NCAA Tournament 2017: To win the South, Kentucky must remain clutch on defense

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It’s a tad strange but it feels like Kentucky basketball is actually underrated and zipping just a bit below the radar at this hour. Check your bracket, check your office or buddy pool. How many people are picking UK to get past the Sweet 16, let alone make the Final Four? If you’re not located in the Bluegrass State it’s not that many, right? Rare to see a Kentucky team seeded so highly be this disregarded. 

And yet Kentucky’s won 13 straight. That’s far and away the longest win streak of anyone left in the NCAA Tournament.

The second-seeded Wildcats are in the Sweet 16 for the sixth time under John Calipari. They beat Northern Kentucky 79-70 on Friday, then rolled in the mud with Wichita State on Sunday afternoon in Indianapolis, getting out with a 65-62 win -- one of the three most impressive victories I’ve seen from this team this season.

UK got to the second weekend by doing what it needed to do: winning with consistent, and clutch, defense. Wichita State may well have pulled off the victory had Malik Monk not deftly made a block on Markis McDuffie during Wichita State’s penultimate possession. Monk is not known for his defense, and this is a cat-like deflection. Impressive. 

Then, of course, Bam Adebayo’s rejection on Landry Shamet to close out the game. Notice that it’s Dominique Hawkins who is guarding Shamet, then Adebayo drops over at the last second, leaving Conner Frankamp wide open. Shamet either doesn’t (or can’t) make the pass, and Adebayo ends the game. How often do you see games end on consecutive blocked shots from 3-point range? Speaks to Kentucky’s identity of defense, which is the thing that can get the Wildcats out of this brutal South region.

UK’s not been an elite defense team all season, but it looked elite on that end of the floor against a top-10 team in Wichita State. It was fitting that Adebayo ended that game; I wrote last week that he’s the key to unlocking Kentucky’s title hopes. His ability as a defender inside and out (how many big man are playing that kind of D in a pivotal game-ending sequence and coming with a help-block? It’s crazy impressive) is downright vital to Kentucky’s chances. 

Kentucky held Northern Kentucky and Wichita State to 35.6 percent from the field. It averaged nine blocks per game and averaged 35 defensive rebounds the first weekend. Kentucky played in the defensive style that Calipari aspired to back in the preseason. Not surprising that UK stepped up the way it did. Cal gets his guys to perform in this tournament like few coaches can. The Wildcats have to keep their averages close to those clips going forward to get out of Memphis as the champ.

And now, here comes 3 seed UCLA, averaging a tournament-best 90.2 points per game. This is by far the most enticing game of the regional semifinals. We get the rematch factor, a bonus gift for college basketball fans. Two blue bloods meeting like this after UK did what it rarely does: lose a home game in non-conference play. And the game is in Memphis, where Calipari coached for almost a decade. Terrific storylines abound. 

Even though UCLA is an offensive contraption built to break your spirit and gas you to empty, the Wildcats will beat the Bruins if they play defense as consistently on Friday as they did this past Sunday. That effort vs. Wichita State was good enough. The yin-yang of UK is that the team plays so fast on offense (top 15 in tempo) yet tries to mill you into bad shots on defense. UCLA won’t be milled. The first game between UCLA and UK, on Dec. 3, featured 83 possessions. College basketball’s average is 68. This game will hit at least 78. 

So the challenge for Kentucky becomes playing shutdown defense at a faster rate. The Cats have held opponents to 30.5 3-point shooting this season, making them one of the best 3-point defenses in the country. UCLA shoots 40.6 percent from 3, top-three in college basketball. UCLA is also top-three in 2-point percentage. I’m not concerned with Kentucky’s scoring against UCLA. The Wildcats will get their points. But stopping the 3 vs. UCLA will be critical, and then beyond that, if UNC awaits, the Wildcats will need to play a similar up-tempo style again to get out of the region. 

After watching UK rally from big deficits, pull off 13 straight wins, get past a slugfest on Sunday and put together a line of defense that’s looking as good as it has all season, you have to believe Kentucky, now an underdog, is as likely to win the South as any other team. 

CBS Sports Writer

Matt Norlander is a national award-winning writer who has been with CBS Sports since 2010. He's in his seventh season covering college basketball for CBS, and also covers the NBA Draft, the Olympics and... Full Bio

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