WHEN KENTUCKY beat Kansas, 72-40, on Nov. 18, the whispers began. When the Wildcats had UCLA down 41-7 at the half on Dec. 20, the talk became louder. By the time they hit 20-0, the countdown began. Could a group of "veterans" who played for the 2014 national championship combine with another great recruiting class and win them all, go 40-0, become the first unbeaten national champions since 1976?
After blasting Arkansas, 78-63, yesterday to win the SEC championship, that whisper has become a shout, 34-0, just six more wins from perfection. The scary part is that the UK offense has caught up to its historically great defense.
The final road begins in Louisville, with trips to Cleveland and Indianapolis on the agenda - unless somebody can beat them before the Midwest Regional or Final Four. Whenever this team has been challenged, it has had an instant response. And it has not been challenged very often, winning all but seven games by double digits.
Given my 30 years in the city, I have pretty good memories of all the best teams - La Salle (1990), Penn (1994), Saint Joseph's (2004), Temple (1987, 1988, 2000), Villanova (1996, 2006, 2009, 2014, 2015).
I think this Villanova team is playing the best of all those teams at this stage of the season. Will they be the second of the group to get to the Final Four, joining the 2009 Wildcats? Check out my bracket that will appear in tomorrow's Daily News for the answer.
I know this: Some team will not only have to play great to beat Villanova, they better also be prepared to fight a team that plays with incredible passion. These Wildcats are really skilled, but they are equally tough. They are 32-2. They have won 15 straight. They are relentless.
According to selection committee chairman Scott Barnes, Temple was the last at-large team in the tournament - until Wyoming stole its bid by beating San Diego State in the Mountain West championship game. San Diego State then moved in as an at-large team and Wyoming was in as an automatic qualifier.
There is no way to know how much committee members considered that Temple lost some games without injured Will Cummings, its most important player. The tipoff that the Owls might not make it came when it was announced American champion SMU was given just a No. 6 seed. Dayton was the last at-large team selected. If Temple had made it, the Owls apparently would have been playing Dayton on its home floor in a First Four game.
By the time Temple played at Delaware on Dec. 18, it was clear that the hideous defense of a season before was a distant memory. I was at the Carpenter Center when Jesse Morgan and Devin Coleman became eligible. The Owls, who had hardly made a shot early in the season, went 16-for-33 from the arc. Four days later, they wiped out Kansas, 77-52. Now, I was thinking they had an offense to go along with a defense that would end up as the nation's 12th most efficient, .917 points per possession. I was wrong about the offense.
This is the least efficient Temple offense of the Fran Dunphy era on North Broad Street, averaging just 1.02 ppp, 172nd nationally, right in the middle of the pack. The Owls don't shoot well from the arc (30.4 percent) or inside the arc (43 percent). The lack of turnovers (just 15 percent of possessions, sixth nationally) kept them from falling off an offensive cliff, but the offense kept them out of the tournament.
Villanova grad Fran O'Hanlon runs one of the best offenses in the country, but the Leopards obviously don't have the athletes to guard Villanova in Pittsburgh on Thursday.
In their three Patriot League Tournament wins, Lafayette shot a tournament-record 60 percent and made 31 threes. On the season, they shot 41.3 percent from the arc, second nationally, and 76.5 percent from the free-throw line, 10th best. Sophomore point guard Nick Lindner (Germantown Academy) had 71 points and 16 assists in the tournament while shooting 24-for-39 and 9-for-15 from the arc.
Three teams finished without a conference loss. Only one of them, Kentucky, is playing in the NCAAs.
Murray State had won 25 straight games before losing, 88-87, on a late three by Belmont in the Ohio Valley championship game.
North Carolina Central had won 35 straight and 50 of 52 against MEAC opponents before losing to Delaware State in the semifinals of the conference tournament.
To win the ACC Tournament, all Notre Dame had to do was beat Duke and North Carolina on consecutive nights in Greensboro. Well, ND blitzed Duke early and Carolina late in what has to be the hardest double in the sport.
Mike Brey's team plays a beautiful game, running the nation's most efficient offense this side of Wisconsin. Sophomore Steve Vasturia (St. Joseph's Prep) is right in the middle of it, averaging 9.8 points in 32 minutes while shooting 49 percent overall, 41 percent from three and 85 percent from the foul line.
By the way, that is 4 straight years a team from outside North Carolina has won the ACC - Florida State, Miami, Virginia and Notre Dame.
Speaking of great offense, Iowa State is the most explosive team in the country when it gets on a roll. In the Big 12 Tournament, the Cyclones trailed Texas by 16 and won, 69-67, were behind Oklahoma by 11 and won, 67-65, and trailed Kansas in the championship game by 17 before winning, 70-66. In the last two regular-season games, the Cyclones trailed TCU by 10 and won, 89-76, just after coming from 21 down to beat Oklahoma, 77-70.
VCU was 5-5 in its last 10 regular-season games after point guard Briante Weber went down with a devastating knee injury against crosstown rival Richmond. They lost three straight to Richmond, Davidson (by 27 points) and Dayton. The Rams, close losers in their first two A-10 championship games, just won four games in 4 days, the last three against Richmond, Davidson (by 20) and Dayton.
Three of the nation's four longest winning streaks belong to Kentucky (34), Villanova (15) and Pac-12 champ Arizona (11). The third-longest streak belongs to the same team that has the longest streak of conference tournament championships. New Mexico State has won 13 straight and four consecutive Western Athletic Conference Tournaments.
If there were two championship games that were microcosms of this offense-challenged season, it would be Wyoming 45-San Diego State 43 in the Mountain West and Georgia State 38-Georgia Southern 36 in the Sun Belt.
There were just 47 possessions in the MWC game. The teams combined to shoot 30-for-88 (34 percent). The Sun Belt teams shot just 26-for-94 (27.7 percent). The good news is that one player scored almost half of Georgia State's points. Kevin Ware, the transfer from Louisville who suffered that horrible broken leg just before halftime of the 2013 regional final win over Duke, had 18 and will get back to the tournament.
Bob Hurley might not be long for Buffalo after the Bulls won the Mid-American championship. In just his second season as coach, the NCAA's all-time assist leader and two-time national champion at Duke is going to be in demand for high major openings.
UC Irvine, with the best nickname in sports, won the Big West to make its first NCAA after 38 years of basketball. Love the Anteaters.
North Florida joined Division I in 2005-06. The Ospreys won at Purdue last December, 73-70. Now, they are the Atlantic Sun champions.
Kentucky coach John Calipari: "My season doesn't end until June 25, the day of the NBA draft."