INDIANAPOLIS – We need to appreciate what Kentucky did and what they gave us this season.
Hopefully, people who watch or cover college basketball have done their best to just enjoy this team, because it was worth the ride. The Wildcats did much more than just go 38-1, much as t-shirts will be sold with those two numbers and people will talk about this more than who who wins Monday night’s national championship game.
And in this time where teams are judged too harshly if they don’t go as far as some people think they should, it’s basically a foregone conclusion that a lot of people are not going to appreciate this.
Entering the season, some thought the Wildcats to be prohibitive national championship favorites. That’s a bit much this day in age, but that was out there. There was a question of whether or not they could do that without a loss. Early games did nothing to change that, with Kentucky blowing out teams including a good (albeit, as we would find out, somewhat inconsistent) Kansas team by 32 in the Champions Classic.
Kentucky shut teams down to an unprecedented degree. They played defense at a historic level, using their length, athleticism and team approach. There were some who put out the ridiculous notion that they could beat an NBA team.
We need to appreciate them. The Wildcats were this good. No, they couldn’t beat an NBA team, but they were a terrific college basketball team. They were a historic college basketball team.
Kentucky won 38 straight games to start the season. No college basketball team has ever done that. They didn’t do it against a bunch of teams with 300 RPIs; they beat Kansas, as noted earlier, as well as Providence, Texas, North Carolina, UCLA and Louisville, then they ran the table in the SEC, which is still struggling but placed four other teams in the NCAA Tournament. Then in the NCAA Tournament, they beat Cincinnati, West Virginia and Notre Dame – the last of whom won the ACC Tournament with wins over Duke and North Carolina on consecutive nights.
Kentucky held opponents to 35 percent shooting on the season, helping them to a scoring margin of over 20 points per game. Opponents shot 27 percent from behind the arc against them, meaning that getting hot from deep was unlikely to be a path to beating them – at least all by itself. They held four teams below 40 points. Saturday night was just the third time all season a team scored at least 70 points against them. On the offensive side, no SEC turned the ball over less than they did, meaning they weren’t a careless team, and in SEC games they gave the ball away just under ten times a game.
John Calipari didn’t just roll out the balls with this team, in other words.
But all of that is only part of the story. Forget those numbers.
What this Kentucky team gave us is a team we should appreciate. For all their talent, this team played unselfish basketball and bought into the idea of team basketball. They bought into playing less than all 40 minutes – indeed, no one played more than 26 minutes a night. They bought into not putting up big individual numbers in the name of team success; no player scored more than 11 points per game or topped seven rebounds per game. They bought into a team concept at a time when it’s so easy to get caught up in individual accomplishments. They wanted to win.
Remember, this is a group that was this talented, this deep, in part because a few players passed on the NBA for now a year ago. They didn’t just jump for the money. This group of kids isn’t what we often cast talented young players to be these days. We should understand that this team was nothing if not a refreshing display of what college basketball should be about.
More than that, this team seemed mature beyond their years. They understood that plenty of people wanted to see them lose along the way, that they would get everyone’s best shot. That’s not something to be underestimated – when you’re the favorite, you’re everyone’s proverbial Super Bowl. They understood that. They understood that they would be over-analyzed and over-analyzed some more, to the point of trying to find anything with this team that could lead to a loss. They understood that through all of that, they had to continue to buy in to the idea of team success and good team chemistry.
Kentucky did all of that. The results bear it out.
Now that the Wildcats have been knocked out of the NCAA Tournament without winning it all, all of that over-analysis will test this team differently. They need to block it out the same way they did all season. There will be those who call this team a failure. There will be those who will want them to apologize for losing a game, even if they lost to a very good team. Plenty will put this loss on them and not give Wisconsin credit. And plenty will act as if the 38 straight wins now mean nothing.
They all mean something. We can’t lose sight of the journey, or the fact that there are other pretty good teams out there. Kentucky wasn’t a failure. Kentucky doesn’t have to apologize for losing a game.
And shame on anyone who claims otherwise. They clearly missed and failed to appreciate a great season that Kentucky gave us. For that, we should thank the Wildcats and appreciate them.