Deep, talented Kentucky hints at greatness in throttling Kansas
INDIANAPOLIS – It can’t happen. It won’t happen. It could never happen.
Except it might.
Yes, a college basketball season is a marathon, but never is a really long time. It has been 39 years since Bob Knight’s Indiana Hoosiers last won the NCAA championship with an undefeated record. In the years since, a few teams have flirted with perfection. Saint Joseph’s entered the 2004 Atlantic 10 tournament undefeated. Wichita State entered the 2014 NCAA tournament undefeated. UNLV entered the 1991 Final Four undefeated. Each team lost a game. And never got a little bit longer.
Behold, then, the 2014-15 Kentucky Wildcats. The nation’s No. 1 team emerged from an arctic blast outside Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Tuesday night and proceeded to freeze the No. 5 Kansas Jayhawks. The Wildcats closed off the rim (11 blocks), took care of the ball (only six turnovers), closed out on shooters (19.6 field goal percentage defense) and thoroughly embarrassed one of the top teams in the country (the Jayhawks managed just 12 ... 12 second half points).
The No. 5 Jayhawks are a work in progress, but there’s a reason they are ranked where they are. They have an excellent recruiting class and they start four talented veterans. And yet, Kentucky made the Jayhawks look like a jayvee team. The Wildcats didn’t merely look great. They looked historically great.
Fine, it’s only mid-November, but it's not too early to ask the question straight from Never Neverland: Can this team go undefeated?
The answer is, yes it can. Doesn’t mean it will. Doesn’t mean it’s likely. But it can. Here’s why:
It can survive a bad shooting night
This is the number one reason good teams lose to inferior ones. These are college kids, not robots. Sometimes they just don’t make shots.
But when a team is this big and this deep, outside shooting is a luxury, not a necessity. The Wildcats made just six three-pointers against Kansas. Overall, they shot 43 percent. They only attempted two more shots than the Jayhawks. Yet, the game was a Big Blue Beatdown because the defense was so outstanding. That was no fluke.
"Some of my teams at UMass had games where we shot under 40 percent and we won," Kentucky coach John Calipari said afterwards. "I loved it, because that means you’re guarding, you’re not turning it over, you’re making free throws."
Those are all things that teams can do every single game as long as they are willing to put forth the effort.
It is not susceptible to foul trouble
Individually, Duke freshman center Jahlil Okafor was the best player at the Champions Classic. He scored 17 points on 8-of-10 shooting and grabbed five rebounds in the Blue Devils’ 81-71 win over Michigan State. His supporting cast performed well when Okafor went to the bench after picking up his fourth foul midway through the second half. But Michigan State is not a very good team right now, and Okafor only had to sit for a few minutes. If Duke lost him for extended periods in a game against a really good team, the Blue Devils would have a hard time winning.
Kentucky, on the other hand, has six – count em, six – frontcourt guys who are NBA-caliber players. That’s 30 – count em, 30 – fouls just in the frontcourt. That, in turn, means all six of those guys can be as aggressive as they want going after blocked shots and offensive rebounds, because they’re all only going to play about 20 minutes a game anyway. That’s a whole lotta margin for error.
It has a favorable nonconference schedule
Yes, Kentucky is going to play a lot of good teams, but only one of those tough matchups is a true road game. Kentucky will play Texas and North Carolina in Rupp Arena and UCLA in Chicago. The big one is Dec. 27 at Louisville. That’s a triple whammy: on the road, against a rival, with a starting five that can hang with anyone.
It will not be easy to navigate that gauntlet, but if the Cats can manage it, that will put them into league play in January. And then we could really have something.
It plays in a bad league
I’m not saying the SEC is as bad as the Missouri Valley was last year (which was the main reason Wichita State entered the tournament undefeated), but it’s clearly the weakest among the power five. Kentucky’s top competitor, Florida, lost four seniors from last year’s team and just lost a home game to unranked Miami. Another putative challenger, LSU, needed overtime Tuesday night to beat Texas Tech at home.
Or look at it this way: Just last year, Florida went undefeated in the SEC during the regular season. The Gators did it by relying on four seniors who went undrafted by the NBA. If nothing else, there is a better-than-even chance Kentucky will go 18-0 in league play like Florida did last year.
That's a good starting point.
It has good chemistry
So it seems, anyway, at this early stage. We know that it is not enough to assemble a lot of talent. The players have to get along and buy into whatever the coach is trying to sell them. Doc Rivers likes to say that he would rather draw up a bad play and have his players believe in it than vice versa. Calipari is good at drawing up plays, but what he’s really good at is getting his guys to buy into the notion of unselfish basketball. The NBA combine, the goofy two-platoon system, the nonstop talk about "players first" and "servant leadership," all of it is done to inculcate the concept of team-oriented basketball. That is not easy to do in this day and age, but nobody does it better than Calipari. For evidence, look no further than his 2012 NCAA champs.
As 7-foot junior forward Willie Cauley-Stein said after the game, "It's about trust, but winning helps." The way Calipari shuttles these guys in and out, each player knows he’s going to get his minutes and get his shots. When they commit like they did Tuesday night, they are a site to behold.
"I'm blessed to have a group of guys like this," Calipari said. "Other guys watch us and say, 'I wouldn’t want to do that. I’d be out of rhythm. I want my 35 minutes.' But these guys are performing at a high level, accepting it and cheering for each other. They’re comfortable in their own skin."
Despite all these built-in advantages, it is more likely than not that Kentucky will get tripped up along the way. Like I said, these are not robots. They’re going to have some stinkers. If and when they lose, it will probably be against a team they take lightly as opposed to a ranked team like Kansas. That’s what happened on Sunday, when the Wildcats trailed the University of Buffalo by five points at home before waking up in the second half. Everyone called this a major "scare." They won by 19. Really scary.
Buffalo didn't have the talent to pull off the seismic upset, but it did offer a template for how it can be done: Be patient on offense, take care of the ball, work the clock and, most of all, make open jump shots, because there will be nothing available near the rim.
"It’s going to have to be a tough team that's skilled enough that they can drive the ball and force help and then play from the perimeter rather than the interior," Kansas coach Bill Self said. "There are teams out there that can play like that, but you're going to have to make shots."
Stylistically, Kansas was a favorable matchup for the 'Cats. The Jayhawks don’t have much size inside, and they like to stretch their defense to the perimeter to try to force steals. That made it easier for the Wildcats to use their quickness, but they will face opponents who use different approaches.
"Teams will play us zone and sag," Calipari predicted. "They’re going to pay pack line defense. They’re going to go zone and they’re going to trap the post and force us to shoot jumpers."
Unfortunately, those same teams are still going to have to score. A team can execute perfectly at one end of the floor, but can they do it on both?
Mostly, Kentucky is going to have to beat the attrition of a long season.
"They’re going to go somewhere where they catch somebody who is playing great, and it’s going to be hard," Self said. Asked whether he thought it was crazy to suggest that Kentucky could run the table, Self replied, "I don’t think it’s crazy to think that, but I don’t know if I'd base everything on this one game. I don't know if you can talk about that now, but I would say by February, if they’re still undefeated, that could be something that could happen."
Why wait until February? Might as well talk about it now, because as long as this team stays perfect, we’re through talking about never.