‘Scary’ Kentucky could redefine greatness in college basketball
There’s a new paradigm we must operate under with this undefeated, No. 1-ranked, in-a-class-of-its-own Kentucky team after the Wildcats’ 39-point stomping of UCLA on Saturday, a game in which the margin of victory easily could have been double that.
Starting with the epic in-state battle two days after Christmas at Louisville — a team that also ought to be undefeated heading into the game, with the nation’s second-ranked defense going against Kentucky’s No. 1 defense — we must look at each and every Kentucky basketball game from now until April 6 in Indianapolis as an opportunity to watch something historic.
Until the Wildcats lose.
Which, if you asked the opposing coach after Kentucky’s pre-Christmas romp, the Wildcats may not do any time before cutting down those nets.
"They continue to play at that level defensively, I’m a firm believer they got a chance to run this thing out — they’re that good," UCLA coach Steve Alford said after Kentucky held his team, the 18th-highest scoring team of the 351 in Division I, to seven first-half points in an 83-44 Kentucky blowout.
These are big words.
"In my 24 years of coaching, this is best team I’ve coached against," he continued. "There’s not a weakness on the team."
It is one thing when a talking head tosses out a provocative, clickable preseason claim that this Kentucky team could be the first in nearly 40 years to go undefeated and win the national title. I wrote that in October and caught plenty of flak for overhyping a bunch of teenagers.
But it’s quite another thing when a head coach who has won a national title himself — as a player for Indiana, 11 years after those same Hoosiers were the last college basketball team to go undefeated in 1976 — says the same thing.
Look, it’s a long season. Kentucky is only 12-0, still 28 wins short of running the table and winning the national title.
But we never know for sure when history is being made until after it’s already made. So please, do this, for the real sports fan inside you that appreciates greatness above all else:
Step back. Take a breath. And realize what we may be witnessing here.
This could be the college basketball equivalent of Tiger chasing Jack’s record for majors. This could be Nick Saban chasing Bear Bryant’s title as the greatest coach of all time. This could be Hank Aaron chasing the Babe, or Peyton Manning trying to become the best quarterback ever, or Michael Phelps going for his eighth gold medal.
Hyperbole? Maybe. But maybe not.
Let’s look at the facts. Kentucky raised eyebrows in its third game of the season when it outclassed by 32 points a Kansas team then ranked fifth in the country. (That Kansas team hasn’t lost since, by the way.) It beat Texas, then the sixth-ranked team in the nation and one of the few teams that comes close to Kentucky’s height, by 12, then beat North Carolina by 14 in a game that never felt nearly that close. Kentucky’s defense has allowed 83 points per 100 possessions, which if sustained through a season, would be an all-time record for as long as KenPom.com has tracked the statistic. So far this season, the Wildcats’ average margin of victory has been nearly 30 points.
The biggest black mark on Kentucky’s season? That the Wildcats were losing by five at halftime to Buffalo in November. (Won that game by 19, by the way.)
"We have to keep playing against ourselves," freshman guard Devin Booker said after dropping a game-high 19 points on UCLA. "Coach always stresses that to us, that we’re not playing against another team, we’re playing against ourselves."
That might be Kentucky’s toughest opponent this season. The Wildcats are playing against themselves, and they’re playing against history.
On Saturday, Kentucky jumped to a 16-0 lead in the first 3:28 before Alford called a timeout. The score was 24-0 before UCLA scored its first basket nearly eight minutes in. Kentucky’s defense forced UCLA’s high-octane offense to 3-of-37 shooting in the first half. For a while, it seemed like the all-time record for the fewest points in a half, four, was in play.
"I didn’t look at the score," Kentucky coach John Calipari said. "In the first half, I didn’t know what the score was. I knew it was pretty good. To be honest, I couldn’t find (the scoreboard) in the arena. …
"That’s the best way to coach, if you don’t have to look at that scoreboard, and you’re just looking at your team."
That’s symbolic for how Kentucky will have to treat the rest of this season, at least until the Wildcats lose — if the Wildcats lose. There’s a reason no Division I team has gone undefeated since 1976. Because it’s really, really, really hard. You’re asking a group of teenagers and 20-somethings to stay focused on one goal for nearly six months straight. You’re asking them to get up for every game, and be better than the other team every time.
Alford knows how hard that can be at the Division III level, much less the Division I level. In 1995, when Alford was coaching Manchester University, his 31-0 team met Bo Ryan’s undefeated Wisconsin-Platteville team in the Division III title game. Ryan’s team won in the only NCAA title game between undefeated teams.
At the Division I level, where the lights are far brighter, Kentucky will have to block out all the praise and all the noise.
"It’s going to be hard," Alford said. "They’re going to get praised a lot, and they deserve that praise. But you need to block all that out to get better. And that’s the scary part about it. They can probably still get better as they continue to get more and more experience as they go along with this thing. As it grows a lot of times, you think there’s more pressure. But I think as it grows, they’re going to get hungrier with it. Just looking at their demeanor, if this thing reaches 18, 19, 20 in a row, you may not get them, because I think they’ll get really hungry."
That is scary. This team’s defense is unbelievable. They’re the biggest team in college basketball. When you successfully drive past a guy who is 6-foot-10, you’ve got a 7-footer right behind him to toss your shot into the stands. (Kentucky had 13 blocks against UCLA.) The offense is really good, too — third in the nation in offensive efficiency — and getting better. A Kentucky team that has shot nearly 50 percent from three the past two games is a terrifying prospect to any team hoping to keep a game close.
After the blowout win, as Calipari’s players were rushing to get home for a few days off over winter break, I asked the coach when the possibility of this team making history will enter his mind.
Like any good politician, he dodged the question.
"I’m staying in the moment," Calipari demurred. "The one thing I’m doing is, I’m really enjoying these guys. We can all talk about defense and blocking shots and playing hard. But you got 10 guys, 11 guys sharing minutes. You got two point guards, two of the best point guards in the country, both of them, and they’re sharing minutes. You got big guys, Karl Towns and Dakari Johnson, sharing minutes. You have Willie (Cauley-Stein), one of the best big guys in the country, sharing minutes with Marcus Lee. You have Aaron Harrison, who’s really good, and then you got Devin, sharing minutes. That’s the story."
Well, that’s part of the story, at least. The platoon system Cal has employed with his ridiculous trove of talent has been the reason this team is where it is. It’s been a lesson in unselfishness for college hoops that’s similar to the San Antonio Spurs’ share-the-ball lesson in the NBA.
But that’s not the whole story. The whole story is a basketball team that’s so good, so deep, that it often seems like it’s toying with the competition. The whole story is that we might be witnessing a team on its way to making history, a team we might tell our children about a generation from now. And it would be a shame not to take a step back and recognize that history while it’s happening.