For those only now tuning in to college basketball and not living in the Bluegrass Region – it’s going to be hard for you to grasp the intensity of passion that comes from fans of the Kentucky Wildcats.
By beating Florida 67-50 last Saturday at Rupp Arena, UK finished the regular season undefeated. In the land of Big Blue Nation lofty expectations are a given, but there is no reference point for Kentucky running off an undefeated regular season. It doesn’t happen. Not from teams in power conferences. The parity is too great.
At some point during a long season usually a team lets down its guard. They come out flat against a weaker opponent, have an off shooting night, and the other team plays out of their minds because they see the “Kentucky” on those opposing jerseys. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s normal and becomes a teaching situation for the players and coach.
Wildcat fans have hotly debated all season whether it would be better for UK to lose a game along the way. A loss can refocus a team and get them hungry to surge to a championship. I doubt Kentucky coach John Calipari would have minded a loss earlier because of the teaching opportunity it could present, but the players had other ideas.Every time the ball was tossed into the air a victory was secured. Thirty-one wins and zero losses. Admittedly this wasn’t the best year of talent in the Southeastern Conference (SEC), but currently five schools are predicted to receive NCAA tournament bids.
Kentucky went to overtime with Mississippi, and double overtime with Texas A&M, but found a way. Those were the two games where many teams might have dropped one, but not these Cats.
Regardless of opinion about the quality of the SEC, Kentucky played a brutal non-conference schedule to prepare themselves and remove any questions about the team’s toughness. Kansas, Providence, Texas, North Carolina, UCLA and Louisville all tasted losses from the Wildcats. And several were beat severely. Ask UCLA and Kansas about this Kentucky team. These are blue blood programs. They don’t get beat by 30 plus points often.
This is the case in point about what makes Kentucky so dangerous. You put an imminent threat on the court against them and they focus their execution. You don’t want this bunch to focus on you, and unfortunately for the teams in the SEC tournament and NCAA, each game going forward is a one-and-done situation. You will get Kentucky’s full attention for the next nine games.
Anybody attempting to seriously challenge the No. 1 Wildcats must find a way to check their embarrassment of riches. Talent, imposing size, depth, mental toughness, unselfishness, and don’t forget the stifling defense – these Kitty Kats are a load.
For teams lacking a similar height as Kentucky the lane is closed as a scoring option. Willie Cauley-Stein and Dakari Johnson are seven-footers, Karl-Anthony Towns is 6’11” and Tres Lyles is 6’10”. For some teams it’s simply not possible to get a shot off in the lane without it being blocked by multiple players. This forces teams to take riskier outside shots with a lower percentage of success.
Kentucky also has the luxury of not having concerns about getting into foul trouble. Even with the season-ending injury to Alex Poythress, UK can go 11 deep.
To Calipari’s credit, he has found a way to get these superstars to buy into his platoon system, and accept diminished roles to further the team’s goals. This also translates into UK not having a fatigue factor.
No player averages more than 26 minutes per game. No player averages more than 12 points a game. If the effort level isn’t there for a player or someone is having a bad night, take a seat. The next man up will shoulder the responsibility.
Look at it like this, when an assassin like Devin Booker is a reserve, opposing coaches should be afraid.
This group of players is the third least experienced team in the nation, but you never see them rattled. In fact in Baton Rouge on Feb. 10, when the game against LSU was getting tense, it was freshman Karl-Anthony Towns who came over to the huddle to tell everyone to relax.
“This Kentucky team, they answer the bell,” said Jay Bilas with ESPN. “It doesn’t matter whether they play well, they play poorly. They find ways to win. They keep plugging.”
There is no telling how things will work out over the next nine games, but right now we are celebrating the efforts of Kentucky’s players and coaching staff for completing the 2014-2015 season without a loss. In the pantheon of Kentucky basketball history this is a historic accomplishment and worthy of pause.
Give respect, but let the games begin, “31-0, Not Done.”