Kentucky and the undefeated debate

Hey, John Calipari raised the idea. Now, can a group of freshmen really go 40-0?

Updated: November 2, 2013, 10:43 AM ET
By Eamonn Brennan

Bruce Weber remembers when the spotlight started to burn.

It was the last week of January 2005. Weber's Illini team -- you know the one -- was cruising through a brilliant unbeaten start, one it had built during November and December but sustained through five games of Big Ten play. Eyebrows were raised, but talk of an undefeated season was still mostly out of the question -- not with road games at Wisconsin and Michigan State looming just seven days apart.

But then the Illini did the unthinkable. They won at Wisconsin, ending the Badgers' 38-game win streak at the Kohl Center. And then, a week later, they won at Michigan State -- toppling the Maurice Ager-led team that would eventually go to the Final Four.

That's when things changed. Illinois wasn't just a good college basketball team anymore. It was a 22-0 team with a totally favorable remaining schedule. It was the Team That Might Go Undefeated. And, in turn, it became a national curiosity.

"From ESPN to the New York Times to the Washington Post to even CNN coming in, every day there was somebody [at our practice]," Weber said. "One day, I went to our [sports information director] and said, 'Enough, I'm cutting it off.' So I did.

"I remember I walked into practice and asked the kids if they noticed anything different, and they said, 'No media,'" Weber said. "And I said, 'Yep -- I cut it off.' And they starting hugging me and jumping on me and throwing the ball into the air celebrating. For them, it was just a relief. They didn't have to do another interview that day. They could relax."

[+] EnlargeJohn Calipari
AP Photo/James CrispJohn Calipari isn't trying to lower expectations. No, by bringing up the idea of going undefeated, he's raised them.

College basketball, like any other subculture, has its fair share of trigger words. But there is one that stands above the rest -- one word more likely to prompt immediate disgust and round dismissal, one word that just plain sets folks off.

That word? "Undefeated."

Every few years, when a good team carries an unbeaten record into January, some brave soul will look at the schedule and plot out the slim chance that the team in question could make it through two more months of games without a loss. Immediately, whoever does so is lambasted and buried under a pile of snark. Of course they won't go undefeated. No one goes undefeated. Now retweet those two sentences a million times and congratulations: You've just experienced the "undefeated" "debate." It's not very much fun.

It's no wonder, then, that college basketball coaches never come close to talking about the idea. Why bring that kind of scrutiny into the picture? Why put more pressure on your young, developing players? Why even mention it when you know the fallout to come?

In fact, in all of college basketball, there is exactly one coach who'll even come close to the topic. Guess who?

"Before I leave coaching, I would like to coach an undefeated team. I would like to coach an undefeated team before I'm done with this. Why? Because it can't be done, so let's chase that."

Yep: That was Kentucky coach John Calipari on the Superdome dais back in April 2012, mere minutes after his 38-2 Kentucky Wildcats hoisted the national championship -- the first of his career. Big Blue Nation was still marching en masse on Bourbon Street, and Calipari had hardly washed the celebratory spray out of his hair, but there he was, talking about how Kentucky's 38 victories were "the most wins" in college hoops history and how the next logical goal was to "go get them all."

It was silly, right? It was silly. And yet, 18 months later -- with a first-round NIT loss and the finalization of what many believe is the greatest recruiting class of all time -- people are taking the possibility seriously.

"I feel like [White House communications director] Jay Carney up here," Calipari said at UK media day Oct.15 after a reporter said Calipari had been "quite open" about the U-word. "Let me again tell you what I've said for about eight years: I've said, before I retire, I would love to coach a team that goes 40-0. … Will that happen? I don't know. Every game we play, we play to win. We're not playing any game not to win."

The brilliance of Calipari's semantics aside -- he's not saying his 2013-14 team will go undefeated, but he's happy to present the possibility -- clever messaging isn't the only reason he keeps getting these questions. It's because his team might actually be that good.

The Wildcats, ranked No. 1 overall in Thursday's first Associated Press preseason poll, are by most accounts even more talented than the 2011-12 team that was an iconic Christian Watford buzzer-beater against Indiana away from taking an undefeated record into the SEC tournament. Freshman forward Julius Randle is the preseason SEC player of the year, and one of maybe two candidates seemingly capable of competing with Kansas' Andrew Wiggins for the top spot in the 2014 NBA draft; wingman James Young is drawing raves from NBA scouts for his mixture of athleticism and perimeter shooting; Aaron Harrison and Andrew Harrison might be basketball's Sedins; and the rest of the lineup is comprised of talented returners (Willie Cauley-Stein, Alex Poythress) and freshmen that could have started just about anywhere else in the country (Dakari Johnson, Marcus Lee).

Calipari would never go so far as to predict an undefeated season, but he's clearly given the idea some thought. It seems to have rubbed off.

"If we put our mind to it, once everyone jells, I say we can do anything," Poythress told Kentucky Sports Radio last month. "The sky is the limit for this team, so why not aim at 40-0? We might as well try to do it, right? Why not? What's stopping us?"

[+] EnlargeBobby Knight, Scott May, Quinn Buckner
AP Photo, FileIndiana was the last team to run through a season unbeaten. It was a different time and place than the one Kentucky faces.

The no-chance faction might be making the least interesting argument ever, but they do have history on their side. The last team to go undefeated, the 1975-76 Indiana Hoosiers, played in a wholly different era. There were fewer games and fewer good teams and fewer good players. UCLA went 60-0 in 1971-72 and 1972-73; if you were good enough to beat UCLA in the 1970s, you were good enough to go unbeaten by default.

"It's just a totally different deal now," said Weber, whose team lost to Ohio State on the regular season's final day and once more that season in the national title game against North Carolina. "Everybody's team is better, everybody coaches better, scouts better. The parity in college basketball is practically a given. But the toll all of that stuff takes -- and then you throw in the attention. Sometimes you don't realize it until you look back, but it really is overwhelming.

"You need a mature, selfless group, you need to avoid injuries and you need to get lucky to just give yourself a chance," Weber said. "And even then it's just incredibly difficult to do."

Incredible? Yes. Impossible? Those close calls -- including Kentucky's in 2012, and a handful of other teams in recent years that were a few shots or a few calls or a few seconds away -- make the idea at least seem within reach. Then there's Kentucky's schedule, which features just one true road nonconference game (at North Carolina) and an uncertain SEC coming off a down year. This is the part where you reflexively say that an undefeated season can't happen, because it never happens. But come on: You don't think there's a chance?

And, of course, the funniest part about all of this 40-0 stuff is Kentucky has to avoid going 2-1 first. The Wildcats' third game, a Nov. 12 Champions Classic matchup against Michigan State, pits them against the best opponent on their schedule -- another very talented (and suitably athletic) Spartans team with some lofty goals of its own. What's more, as of Oct. 15, Calipari said he hadn't even worked on defense or rebounding with his team; he was more concerned with getting them into scrimmages so their offensive chemistry could blossom.

Kentucky is talented. Like, crazy talented. But that talented? Talented enough to go 40-0?

Probably not. But maybe. Given the state of the undefeated debate, "maybe" is an accomplishment unto itself.

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