With SEC title in hand, Kentucky turns full focus to quest for perfection
NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Kentucky coach John Calipari stepped on a makeshift stage at midcourt of Bridgestone Arena, shaking off a piece of blue confetti from his shoe. Just behind the coach, a full contingent of Wildcats donned T-shirts and hats that read "2015 SEC Tournament Champions." Freshman forward Karl-Anthony Towns, lurking behind his teammates, draped SEC-colored blue-and-gold streamers across his broad shoulders.
[daily_cut.college basketball]The Wildcats had just completed the latest step in their quest for perfection, topping Arkansas 78-63 for the SEC tournament title. The win pushed Kentucky to 34-0 on the season. Calipari accepted the championship trophy and thanked the masses of Big Blue Nation who remained in their seats. As the crowd roared, the coach led his team off the floor, passing a ladder placed strategically beneath a basketball goal on the way.
The Wildcats didn’t forget to cut down the nets. They simply chose to use the moment as a statement. Their message? "We’re not done yet," forward Marcus Lee said.
Kentucky ran the table at the SEC tournament to win its 28th tournament title. The program remains the pride of the SEC, but the win over Arkansas shed no new light on Kentucky. Everyone in the conference expected the Wildcats to emerge victorious in Nashville. The true test for the program begins later this week, when Kentucky puts its dancing shoes on in the NCAA tournament.
Kentucky has spent much of the season downplaying the importance of a perfect record. In realty, its players and coaches have been right about that. The Wildcats' goal of a national championship wouldn’t have died with a regular season loss, or even a loss in the SEC tournament. But Sunday’s game was the last in which perfection didn’t matter for Kentucky. Now, as the NCAA tournament unfolds, Calipari and his players must strive to stay unbeaten to win the national title.
Ask the ‘Cats themselves, however, and they’ll say their record still doesn’t mean as much as the end goal.
"We’re not really worried about a perfect season," guard Devin Booker said. "We’re worried about winning a national championship. That was our main goal coming in. Now we have to win every game to win a national championship, so we’re just taking it one game at a time."
On Sunday the Wildcats locked up the NCAA tournament’s overall No. 1 seed when brackets were announced. They’ll play the winner of Manhattan and Hampton on Thursday in the Midwest Region. That’s when the journey will resume, as the program strives to become the first undefeated champion since a Bob Knight-coached Indiana squad in 1975-76.
A league-record 20,315 fans—a crowd made up of 80% Kentucky fans, if not more—watched Calipari’s team win its first SEC tournament since 2011 on Sunday. The Wildcats jumped out to an 8-0 lead in the first half before Arkansas managed to claw back in. The Razorbacks, who boasted the SEC’s highest-scoring offense (79 points per game) during the regular season, used a 9-2 run to slice Kentucky’s lead to 48-39 with 11:59 to play in the second half.
But as they’ve done all season, the ‘Cats managed to pull away. Willie Cauley-Stein (15 points, 10 rebounds) paced Kentucky, which finished with a 33-25 rebounding advantage, including 13 offensive boards.
"When you talk about playing a Kentucky team, obviously you can’t let them just annihilate you on the glass," Arkansas coach Mike Anderson said.
Calipari is the mad scientist responsible for this season's Big Blue concoction. A team with immense talent has used a suffocating defense and balanced offense to live up to the external hype. On Sunday Cauley-Stein took home the SEC tournament’s MVP award and joined guards Aaron and Andrew Harrison on the league’s all-tournament team. Pressure and selfishness have yet to plague this roster, and that’s something for which Calipari won’t take credit.
[daily_cut.kentucky]"Everybody is talking about how we have done this, the platooning and all that," Calipari said. "But you just have to understand, these players have allowed this to happen. It’s not what I’ve done. It’s what they have allowed to happen. Whether it’s share time, share minutes, share shots."
But now Kentucky must accept the narrative of perfection. An undefeated record is no longer just a talking point for Big Blue Nation—it’s a goal. A single loss in NCAA tournament play would end this remarkable run. Championship expectations long ago defined this team, and Sunday’s result didn’t change that. A sign in the Bridgestone Arena crowd read "D9NASTY," a nod to what would be the Wildcats’ ninth national championship if they run the table over the next few weeks. In reality, this unblemished run will be for nothing if Kentucky isn’t the last team standing.
As the postgame celebration wound down on Sunday, Kentucky finally dispatched its managers to cut down the nets from the Bridgestone Arena goals. Towns hung one of the nets around his neck as he spoke to reporters in the Wildcats’ locker room. Asked if his team has yet to click on all cylinders this season—eight Wildcats scored at least eight points—Towns shook his head.
"Uh, no," Towns said. "It’s going to be amazing when it happens. I don’t think we’ve reached exactly where we’re going to be as a team."
No one knows what the future holds for Kentucky, but now no one can deny the goal: Perfection.