Dominant and resilient, Kentucky caps an undefeated regular season
LEXINGTON, Ky. – Trey Lyles, chewing gum with a roller beneath his legs near midcourt, broke into a smile. His torso then began undulating back and forth as an unmistakable hip-hop strain pulsed through the Rupp Arena speakers. This is how we doooo iiiiit, Montell Jordan declared to everyone in earshot. Lyles, one of Kentucky’s prized freshmen, listened, concurred, and therefore danced. He sang along. Then he looked to his right.
Dakari Johnson, laying flat in the midst of his own pregame stretch, was pumping his shoulders up and down with the beat.
There were 50 minutes between this scene and Kentucky’s quest to achieve perfection, to do what no other major-conference team had done in nearly four decades. And you certainly wouldn’t have known it by looking. This is attributable to a few things, not least the 30 wins that preceded Saturday afternoon and the confidence they built. But it seemed something more, too. The Wildcats had become immune to the expectations they heaped upon themselves. They are a team without fear.
“Everybody just tries to have fun with everything we do,” Lyles said. “We don’t talk about (pressure) as a team. We just talk about going out there and playing hard and playing for each other. We really don’t feed into stuff. We know it’s going on. But it’s just clutter.”
By the end of the day, they remained a team without a loss because of this approach. A 67-50 victory over Florida made it a 31-0 regular season, the first time a power conference team completed a spotless campaign since Indiana in 1975-76.
“What they’ve done,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said, “may not happen again for a long, long time.”
Of course, there is so much more beyond this. All the history is diminished without six wins in March and April, culminating with a championship in Indianapolis.
Kentucky is well-equipped to manage that. For the entire season, it essentially has been competing only against itself. First it was finding new and inventive ways to pulverize opponents. (For an example, check the halftime box of the UCLA game, though this is not recommended for anyone who is pregnant or has a heart condition.) That ability to atomize other teams was important for building confidence in a system, and in how that system worked.
The truly important part came next.
When victory wasn’t anywhere near guaranteed, when it in fact seemed damn near impossible, the Wildcats managed to dodge disaster regardless. It happened against Texas A&M. It happened earlier this week against Georgia, when the Bulldogs built a nine-point second-half with nine minutes left Athens. But by then, there was no worry. By then, the idea of losing had become so preposterous, so out of the realm, that the Wildcats shrugged off their imminent demise.
And, so, they didn’t lose.
“It just felt like, it’s going to happen,” freshman guard Tyler Ulis said. “We’re going to do what we’ve done multiple times this year. And we did it.”
Which brought us to Saturday, and nothing to fear at all. With perfection on the line, in a game that very well could have been decided by one possession, Calipari started his three senior walk-ons – because, he said, he wanted them to have a picture to frame for posterity. Twenty-two seconds later, they were back on the folding chairs along the sideline, but there was no trepidation of a wasted trip down the floor. “I told them, 35 years from now, you can say you started,” the Wildcats coach cracked. “Who the hell knows?”
At halftime, the lead was just three. Florida was draining 3-pointers (5 of its first 9) and beating its hosts at its own game, outrunning the Wildcats and exacting a price for turnovers in the way that Kentucky usually does, better than almost anyone else.
And the Wildcats bloodlessly breezed through. Then the predictable cloudburst came at about the 10-minute mark of the second half. A Devin Booker 3-pointer, a Ulis runner, a Karl Towns finish, and in a blink it was a 10-point game. It never got better for the visitors. And win No. 31 followed in due time.
As the seconds trickled off the clock, Andrew Harrison lifted and waved his arms, though the full-throated Rupp Arena crowd was on its feet anyway. At the horn, no one rushed the floor, no one grabbed anyone else for deep embraces. The only nod to anything special occurring here was a brief postgame gathering in which the players were handed blue T-shirts to commemorate their season.
31-0, the shirts read in white block lettering, underscored by another message: NOT DONE.
“There’s no nets being cut down because we went 31-0,” Towns said. “Nets will be cut down when we win championships.”
There is still much left to do for the team that has done so much -- more than any team has done in just about as far as anyone can remember. A couple hours before the perfect ending, at the end of the brief Senior Day festivities, the players and coaches locked arms and swayed back and forth to “My Old Kentucky Home.” It was the last time anyone would hear that in Rupp this year. Next up, it’s Nashville for the SEC tournament, and then the NCAA brackets after that. Time to take the show on the road.