Kentucky Basketball Can Learn from USC Football

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The undefeated Kentucky basketball team is four wins from joining college basketball’s most elite club: the club of undefeated national champions.

In many ways, Kentucky basketball’s flirtation with history is reminiscent of the dominant run on which USC football went a decade ago.

This Kentucky team has been mentioned in the same breath as the Bill Russell-led San Francisco Dons of 1956, North Carolina from the following year, 1976 Indiana and John Wooden’s four unbeaten UCLA teams as much as it has its contemporaries.

And that rhetoric only gains steam with every Wildcat win.

The Road to the Final Four should be renamed the Procession to Perfection. Likewise, in the build-up to the 2006 Rose Bowl, a USC Trojans team preparing for its showdown with Texas was compared to the absolute best of college football: 1995 Nebraska, 2001 Miami, the Army teams of the World War II era.

ESPN actually ran a promotional tournament of sorts on Sportscenter, designed to gauge where 2005 USC ranked among the sport’s all-time great champions.

The problem? USC failed to win the national championship.

One can debate whether the 2005 Texas Longhorns are among college football’s best teams in history. There’s certainly a strong case to be made, given the Longhorns culminated a perfect season beating the anointed Greatest Team Ever.

One could just as convincingly argue the 2005 USC football team was not the USC program’s best. Aside from failing to win the national championship — a feat the previous year’s team had accomplished — the 2005 Trojans were not as dominant defensively as the previous season’s team.

Speaking of defense, few teams in college football history have ever been as defensively dominant as the 2008 Trojans, and that was a team that was denied a shot at the national championship on some shaky circumstances.

The whole “where does Current Team X” argument can be fun, but is ultimately pointless. It’s also futile to have the conversation without the benefit of hindsight.

To wit, professional talkers have sparked debate pitting 2014-’15 Kentucky in its prime against 1995-’96 and 2011-’12 Kentucky in their primes. It’s an interesting topic, especially given neither of those Kentucky teams went undefeated in the regular season.

But then, the ’96 Wildcats and ’12 Wildcats won national championships. The ’15 version has yet to do so, even if there’s a sense that Kentucky doing so is a foregone conclusion.

It’s been that way since last April, when the 2014 Kentucky basketball team made an unexpected run to the Final Four. With a bevy of talent coming back, and new playmakers added to the fold, talk of Kentucky going undefeated started before the Wildcats ever played a game.
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USC’s Rose Bowl loss was the climax of a story more than two years in the making.

Heading into 2005, magazine covers read “BRING IT ON!” and the Associated Press opined quarterback Matt Leinart could “stamp himself as maybe the greatest college quarterback ever.”

USC played history as much as it played Arizona State, Fresno State, Texas.

If Kentucky basketball goes down before 40-0, it won’t go down in flames. The Wildcats have far too much talent and are much too good to get sucker-punched unsuspected.

Should Kentucky lose, it will happen in an all-time classic. It’s no coincidence that the end of 2005 USC’s run at history ended in a game now remembered as one of, if not the single greatest in college football. Ever.

Similarly, win or lose, Kentucky basketball will be immortalized.