LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- The Kentucky Wildcats are still the team to beat in this NCAA tournament, make no mistake about that. But this weekend at the KFC Yum! Center proved the Wildcats aren't unbeatable, despite their 36-0 record.
Sure, the tournament’s top overall seed won both games and dispatched the eighth-seeded Cincinnati Bearcats 64-51 on Saturday. Yet sluggish starts, spotty outside shooting and opponents who showed little fear suggest Kentucky will have to play much better to attain its twin quests of perfection and a national title.
All that really matters for now is that the Wildcats are marching on to the Sweet 16 in Cleveland. Here are five observations from Saturday’s victory over a pesky group of Bearcats, as Big Blue got within four wins of 40-0:
Cincinnati players and coaches talked Friday about how they had to deny Kentucky easy transition points and how they absolutely couldn’t allow Willie Cauley-Stein to throw down one of his momentum-changing, Vine-worthy dunks. Quadri Moore temporarily forgot that plan late in the first half, when he bricked an ill-advised 3-point shot that allowed the Wildcats to get on a fast break the other way. The sequence ended with Cauley-Stein nearly breaking Moore’s chest with a thunderous slam that included a foul by Moore. That play definitely sparked Kentucky, which trailed most of the first half but scored the final 10 points before intermission and never faced a deficit again.
It should come as no surprise to anyone who has paid attention to Cincinnati basketball over the years that the Bearcats did not back down an inch against Kentucky. The Bearcats did an excellent job of mucking up the game, clogging the paint with their matchup zone and making this a street fight. On offense, they ran several pick-and-rolls -- to take advantage of one of the Wildcats’ lone defensive weaknesses -- and weren’t afraid to go at the towers inside. They got the game mostly at their preferred pace and won the rebounding battle. But Cincinnati simply lacked enough offensive skill to pull off the upset, as evidenced by some horrific second-half shooting (9-for-37 from the field, 0-for-7 on 3s), and Kentucky's crazy depth eventually won out. Still, future Kentucky opponents will likely study this film closely.
Sooner rather than later, as the competition keeps improving, Kentucky’s guards will need to start making some shots from the outside. Devin Booker, who was the team’s top sniper for much of the season, has been in a deep funk for a few weeks and couldn’t find his stroke at all in Louisville. He went 0-for-7 beyond the 3-point arc in both games, though to his credit he did start driving to the basket more in Saturday’s second half. Kentucky was just 7-for-25 on 3-pointers at the Yum! Center. Aaron Harrison, who seems to get hot only in the biggest moments, did drain two important 3s in the second half Saturday. Still, opponents will continue to pack in their defenses until the Wildcats prove they can hit shots consistently over the top of the zone.
Tyler Ulis' biggest game in his freshman season came here at the Yum! Center, when he provided crucial minutes in a December win at Louisville. He continued his great play in the Derby City in both games of this tournament. John Calipari couldn’t take the 5-foot-9 point guard off the floor, as Ulis played more minutes than any other Wildcat in the pair of wins. The Harrison twins both played well Saturday too, but Kentucky’s best lineup right now has Ulis in charge of the offense. He had nine points, five assists and the 3-pointer in the second half that finally broke Cincinnati's back.
Don’t underestimate the power of the crowd here Saturday. The Yum! Center was nearly wall-to-wall blue, and the place felt like Rupp Arena at times. The crowd really got egged on by Cincinnati’s Octavius Ellis, who was all too happy to play the villain’s role. When the Wildcats needed some energy -- which was more often than Calipari would have liked -- their fans were there to provide it all weekend. The Big Blue mist will now try to infiltrate Cleveland.