Kentucky Enters March Madness Without A Loss, 34-0

The pride is strong in the rafters of Rupp Arena.

Pride runs deep in the rafters of Rupp.

After locking down the SEC tournament title, the Kentucky Wildcats have nowhere to go but 40-0. Prognosticators, doubters, skeptics and haters all were hoping UK would cash in a loss to refocus their efforts before advancing to the NCAA tournament and marching toward a title. That story line never came close to developing and these young Kitty Kats did not shy away from the moment or the infamy of perfection.

Not that Kentucky needed to prove they were kings of the SEC after completing the regular season 31-0, but why not take home some hardware for being the SEC tourney chaps. It was good practice for the third youngest team in the country, to play under a one-and-done scenario, and go through the rigors of three games in three days. Honestly the team seemed slightly agitated they even had to get back out on the court with these SEC foes once again.

It reminded me a bit like watching Larry Holmes in his 1980 fight with Muhammad Ali, when Holmes turned to the ref in hopes the fight would be stopped but no mercy was given to his beaten opponent. UK smoked Florida for a third time 64-49, Auburn was still smarting from the 110 points posted on them in Lexington and were beat 91-67, and in the final a pesky Arkansas team was put down 78-63.

Kentucky walloped these teams without even putting their foot on the gas, like some annoying fly buzzing around their heads. The Cats brushed them aside with minimal effort as all three teams gave everything they had to no avail.

That is one eye-catching number baby, 34-0.

UK's Cliff Hagan, two-time consensus first-team All-American (1952, 1954).

UK’s Cliff Hagan, two-time consensus first-team All-American (1952, 1954).

The current team now joins the 1953-1954 Cats, led by Hall-of-Famers Frank Ramsey and Cliff Hagan, as the only two UK teams to go through the regular season and SEC tournament undefeated. The 1953-1954 team went 25-0, but did not play in the NCAA tournament that year. Despite being the top ranked team in the country, Kentucky was coming off a point shaving scandal that forced the cancellation of its 1952 season, which would have been the senior year of the team’s three star players, Ramsey, Hagan and Lou Tsioropoulos.

All three came back to play the 1953 season, but they had graduated at the conclusion of the previous academic year, and were drafted by the Boston Celtics. They still had a year of athletic eligibility, but NCAA rules at the time deemed them ineligible for post-season play, so coach Adolph Rupp decided to skip the 1954 NCAA Tournament in protest. (In case you are curious, the 1954 NCAA champion was La Salle, who defeated Bradley 92-76. Tom Gola, the National Player of the Year and NCAA Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, led La Salle).

RamseyYou had to like Kentucky’s chances of cutting down the nets in 1954, as Ramsey, Hagan and Tsioropoulos were a formidable trio that were part of Kentucky’s 1951 NCAA championship team, and each player went on to win championships in the NBA. We’ll never know for sure, but these current Cats have no such hindrance and will play on in hopes of erasing this previous undefeated team’s veiled legacy.

The only thing that can stop Kentucky from hanging banner No. 9 is Kentucky. There is no team out there with the depth, height, talent and ability to match these Wildcats. Yes an opponent could have a hot night, but when all else fails just play defense. Kentucky is suffocating, and when they play it with vigor it creates offense. Calipari doesn’t play much zone. That’s not a defensive option in the NBA. You have to defend the high pick and roll, and with Kentucky’s ability to hold team’s to low shooting percentages, turn defense into offense, and score the ball in close, it’s going to be a tall order to shut these boys down in the NCAA.

Kentucky finds a way.

Now I appreciate the “Aw shucks we just forgot to cut down the nets” response Coach Calipari offered for why his team left Nashville with the rims still adorned, but don’t believe him for a second. There is a lot of preparation at the arena for the winning team to cut down the nets, so it would take more than just a forgetful moment for that tradition to be neglected. Calipari’s boys sent a message that they have work to do before any celebrating takes place.

With Kentucky’s victory over Auburn in the SEC tournament, the 2015 Cats also surpassed the Southeastern Conference record for most consecutive wins of 32. The previous record ironically involved those 25-0 Cats from 1953-1954 again, and included seven wins to begin the 1954-55 season.

Are you seeing a story line developing? It’s like the players from that 1954 team are handing the baton to these 2015 Cats to finish the job they were not allowed to attempt.

Kentucky's twin 6'6" starting guards Andrew Harrison (L) and Aaron Harrison (R).

Kentucky’s twin 6’6″ starting guards Andrew Harrison (L) and Aaron Harrison (R).

There have been other teams in recent memory that had undefeated seasons, and while all had memorable runs, none ended with a title. Included are the 1979 Indiana State Sycamores, starring Larry Bird, who brought their 33-0 record into the national title game before losing to Magic Johnson and Michigan State. In 1991, UNLV entered the Final Four with a 34-0 record before losing to Duke. And just last year Wichita State brought their unblemished 35-0 record into a round of 32 game against a surging and underseeded Kentucky team, only to lose 78-76.

What people often neglect to notice with these recent would-be unbeatens is none of these teams came from a power conference. That doesn’t negate their accomplishments, but it makes the road they traveled less bumpy, and potentially contributed to their early exits. The SEC may be a bit weak this season, but it is sending five teams to the NCAA tournament.

This makes Kentucky the first team from a power conference to finish the season unbeaten since Indiana went 32-0 in 1976. Let me do the math for you. That was 39-years ago. I was 9-years old and still playing with Legos back then. Kentucky has had an amazing season, but the only way to end this properly is to match Bob Knight’s 1976 Hoosiers by hanging a national championship.

In terms of external factors being indicators of potential NCAA success, Kentucky has some sweet trend lines. Again, playing in a power conference and having an ambitious pre-conference schedule help prepare a team, and UK’s resume is tight. The Cats have victories over 11 NCAA tournament teams:

Buffalo 71-52; Kansas 72-40; Providence 58-38; Texas 63-51; North Carolina 84-70; UCLA 83-44; Louisville 58-50; Ole Miss 89-86; Georgia 69-58 and 72-64; LSU 71-69; and Arkansas 84-67 and 78-63.

Then take a gander at where Kentucky will be playing its games. They have extremely favorable game locations to lend a home court environment to the Cats. It’s indirect assistance but helpful all the same.

Willie Cauley-Stein, Kentucky's 7'0" versatile big man, brings the funk on the court to opposing teams.

Willie Cauley-Stein, Kentucky’s 7’0″ versatile big man, brings the funk on the court to opposing teams.

Kentucky will play its first pair of NCAA Midwest regional games at the KFC Yum! Center in Louisville. The Cats play at this gorgeous facility at least once every other year. It’s located less than 90 miles from Lexington, putting the venue solidly in the Blue column.

UK’s third and fourth round games move to Cleveland, a modest six-hour drive away. #Blue

Indianapolis is home to the Final Four, 3.5 hours from Lexington, and just over two-hours from Louisville. Can you say home game?

Indy organizers are praying upon stars that Kentucky advances. The Hoosier State knows well how Big Blue Nation travels. That city will be flooded with Kentuckians, the vast majority with no expectation of even looking for tickets. They just want to be in the city where their beloved Cats secure Championship No. 9.

Cat fans will be partying in the streets of Indianapolis all night, drinking in the banner won and basking in the immortality that an undefeated season brings. Drunken conversations will quickly turn to Kentucky being only two banners away from catching UCLA for the all-time lead in NCAA championship supremacy.

The dream season continues Thursday at 9:40 p.m., when Kentucky plays Hampton, 34-0 Not Done.

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