Confident Kentucky unworried about Notre Dame

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Seven-footer Cauley-Stein knows that if he gives up a three-pointer, his next stop is the bench. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

CLEVELAND — One might be led to believe that Kentucky — irrepressible Big Blue, taller, faster and deeper than any one team should be and, oh, yes, 37-0 to boot — is just a tad confident in its defense heading into Saturday’s Elite 8 meeting with Notre Dame.

“They’re a good offensive team and we’re a great defensive team,” said guard Aaron Harrison, “so it should be a good little matchup, I guess.”

Did you catch that? He guesses. And one good, the other great. Not that Harrison meant any of it in a cocky way, but even if he did, could you blame him? Besides, does anyone out there really disagree?

“A lot of their guys are interchangeable,” said towering center Willie Cauley-Stein, the longest and most overwhelming shot-inhaler the Irish will have to deal with. “They don’t have one guy you can’t switch off of.”

Geez, he doesn’t sound all that impressed. What about Notre Dame senior Jerian Grant, one of the finest all-around players in the country? What about Demetrius Jackson, who lit up Wichita State in the Sweet 16? What about sweet-shooting Steve Vasturia and the guy who always seems to be in the right place at the right time, Pat Connaughton? This is an Irish squad that’s shooting better than 50 percent from the field — not for the NCAA Tournament, but for the whole season.

Kentucky’s defense has made opponents miss nearly two-thirds of their shots during this off-the-charts campaign, but maybe Notre Dame’s a different animal. Maybe the Wildcats will have to infuse their locate-and-obliterate approach with a little, you know, strategy geared specifically to the much smaller, perimeter-oriented Irish.

“My team,” said UK coach John Calipari, “we’re worried about us.”

Well then. If it seems Big Blue loves it some Big Blue, that’s because it’s true.

“Do we have confidence that nobody can beat us? Yeah,” said Cauley-Stein. “Every team should believe that.”

Realistically, no other team can. But when you have nine McDonald’s All-Americans, more size than nearly every NBA team and more Ws before the zero than 36-0 Indiana had in 1975-76, you’re bound to see yourselves — not your opponents — as the only true threats to your perfect season.

And so Kentucky almost doesn’t pay attention to the other team at all. A little over four hours before Saturday’s tipoff, the Wildcats will gather for a team dinner. While they eat, they’ll watch a 10-minute video of Notre Dame game action. It will be the first and last time spent watching and talking about what the Irish like to do.

Calipari will prepare his team in a different manner to which perhaps only the Wildcats can relate. A big part of it is an ever-present threat: Give up an easy bucket and you’re out of the game.

Kentucky doesn’t even entertain thoughts of going zone. Even against a team with a magician in Grant and a jitterbug in Jackson — and even with multiple skyscrapers responsible for closing out on jump-shooters — it’ll be all man, all the time.

“It’s a pride thing,” said Cauley-Stein.

And it’s a threat thing. If one of Calipari’s players fails to adequately contest a three, for example, there will be no show of scolding from the bench. There sure as heck will be no shuffling of who’s guarding whom. There simply will be an immediate substitution.

“You can say what you want — come over here,” Calipari said, gesturing to an empty chair at his side. “Next guy.”

The Irish, not nearly as deep, don’t have such a luxury. No one else does. That’s Big Blue, approaching these games as only it can — and sounding like it.


Twitter: @slgreenberg

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