The Joy (and Horror) of Kentucky Basketball

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It’s becoming more and more evident that the Kentucky Wildcats will enter next month’s NCAA tournament with a chance to complete college basketball’s first undefeated season in 39 years. John Calipari’s bluegrass all-star team needs to win four more regular-season games (toughest test will be this Saturday when Arkansas visits Lexington) and three in the SEC tournament to have a chance at becoming the sport’s first 40-0 team. Not since the Indiana Hoosiers went 32-0 in 1975-76 has a Division I program finished a season spotless.

I can’t decide if this is good or bad for college basketball. Let’s consider the opposing views.

GOOD

The single healthiest booster for college hoops is a true Cinderella team. Not a 12-seed beating a 5-seed in the first round of the NCAA tournament, but an underdog clawing its way to the Final Four and cutting down the nets. But these have gone the way of the Dodo bird. Only three teams have won the Big Dance with as many as 10 losses, and all had their shining moment more than a quarter-century ago: North Carolina State (1983), Villanova (1985), and Kansas (1988).

Minus a Cinderella, the sport craves a super team. Only seven have won the national championship without a loss: San Francisco (1956), North Carolina (1957), four UCLA squads (1964, ’67, ’72, ’73), and those Hoosiers of ’76. Duke’s back-to-back titlists of 1991 and ’92 belong in this category, among the last teams to feature four-year players (Christian Laettner and Bobby Hurley) with All-America credentials. Since then? The closest we’ve seen to a super team was the Florida group led by Joakim Noah and Al Horford that went back-to-back in 2006 and ’07. (Is that team especially memorable? Jury’s out if you ask me.)

An undefeated Kentucky team, centered by Willie Cauley-Stein and the Harrison brothers, would be a memorable bunch, and would cement Calipari as the preeminent coach of college basketball’s modern era, where “one-and-done” is the calling card for annual Final Four contention. And there’s that magic number: 40. Forty wins in a single season of college basketball? Regardless of the competition, that’s a galactic number.

BAD

There’s nothing worse in sports than predictability. And a John Calipari-coached Kentucky team winning basketball games is as predictable as a rooster’s crow. This is Warren Buffett picking a profitable stock, Taylor Swift topping the charts with a new release. The Wildcats’ dominance is getting uncomfortably close to . . . Connecticut women’s basketball. The quickest click of my TV remote is upon the discovery of a Huskies women’s game. They are so vastly superior to the competition it’s no longer interesting.

The second-best team in the SEC isn’t Arkansas. It’s Kentucky’s bench. Both units looked out of sorts last week in Knoxville, and the Wildcats won by 18 points. Having escaped a pair of overtime games last month (against Ole Miss and Texas A & M), Kentucky has won nine of its last 12 games by at least 11 points. Flash back to Calipari’s last four seasons in Memphis when the Tigers lorded over Conference USA, playing a different brand of basketball than its relatively pathetic competition. Today’s SEC is no different, just with more football fans passing time indoors until spring practice.

Can the Wildcats win 13 more games? I’m leaning toward yes. Perhaps Virginia, Gonzaga, or Wisconsin can catch Kentucky after Cauley-Stein had a bad night of sleep, or when Calipari wants to prove to the world that his third unit could win it all. If the Cats go down, it will be a large-scale upset. If they win it all, the sport’s timeline has a new permanent marker. Either way, lots of people will be watching. And I suppose that’s good — healthy even — for college basketball.

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