Already among the royalty of college basketball, No. 1 Kentucky’s basketball program has taken on an identity as adored and controversial as Napoleon’s.
Left in the wake of a 31-0 regular season is an air of invincibility seldom — check that — never seen in any era of college basketball.
A national championship would come with it heraldry, words of worship, a crown and new title: “Best Ever.”
Before the unblemished Wildcats can be clothed in the sovereign’s robes they’ll first need to win nine more games, three at this week’s SEC tournament and six in the NCAAs.
Napoleon had his Waterloo … Kentucky will have to avoid its Virginia or Wisconsin before it achieves the status of Indiana, the last undefeated team to win a national championship in 1976.
“There’s been a lot of great teams through the years,” said former TCU head coach Moe Iba, the son of Henry Iba who has coached for more than 30 years, including as an assistant on Texas Western’s national championship-winning team in 1966. “Kentucky has more talent than those teams [Indiana’s] did. I think Indiana, as a team, maybe was better.
“But there hasn’t been a team like this, talent-wise, in years. Well, I don’t know if there’s ever been one.”
Despite Kentucky’s prowess, it’ll likely need a stroke of luck — a favorable bounce or call in a close game. That’s just the way the NCAA Tournament works.
There have been others in Kentucky’s position.
Indiana State (led by Larry Bird) in 1978-79, UNLV in 1991 and Wichita State a year ago all entered the tournament undefeated but lost.
The Hoosiers’ best team, in Iba’s opinion, was the 1974-75 squad that was undefeated but without injured star Scott May when it lost to Kentucky in the regional finals.
In those two seasons, Indiana went 63-1.
UNLV, with a nucleus of Larry Johnson and Stacey Augmon, went 69-6 in the 1989-90 and 1990-91 seasons combined, including a 30-point victory over Duke in the ’90 national championship game. The Blue Devils upset the undefeated Runnin’ Rebels — who had won 53 of 55 games over two seasons — the next year in the Final Four.
The Rebels toted around a huge burden of expectations, much like this year’s Kentucky team.
In basketball industry-speak, the Wildcats are a coach’s dream: A team that can win in a number of ways with big and long and unselfish guys who play great defense, particularly inside, where Kentucky’s line of hovering 7-footers have made the lane a minefield.
They’re also deep.
“There is no one you can compare to them,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said. “If you want to look at their body of work, there is no one who is as good as them.”
Sophomore Aaron Harrison and freshman Devin Booker lead the team in scoring at 11.3 and 11 points per game. Junior Willie Cauley-Stein, a Naismith College Player of the Year finalist, averages nine points and 6.5 rebounds.
Cauley-Stein is the only upperclassmen who plays, a circumstance that has drawn the ire of Michigan State coach Tom Izzo. Izzo last week seemed critical of Kentucky’s amassing of talented freshmen, who often are “one-and-done,” going to the NBA after only a season.
Along with Cauley-Stein, freshmen Booker, Karl Anthony-Towns and Trey Lyles are all considered NBA first-round prospects, as is sophomore Dakari Johnson, who has come off the bench in all 30 games.
Izzo questioned whether such a system that allows for such a mass collection of talent to leave after one or two seasons is good for the college game.
“How do these guys sacrifice and give up minutes and shots to each other?” Kentucky coach John Calipari said last week. “I think that’s the narrative. How do they have the spirit they have, the team spirit that’s been able to do this?
“I think that should be what this is all about, not how many guys have a chance to be pros. Other teams have really good players too.”
While the talent level is there for all to see, Kentucky’s youth might well play a factor in the freshmen’s first exposure to the one-game, one-shot, anything-can-happen last-second situations of NCAA Tournament play.
The level of competition and the arena atmosphere are much more different, said Oliver Miller, a former NBA player and 1990 Final Four participant at Arkansas. Your game has to be at a top level for six games.
Nineteen of Kentucky’s 31 games have been played at Rupp Arena.
“It’s going to be a different environment, you’re going to be sleeping in the hotels, not in your own bed. You got all this hoopla around you,” said Miller, who added that the Wildcats can’t let teams stay close in the tournament.
“You got to go in with that killer instinct. Everybody knows you’re better. Put them away.”
There is a formula to beat Kentucky, Iba said, though it won’t be easy.
Too beat them, a team will need exceptional guard play and big bodies to minimize the Wildcats’ advantages in the front court. And you have to make shots.
Ole Miss, which took Kentucky to overtime, shot 53 percent from 3-point range. Texas A&M, went to double overtime before falling, “outshooting” Kentucky 33 percent to 28. Others in the SEC have given the Wildcats a close game, but, as one coach observed, “That’s also a benefit of seeing a team twice in conference.”
Opponents in the NCAA won’t have that advantage. In all likelihood, Kentucky’s NCAA foes will be seeing the Wildcats for the first time.
It can be an imposing sight.
“I don’t think anyone matches up well because they don’t have enough players,” Iba said.
“It’ll take some exceptional game from whoever they play for them to get beat. And I think Kentucky will have to play at a low level.”
Who can give them the blues?
“No one” is the most common answer as to who can beat Kentucky. As one coach said: “You’re going to have to make 3-pointers and outside shots to beat them. You won’t beat them around the basket.” Here are five teams that could beat Kentucky:
Virginia No. 2 Cavaliers will need guard Justin Anderson (appendectomy) back, but Virginia takes care of the basketball and rebounds well.
Duke Some call the No. 3 Blue Devils the most athletic in the program’s gloried history.
Arizona No. 5 Wildcats don’t get beat often in rebounding margin and they’ll need them all in potential matchup.
Wisconsin No. 6 Badgers have an NBA-caliber big guy in 7-footer Frank Kaminsky and they lead the nation in fewest turnovers.
Gonzaga Kevin Pangos is a veteran backcourt presence for the No. 7 Zags, who rank among the top 3-point shooting teams in the country.
NCAA Selection Show
5 p.m. March 15, KTVT/Ch. 11