Kentucky perfectly poised to make history
The Wildcats can become the first undefeated national champion in 39 years.
INDIANAPOLIS - Here are my suggestions as you get set to watch Kentucky try for 40-0 at the Final Four. Ignore the slogans: "one and done," "succeed and proceed," "players' first program." Forget what you remember of John Calipari at Massachusetts. Don't get caught up in the morality play that some of these players are not really students or at least not for long.
Look at college basketball at the top levels in 2015 the way it should be looked at - as a big business. The Kentucky coach recognized that when he got the highest-pressure job in the game and created a model that is built for short-term students and long-term success.
If you love the sport, you should be marveling at the way this Kentucky team plays the game, how it treats the game and the legacy it may leave for the game. Unlike Calipari's great teams at UMass (Marcus Camby), Memphis (Derrick Rose) or his 2012 UK national champions (Anthony Davis), this Kentucky team does not have a transcendent star. It is a collection of former high school superstars who have given up minutes, stats and perhaps even NBA audition time for the good of the team.
The result is 38-0, just the third team to get to the Final Four without a loss since Indiana (1976) was the last of seven teams to win an NCAA championship without losing.
The seven unbeatens played between 1956 and 1976. Four were from the same school coached by the same man, UCLA's John Wooden, the best who ever lived.
The legendary Bill Russell and San Francisco were the first, followed a year later by North Carolina, which gave Wilt Chamberlain his most heartbreaking loss in a career of them by winning the title game against Kansas in three overtimes.
UCLA was perfect in 1964 with no player taller than 6-5 and a killer 2-2-1 zone press. The Bruins did not lose in 1967 with a sophomore scoring machine named Lew Alcindor who would become the NBA's all-time leading scorer as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The great Bill Walton, the best college player I have ever seen, anchored the perfect1972 and 1973 UCLA teams.
Finally, it was Bob Knight, orchestrating a revolution in how to play the game, who would not let Indiana lose in 1976.
Only Indiana State and Larry Bird (1979) and UNLV (1991) have even gotten this far in the last 39 years.
That is the context for what Kentucky has done since its season began on Nov. 14. It was 50-1 to go unbeaten then, 4-5 now, to beat Wisconsin tomorrow and Duke or Michigan State on Monday.
"Kentucky can have guys have bad days but still have enough guys to make up for that," said Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan "They're strong from point to post. You don't go undefeated in college now without something pretty special."
These Wildcats have played the best defense in decades. Teams shoot just 35.2 percent against them. They are constantly improving on offense, but the missed shot is still their most dangerous weapon. They retrieve an incredible 40 percent of their misses. They are the tallest team in basketball at any level other than the Portland Trailblazers. A half dozen of these players could go in this NBA draft.
"It's changed for all of us," Calipari said. "It's changed from Internet to draft lists to the gazillions in the NBA. It's all that stuff that's made this different, our jobs different. I will tell you, we have universities . . . that encourage genius kids to move on and do their thing if they stayed 1 or 2 years. I don't understand why it's a problem if it's the same with basketball players. These kids have a genius."
In the few times these young Kentucky basketball geniuses have been tested, they have responded like champions. Consider that in the last 5 minutes of second halves or overtime in games within five points, UK is +35 points while scoring 1.32 points per possession and allowing just 0.84. In the final 2 minutes of regulation or overtime in games within three points, UK has held its opponents to 1-for-16 shooting.
What happened against Notre Dame on Saturday night was no accident. The Irish would have beaten anybody else in the country. Kentucky just kept raising its level of play.
"The biggest thing is you cannot be afraid to miss the game-winning shot," Calipari said. "It's not that you want to make it; it's that you're not afraid to miss it. You're not afraid to make a play and it go wrong. You have to have amnesia. You have to be willing to risk."
He was speaking about the Harrison twins, but he could have been talking about any of the players on this UK team.
There is no trash-talking from the players and no referee-baiting by the coach (all grown up from his bratty UMass days). There is an assist on 56 percent of the baskets and a blocked shot on 18 percent of opponent attempts.
"Everybody on the team has a purpose," said Willie Cauley-Stein, the rare Coach Cal UK upperclassman. "That's how we play."
That is exactly how they play so just sit back, enjoy the show and perhaps even see 40-0.