in common with Notre Dame, including North Carolina by 14, Louisville by 8, and Providence (who beat the Irish all the way back in November) by 20 in a game in which they allowed just 38 points, or less than half of what Notre Dame allowed the Friars to score.
What else is there to say? 37-0 speaks for itself.
The Wildcats are number one in every ranking and overall metric you can possibly find. Being undefeated and winning in the manner they have will do that. Their lofty status is largely a result of their top-flight defense, which currently rates as the most efficient defense in the 14-year history of KenPom's rankings.
It should be noted that Kentucky has yet to face an offense as good as Notre Dame's, the 3rd most efficient in the country, nor have they faced a higher-rated team than the Irish, who currently stand in 9th according to KenPom.
Offensively, Kentucky ranks as the 6th most efficient team in the country. They don't play particularly fast overall (actually a slightly slower tempo than Notre Dame, largely because they grind opponents into a pulp on defense), but they can turn defense into offense in a hurry, forcing a nearly 22% turnover rate and one of the best block rates in the country, which allows them to get out into the open court where they really thrive.
The Wildcats also pull down about 40% of their offensive rebounding opportunities, so they are simply great at getting more shots off than their opponents. They also get to the free throw line about 7 times a game more than their opponents. Kentucky just has so many different ways that they can demoralize their opponents that it's difficult to figure out the recipe for their demise.
With that all said, Notre Dame is a different offensive beast than pretty much any of Kentucky's opponents can claim to be. The Irish will be the only team on the Wildcats' schedule that scores more points per possession (1.21 to 1.16) than they do. So while Kentucky only relinquishes 0.83 points per possession, the story of this one, and whether or not it will really come down to the wire, is how well they can stop the at-times unstoppable Irish offensive machine.
Aaron Harrison - G - 6-6/212
Andrew Harrison - 6 - 6-6/210
Trey Lyles - F - 6-10/235
Karl-Anthony Towns - F - 6-11/250
Willie Cauley-Stein - F - 7-0/240
Tyler Ulis - G - 5-9/155
Devin Booker - G - 6-6/206
Dakari Johnson - C - 7-0/255
Marcus Lee - F - 6-9/220
The Irish go from playing one of the shortest lineups in the NCAA Tournament against Wichita State to one of the biggest in NCAA history. 3 of the Wildcats' 4 guards are listed at 6-6 (although in that regard, Jerian Grant and Steve Vasturia match up favorably). Of their 5 post players, 4 are 6-10 or taller, while 6-10 Zach Auguste is the only Irish regular that can even compare. Tyler Ulis is just the Muggsy Bogues Monstar in this freakish Kentucky lineup.
The focus here is that Notre Dame plays the 6-5 Pat Connaughton at the four and the 6-5 Steve Vasturia at the three, which has some obvious disadvantages but some advantages as well against a team that always plays 2 or 3 players 6-9 or taller. The Irish should be able to spread out the floor, either leaving some space for Grant and Demetrius Jackson to drive into the lane and create that way or, if Kentucky decides not to pull away their bigs from the paint area, get some space to shoot from behind the arc.
Defensively, it's hard to figure out what the strategy here is for the Irish. Jackson and Grant match up really well athletically with the Harrison twins, or Booker, or Ulis. Vasturia does as well when Kentucky decides to go three guards, as they often do. But what about when Kentucky goes three bigs, as with their starting lineup? How does Vasturia slow down Trey Lyles or Dakari Johnson (if anyone can figure it out, it's that guy, though)? This is certainly not the first time all season Connaughton has had to guard someone much taller than him, but he hasn't faced many as skilled or athletic as Towns or Cauley-Stein. How will he hold up?
I'd imagine that Notre Dame will employ a similar strategy to the one they used against Duke in the ACC Tournament. Let the lottery pick big man get his one-on-one against Auguste or Bonzie Colson, but by all means do not give them room to shoot the three. If they can effectively do that while having a good shooting night themselves behind the arc (against a team allowing only 27% 3-point field goal percentage on the year), then that can keep the Irish in the game for a long time even if Kentucky is dominating down low.
Notre Dame has been out-sized this season. They've even been dominated down low, including on the boards. That said, many times they have still found a way to remain effective enough defensively overall and, more importantly, win ballgames. The Duke game in Greensboro is obviously the dream scenario here, and that they pulled it off just a couple of weeks ago makes it seem that much more realistic.
The difference is that this Kentucky team brings the size in waves and are not reliant on any 1 or 2 (or 3 or 4...) players to score. They have only two players who average in double-figures this season (Booker and Aaron Harrison), and even they are at 10 and 11 a game, respectively. Their three starting big men average 9.7, 9.2, and 8.7 a game, so they can count on each with equal confidence on any given possession. It's a tall task for any defense to deal with this many guys who combine size with such skill and athleticism, let alone one that runs as small as Notre Dame's.
Plenty of pundits, nationally or locally, have speculated for awhile that a team like Notre Dame, with an offensive attack liable to explode at any moment, has one of the best chances of pulling off the upset and defeating the undefeated Wildcats in this tournament. Now, while no one is betting on it happening, here is the chance to see if the Irish can indeed be that team.
What's their path to pull off this most unlikely feat? Beats me. Mike Brey, Martin Ingelsby, and the rest of the coaching staff are working on that gameplan right now. Ultimately, it will likely revert back to an old Brey standby, the no pressure, us-against-the-world, stay loose, let it fly, and see what happens mindset that so many Irish teams have exemplified under their head coach. That probably does not do justice to the actual scheming those guys are doing right now, but essentially, isn't that what it takes to beat these guys?
Listen, this is not impossible. They are human beings, just five of them at a time, trying to put a ball in a hoop. They have nearly lost before. Fivethirtyeight is giving the Irish a 13% chance of winning. KenPom has it at 18%. For perspective, he only gave Notre Dame an 8% chance of winning the ACC Tournament. "What though the odds be great or small", and all that.
Can they keep Kentucky from getting out on the fastbreak and make them work as much as possible in their half-court offense? Can the Irish manage a nice balance between burning the clock and picking spots to run themselves to try to get some easier buckets? Mostly, can the Irish generate the spacing they need to knock down some shots?
I envision the Irish going on some runs in this one. They'll run some good offense for stretches and, like we even saw against Wichita State, some streaks where nothing is falling through the net. If they can keep generating the good runs well into the second half and keep things within a couple of possessions down the stretch, then you just absolutely have to love this team mentally and their fight to pull out tough ballgames like they've done so many times this season. Kentucky has barely managed a sweat this season; Notre Dame knows how to close strong and seize victory.
Ultimately, I think the Irish will be able to keep things close, relatively speaking, but the Wildcats will largely be able to keep them at arm's length, hovering around a double-digit gap for much of the second half. If they get to that point only down a couple of possessions, can the Irish go on a big run while getting a few stops in a row on the other end? I just don't know that they will be able to put it together on both ends of the court against such a talented, deep Kentucky roster to really be able to draw even or pull ahead late. I think Notre Dame's season, one of the best the program has ever experienced, comes to an end Saturday night against what will soon be considered one of the greatest college basketball teams in the sport's history.
Notre Dame 65