Even if it’s through gritted teeth, while being held hostage by a tent stake, admit it: Kentucky is good for college basketball. At least this year it is.
John Calipari’s program has taken its share of swings for years now. Critics have decried Lexington as merely a pre-NBA processing plant. His exploitation of “one-and-done” is killing the game. It’s a glorified AAU team. The soul of amateur athletics is being ripped out. “Kentucky is what’s wrong with college basketball.”
Yeah, they’ve heard it all. But this edition of the Cats is different. And frankly, even if you slap all those preconceived, deep-seated, anti-BBN prejudices onto this year’s squad, it’s okay. Because having a college hoops villain is also not a bad thing.
Let’s start with why these Wildcats are unique. This isn’t a slew of ego-driven freshman, it’s chock full of returnees. Andrew and Aaron Harrison bypassed being first-round picks to come back for their sophomore year. Willie Cauley-Stein was projected as a lottery selection last spring, but he hated missing the Final Four with an injured ankle so badly he returned to Lex Vegas for another crack. Marcus Lee, Dakari Johnson and Alex Poythress all came back as well, although Poythress tore his ACL in December.
Secondly, they’re toying with history. The ’76 Hoosiers are the last undefeated national champions, but did it in a completely different sports galaxy. No massive media crush. No social media land mines. No 24-hour sports channels. Not only is it unfathomable in a parity-stricken college hoops universe that a team be perfect and cut down the nets. But for the Wildcats to stay undefeated, they’ll have to win eight more games than Indiana did, including a B1G tourney the Hoosiers didn’t have and an extra round in the NCAA’s. This is jaw-dropping for a power conference team that also beat three top-10 squads in the non-con. While the SEC hasn’t been very good, here are the only teams (all mid-majors) over the last 35 years who have even finished the regular season spotless: Wichita State, St. Joseph’s, UNLV, Indiana State. With a win over the Gators, the Cats would already claim an impressive piece of the mountain.
UK also plays a respectable brand of effort basketball. For much of the season Kentucky has held opponents to the nation’s lowest points per possession and field goal percentage. Analytics say this is the best defensive team of the last 15 years. In an AAU-driven culture, defense is usually left at the locker room urinal cake. The Wildcats can be unselfish on offense too. They’re a top 20 team in assist-to-turnover ratio. It’s not a group of lottery picks trying to “expand their brand.”
Most importantly, college basketball could use a bad guy. John Thompson’s Hoya Paranoia. Tark the Shark’s Runnin’ Rebs. Michigan’s Fab 5. Arkansas’ 40 Minutes of Hell. We don’t have distinctive personalities in the tourney anymore. It’s all been white-washed and vanilla-covered for mass consumption. People still can’t stand Duke, but no one despises the Blue Devils the way we used to with Christian Laettner. There isn’t ever going to be a 30 for 30: “I Hate Quinn Cook.”
Personally, I hope Kentucky beats Florida to round out the regular season this weekend, and romps in the SEC tourney. Because then the real fun begins. Could you imagine the pressure building, the love/hate boiling, as every game Kentucky plays in the tourney is another step towards the altar of immortality? That’s where they are. A national championship would mark the Wildcats as one of the greatest teams of all-time, and quite possibly the best ever. 40-0 is just flat-out staggering.
The pressure will get ratcheted up another thousand PSI after this weekend. Bad for college basketball? No way. Win or lose, I can’t see any reason Kentucky isn’t the best thing for college basketball.
D.A. hosts 6-10pm ET on the CBS Sports Radio Network. He has hosted The D.A. Show (aka “The Mothership”) in Boston, Miami, Kansas City and Ft. Myers, FL. You can often catch him on the NFL Network’s series “Top 10.” D.A. graduated from Syracuse University in ’01, and began looking for ways to make a sports radio show into a quirky 1970’s sci-fi television series. Follow D.A. on Twitter and check out the show’s Facebook page. D.A. lives in NYC, and is a native of Warwick, NY.