Everyone is asking the following questions these days: Is Kentucky unbeatable? Can they win all 40games? What are the odds Kentucky can win it all and go undefeated? Let’s take an in depth look at the wild and still unbeaten ride they have had thus far and especially how the King ‘Cats have faced SEC competition.
Recently they had a very sound home victory with UK defeating Vandy’ 65-57: It certainly didn’t keep the hair up on the back of the neck, but Kentucky never had a chance to put the walk-ons on the court either. They were up by seven at the break and it never got above a dozen as Vanderbilt just kept hanging around like a stray dog.
Before that, the Wildcats cruised over Alabama 70 to 48 in a sold out arena in Tuscaloosa. The only time the fans had any hope was when the ‘Tide trimmed the lead to nine early in the second half, but then Kentucky stormed away like a Derby champion. Just prior to that UK obliterated poor Missouri 86 to 37. It is games like that where Calipari’s players look a well-oiled machine, but we have to remember they are human and cannot perform at such a high level every game.
Peeking back at the SEC opener at home, Kentucky was a 21.5 point home favorite, but they met a hard-nosed underdog in the form of Mississippi and took their very best, squeaking by in Rupp arena for an 89-86 overtime win. They followed this up in a few days with a double overtime victory in Texas A & M, but the Aggies best player, Jalen Jones was hurt and had he been in there it is very likely Kentucky loses.
So what happens from here? There appears to be mounting pressure on the idea of going undefeated at least for the fans. It’s not clear the players are impacted. They seem to take it one game at a time. The recent tough tests could definitely make UK grow stronger from it knowing they can be tested late and survive, but it will give future competitors confidence too. The early “struggles” were certainly surprising given what we had already watched unfold in the non-conference slate. What it demonstrated is that the Wildcats are not superhuman, even if they are now 18-0.
After Kentucky secured a 58-50 road victory against a bitter local rival, Louisville, the Wildcats became an impressive 13-0, with an average scoring margin of victory that was at 27.5 and the undisputed number one squad in the nation. It appeared like no one could give them a better challenge than the arch nemesis Cardinals. It’s not like they took down a bunch of ice cream sundaes either. UK’s non-conference opponents have an overall .574 winning percentage. Coach Calipari relishes the opportunity to stack his schedule with tough exams, be it at home, away or neutral sites.
The ‘Cats have beaten traditional names: Kansas, Texas, North Carolina, UCLA, and, Louisville were all talented teams that experts felt had a chance to defeat UK. Kentucky easily out matched four of those teams. This is what added lumber onto the bonfire of the idea that Kentucky could be historically special.
Despite the close shaves Coach Cal’ and his roster experienced with Ole’ Miss’ and the Aggies of A & M, Kentucky will surely be favored in every game from here on out. Although the SEC is a traditional power conference it is a bit down this year. In both the AP and the USA Today Coaches Poll, no other SEC team is in the top 25. On the Ken Pomroy rankings only Georgia is in the top 30 at number 28. The remaining games on the calendar do not present a grind if you have Kentucky’s wealth of talent and swarming defense.
That would seem to bolster the argument that UK can coast its way unbeaten. On the other hand, it has been reported that as of two weeks ago William Hill still had a bet available called Will Kentucky go undefeated in all its games prop’ and the yes is a +400 and the no is a -500. So from this standpoint they are not a favorite to go all the way unbeaten. And both the Columbia and Mississippi games showed that if the right team plays with energy and has their best game of the year and Kentucky has an off night, it is possible for an upset to occur.
What flaws does Kentucky have? Sometimes they don’t play with passion and energy in large spurts. When the motor is operating on half power the defense displays vulnerability. Windows and spacing are wide open for opponents to make a streak of baskets. Despite their size when the energy level is low, their supremacy on the glass can be tested as Mississippi hung with them.
Plus, Kentucky is not a top fifty free throw shooting team. They are only hitting 68 % as a team. Their mid-range jump shooting is suspect and as a team they are streaky with the three-ball. The Harrison twins and Devin Booker are their most reliable in the clutch from beyond the three point line. When you are number one and unbeaten all of your conference rivals highlight the date they play the conference King. Some teams will fold quickly and others will play like it’s for all the marbles. If they push to go unbeaten that will be very draining on Kentucky emotionally and physically and so they do face a grind. It could make any underdog’s season to give UK a stain on their schedule.
What happens if on the road or in a neutral site like Nashville, Tennessee for the 2015 SEC Tournament if Kentucky plays with low energy? What happens if the threes and free throws are bricking? Then put it together with an opponent who is pretty good and playing at peak performance.
I concede it’s a lot of what ifs. However, the season is long and many great teams have failed to go undefeated since the great 1976 Indiana Hoosiers were last able to achieve an unbeaten championship year. The 1991 UNLV Rebels were defending champions and went unbeaten through the season and up until the Final Four, for 34 straight times they were victorious as they overwhelmed opponents with greater desire and talent. However, Duke, who was blasted in the title game the year before by UNLV, found a way to upend UNLV by two points. Those teams faced each other with basically the same lineups each time too.
Then again you got to admit Kentucky has a chance to do something remarkable. When they play inspired their defense is artistic and invincible. To witness a team going 40-0 would be truly magnificent and it may happen. Perhaps because it has been so long and many of us have never seen it is why so many of us seem to be enthralled with the idea of watching a marvelous team claim a win every time they take the court and finish a season with a record that shouts perfection. I can imagine how it would be for the NCAA men’s basketball tournament to have a traditional power enter the tournament undefeated again, but it is a lot of pressure on a team. They might be better off taking a mid-season loss. I know it is unfair that we fans would heap so much expectation on a team, but the possibility of the idea of such greatness is mentally delicious.
However, even great teams lose once in a while and if UK does stumble once or twice I would still suggest that Kentucky has the best chance to cut down the nets on the last game and hoist a trophy given what we have witnessed. Odds are Kentucky is going to have one off day or night and the opponent will have just enough shots swishing into the net to beat the Wildcats before the regular season ends. Then again, it doesn’t take anything away from those kids if they lose once, but can go undefeated when it counts most, the NCAA tournament and claim a national title. I think from here on out we should just enjoy whatever happens.
Video is courtesy of ESPN.
The above photo is courtesy of Forbes.com
Want to read more about Coach John Calipari and his experience coaching the Kentucky Wildcats? “Players First: Coaching from the Inside Out” can be purchased using the link below, or just to read Bill Clinton’s review of the book…really!