NCAA Tournament 2017: Kentucky's NCAA Tournament path, potential matchups, outlook

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More than a month ago, on Feb. 4 to be exact, college basketball fans were unloading their Kentucky national title stock. 

The Wildcats were in the process of getting run off the floor by Florida in Gainesville, and that 22-point loss was the third defeat in four games for John Calipari. Suddenly it was 2014 again and everyone believed that a Kentucky roster packed with future pros might be a DraftExpress All Star squad but not even the class of its own conference. 

This year’s turnaround didn’t take as long and didn’t require any dramatic “tweak,” as the Wildcats found their footing and proceeded to string together 11 straight wins, claiming the SEC’s regular season and conference tournament titles along the way. Gary Parrish wrote about the fallacy of quitting on Kentucky based on SEC results after that Florida loss, pointing to the 2011 and 2014 tournament runs as examples of a freshman-laden team -- not only loaded with freshman in the lineup but relying on freshman for more than 60 percent of team scoring -- catching fire at the right time. 

The one-and-done era at Kentucky means every season starts with Final Four expectations, so will the 2017 Wildcats finish the season in Phoenix?

First Round

vs. No. 15 Northern Kentucky

Kentucky should roll here without too much trouble, but there is one note that has me thinking this game will be closer than the oddsmakers expect: since 2008, 15-seed teams that are underdogs by 18+ points (like Northern Kentucky) are 7-1 against the spread. I could see that trend continuing with a fired-up in-state foe starting the game hot and forcing Kentucky’s freshmen to fight a little bit before putting the game away in the second half.  

Second Round 

vs. No. 7 Dayton OR No. 10 Wichita State 

Neither opponent is favorable for Kentucky, and this begins what I believe to be the toughest tournament path for any 2-seed in the field. Wichita State is a top-15 team in both the KenPom and Sagarin ratings and has been playing angry throughout their current 15-game winning streak. Gregg Marshall’s tournament experience, which includes knocking off Arizona last year as a highly-rated but lower-seeded 11-seed and the Final Four run of 2013, should scare Kentucky fans. What might not scare Kentucky fans is the recent history of this series, with the Wildcats bouncing then-undefeated and No. 1 seed Wichita State from the second round in 2014. 

The potential rematch in the second round of that 2014 game, along with the buzz and harumphing regarding Wichita State’s seeding has many folks eying that matchup, but to dismiss Dayton that easily is to ignore the winningest group of seniors in program history and a coaching star on the rise in Archie Miller. Either team is a tough matchup, though I think the wear and tear of the first game may help Kentucky enough to outlast the opposition and advance to the Sweet 16.

Sweet 16 

High seed: UCLA 

Dark horse: Cincinnati or Kansas State 

Kentucky’s difficult path to the Final Four is filled with potential rematches, and this young freshman trio would probably love nothing more than to get UCLA back for snapping the program’s home winning streak against non-conference opponents in Rupp Arena. Things are different now: Malik Monk is still the same ridiculous scoring threat he’s been since the beginning of the year, but De’Aaron Fox and Bam Adebayo are playing as well right now as they have all year. Fox showcased better health and an outside shot in the SEC Tournament while Adebayo has been on a steady development curve that has him asserting his physical dominance against opponents inside. 

But the X-factor for Kentucky in the second weekend of the tournament might be its seniors, Dominique Hawkins and Derek Willis. Both players are in-state talents that stepped up their game last week in the SEC Tournament, with Willis earning all-tournament team honors following a career performance against Arkansas. John Calipari will still start the freshmen, but now he has an advantage on most teams in terms of experience and ability when he goes to the bench. 

Elite Eight 

High seed: North Carolina

Roy Williams has the juniors and seniors, John Calipari has the freshmen phenoms. Both teams love to get up and down and score, and both coaching staffs have plenty of experience in these high-pressure NCAA Tournament games. Getting Kentucky and North Carolina in the Elite Eight might be the best basketball game we get in the entire tournament. 

We don’t even need to imagine what the meeting of these two prolific powers would look like because we already got it with Kentucky-UNC I in the CBS Sports Classic, a 103-100 Wildcats win highlighted by Malik Monk’s 47 points. 

If we are lucky enough to get Kentucky-UNC II, no one can complain about the outcome. I’m picking the Tar Heels myself, but would not be disappointed or surprised to see the Wildcats win and John Calipari reach the Final Four for the seventh time. 

Final Four 

A true redemption path of rematches would put Kentucky up against Kansas, another non-conference foe to win in Rupp Arena this year. The Jayhawks are favored to win the Midwest Region and picked by many to win the national title. If Kentucky has to go back and beat UCLA in the Sweet 16, then it seems fitting that they’d get another shot at Frank Mason III in the Final Four. 

The other potential rematch Kentucky could face is Louisville, the 2-seed in the Midwest Region. The Cardinals beat Kentucky 73-70 in the Yum! Center earlier this year and if they reach the Final Four it would be a rematch of the Bluegrass State semifinal epic from 2012. 

Which brings us back to the freshmen. Malik Monk, De’Aaron Fox and Bam Adebayo are going to go down as one of the most productive trios Cal has had at Kentucky. But without a title, they’ll fall into a different category. Kentucky beat Louisville and Kansas in the Final Four in 2012 to cement its spot in the program’s rich history, so it seems fitting that in order to claim a title the Wildcats will likely have to go through one of those teams again here in 2017. 

CBS Sports Writer

Chip Patterson has spent his young career covering college sports from the Old North State. He's been writing and talking about football and basketball for CBS Sports since 2010. You may have heard him... Full Bio

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