They’re the hot pick, the conference tournament champ from a surprisingly strong league who many project will keep the ball rolling Thursday night at Taco Bell Arena and advance to the second round of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.
We’re not talking the Kentucky Wildcats.
We’re talking the Davidson Wildcats
Big Blue Alert: Kentucky could lose this game. It won’t, but it could. Yes, UK is the No. 5 seed and Davidson the No. 12 seed. UK is from the mighty SEC while Davidson hails from the Atlantic 10. UK boasts projected one-and-done NBA talent compared to Davidson’s reliance on unheralded upperclassmen. And none of those perceived advantages may matter come the first-round South Region game at 7:10 p.m. on CBS.
Noted hoops heads agree. Matthew Giles of the Washington Post picked five Cinderellas that could make the Sweet 16. Davidson was among the quintet. Giles’ reasoning: At 39.1 percent, Davidson is an excellent three-point shooting team. And though UK has defended the three well, five of the Cats’ SEC losses were to teams that shot 36 percent or better from three.
He’s not alone. Gary Parrish of CBS Sports, who once tracked John Calipari’s every moment in Memphis, is picking Davidson over Kentucky. CBS Sports bracketologist Jerry Palm is picking Davidson over Kentucky. ESPN’s Basketball Power Index gives Davidson a 42 percent chance of pulling the upset. The World Wide Leader’s insiders give Davidson a 31 percent chance.
Matt Norlander, another CBS Sports hoops writer, picked Kentucky to win, but added, “I hesitate to say it, but I can see a scenario in which Davidson wins this game by double digits.”
“People can think whatever they want,” Kevin Knox, UK’s freshman forward said Wednesday before the team’s practice at Taco Bell Arena. “I just know that people inside our locker room think we can win this game if we just play the way we’ve been playing.”
Still, it is March and such upset projections aren’t madness. This isn’t your normal UK first-round NCAA foe, a la Northern Kentucky making its first NCAA tourney appearance last March; Stony Brook in 2016; Hampton in 2015; Western Kentucky with a losing record in 2012.
Davidson is legit. Sunday afternoon, the Wildcats captured the A-10 Tournament by posting its 11th win its last 13 games. Sunday night, St. Bonaventure and Rhode Island joined Davidson as NCAA invitees, making the A-10 a three-bid league.
Consider that Davidson beat St. Bonaventure 82-70 in the conference semifinals and Rhode Island 58-57 in the conference finals. Then in a First Four matchup Tuesday night in Dayton, St. Bonaventure beat UCLA 65-58. Remember, back in December, UCLA beat UK.
Wait, there’s more. Ken Pomeroy’s analytics rank Davidson as the 18th most efficient offense in the nation. The Wildcats lead the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.76), rank second nationally in turnovers per game (9.6) and fourth nationally in free throw percentage.
“They are a really efficient team. They are an execution team,” said Calipari during the press conference session on Wednesday. “We’re an inexperienced team. We’re not an execution team.”
And did we mention that over the last 10 NCAA Tournaments, the No. 5 seed is just 22-18 versus the No. 12 seed? Nine of those years — 2015 being the exception — at least one No. 12 seed has stunned a No. 5.
That does not mean Kentucky will be the No. 5 to get the early hook this year. The Cats are fresh off an impressive three-game St. Louis stint in which they captured the SEC Tournament. They sweated out lock-down defense and nailed big shots for wins over Alabama and Tennessee, two of the SEC’s eight NCAA bids.
Can the Cats replicate that in Big Sky Country? It says here they can. There should be a confidence and chemistry carryover from last weekend, something Calipari apparently doesn’t want to mess with, saying he’s not comfortable putting injured forward Jarred Vanderbilt back on the floor. Talent should win out in the end.
Still, to use a Calipari-ism, Davidson will be a “hard game” on Thursday. And no one knows for sure how Kentucky’s multitude of freshmen will respond in the bright lights of the ultimate win-or-go-home setting.
“It’s March Madness, a lot of people see a lot of upsets,” said Knox. “But I don’t think we’ll be upset.”