Kentucky Is The Best Team In The Nation, But Will They Go Undefeated?
I still remember where I was sitting in 2005, eyes glued to the TV, as I witnessed the Illinois men's basketball team suffer their first nail-biting loss to an unranked Ohio State lineup after starting the season with a remarkable 29-0 record.
Kentucky, now 24-0, is the only men's basketball team to have attained perfection in the win-loss column thus far this season. And, looking at their upcoming schedule, they're not going anywhere anytime soon.
This causes many commentators, barbers, bartenders and basketball fans to pose the question, can Kentucky go undefeated?
Indiana University was the last team to accomplish the feat in 1976. In the nearly four decades since, Indiana State and UNLV almost tasted the same glory -- each fell just short of leaving that legacy.
After all, it's not an easy task to accomplish. In many ways, it seems fate must be on a team's side to escape unscathed in 30-plus games.
There's a surplus of variables at hand, injuries, foul trouble, an off night and of course, the challenge of playing on the road, often in extremely hostile environments.
As the only undefeated NCAA team remaining, Kentucky undoubtedly has a target on its back. Coaches need not prepare a motivational pep talk worthy of historical significance; simply pointing to the zero in the loss column of their opponent is enough.
Players live for the opportunity to triumph in a match of David and Goliath-sized proportions.
Fans cheer harder at these games; arenas burst with uncontainable enthusiasm, and ultimately, as team after team pounds on the door, one eventually breaks the door down and shatters the dream of the most faithful Wildcat.
That's the beauty of March Madness, after all. It's why we watch, and often live, for sports.
We scramble to fill out our brackets, knowing that at least one Cinderella team will dance its way through the tournament, sending teams that once seemed like a heavy favorite packing their bags.
Whether Kentucky has the capacity to go undefeated this season isn't a question of talent or skill; they're elite enough that Coach Calipari doesn't need to determine a fixed starting lineup.
Each of the various combinations he and his staff have created so far have garnered success. Their bench is loaded, arguably to a depth unlike any other team in college basketball today.
Also working to their advantage through the end of the conference season is their competition. Unlike their football brethren, the SEC is not filled with other basketball powerhouses this year.
And, yet, in the last week alone, both an 11-loss Florida team and a 7-loss LSU team have given the Wildcats a run for their money, proving that the challenge of beating the best is enough for any team to rise to the occasion.
Based on these recent games, it appears Kentucky hasn't improved all that much as the season has progressed.
Yes, they do enough to win, but their margin of victory continues to narrow. This, in turn, has strengthened the confidence of their competitors.
If you need further evidence of the rise of the underdog in the NCAA tournament, look no further than to last year's championship game.
A seven-seed Connecticut prevailed over an eight-seed Kentucky as the Final Four proved that in the end, rankings and statistics are ultimately just glorified numbers.
Each year, the adrenaline rush that accompanies the "Big Dance" lifts many mid-major teams to new heights. The Butlers, VCUs, FGCUs and Northern Iowas of the basketball world have nothing to lose and everything to gain.
In essence, those teams feel no pressure. In contrast, favored teams, particularly undefeated teams, such as the Wildcats, feel disproportionate pressure.
So, can Kentucky go undefeated? Yes, but will they? No. They will crack and they will lose.