Before fellow No. 16 seeds Hampton and Manhattan met in an NCAA tournament play-in game on Tuesday night, Edward Joyner joked he'd need Jesus on speed dial if his team advanced to earn a shot at top-ranked Kentucky.
The Hampton coach actually went so far as to place that call after the Pirates' victory over the Jaspers.
Picking up a phone beside him at the podium during his postgame news conference, Joyner told Jesus that a roomful of reporters wanted to know the odds of Hampton springing a historic upset. To a chorus of laughter, Joyner then pretended Jesus hung up on him and deadpanned, "I guess he'll get back to me."
Divine intervention really might be little-known Hampton's only chance of ending Kentucky's perfect season on Thursday night. The Wildcats have steamrolled their first 34 opponents by an average of 20.9 points per game and enter the NCAA tournament as heavy favorites to win the national title and become college basketball's first unbeaten champion since the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers.
What's even scarier for the rest of the NCAA tournament field is Kentucky has often been at its most dominant when facing an opponent it views as a potential threat. The Wildcats blitzed fifth-ranked Kansas by 32 in mid-November, held UCLA to seven first-half points a few weeks later and put away Arkansas by halftime in both battles between the SEC's lone Top 25 teams.
Since the primary storyline leading up to the NCAA tournament is how Kentucky can be beaten and by whom, Yahoo Sports asked six coaches who have faced the Wildcats this season those questions. Five of six listed Big Ten champ Wisconsin among the most dangerous potential opponents for Kentucky but all six insisted it would take a substandard performance from the Wildcats for anyone to defeat them.
"You can't beat them unless Kentucky really helps you, but that's what makes March Madness March Madness," Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy said. "You don't have to beat them four out of seven. You just have to be the better team for three hours."
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When Kentucky went to the free-throw line for the first time early in its SEC semifinal matchup against Auburn last Saturday, Tigers coach Bruce Pearl came to a startling realization.
"I'm looking out on the floor and my tallest player was giving up three inches to their smallest player," Pearl said. "It was just eye-opening."
Auburn was at a bigger disadvantage than most of Kentucky's opponents since it played without its two best big men, but Pearl's observation still reveals one of the main reasons the Wildcats boast the nation's stingiest defense. Opposing teams shoot a national worst 35.5 percent against Kentucky and score a national worst 0.84 points per possession in part because the Wildcats are simply bigger than anyone else.
Each of Kentucky's rotation players besides backup point guard Tyler Ulis stands 6-foot-6 or taller. Three of the Wildcats' top big men stand at least 6-11 and all five excel at contesting shots in the paint, ensuring John Calipari can always employ a lineup that features multiple players capable of protecting the rim.
"Their size and length is crazy," Boston University coach Joe Jones said. "If you're a team that scores a lot at the rim normally, that's not a good matchup for you because you're not going to score a lot in the paint against them."
The security of having so many shot blockers to erase mistakes has enabled Calipari to turn loose his perimeter players. Ulis, Andrew and Aaron Harrison and Devin Booker have the green light to pressure the ball and gamble for steals, which has resulted in Kentucky forcing more turnovers per game this season than any of the previous five years under Calipari.
One tactic opposing coaches often use to attack bigger teams is forcing their forwards and centers to defend ball screens in hopes of creating a mismatch against a smaller, quicker opponent. That's tougher against Kentucky because most of the Wildcats' big men are mobile enough to defend out to the 3-point arc.
Besides perhaps 7-foot, 255-pound center Dakari Johnson, the rest of Kentucky's frontcourt players are agile enough to switch all screening action and stay in front of perimeter players without backing off too far to contest a jump shot. The most adept at it is junior Willie Cauley-Stein, a freakishly athletic 7-footer who is one of the few players at any level of college basketball who can defend all five positions comfortably.
When undersized but skilled Eastern Kentucky visited Kentucky on Dec. 7, coach Jeff Neubauer designed a few sets meant to exploit matchups in which he expected to have an edge in quickness. Needless to say, it didn't work. The Colonels trailed 41-14 at halftime and were never competitive.
"We thought we'd be able to take advantage of these bigger, taller, what we thought were slower guys," Neubauer said. "We really had absolutely no success attacking any matchup."
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What's the best method of attacking a defense Neubauer has described as the best in college basketball's modern era?
Some coaches instructed their teams to attack in transition even when the numbers weren't in their favor because it was easier than scoring against Kentucky's set defense. Other coaches preferred to bleed clock, reduce the number of possessions in the game and hope to stay within striking distance into the final five minutes. To Buffalo coach Bobby Hurley, the recipe for success is a little of both.
When Hurley starred at point guard for Duke in the early 1990s, a nemesis of the Blue Devils was Jerry Tarkanian's ultra-talented UNLV team led by future NBA stars Larry Johnson, Stacey Augmon and Greg Anthony. Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski instructed Hurley to attack in the open floor when chances arose but also to shorten the game by letting the shot clock get under 10 seconds on at least 8-10 possessions.
For the first time in his coaching career, Hurley adopted that same strategy against Kentucky. Buffalo actually led Kentucky by five at halftime using that approach, but the success proved temporary and the Wildcats pulled away for a 19-point win.
"You've got to have a guard that understands how to tempo a game, when to take a shot and when not to," Hurley said. "What we tried to tell our guards was if we have a good opportunity to attack them, we have to take it. When we didn't have an advantage, we wanted to pull it out, run offense, make them work on defense throughout the shot clock and try to shorten the game that way.
"That's not something I've done since. It's not how we play, it's not what we do. But in that game it was something we needed to consider doing."
For a team to find success against Kentucky's set defense, it cannot be reliant on scoring at the rim. Guards often have shots altered in the paint when they attack off the dribble and big men are often dwarfed by the Wildcats' frontcourt and struggle to generate a clean look.
The best alternative is an array of shooters.
Having a couple perimeter players who can consistently knock down threes is a must to stay competitive against Kentucky. Even better is having a couple of frontcourt guys who are big enough to defend and rebound against the Wildcats yet skilled enough to knock down pick-and-pop jump shots from the perimeter.
When Georgia built a nine-point lead against Kentucky with nine minutes to play earlier this month in Athens, the Bulldogs started three guards, 6-8 pick-and-pop specialist Nemanja Djurisic and skilled 6-8 forward Marcus Thornton. Georgia actually shot an anemic 3 of 17 from behind the arc that day, but by spreading the floor and forcing the Kentucky big men to defend out to the 3-point arc, it created driving lanes for its guards and gave them hope of finishing at the rim.
You've got to have shooters out there," Neubauer said. "If you can put four or five shooters on the floor and somehow find a way to get ignition, a way to get those shooters open looks, that's the type of team that can do it. It's got to be a skilled team that knows how to take advantage of its skill."
Of course, Kentucky is so long, so fast and so athletic sometimes even that isn't enough.
Kennedy was watching the Georgia-Kentucky game on a bus ride back to Oxford after Ole Miss won at Alabama. He vividly remembers a play in the final minutes in which Georgia's J.J. Frazier looked like he had an open corner three only to miss it off the top of the backboard because Cauley-Stein recovered so fast it forced him to alter the shot.
"It's amazing the amount of ground Cauley-Stein covered," Kennedy said. "He's the only guy in college basketball who could have done that. People who don't know basketball are like, well, damn he missed that bad, but the reality is Cauley-Stein was bearing down on him. So even when they make mistakes, their ability to cover up for those mistakes because of their physical ability and the buy-in Cal has gotten from them, that's what makes them special."
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If defense has been Kentucky's calling card all season, offense is where the Wildcats have made the most strides.
They've evolved into one of the nation's 10 most efficient scoring teams by playing unselfish, team-first basketball and showing they have more ways to score than merely sending their stable of big men to the offensive glass for second-chance opportunities.
Andrew Harrison has quieted the outcry for more playing time for Ulis by pushing the ball when transition opportunities arise, attacking the basket more assertively and cutting back on his turnovers. Towns has become a confident enough low-post scorer to demand double and triple teams and has improved at finding the open man when an extra defender does come. And while outside shooting will never be this Kentucky team's greatest strength, lights-out shooter Devin Booker is still hitting 42.9 percent of his threes despite a recent slump, Ulis is also hitting more than 40 percent of his threes and both Harrison twins have proven streaky enough to be dangerous.
"They're vastly underrated offensively, and that's the area they've made the most improvement," Kennedy said. "They've found a much better rhythm, they've got weapons on the perimeter and Karl-Anthony Towns demands a double at every touch. And then if they do miss, Cauley-Stein, Dakari Johnson, Trey Lyles and Marcus Lee are very difficult to keep off the offensive glass."
The keys defensively against the Wildcats are limiting their transition opportunities, finding a way to force them to shoot contested jump shots and possessing the size and strength to keep them from gobbling up offensive boards. Most of Kentucky's non-conference opponents employed a zone to try to limit paint touches, but the shooting of Booker and Ulis has caused SEC opponents to mix up their defensive looks against the Wildcats.
Having just watched Kentucky lay waste to his defense with 56.3 percent shooting in the SEC semifinals, Pearl admitted he didn't have an answer regarding how best to defend the Wildcats. Asked if he had advice for Kentucky's NCAA tournament opponents, Pearl paused and said, "Pray."
"All of John's other teams have been great, but they've all had a weakness," Pearl said. "Maybe they weren't a great free-throw shooting team or a great 3-point shooting team or they didn't guard quite as well. These guys, in my mind, don't have a weakness. Their eyes light up when they see zone, they have great depth, they can score inside-out and they play great defense. It's a very formidable team."
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Go one by one through the attributes the coaches said a team needs to beat Kentucky, and what you'll find is the list of potential opponents who possess them gets very short in a hurry.
Arizona has the size, strength and athleticism to defend and rebound against the Wildcats and a steady point guard who can control tempo, but Sean Miller's team may not have the outside shooting to score when Kentucky's defense is set. Duke has a handful of lethal perimeter shooters, but its defensive shortcomings are a concern, as is Jahlil Okafor's susceptibility to foul trouble trying to defend Kentucky's parade of low post scoring threats in the paint.
Four-guard Villanova lacks sufficient size. Slow-paced Virginia would have to do all its scoring against a set defense. Gonzaga would be at a massive athleticism deficit at some positions.
The one title contender who seems most capable on paper is Wisconsin, which was an Aaron Harrison 3-pointer away from toppling last year's Kentucky team in the Final Four.
With Frank Kaminsky, Sam Dekker and Nigel Hayes, the Badgers have big men who are big and strong enough to defend and rebound yet skilled enough to force Kentucky to guard them out to the 3-point arc. They need point guard Traevon Jackson back for further perimeter depth and leadership, but talented sophomore Bronson Koenig has emerged as an offensive catalyst off the dribble.
"Wisconsin would have a shot," Kennedy said. "The recipe is you've got to have enough size and enough depth on your frontline to use fouls and try to play as fresh as possible. You also have to have the ability to make perimeter shots and stay poised. Kentucky is going to make you play at a pace that you're not comfortable with. You've got to have guards who can handle that."
One team that probably doesn't have the personnel to pull and upset is Hampton, and its coach knows it.
Once Joyner hung up the phone with Jesus on Tuesday night, he addressed the uphill climb his team faces on Thursday.
"It's heck of a mountain, you know what I'm saying?" Joyner said. "We know that. We're going to go try to play. We're going to go compete. They're a great team and we know that. But, hey, it is what it is. We're happy to be here and we're going to go fight tooth and nail. You can believe that."
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