2018 NCAA Tournament: Why Kentucky won’t make the Final Four

BOISE, Idaho — We got that silly optimism out of the way first (the argument for why Kentucky will make the Final Four is here, if that’s your thing) so now we can really dig in and feed the hopelessness of Big Blue Nation’s beloved Negative Nancies.

You don’t want to hear about six Elite Eights and four Final Fours in eight years under coach John Calipari. No, you’d like to know why the 2018 Wildcats are destined to disappoint, like the 2013 NIT squad and 2016 second-round NCAA Tournament losers, right?

Well, you’re in luck. Here’s the road map to No. 5 seed Kentucky (24-10) falling short of San Antonio:

Shooting regresses to the mean

In its first 26 games this season, Kentucky shot 32.9 percent from 3-point range and averaged just 4.8 made threes per game. In the last eight games — the Cats won seven of them — they’ve shot a blistering 45.1 percent from deep with an average of 7.5 made threes per game. So what happens if UK goes cold again?

RELATED: How Gilgeous-Alexander made himself a star

And what if happens on Thursday night against 12 th-seeded Davidson, which ranks eighth nationally with almost 11 made threes per game and hit a staggering 26 of 53 in a game earlier this season? Here is Calipari’s argument from Saturday at the SEC Tournament, where UK had just sank 12 of 18 threes:

“It’s probably not sustainable, but let me say this: The people that have watched this, do we rely on 3-point shots to win? We don’t. If we made 12 then we’re probably going to win by 20. If we make six or seven, we’re OK. But many games, we made two or three and still won because we don’t play like the three ball is [the key to their success].”

That’s a nice idea, but here is the reality: Kentucky shot 2 of 20, 3 of 14, 6 of 15 and 3 of 14 from 3-point range during its four-game losing streak in early February. That’s a combined clip of 14 for 63 (22.2 percent), and if the Cats do something like that in the NCAA Tournament, a Final Four run seems highly unlikely.

No Vando, no answer for Ayton

Deandre Ayton, a one-time Kentucky target who idolizes former UK stars Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins, is a 7-foot-1, 250-pound freak show. He can post you up and score at will or face you up and embarrass you like a much smaller man. He’s averaging 20.3 points, 11.5 rebounds, 1.9 blocked shots — and he hit a dozen 3-pointers this season.

Ayton is likely going to be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft, and Kentucky does not really have an answer for him if it meets Arizona in the second round on Saturday. Especially if, as John Calipari has suggested, the Cats’ top rebounder and post defender, Jarred Vanderbilt, remains sidelined with an ankle injury.

They’d have to lean on 6-10 sophomore Sacha Killeya-Jones, who at least enjoyed a resurgence at the SEC Tournament, and 7-foot freshman Nick Richards, who did not. Richards has 6 points and 1 block combined over last seven games — averaging just 2.1 rebounds in that span.  This is a matchup nightmare for Kentucky.

The Pack (your bags) Line defense

Kentucky’s offense is at its best when point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is driving and scoring or kicking to open shooters. Virginia’s Pack Line defense, created by coach Tony Bennett’s father, features one player pressuring the ball at all times and four other defenders “packing” behind an imaginary arc roughly 2-3 feet inside the 3-point line, aiming to take away dribble penetration. That’s problematic for SGA and the Cats.

The Cavaliers have the stingiest defense in college basketball this season by almost every measure. In three games against top-5 offenses Duke and North Carolina, they allowed an average of 58.3 points. Only five teams in Division I this season forced opponents to work longer for a shot than Virginia.

Will a mostly freshman team be poised and patient enough to crack that code?

The post 2018 NCAA Tournament: Why Kentucky won’t make the Final Four appeared first on SEC Country.

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