Tempering the Kentucky Going Undefeated Narrative

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Kentucky going undefeated is still a possibility. But a likelihood? Hardly given.

It took a second-half rally, but John Calipari’s bunch got its double digit-point win over Columbia Wednesday night, though the 56-46 was hardly reflective of the visiting Lions’ intended role as sacrificial lambs.

No, the Ivy Leaguers gave the nation’s No. 1-ranked team all it could handle, leading for the entire first half. Columbia is the third team in the last two weeks to go into Rupp Arena and either lead, tie or trail Kentucky by just a few buckets. Providence and Texas were the first two.

Kentucky can expect that kind of effort from every opponent it faces the rest of the season, which means any off night is potential for a loss.

In other words? It’s really freakin’ hard to go undefeated.

Still, some in the college basketball world seem to believe Kentucky going undefeated is a foregone conclusion. Because the college basketball world is devoid of the reactionary and confrontational gas-baggery that fills college football discussion, here’s at least one authoritative stance that suggesting Kentucky might not run the table is the truly ridiculous argument!

Before Thanksgiving. Awesome. Also prior to Kentucky getting challenged at home three times in two weeks.

Now to the Wildcats’ credit, their depth and overall athleticism wore out each of Providence, Texas and Columbia, and all three contests ended in wins of 10 points or more. Certainly that’s a testament to just how good this UK bunch is.

And it is an exceptional bunch. Calipari has got a team full of NBA-caliber talent and former prep All-Americans to buy into a unique team concept, one in which 10 players see playing time.

But this year’s Kentucky lineup is hardly the first of the last 40 years replete with standout talent. Duke in 1992 and again in 2001; North Carolina in 1982; Georgetown in 1984; Arkansas in 1994; Kentucky teams under both Calipari and Rick Pitino all featured future NBA players and won championships.

None went unbeaten.

In fact, no team has navigated a college basketball season unscathed since Bob Knight’s 1976 Indiana Hoosiers.

For context on just how long ago that was, consider that members of the team to come the closest since–the 1990-’91 UNLV Runnin’ Rebels–were preschoolers then. When that UNLV squad suffered its first loss, a 79-77 decision to Duke in the 1991 Final Four? No one on Kentucky’s roster was born.

So Kentucky isn’t just being asked to make history; it’s being expected to duplicate what equates to ancient history for its lineup. That’s an awful lot of weight for 19-and-20-year-old shoulders to bear throughout a five-month season.

Kentucky has experienced just how heavy the burden of being No. 1 can be when it took the best shot Texas and Columbia had to offer. The Wildcats counter-punched effectively, but didn’t deliver the kind of haymakers that defined UNLV’s 1990-’91 season.

The last of Jerry Tarkanian’s teams, the ’90-’91 Runnin’ Rebels weren’t played within 17 points until Feb. 9 — and that was on the road, at No. 2 Arkansas.

Of course, UNLV overpowered a decent Big West Conference that sent New Mexico State to the NCAA Tournament, but was hardly a top-tier league. And that ties into one of the arguments in favor of Kentucky going undefeated: The SEC is down.

Indeed, 2014 Final Four participant Florida is floundering at 4-4; as is Missouri. Arkansas, which beat Kentucky twice a season ago, is a loser of two straight, including a recent loss to a terrible Clemson team.

Should the Wildcats get through matchups with North Carolina, UCLA and rival Louisville before the conference slate, smooth sailing ahead, right?

There’s some merit to the idea in this age of college basketball, given Wichita State tromped over a struggling Missouri Valley last season to enter the 2014 NCAA Tournament unscathed.

Of course, the Shockers were bounced in the first weekend. And how fitting that it was Kentucky doing the bouncing.

Thus, no team should know better how difficult running the table is than Kentucky. Lurking somewhere in the college basketball could the Wildcats to their Shockers — talented underachievers hitting their stride at the right time.

Maybe it’s a Duke to 1991’s UNLV — a program on the brink of something special, flying ever-so-slightly below the radar. Perhaps it’s just not Kentucky’s night and an opponent takes advantage.

Or — and hopefully this isn’t the case, but it’s always a lingering reality — misfortune befalls the Wildcats. Arizona stood as the last power-conference unbeaten a season ago at 21-0, but forward Brandon Ashley suffered a broken foot that shook up the Wildcats’ look.

UA lost five subsequently, including the game at Cal in which Ashley broke his foot.

Fate can twist any number of ways. Talk of Kentucky going undefeated should be tempered accordingly.