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The Big March Madness Question: Who Will Beat Kentucky?

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — If Willie Cauley-Stein were not a Kentucky basketball player, he’d try to find a way to the arena where Kentucky is playing its next game.

“If I was people in the world, I’d want to see it,” Cauley-Stein said. “Be in the presence of history.”

After Kentucky’s 78-63 win over Arkansas in the SEC tournament championship game, every game is history. At least in a way Kentucky is comfortable acknowledging.

Every other step of the way earlier this season was a piece of the puzzle. Now that Kentucky, the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament, has its SEC regular season and tournament titles, it can start talking championship. Or the six games that separate the Wildcats from a title and 40-0. 

Cauley-Stein is right on two fronts: If Kentucky loses, it is history. If Kentucky wins, it’s a piece of legendary run.

The question now is if anyone is people in Kentucky’s world, as Cauley-Stein might put it.

Kentucky rolled over Arkansas in an SEC championship game like it was just another November or December opponent. This wasn’t a conference championship game. It was a formality.

For brief stretches Sunday, Kentucky looked vulnerable to a run. Arkansas played solid defense, and Kentucky’s offense looked out of sorts for a few possessions. At those points Arkansas was merely starting to chip away at double-digit Kentucky leads. The Razorbacks never had anything less than a nine-point deficit in the second half.

Kentucky stymied the SEC Player of the Year Bobby Portis for 13 points on 3-of-7 shooting. Before the title game, there was a faint hope that maybe this would be an interesting matchup, if for no other reason than entertainment purposes.

An entertaining matchup it was not. It was another Kentucky rout, so routine that Kentucky elected not to cut down nets as is custom after a conference tournament championship.

“We’re not done yet with the nets,” forward Karl-Anthony Towns said.

Seven Division I teams have gone undefeated in NCAA history and none since Indiana in 1976. A shorter season meant the Hoosiers “merely” had to go 32-0. Kentucky is 34-0, the third team to go to the NCAA Tournament with 30 or more wins.

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One was 1991 UNLV, a team that lost in the Final Four to Duke, the other was 2014 Wichita State in the round of 32 to Kentucky. The UNLV team caught a Duke program on the front end of two national titles. Wichita State lost to some of the key players on this Kentucky team.

This question of Kentucky has been asked hundreds of times this season. What will it take to beat this Wildcats team?

To this question, Towns sighed, shrugged and said: “I don’t know. I definitely won’t tell any secrets.”

Andrew Harrison has heard about 40-0 for two seasons. Last year’s Kentucky squad was talked about as a 40-0 contender. The 2014 Wildcats lost 10 games before the NCAA Tournament.

The 2014 team was plenty flawed. What would it take to beat this team?

“I don’t know to be honest,” Harrison said. “We have to not play with energy. They’d have to make some 3s, make some tough shots.”

The bracket is here, so Kentucky knows the teams it might have to face on the way to perfect:

• Kentucky’s Sweet 16 opponent may be a pressing West Virginia team, seeded fifth. The Wildcats handled a pressing Arkansas team twice, defeating the Hogs by a combined margin of 32 points. Arkansas doesn’t press as much as  West Virginia, but it didn’t matter against Kentucky. The Wildcats turned the ball over nine times in each game against the Hogs.

• As has been established since November, taking the ball inside on Kentucky’s length is foolhardy. A team may need to hit a ton of 3s to compete. That’s how Ole Miss did it, going 9-of-17 in an overtime loss on Jan. 6. Potential Sweet 16 opponent Maryland is in the top 60 in 3-point shooting and the top 70 in the rate of its field goals coming via the 3-point line (38.2 percent). The real test will be potential Elite Eight opponent Notre Dame, the No. 2 team in offensive efficiency on KenPom. The Irish lead the nation in effective field goal rate and make 39.2 percent of their 3s.

• Florida and Georgia have been able to disrupt Kentucky’s passing in matchups this season. The Gators gave Kentucky a scare by grabbing 15 turnovers to 12 assists. Georgia held Kentucky to eight assists on 25 field goals in a scare in Athens. Kentucky leads the nation in defensive assist rate, but at No. 3 in that category is Wisconsin, the No. 1 seed in the South region and a potential Final Four opponent.

• We should also dismiss the old trope that Kentucky can’t hit free throws under Calipari. This team may be Cal’s best free throw shooting team. Even the big men are shooting around 70 percent from the line. Fouling won’t help.

Meanwhile, Kentucky claims that it’s not playing the best game it possibly could. The pieces for the Wildcats, they say, haven’t all come together.

“It’s going to be amazing when it happens,” Towns said. “I don’t think we’ll reach where we can be as a team at all (until then). It’s going to be amazing when it comes together.”