These teams finished with identical 27-6 records, but the only question is whether Kentucky is going to cover the -22.5 points (at 5Dimes Sportsbook) or not. This is one of the bigger spreads of the first round and for good reason. Abilene Christian had a great season and is in its first ever NCAA Tournament, but it also comes from the Southland Conference and only played one fellow Tourney team all season. That happened to be an 82-48 blowout at the hands of Texas Tech, a team not much different from Kentucky.
The difference is that Kentucky actually has a better offense, so that doesn’t help Abilene Christian. UK ranks 12th and 13th in the country in terms of defensive and offensive efficiency, respectively. The Wildcats have steadily improved since the beat down they received in the opener by Duke and finished with a 15-3 SEC record. The lone stat advantage that Abilene has in this Game is defensive turnover percentage as it ranks eighth in the country, helped by an easy Schedule. Otherwise, there aren’t a ton of areas Abilene can exploit in this matchup and even then, it’s not like UK turns it over a ton.
The first problem for Abilene will be dealing with the size of Kentucky at almost every position. Freshman Damien Daniels has moved into the starting lineup in recent Games after Jalone Friday (13.1 ppg) and B.J. Maxwell (9.2 ppg) were dismissed from the team. That’d be fine, except Daniels is listed at 5-7 and 140 pounds. That size may work in the Southland, but going against guys like Ashton Hagans and Tyler Herro on the perimeter, both well over 6-foot, is going to be a problem. That’s one of many problems in this matchup. Leading scorer Jalen Lewis (13.7 ppg) can be a threat at the Four spot, but with Reid Travis healthy on the other end, he may be completely removed from the Game. The hope for Abilene is that Payten Ricks catches fire from deep, as he’s the only reliable outside shooter at 40.5% from three. Jaylen Franklin (10.2 ppg, 4.9 apg) does a little bit of everything and is the main reason this team is here, but Kentucky could throw a bigger and more athletic Keldon Johnson on him and that’d be it.
On the other end, Abilene doesn’t have a specific player that can keep PJ Washington (14.8 ppg, 7.5 rpg) in check. Joe Pleasant and Hayden Farquhar can match up in terms of size, but the last time they saw someone somewhat like Washington was when Jarrett Culver scored 30 points in 27 minutes, making all 10 of his shots inside the arc.
This spread may be big, but Abilene is at a disadvantage almost everywhere on the cOurt. Washington, Herro and Johnson should all have relative advantages on the offensive end, while Travis can snuff out Abilene’s best scorer in the post. As long as Kentucky doesn’t take this Game easy, it should breeze out to a big lead and likely take away any chance Abilene ever had.
Our Pick – Kentucky -22.5