ATHENS, Ga. — A frustrated John Calipari gathered his team on the sideline midway through the second half of Tuesday’s game against Georgia. A few moments earlier, Bulldogs’ forward Yante Maten hit a layup to give Georgia a nine-point lead, 56-47, over the visiting Wildcats. It mattered little that Calipari’s crew had brought a 29-game win streak into Athens. With 9:12 to play, the Dawgs were in control of the nation’s top-ranked team.
But Calipari looked at his players during his next timeout. His message was simple: Show me what you’ve got.
“’I hope we go down 10,’” Calipari said. “That’s what I said to them. We needed to find out who’s who. Who’s going to make a play?”
Calipari demanded a resounding response from his Wildcats and that’s what his players delivered. Kentucky turned on its defense in the final few minutes, finished the game on a 16-2 run and escaped Stegeman Coliseum, 72-64. The Zombie ‘Cats extended their record to 30-0, the best start to a season in SEC history.
For another day, the theme of Kentucky’s season remains perfection. Every game is a new chance for the sling of David to topple Big Blue Goliath. College basketball fans across the country watch in earnest as they await the Wildcats’ ultimate demise. On Tuesday, NBA legend Charles Barkley, New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick and actress (and Kentucky superfan) Ashley Judd were all in attendance to witness the Wildcats’ latest victory. The attention is palpable, yet Kentucky is still knocking on the door of a perfect campaign with one regular-season game remaining: Saturday vs. Florida.
The weekend can’t come soon enough for Calipari.
“I just want the regular season over,” Calipari said. “I’ve been telling the guys for two weeks, just get this over with. The real stuff starts in a week or two. Let’s just get this done.”
For the first 30 minutes on Tuesday, Georgia did its best to rid Kentucky of the burden of perfection. The Bulldogs took a 32-32 score into the halftime break and built it into an early second-half lead. J.J. Frazier drained a 3-pointer with 11:10 to play to give Georgia its largest lead up to that point, 50-43. Two minutes later, Maten extended his team’s advantage to nine with his layup.
The Dawgs had the nation’s top-ranked team against the wall. That’s when Kentucky’s defense decided to wake up.
“We we’re just thinking about what we needed to do to win,” center Karl-Anthony Towns said. “We came into the huddle and said we wanted five straight stops. We said three, then Andrew [Harrison] said five. So we went for five.”
The defensive stand worked. After Georgia’s Nemanja Djurisic hit a layup with 6:02 to play, the Bulldogs didn’t hit another field goal until the 0:29 mark.
“They played better than us today,” Towns said. “We just so happened to play it at the right moment and at the right time.”
On an off day, it helps that Kentucky might have one of the most talented rosters in the modern era of college basketball. The front line of Towns, Willie Cauley-Stein and Trey Lyles is by itself a near-seven-foot embarrassment of riches. That size is a big reason why the Wildcats’ defense has been one of the best in the country. It ranks No. 2 nationally in adjusted defense, per Kenpom.
That defense is also the primary catalyst behind Kentucky’s dominance. The program entered Tuesday winning its road games by an average of 12.4 points per game, a better margin than every Division I team except Virginia. It has beaten six ranked opponents by an average of 17.2 points per game this season. When Kentucky is clicking, no team can hang with it.
“They are so dang good that you almost have to play perfect,” Georgia coach Mark Fox said, “and that’s not realistic.”
But Tuesday’s contest was a prime example of a program that can also play far below its potential. After the game, Calipari criticized his team’s pick-and-roll defense. He called out Cauley-Stein for a lackluster (four points, 2-for-7 shooting) outing. Calipari also credited Georgia for its remarkable effort, calling the Bulldogs a “top-20 team.” Calipari knew his team had more than it was showing. That’s why he ripped into his players in the locker room at halftime.
“It was rough,” Aaron Harrison said of his coach’s halftime speech. “That’s all I know. I can’t really say any other words.”
Regardless of how it got there, Kentucky left Athens with its undefeated record still intact. Whether that matters or not is up for debate. After the game, Calipari and his players shrugged off the importance of playing for perfection. The journey doesn’t matter if it doesn’t end in a national title. But the reality is, the pursuit of perfection will linger over this team until one of two things happens: Kentucky loses, or it wins that national championship.
Of course, a loss Tuesday wouldn’t have derailed Kentucky’s path to the Final Four. A loss to Florida on Saturday won’t, either. Unbeaten or not, the Wildcats have proven they can win games without running on all cylinders. Perhaps that approach won’t work in the Final Four. But against SEC foes, it’s getting the job done for now. And that’s this team’s primary objective.
“Teams are getting better every day, just like we are,” Towns said. “They’re learning new things. Every game we play, they’re getting more tape to watch us. That’s just the way the season, and the game, is.”
The Wildcats have already clinched the top seed in the SEC tournament, which kicks off March 11 in Nashville. It’s easy to see why this roster might start looking ahead. But Kentucky’s players won’t say if an undefeated record remains on their mind, even after they nearly lost it on Tuesday. For the Wildcats, it’s still one game at a time.
“We’re going to think about Florida on Saturday,” Andrew Harrison said. “That’s the only thing we can do.”