Kentucky off to make history, complete unbeaten season

Rod Beard
The Detroit News

As it did for most of the season, Kentucky dominated another opponent, beating Arkansas for the Southeastern Conference Tournament championship on Sunday.

It's become a something of a routine for the undefeated Wildcats, repeated 34 times this season, blowing through the SEC regular season. An example of their dominance: They've had one game within single-digits in their final 10 games.

Now, the focus turns to the NCAA Tournament, where Kentucky enters the rarified air with an unbeaten record and tries to become the ninth team to complete a perfect season with a national championship. The Wildcats are the sixth team to finish the regular season undefeated since Indiana beat Michigan for the title in 1976.

Kentucky is the No. 1 overall seed in this year's tournament and although it has run roughshod through its conference schedule, the road ahead to greatness will get rougher in a one-and-done scenario. With nine McDonald's All-America players from high school and a mix of experienced players that lost in the title game to Connecticut last season, the Wildcats are the heavy favorites to win their second national championship in the last four years.

That depth is part of what makes Kentucky so formidable this season. With five players at 6-foot-10 or taller and three main guards at 6-6, beating the Wildcats will be a tall order.

"It's the deepest team I've had. I've had some really good defensive teams — like really, really good. This team is good, but it's just deeper than any team I've had," coach John Calipari said. "Normally the best teams I've played, I played six guys. It's part of the reason that we couldn't win every game. Because there was going to be a game where when you're playing six, two or three are going to struggle. You're just going to have a bad night."

Even on a bad night, they can overcome some of their deficiencies, with their inside defensive presence and versatility on offense. They have only two players who average in double figures, Andrew Harrison (11.3 points) and reserve Devin Booker (10.7) but the next five players average at least 6.7 points.

That balancing act of distributing playing time — eight average at least 20 minutes a game — is one of the keys to their success this season.

"When you are getting recruited at Kentucky at the beginning, (the pitch is) 'This is how we're going to play and you're not going to get 25 to 30 shots; you're going to earn your playing time, we're going to win championships and you're going to get a chance to play in the NBA.' " Big Ten Network analyst Jim Jackson said.

"It's been proven to work and I don't think Calipari gets enough credit to get that much talent to buy in, especially in today's world with social media and everyone wanting to be the man, but he got them to do that."

Who can beat them?

In a one-and-done situation, Kentucky could fall victim to an off night offensively or run into a team that has a hot-shooting night.

"It takes one off night or one bad half and a historic year can come to an end," said CBS analyst Grant Hill, who was part of the 1991 Duke team that upset unbeaten UNLV in the Final Four. "That's the beauty of the tournament — regardless of whether you're undefeated or get in as a bubble team, if you get hot at the right time, you have a chance."

Kentucky is the prohibitive favorite entering the tournament, but there is a cadre of contenders who could give the Wildcats a challenge, led by Wisconsin and Virginia. As those two teams are also high seeds, they wouldn't likely face Kentucky until the Final Four or Elite Eight, at the earliest.

Wisconsin won the Big Ten regular-season title and lost to Kentucky on a 3-pointer in the closing seconds in the Final Four last year. The Badgers return the core of that squad, led by 7-foot center Frank Kaminsky, a contender for national player of the year. The Badgers also have solid experienced players in Sam Dekker, Nigel Hayes and Josh Gasser — and could have Traevon Jackson back this week from an injury.

"Wisconsin played against them last year and Wisconsin returns everybody," said Auburn coach Bruce Pearl, whom Kentucky beat by 24 in the SEC semifinals.

"It's just that Kentucky returns almost everybody and then added to that."

But with their discipline and savvy, the Badgers could have the best chance to end the perfect season with their outside shooting and inside presence.

"People say you have to be able to shoot the 3 against Kentucky because you have to shoot over the top. I agree with that but you also have to have a mixture of being able to go inside," BTN analyst Stephen Bardo said. "You have to go to the free-throw line against Kentucky and no one really does that too much. That's an important key that Wisconsin can bring."

Virginia, which beat Duke for the ACC regular-season title, looks to be another team that could give the Wildcats a run.

"Virginia coach Tony Bennett is a defensive master; he'll throw a wrinkle or two that Kentucky hasn't seen yet," Bardo said. "They could really slow and muck the game up and make it difficult on them. Those are the only two teams I can see beating Kentucky."

Tough to compare

If Kentucky is able to finish the run to 40-0 and win the national title, it would rank with the best individual seasons in tournament history. Times have changed and in an era where there are few seniors on rosters, the year-to-year attrition makes it more difficult.

Virginia's contrasting style won't have them intimidated; they make you play their style and they dictate the tempo and pace and execute of offense and make you exhaust every option when you're on offense with their defense. Those are two teams that come to mind but it could be anyone.

"Unfortunately for us, we don't know how good this Kentucky team could be because we're comparing them to older teams with seniors. Even the '91 UNLV team that lost to Duke was older. We're comparing a young Kentucky team to these more mature teams," Jackson said.

"The comparison with the records is cool but from a maturity and age perspective, we don't know how good this team could be if they came back as juniors and seniors."