To no one’s surprise, the University of Kentucky men’s basketball team Sunday night was announced as the No. 1 overall seed in the 2015 NCAA Basketball Tournament. What will be surprising, however, is if any team manages to beat the Wildcats during their quest to remain undefeated for the 2014-15 season.
In theory, the top seed is supposed to be gifted with the easiest path to the coveted Final Four, which is scheduled to take place at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, April 4 and 6. But with the so-called Cinderella factor -- in which an underdog team overachieves to advance deep into the tournament via a series of upsets against highly favored teams -- that must be considered, nothing is ever guaranteed in one of the greatest sporting events in the U.S.
The Wildcats dominated the regular season and coasted through a noticeably weaker version of a traditionally strong Southeastern Conference (SEC), which is precisely why some basketball experts wonder if Kentucky can sustain its flawless run for six more games to win the national championship. The last time a team did that was nearly 40 years ago, when the Indiana Hoosiers finished the season 32-0 (1975-76).
Without taking anything away from what has already been an incredible season for the Wildcats, a popular thought process in college basketball is that it may take at least one loss for a team to sharpen its focus on the ultimate goal of a national title. But the fact that Kentucky has been pushed to the brink of defeat several times -- including two games decided in overtime -- this season and emerged victorious is not lost on Dr. Ian Cannole, director of sports psychology at the Kansas State University athletic department.
“There’s a lot of research showing the power of near-wins. If you get really close and don’t quite make it, it’s so motivating for the next time. But there’s an equal power to near-losses,” Cannole told Fox Sports. “Taking games into overtime and double overtime like they have, it’s a, ‘Wow, we snuck out of that one. We need to turn around and get a lot better.’ Any of those things that can be turned around to say, ‘What can we do to get better?’ is motivation to get better.”
Led by John Calipari, who has coached on every competitive level and won a national title with Kentucky in 2012, certainly doesn’t hurt either. Calipari has bolstered his impressive career coaching winning percentage (78 percent) by recruiting players who routinely go the “one-and-done” route -- staying for just one college basketball season before departing to the professional ranks -- usually by way of an NBA lottery pick (one of the first 14 players selected in the NBA Draft).
This season alone, most mock NBA drafts predict two Wildcats -- freshman center Karl Anthony Towns and junior center Willie Cauley-Stein, both 7-footers -- will be selected in the lottery. Three more Kentucky players are projected to be selected in the 2015 NBA Draft, making for an unprecedented five players from a single team expected to join the professional ranks in one draft. In the past seven years, Calipari has coached three players who have been drafted into the NBA No. 1 overall.
Grant Hill, who starred for the Duke Blue Devils in the 1990s and helped give UNLV its lone loss of the season in the 1991 championship game, told the New York Post Kentucky’s unblemished record could potentially adversely affect it once tournament play begins. “They haven’t been in too many close games,” Hill said. “They are going to be the ones that are tight because they are supposed to win.”
All of that is in addition to the obvious -- Kentucky’s season-long top ranking and undefeated record -- and gives further credence to most experts and fans who expect nothing less than for Calipari and his players to cut down the nets in Indianapolis next month. And after witnessing Kentucky’s accomplishments this season, many coaches likely believe it as well. Billy Donovan, the coach of the University of Florida men’s basketball team who won back-to-back national titles in 2006 and 2007 and competes against Kentucky in the SEC, is one of them: “If you want to look at their body of work, Donovan told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, "there is no one who is as good as them."