We knew coming into this season that this Kentucky team was going to be very good. That much was not a mystery. When you return the majority of a team that goes to the National Championship Game, add Four McDonald’s All Americans and give them a summer trip to work out the kinks, it isn’t surprising that the end result is a team that can be special. But while very good was never in doubt, the question of great, or even elite, was still an open one. We all saw the talent, but the legacy of the start of last year still lingered. A pessimist might see the loss of last season’s best player (Randle) and best shooter (Young) and think, “well maybe they will struggle a bit until they hit their stride in March.” After the nation’s mockery of 40-0 pronouncements last year, it seemed foolhardy to suggest that such a thing was possible this time around, no matter how much talent Calipari had stocked up. The cold, snowy night in Dallas and the putback dunk in Fayetteville had us all slightly skeptical and trying our best to temper the excitement. We saw a team in the Bahamas with the potential for greatness, but we all remained a little leery and scared of uttering any phrase that could jinx what was to come. Grand preseason pronouncements were, for once at least, not coming from the Big Blue Nation until Missouri’s state motto could be realized and the evidence was in front of our face.
That evidence is now here. There is no reason to hide it anymore and attempting to play humble is no longer honestly possible. It is time to embrace facts. This team is on the path to being historically great. The game Saturday in Chicago was one of the most thorough, dominating performances of my lifetime. 24-0…41-7…a 40 point win over UCLA and it never felt that close and could have been so much worse. What we are seeing this season is not only something that hasn’t come along very often in UK basketball history…it hasn’t come along very often in college basketball history. In my lifetime, college basketball has certainly never seen a team this deep and has almost certainly never seen a team this elite defensively. As of this moment, Kentucky has the best adjusted defensive efficiency rating since Kenpom has begun keeping the statistic (2001). They have the greatest string of double digit defeats to start a season in UK history. They lead the nation in every meaningful defensive statistic and they are putting on performances against blue blood programs that are almost difficult to comprehend. Think about these facts:
— Kentucky beat UCLA and Kansas, two teams of the highest pedigree in college basketball, on neutral courts by a combined 73 points.
— Kansas and Texas, two teams ranked #5 and #6 that UK handled with relative ease and the favorites in the Big 12, have not lost a game besides their loss to Kentucky.
— Kentucky held UCLA, a program with more championships than any in college basketball history, to the fewest points in a half IN THE HISTORY OF THE PROGRAM…and not only that, they cut the record in half from 14 to 7.
— Kansas, Texas and North Carolina are all three currently ranked in the Top 12 in the Kenpom numbers…yet Kentucky beat them by a combined 59 points.
— UK lost a returning Junior starter that at times has been projected as a first round draft pick and proceeded to win its next two games against UNC and UCLA by a combined 55 points.
The performances almost boggle the mind. When the Cats demolished Kansas to open the season, many argued (or hoped) that it said more about Kansas than it did about Kentucky’s greatness. When UK was able to handle Texas and UNC, the thought remained that the Rupp Arena advantage and other less dominant performances (Columbia and Boston) suggested that UK was great, but vulnerable to the right test. However the game in Chicago has removed all doubt from all but the most die-hard of UK haters (talking to you Gottlieb). Mike Wilbon said the UCLA game was the best the most amazing he has seen in 35 years. Seth Davis has called UK going undefeated a “real possibility.” And Dan Dakich has gone on record and predicted that Kentucky will go 40-0. We now know this Kentucky team is certainly great and the only question that remains is if they are on a crash course for historically elite status.
But we in the BBN don’t actually need the national talking heads to tell us their opinions. We have watched elite basketball for decades and we know the best when it is front of our face. And at this point, it is beyond clear that his team is special in ways we simply may never see again. It almost boggles the mind. How can a team have nine (ten with Alex) players that are all destined to play in the NBA, but are all willing to sacrifice minutes and personal glory to allow their fellow players time to shine? How can a team have this much length and athleticism at EVERY position, allowing it to play defense at levels that opposing coach after opposing coach says they have never seen before? How can a team have no obvious weakness, not only playing tough defense, but sharing the ball as well as any group in over a decade? How can a team have all that talent and also be made of a group of genuinely good kids who are as high level off the court as they are on the court? How can all of those factors come together at once, in one season, with a coach at the top of his game, followed by a fan base unmatched in the sport and still find a way to dazzle us and produce multiple performances that leave us shaking our head?
It is time to embrace it. These are the proverbial good old days for Kentucky basketball and this may be a team for the ages. That doesn’t mean perfection is certain. Kentucky could still be shocked next Saturday by Montrezl’s punches and Rick’s hair plugs in the hardest game left on the regular season schedule on the road at Louisville. The Cats might end up in some random game on the road in February on the SEC where a team hits 13 threes and rides the wave shocks the world. Even worse, it is possible that in the NCAA Tournament, UK has the worst run of luck imaginable and trips up against an inferior team in a one game scenario that will seem as arbitrary and unfair as it is heartbreaking. Any of those things may happen. But it doesn’t change the simple fact. This team is already one of the best to ever wear the Kentucky uniform. 1948, 1951, 1978, 1996 and 2012 stand at the mountaintop of UK teams because of the way their titles were won, followed closely by a group that includes 1949, 1958, 1966, 1984, 1993, 1998, 2003 and 2010. It is nearly impossible to forsee a scenario where this 2015 group is not certain to be at least at the top of the second list, and potentially the top of the first one as well. At this point only two moments of this season truly matter…the one where they lose their first game (if it happens) and the NCAA Tournament. Those games are for history, while the rest are simply for entertainment.
I don’t know what the future holds. Due to the randomness of the NCAA Tournament, I don’t know if it is even certain that this team wins #9. But here is what is assured. We are watching a group that we will remember forever and we are seeing things that will never be repeated. It is rare to get to watch greatness…it is rarer still to realize it while it is taking place. Our great fortune this year is we are being treated to both.