March has become a month of sports panoply, between spring training baseball, playoff pushes in hockey and basketball, and the NCAA’s March Madness tournament.
The college basketball world sees a team pull a couple upsets and dubs them the Cinderella for this year. West Virginia, seeded fifth in the Midwest Region, earned that glass slipper with a win over favored and border rival Maryland Sunday night.
Last night in Cleveland, not only did the bell toll at midnight, but the pumpkin carriage got run over by a blue-and-white monster truck.
The irresistible force known as the Kentucky Wildcats, top seeded in the nation, entered the Quicken Loans Arena Thursday night to play the Mountaineers in the regional semifinal.
Like so many times they stepped onto a court, the outcome wasn’t in question so much as the manner of the expected victory. The Wildcats turned in one of their best performances of the season, eliminating West Virginia with a 78-39 thumping in the round of 16.
The win put the Cats at 37-0, three away from a perfect season.
For a team who had an extra day of rest than their opponent, Kentucky’s win shouldn’t come as a surprise.
However, it is the way they won that has impressed fans, which must be very hard to do after 37 consecutive victories. Victories at 78-39 are what happen in November and December against small conference schools flying out for a paycheck.
Montana State got to play at Rupp Arena on the Sunday night before Thanksgiving, and lost 86-28, shooting just 12-for-61 from the field in what amounted to a squash match for Big Blue.
A 78-39 score isn’t a pasting you give a team that won four games against ranked opponents and went 11-7 in the maelstrom of the Big XII this season. At least not in the Sweet 16.
These trivial details and etiquette breaches don’t seem to matter to this Kentucky team. John Calipari has assembled a group of superstars that combines raw athleticism with intense commitment to unparalleled greatness. He knows how hard it is to go undefeated in college basketball.
In 2008, a team led by current NBA stars Derek Rose, Robert Dozier and others only lost to number two Tennessee in the regular season, and had the title game wrapped up when Mario Chalmers hit a miracle three to force overtime, a game Kansas would win.
Calipari would later lose that legacy when Derek Rose’s eligibility was voided by the NCAA for falsified SAT scores.
What this Kentucky team has done since starting practice in October is astounding. There hasn't been a team this good since 1976, when Indiana gave Bob Knight his first championship and went 32-0 that year, although they played one less game in the tournament.
To go undefeated, Kentucky would need 40 wins, 25 percent more than when the Hoosiers ran the tables, most likely enough to earn a spot in the NBA’s Eastern Conference playoffs.
Unlike the 1975-76 Indiana team, the Cats have done it with a younger team. The seven-footer, Willie Cauley-Stein, is the oldest starter, as a junior.
Last night, the Cats overpowered West Virginia with a defensive masterpiece. The Mountaineers shot only 24.1 percent from the floor, making 13 of 54 shots. Two of 15 from three is not just bad, it’s a sign a team stopped trying from downtown, which is very unusual in the modern college game.
Starting guard Juwan Staten had both three-pointers and had more field goals made (5) than the other four starters (4). West Virginia got the big guys on Kentucky in foul trouble, but couldn’t do anything with the smaller opposition.
Kentucky got the job done with their depth, as they have so many times this year. Five players reached double figures in points, with two coming off the bench.
This is the most complete and dominant college basketball team we’ve seen since the Duke dynasty of the early 90s. Those teams still lost games.
Calipari won the title in 2012 with the dominance of Anthony Davis and strong supporting players. This team might be his finest line-up in his multiple decades of coaching.
This team is special. Whether you watch games fanatically or you pick a bracket based on the cuddliness of mascots, take time to watch the games.
Kentucky will play Notre Dame, who won the ACC Tournament two weeks ago, in the Elite 8 Saturday night. Vegas has stacked the Cats as 11-point favorites over a team who finished the season 29-5 and won 14 games in the historically strongest conference in the nation.
That is a disturbingly high number, given the magnitude of this game, with a berth in the Final Four on the line and two strong teams ready to do battle.
College basketball has evolved from a game of veteran players using wits and strategy to young, athletic freaks creating highlight reels of dominating play.
Calipari has mastered the art of short-term leasing talent and maximizing results for his team. His current roster may thrive in the NBA or have peaked too soon and be lost to mediocrity. However, what they do now is and will continue to make history.
Should they cut down the nets Easter Monday, having completed the perfect season and fulfilled all the hype, they will enter a rare pantheon of sporting immortals and become the new measuring stick for all college basketball powers going forward.
Should eligibility rules change, we may never see such a phenomenon of youthful energy and raw talent. This is truly a sight to behold and I cannot wait to see the next episode.