After Saturday’s 110-75 rout of Bruce Pearl’s Auburn Tigers squad, the Kentucky Wildcats have moved to 27-0 and are just four games away from entering the SEC postseason undefeated. These are exciting times for the famed basketball program, as the Wildcats could advance to the 2015 NCAA Tournament still unbeaten and with a chance at making history.
John Calipari’s squad haven’t just won every game this season, they’ve bulldozed the competition. During the year, they have easily dispatched highly ranked schools, such as then-No. 6 Texas, No. 21 UNC, No. 4 Louisville and most shockingly No. 5 Kansas by a surprisingly one-sided score of 72-40 on Nov. 18. The Wildcats even held the Jayhawks to under 20 percent field-goal shooting, in a testament to their exceptional defense.
"[The Wildcats] are pretty good for this early in the season," said Kansas head coach Bill Self. "One thing I would say that would be challenging for them, and this is a compliment to them... right now they're so far ahead where other people are, but other teams have a tendency to get better, too, and there will be teams out there who can challenge them. Whether they can beat them or not, I don't know."
Turns out the Wildcats kept going strong, not showing any signs that they peaked too soon. The No. 1 team in the country has had just a few close games, most notably back-to-back overtime wins at Ole Miss and Texas A&M in early January, and they edged LSU by two points in Baton Rouge on Feb. 10. It looked like the run was about to end after those matchups, but the Wildcats have been stellar since.
A perfect season is still a strong possibility. The Wildcats have four regular season games left and then would have to win three Southeastern Conference Tournament games (basically locked in as a No. 1 seed) to enter the NCAA tournament 34-0. Six more wins in the big tournament would give the Wildcats the perfect championship and the first-ever 40-0 season (other perfect teams played less games). The last team to have an undefeated season was Indiana, who went 32-0 back in 1976. The 27-0 start is the best such record in Kentucky's history (outlasting the 1953-54 team that finished 25-0) and is one better than any start for a Calipari-led team (had 26-0 starts at prior stops UMass and Memphis).
It won’t be a cakewalk to an undefeated season, despite Kentucky’s obvious talent. SEC matchups against Mississippi St., No. 18 Arkansas, Georgia and Florida remain before the conference tournament. Calipari’s roster of NBA prospects appear up to the challenge, and depth is perhaps the team's greatest weapon.
Kentucky features 10 players in the top 100 NBA prospects for next year’s draft, including five in the top 30, according to CBS Sports' college basketball writer Sam Vecenie. NBA teams like the New York Knicks, Philadelphia Sixers and Los Angeles Lakers are likely watching more Kentucky game tape than the Wildcats' next opponents.
Kentucky's burgeoning stars include shooting guard Devin Booker (11 points per game, 1.3 assists, No. 14 CBS ranking), center Karl-Anthony Towns (9.2 ppg, 6.4 rebounds per game, No. 4 CBS), power forward Willie Cauley-Stein (9.3 ppg, 6.3 rpg, No. 6 CBS) and shooting guard Aaron Harrison (11 ppg, No. 56 CBS). Each player would have far better stats if they were the go-to guy on a less talented roster.
Some think it might not be in the best interest of Kentucky to enter March Madness 34-0. The last two teams to enter the NCAA tournament undefeated didn’t have a perfect end to their season. Last year’s Wichita St. team was 35-0 in the second round of the NCAA tournament as a No. 1 seed before facing off with—who else—Kentucky. Wichita St. lost 78-76 to the Wildcats and lost their chance at a perfect season. Prior to Wichita St., the last school to enter the tournament undefeated was St. Joseph’s 2004 squad featuring future NBA players Jameer Nelson and Delonte West. St. Joe's would fall to Oklahoma St. in the Elite Eight.
With all due respect to Wichita State and St. Joseph's, Kentucky has more talent and a better experienced coach to lead a program to a national championship. Yet entering the tournament with a loss might take the pressure off a perfect season, so that the team can focus more on winning six tournament games. A pre-tournament loss might kill any sense of overconfidence or arrogance.
The Wildcats are far and away the favorites to win the tournament with 10/13 odds, according to Vegas Insider. But the odds were in favor of the 1990-1991 UNLV Runnin' Rebels, who were undefeated until the Final Four, when they fell to Duke, 79-77.
A hungry Kentucky team might be necessary to hold off top contenders like Duke, Gonzaga, and Virginia. Each school has a chance to heat up in the next few weeks, and present a difficult challenge to the Cats' title hopes. The last thing Calipari probably wants is his roster being content with their regular-season success and expecting the same level of basketball to carry over into the tournament.
Fortunately for Calipari, the team is full of top competitors who can hardly make it through a practice without battling one another. It seems unlikely players like Booker, Cauley-Stein, and the Harrison twins will concede any loss without a fierce fight. That mindset applies for the last regular season games, the SEC tournament and the NCAA tournament. A loss in the next four games or in the SEC tournament may have little positive or negative impact on this talented lineup. The real prize is cutting the nets at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis on April 6, and this team seems to know it.
“You keep taking everybody’s best,” Calipari told the New York Times after the Wildcats beat LSU earlier this month. “We’re in a championship fight every time we walk into a building.”
It's been relatively smooth sailing for Kentucky, and it could easily continue. The upcoming stretch of four games and the SEC tournament will provide a stronger indication if they have the ability to keep up this impressive pace. Cautious optimism should be hovering over Lexington.