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Midwest Region: Kentucky stakes claim to best ever

Associated Press

With every dominating win — we're up to 37-0 — it becomes more and more apparent that Kentucky really isn't competing against the remaining teams in the NCAA Tournament.

History is the opponent now.

Is Kentucky better than 1956 San Francisco featuring Bill Russell and K.C. Jones?

How about all those great UCLA teams of the 1960s and '70s with the likes of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Walton?

And is this edition of Big Blue even better than the last champion to go through a season unblemished, 1976 Indiana.

Nothing against those giants of the game, but we'll take Kentucky — with a caveat.

Kentucky still must win three more games, starting with today's Midwest Regional final against Notre Dame.

But if Kentucky completes its run to 40-0 — and it would take a Villanova-beating-Georgetown-sized upset to stop it — it deserves to be at the top of the list.

Quinn Buckner, one of the stars of that undefeated Indiana team, was asked what it would take to beat Kentucky

"You've got to shoot it exceptionally well, you can't turn it over, and you've got to rebound against them," he said. "And then you still have to play defense, too."

Oh, and one other thing.

"They're going to have to have a bad day," West Virginia coach Bob Huggins moaned after Kentucky blew out his team by 39 points in the round of 16.

Given the size, depth, commitment to defense, and willingness to share the spotlight, a bad day for the Wildcats seems beyond comprehension.

Just ask the Mountaineers, who never stood a chance.

"I thought going in that the 2010 team may be more talented," Huggins said, referring to the Kentucky squad that featured NBA standouts John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Eric Bledsoe. "But I don't think that team guarded the way this team guards. That's the difference. This team is absolutely fantastic defensively."

With a bigger front line than most NBA teams and essentially two starting units to keep the pressure on opponents for the full 40 minutes, Kentucky will stand as the greatest NCAA champion ever if it can win out — with all due respect to those epic teams through the years.

Kentucky really has been on a roll since what constitutes its only "slump" this season — consecutive overtime victories over Mississippi and Texas A&M in early January, at the start of Southeastern Conference play.

After that blip, the next 22 wins came by an average of 19.1 points, with all but four decided by double-digit margins.

Kentucky has turned it up another notch in the postseason, romping through three SEC tournament games and three NCAA games by an average margin of 21.5 points, including Thursday's 78-39 destruction of West Virginia. During that span, the Wildcats have limited opponents to 34 percent shooting overall and 23 percent from 3-point range.

"They're just so big and so long," Huggins said, sounding like he was talking about a team from another planet.

He might as well be, given the other-worldly starting front line of 7-footer Willie Cauley-Stein, 6-11 Karl-Anthony Towns and 6-10 Trey Lyles. True, Kentucky doesn't have a player who stands out like Russell, Abdul-Jabbar, Walton or Indiana's Scott May, but that's only because this might be the deepest squad ever. Nine strong, all capable of starting for just about any team in the country. By some projections, there are as many as six first-round NBA picks on the roster.

Also, Kentucky is playing in a deeper era, with more good teams, than the NCAA's seven perfect champions, even taking into account that the top players only hang around for a year or two before heading to the NBA. Making the path for the Wildcats even tougher, they must win six Tournament games over three weeks to cut down the nets, a big reason there hasn't been an undefeated team since the field expanded to 64 teams in 1985.

Compare that with San Francisco, North Carolina in 1957, and UCLA's four unbeaten teams under coach John Wooden, all of which needed only four NCAA wins to complete their championship seasons. Or Indiana, which had to win five NCAA games to finish 32-0.

Kentucky's juggernaut came together in large part because coach John Calipari, by his usual one-and-done standards, has a very experienced team. He added another stellar recruiting class — Towns, Lyle and guards Devin Booker and Tyler Ulis — to a larger-than-expected group of returnees, including Cauley-Stein (a junior) and four sophomores: twins Aaron and Andrew Harrison, who start in the backcourt; 7-footer Dakari Johnson; and 6-9 Marcus Lee.

The Wildcats didn't miss a beat when one of their stalwarts, Alex Poythress, tore up a knee in December and was lost for the season.

No reason to think they'll slip up now.

Not with No. 1 — in any era — there for the taking.