During this interminable intermission between the super-sweet Louisville beatdown and the beginning of conference play, the Big Blue Nation’s water cooler communion has been dominated by one proposition:
Will the Kentucky Wildcats go 40-0?
While with most matters every two Cats fans seem to have at least three opinions; on this question, there’s one consensus rejoinder:
Just like politics and religion (oops), posing the possibility of an undefeated season — one that includes an SEC title and a national championship — trespasses the boundaries of polite conversation. Winning the Big Dance, of course, is a fine and expected talking point for a fan base that’s been spoiled into immodesty by an Ã¼ber-talented ball team. But discussing a perfect record is seen either as an intolerable jinx or a problematic path to the more valued objective of a ninth crown and banner.
John Calipari wisely dodges the question. (Although his response — “They picked the Germans in World War II also” is both historically inaccurate and eerily reminiscent of the spirited revisionism of future U.S. Senator John Blutarsky.) Frankly, Cal is way too smart to publicly raise expectations, distract his team’s focus from each coming game, and/or provide bulletin-board fodder for his conference opponents.
But for the rest of us, rooting for an undefeated championship season is both healthy and productive.
As a starting point, disabuse yourself of the notion that suffering a “good loss” — or even a bad one — is optimal for team character and ultimate national triumph. That idea seems to have found legs in the ugly 1996 SEC tourney finals loss to Mississippi State that Rick Pitino spun into golden catalyst for the team’s subsequent championship: “As great as people make us out to be, we couldn’t have made a great run in the [NCAA] tournament unless we lost tonight because things have come too easy…The loss will help us. It shows us we’re not invincible.”
That’s terrific rear-view mirror motivation. But not a constructive strategy going forward.
Jim Fannin, a world renowned mental performance coach — who’s advised hundreds of professional athletes in nine different sports — agrees that it would detrimental for the Cats “to believe their own hype — where optimism turns into arrogance.” But to hope for a loss would be contrary to everything that the science of psychology teaches us about success. Fannin instructs that “while losing can sometimes help a team resolve its flaws, the key to success is to win when the team is at their worst…I have great faith in Cal that he can keep his team prepared and make the necessary adjustments without suffering a loss.”
Think of its this way: Would the Cats be stronger today had they lost to the Dirty Birds last week? Of course not. Matching up against tough competition in the winter is critical to developing the fortitude to win in March and April. But pulling out victories in these difficult cager crucibles is far more favorable for developing healthy self-confidence and surmounting future adversity than losing the close ones.
Further, the unprecedented depth of this year’s squad, combined with the innovative platoon scheme, mitigates against a typical adverse consequence posed by an undefeated regular season: exhaustion. Patriots fans will always second guess Bill Belichick’s failure to sufficiently rest his starters during their 16-0 campaign in 2007 — a near-perfect year that was spoiled by an upset loss in Super Bowl XLII. But that’s football. And with the Cats’ stars maxing out at 25 minutes per game, Kentucky will boast the freshest legs in all of the Big Dance.
But beyond the notion of whether we really want the Cats to run the table, is the perplexing superstition that vocalizing that desire would somehow hex the team. It’s part of the same bizarre tradition that muzzles television commentators from mentioning that a pitcher is hurling a no-hitter or that a place kicker hasn’t missed a field goal all season.
Certainly, that’s an advisable approach in the dugout or on the sidelines: Mental coach Fannin preaches the mantra: “I have no future; I have no past; My goal is to make the present last.” But in the stands or in front of a television? Phooey!
I have written extensively at this site about the quasi-religious nature of the Commonwealth’s devotion to our iconic basketball team. And there’s a millennia-long tradition of like-minded individuals joining in communal settings to vocalize their joint hopes and dreams for idyllic outcomes.
It’s called praying.
OK, before you erupt into cries that I am false idolizing, or that I imagine that God cares about the outcome of a particular sporting event, hold your typing fingers. Hoping and even praying for things that bring you and others happiness is good for the soul. (That’s partly why this liberal was always a Tim Tebow defender).
Certainly, it would be preferable from a moral perspective if our state joined in prayer for world peace, or an Ebola cure, or even for our two political parties to agree on anything of substance. But there’s nothing that binds our diverse and divided Commonwealth more than our hoops squad; and when we invest some of our communal energies behind the Cats, the spirit of selfless community that is fostered has significant benefits well beyond the hardwood. (Read why.) Instead of hoping for a loss, we should focus on envisioning a result that would bring our community the greatest satisfaction.
To be clear, I am not arguing that prayer will ultimately affect the outcome. But there are too many folks to ignore from across the religious, political and cultural spectrums who preach the collateral impact and transcendental power of collective positive thinking: from evangelical ministers (see Joel Osteen), to New Age philosophers, to sappy baseball movie writers.
And if you don’t believe me, take my wife (please). Lisa, a chaplain and mind/body health specialist who blends her Jewish faith with Eastern tradition, instructs: “Whatever you harbor in your heart has the power to affect change; wisdom traditions around the globe describe the incredible impact of individuals gathering in community with shared hopes and dreams. When our voices join together in community to express them, we reinforce the potential for making them come true.”
For most of the Big Blue Nation, the prize which we eye is our ninth national championship. And victory in April would not be spoiled if we find the Cats losing in January because we are as cold as our 1984 squad in Seattle and our opponent as high as the 1985 Villanova sharpshooters in Rupp. But focusing on such an improbability in advance isn’t going to make you feel any less disappointed should it happen.
Imagine telling your grandkids about our magical 40-0 season. Such an accomplishment today would instantly put the Cats into the pantheon of all-time-greatest teams. The uplifting spirit would be etched permanently into our community memory. No Dukie or Cards fan could ever diminish that.
So while I won’t be crushed by a road loss to Florida or LSU, or even an upset in the SEC tournament, I will be wishin‘ and hopin’ and thinkin’ and prayin’ and plannin’ and dreamin’ for a perfect season. And, of course, for world peace as well. Please join me.