The last time that an NCAA Division I men’s basketball team went undefeated, gas cost just over 50 cents a gallon, and Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” was topping national music charts. On Saturday night, the top-ranked University of Kentucky Wildcats (29-0 16-0 SEC) inched one step closer to its pursuit of perfection with a dominating 84-67 win over the 18th-ranked University of Arkansas Razorbacks (23-6 12-4 SEC). It was their eleventh victory over an Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) top-50 opponent, and, cinched the SEC regular season championship for the Wildcats.
With each win, the conversations grow louder as media, fans and even coaches acknowledge the possibilities of an undefeated season. There have been seven teams to finish a men’s college basketball season unbeaten and crowned as national champions, but it has been a very long time.
The first teams with undefeated records were the 1956 San Francisco Dons, the 1957 North Carolina Tar Heels. The 1964, 1967, 1972 and the 1973 University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) teams coached by John Wooden etched their names into college basketball history with perfect seasons. However, it hasn’t happened in almost 40 years, since the Bob Knight’s 1976 Indiana Hoosiers went 32-0.
This perfection drought is due in no small part to the increasing length of the season and the increasing complexity of the college game. The 1956 San Francisco Dons only needed compile 29 wins in their season, while Kentucky would be required to be 40-0 for perfection. With the NCAA’s addition of the three-point line in 1986, a night of skilled shooting from the outside allowed mid-major schools to compete with more athletic and physically imposing teams. In 1985, the shot clock was added to the collegiate game, which prevented stalling and increased the speed of the game. In addition, coaches have speculated that increased scouting technology has allowed teams to adjust and counter successful winning strategies and readjust throughout the season.
In 1991, Head Coach Jerry Tarkanian came close. His 1991 University of Nevada, Las Vegas Runnin’ Rebels are the most recent team from a major conference to finish the regular season unblemished. They went 34 games without a loss, before falling to the eventual national champion Duke team in the Final Four.
“Its really difficult to go undefeated. In the regular season, you know whoever you get is giving you their best effort and then when you get to the NCAAs, all the focus is on you. We never talked about it. Never. But everyone else did,” Tarkanian said, according to ESPN.
All of this begs the question: Will this Kentucky team finish off the season, enduring the rest of SEC play, as well as the gauntlet of March Madness without a single loss? Maybe.
The Wildcats are certainly capable of pulling it off. With a lineup featuring 10 players who are projected to eventually make their way to the NBA, Kentucky is the deepest and most talented team in the country. They play with two “platoons” of five men each, who trade off every few minutes. Head Coach John Calipari suggests that they don’t have reserve players on the bench, just a second group of starters. With 3 players 6’11” or taller and 10 players 6’6” or taller, Kentucky has the size to compete and impose a physical presence on any of their opponents. In fact, Kentucky’s starting five players are the tallest of any basketball team in the country, and that is including the NBA.
Each game that the Wildcats have played against a ranked opponent this season, they seem to shift to an even higher gear. The fifth-ranked University of Kansas was held to just 19.6 percent shooting in a 32-point rout by Kentucky. The sixth-ranked University of Texas was limited to under 30 percent shooting. Kentucky shot 56.3 percent against the 21st-ranked Tar Heels. The Wildcats limited the fourth-ranked University of Louisville to just 50 points and 25.9 percent shooting. The 18th-ranked University of Arkansas was outscored 40-24 in the paint. Not to mention that the first half of the game against UCLA ended with the Bruins recording just 7 points with a 8.1 percent field goal percentage.
After the Arkansas game, when asked about handling the pressure of big games under national attention, back up point guard Tyler Ulis said, “I feel like when people hype up the games we get a little more excited to play, more anxious, and then we come out and handle business,” according to ESPN.
This mentality is revealing of the teams’ maturity, which will be necessary to complete a season undefeated since the level of scrutiny will only increase throughout the SEC and the NCAA tournaments.
This Kentucky team can certainly be beat, and perfection is by no means guaranteed or even expected. Statisticians at ESPN predict only a 31 percent chance of an undefeated season as per Basketball Power Index (BPI). However, players and coaches have made comments throughout the season acknowledging that there is truly only one team in the country that is capable of matching Kentucky’s size, strength, athletic ability and knowledge of the game: Kentucky.
With just two regular season games remaining in the regular season, the SEC tournament and March Madness, there is much basketball left to be played. The Wildcats’ quest for an undefeated 40-0 season will continue tonight (Tuesday, March 3) at the University of Georgia at 9 p.m.
Six years ago, during his first season as head coach of the Wildcats, Calipari made his intentions clear. “Before I retire, I want to coach an undefeated team. Why? Simple. Because nobody can do it,” he said, according to ESPN.
This year, over the next 11 games, his team just might be able to prove him wrong and achieve the impossible.
— By Justin Graff, Contributing Writer