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Kentucky basketball: Great program? Or the greatest program?*

12/22/2009

That is a fair question to ask, is it not? After all, Monday night's impressive 88-44 romp over Drexel made Kentucky the first school to reach 2,000 wins in the history of college basketball. This is not a victory Kentucky fans are going to take lightly. For example, Kentucky blogger Truzenzuzex at A Sea Of Blue is literally ecstatic today:

Congratulations, Big Blue Nation. This is a big moment, and I want everyone to enjoy it. We have been through a lot in the last four years, and as we always knew it would, the program got back on track. We kept the faith, and our hopes became reality faster than the most optimistic among us could have ever dared dream. Upon reflection, I'd never have predicted we could come from the pit of despair (last year's NIT) to winning our first 12 games and stretching our lead over the North Carolina Tar Heels by four games. [...]

As René Belloq said to Indiana Jones, "Indy, we are only passing through history -- this IS history."

This IS history, my friends. Celebrate with me.

You know things are getting celebratory when the Indiana Jones quotes start flying. ROADS? WHERE WE'RE GOING, WE DON'T NEED ... Wait. Was that not Indiana Jones? Whatever. Indy didn't need roads, either.

Of course, Kentucky fans have much to be excited for in the near future. Their lineup is stacked with young talent, including some dude named John Wall, who I guess is pretty good, and a bunch of other guys who can, on any given night, outclass all but three teams in the country. (I'm thinking Texas, Kansas, and Syracuse still deserve the nod. But it's tight at the top.) Big Blue Nation, as the preternaturally nuts fan base refers to itself, has much to look forward to, both in 2009-10 and beyond.

But let's cut to the chase. Is Kentucky the best program ever? If yes, why? If not, why not? Please show your work.

Let's go to the math. Earlier this year, noted sports stats pioneer Jeff Sagarin -- the same guy responsible for the Sagarin Ratings, one of the first math-heavy team metrics to be widely used in college sports -- set about ranking the best programs in the history of college basketball, all-time. (You can see the book excerpt in PDF format right here.) His formula put the Wildcats at No. 1. Why Kentucky over UCLA? The Bruins have many more NCAA titles, but:

... as dominant as the Bruins were under John Wooden, they didn’t even rank as a top-40 program in the 1940s. Meanwhile, Kentucky hasn’t finished lower than 10th in any decade.

Of course, these are just one man's ratings. Pat Forde took issue with Sagarin's ratings -- both with Kentucky's overall top spot and with a plethora of more minor quibbles in his formula -- arguing that Sagarin seems to place too much weight on wins in the segregation era. Which brings us to a whole 'nother mess of problems with Kentucky's 2,000 wins: the proportion of those wins won under Adolph Rupp.

You could make the argument that those wins come with the taint of racism, as Rupp was so reluctant to recruit and play African-American players (his last team, in 1972, had five white starters), was notoriously vicious in the aftermath of Texas Western's 1966 title upset, and was by many accounts not the most tolerant man in the world. But even if you want to push that stuff aside -- and I'm not sure it's fair to do so, but for the sake of argument here, let's go for it -- you also have to factor in that so many of Kentucky's wins came in college basketball's Paleozoic era. Much as it's hard to argue that Babe Ruth probably wasn't playing the best baseball competition in the world, it's hard to argue Rupp's tenure (1930-1972) didn't happen in college basketball's whitest, boringest, most talent-bereft years.

You could also, if you felt so inclined, decide to mention Kentucky's history of NCAA infractions. Kentucky received college hoops' first death penalty in 1952-53; there have been plenty of more minor infractions since.

None of which is to take Kentucky's accomplishment away from Kentucky. The program has had plenty of post-Rupp wins, too, and let's be real: It's one of the best college hoops programs in the country, year in and year out, from both a production standpoint and an historical one. And its fans are, to be blunt, amazing. But the best program of all-time? Two thousand wins doesn't quite grant that, especially when so many of those wins came before black players changed basketball forever. In this case, maybe 2,000 wins is just 2,000 wins. Maybe, as is so often the case, quantity doesn't quite equal quality.

Then again, it's not like my opinion matters. I'm betting Kentucky fans -- or any other fan base -- will gladly take it.

*With apologies to Stephen Colbert, of course.