Mark Story

Here’s the prime factor that protects Kentucky from NCAA tourney upsets

Coach Cal and the Cats react to Kentucky’s NCAA Tournament draw

University of Kentucky head coach John Calipari and basketball players Reid Travis and Keldon Johnson respond to the NCAA Tournament announcement.
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University of Kentucky head coach John Calipari and basketball players Reid Travis and Keldon Johnson respond to the NCAA Tournament announcement.

In the otherwise ultra-successful Bill Self era, Kansas has lost NCAA Tournament games to mid-major programs Bucknell, Bradley, Northern Iowa, VCU and Wichita State.

Mike Krzyzewski is the greatest men’s college hoops coach of the modern era, yet on his watch Duke has lost round of 64 contests to Lehigh (2012) and Mercer (2014) in the current decade.

Just last season, No. 13 seed Buffalo not only beat No. 4 Arizona, the Bulls smoked the Pac-12’s signature program 89-68 in a first-round March Madness shocker.

buffalo celebrating
The Buffalo bench erupted during the Bulls’ 89-68 upset of Arizona in last season’s NCAA Tournament. Ted S. Warren AP

In the John Calipari coaching era, Kentucky has never found itself with Cinderella’s glass slipper on its neck (that sound you hear is UK fans knocking on the nearest piece of wood).

I have a theory for why the Wildcats have been impervious to the upset madness of March: Calipari’s penchant for fielding teams with players of unusual length at most positions has made UK an unusually bad match up for programs from conferences down the college hoops food chain.

Since 2010, Kentucky’s NCAA Tournament record against teams from outside college basketball’s seven most prominent conferences — the football Power Five leagues plus the Big East and the American Athletic Conference — is 11-0.

Continuing that trend could be the key to Kentucky’s 2019 NCAA Tournament fate. If seeds hold, the Midwest Region’s No. 2-seeded Wildcats will not face a Power Five conference foe until an Elite Eight meeting with No. 1 seed North Carolina.

UK (27-6) will open pursuit of its ninth NCAA championship at 7:10 p.m. Thursday against Southland Conference Tournament champion Abilene Christian (27-6) at the VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, Fla.

If the Wildcats win, they will face the winner of No. 7 Wofford (29-4) — thought to be one of the 2019 NCAA tourney’s most appealing Cinderella possibilities — and No. 10 Seton Hall (20-13) on Saturday in the round of 32.

Kentucky is heading into the NCAA Tournament seeking their ninth National Championship. Here's a look back at how the program, along with Coach Calipari, has fared in March.

In the Calipari era, most UK rosters have featured long, bouncy shot blockers in the post (think Anthony Davis and Willie Cauley-Stein); sleek, long-armed defenders (DeAndre Liggins, Darius Miller, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist) on the wings; and biggish point guards (John Wall, Andrew Harrison, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander).

As a rule, there is no way for teams from mid- and low-major conferences to replicate Kentucky’s defensive length in preparation.

The impact in games has been devastating.

Against Kentucky’s elongated defenders, shots that are not contested in the less visible conferences come with harassment vs. the Cats. Passing lanes close more quickly. Offensive comfort is hard to find.

In UK’s 11 NCAA Tournament contests since 2010 against teams from outside the seven most visible conferences, only two foes — Princeton (46.2 percent) in 2011 and undefeated Wichita State (55.1 percent) in 2014 — have hit 40 percent of their shots against Kentucky.

Not coincidentally, Princeton (a 59-57 loser) and Wichita State (a 78-76 loser in a NCAA Tournament classic) came the closest to beating the Cats.

Far more common have been the suffocation that UK put on a strong Cornell squad (33.3 percent field goals, 23.8 percent three-point shots) in the 2010 round of 16 or the stifling last season’s Wildcats did to Davidson (39.3 percent field goals) and Buffalo (38.8 percent field goals, 22.6 percent three-pointers) in the first two rounds.

Nick Richards
Kentucky’s Nick Richards blocked a shot by Buffalo’s Nick Perkins during UK’s 95-75 victory over the Bulls in last season’s NCAA Tournament round of 32. Alex Slitz

Kentucky’s current starting lineup, with PJ Washington and Reid Travis, both 6-foot-8, manning the posts is not, by UK standards, exceptionally long under the basket. Of course, Calipari has the luxury of bringing 6-11 sophomore Nick Richards (45 blocked shots) and 6-10 freshman EJ Montgomery (36 blocks) off the bench.

However, on the perimeter, with 6-6 Keldon Johnson and 6-5 Tyler Herro on the wing, and 6-3 Ashton Hagans at the point, UK has its normal size.

Meanwhile, Abilene Christian’s starting post players, seniors Jaren Lewis and Hayden Farquhar, are 6-6 and 6-7 respectively. In the backcourt, Abilene Christian’s starting guards go 6-2, 6-2 and 5-7.

If Kentucky and Wofford advance to a round of 32 meeting, the Terriers boast more size than one typically finds in NCAA teams from outside the most visible leagues.

In its backcourt, both Wofford star Fletcher Magee and Nathan Hoover are 6-4, though the Terriers’ third starting guard, Storm Murphy, is only 6-foot. Wofford’s starting post players, 6-8, 250-pound senior Cameron Jackson and 6-9, 230-pound Keve Aluma, have ample size and bulk.

Magee had 27 points when Wofford upset then-No. 5 North Carolina 79-75 in Chapel Hill early in the 2017-18 season, so the Terriers would not figure to be starstruck by UK.

Historically, Kentucky’s combination of height and athleticism has tended to crush all the air from NCAA Tournament foes from outside the seven major basketball conferences.

If that trend continues in 2019, it will carry the Cats deep into the Midwest Region bracket.


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Mark Story has worked in the Lexington Herald-Leader sports department since Aug. 27, 1990, and has been a Herald-Leader sports columnist since 2001. I have covered every Kentucky-Louisville football game since 1994, every UK-U of L basketball game but three since 1996-97 and every Kentucky Derby since 1994.