Cincinnati vs. Kentucky
Time: 2:40 PM ET, CBS
Spread: KEN -17
Betting odds c/o Bovada
The Kentucky Wildcats essentially treated its second round matchup against Hampton much as though it was an exhibition. Despite being favored by a healthy 35 points, coach John Calipari evenly distributed his minutes, mostly likely because he was’t dropping any bets on his squad covering the immense spread with the need to get his lower rotation players minutes. They won’t get many as this tournament wears on, barring a major injury. College basketball oddsmakers still the line a healthy 17 points in favor of the Wildcats, and the total is set low as product of Cincy’s grind it out style.
Kentucky closed its season in strong fashion by sweeping through the SEC tournament. It added definitive punctuation by handing a 78-63 defeat to then-No. 21 Arkansas in the championship game, behind what may have been the best game of center Willie Cauley-Stein’s college career. He impacted the game tremendously on both ends of the court, eventually finishing with 15 points, 10 rebounds (3 offensive) and two blocks in 30 efficient minutes, even knocking down 5 of 6 from the line as a notoriously poor free throw shooter. The seven-footer is expected to be a high first round pick in the 2015 NBA draft and will be looking to solidify his draft position in this tournament.
But Cauley-Stein is hardly the only Wildcat with something at stake here. Starting big man Karl-Anthony Towns is now projected to go No. 1 or No. 2 overall in June, and the talented freshman has been quietly dominant, if such a juxtaposition can be laced. In 19 minutes in the win over the Razorbacks, he shot 3 of 5 for eight points, four rebounds and two blocks. Defensively is where Towns may shine initially in the NBA, and opponents in this tournament are going to have a tough time penetrating the interior of the Wildcats’ defense. Moreover, the Harrison twins, Andrew and Aaron, are both good tempo controlling guards who bring stability and control to this team, that should help the Wildcats avoid fizzling out against teams with dominant guard play.
It can be expected Coach John Calipari will begin now to tighten the rotation of a deep squad he has distributed the minutes to evenly all season. In the SEC championship game, only two Wildcats came off the bench to see significant action, and the bench produced just nine points on six field goal attempts. Trey Lyles, the Harrisons, Cauley-Stein and Towns are due to carry this team, though the depth can certainly come in handy in the event of either injuries or foul trouble. None of that should matter against weaker opponents, and most especially not against No. 16 seeded Hampton, but it will be vital as the tournament winds to its close. It also may give Cal the luxury of resting some of his stars during games that are likely in the Wildcats’ control.
The Bearcats had been riding a five-game win streak going into its season finale loss to the Connecticut Huskies. Cincy fell on a Ryan Boatright three-point shot, but still got strong performances out of Octavious Ellis, Shaquille Thomas and Troy Caupain, as the trio combined to shoot 13 of 25 from the floor for 33 points in total. Ellis has had a big season for the Bearcats, with averages of 10 points, seven rebounds and over four blocks/steals combined per game. He’s shooting a very efficient 57.8 percent from the floor, which helps account for Cincinnati shooting 45 percent from the floor as a team.
The Bearcats sport a lot of depth, with a seven-man rotation that is pretty strong 1 to 7, all players seeing 20-plus minutes a night and averaging six points or more per game. The question is whether that depth really matters in a tournament that is often defined by game-changing players. Ellis is capable of impacting a game in a major way, but could he be enough to sneak by the team most are considering inflappable.
Cincinnati is a tough team, just not tough enough at all to knock off John Calipari and crew. The Bearcats don’t put up big numbers which helps to account for the low scoring total set by NCAA oddsmakers. Despite its seeming lack of offensive prowess, the Bearcats still do shoot a respectable 45.3 percent from the floor. It closed the season with 4 of 5 conference victories but faced just two AP ranked opponents all season but managed to knock off both, San Diego State and SMU. With Larry Brown’s Mustangs already eliminated that doesn’t inspire mass confidence in the Aztecs, but it is a deceptively good team. It’s so deceptively good, that college basketball oddsmakers expect little more than a blowout. UAB has the desire and talent to keep this game close for a half, but the Wildcats will fully exploit its lack of talent. The Blazers aren’t a bad team, but can any NCAA team contend with Kentucky’s frontcourt. Its starting lineup features three likely first round picks. Coach Cal isn’t anyone to mess with this time of the season.