Epic or footnote? Kentucky Wildcats begin historic quest – USA TODAY
John Calipari has long coveted a perfect season.
The Kentucky coach has admitted as much before, even on the very night he won his first national championship in 2012. But former assistant Orlando Antigua dates Calipari’s unabashed interest in an undefeated season to a few years earlier — to the 2008-09 season at Memphis that included a 27-game win streak.
“That’s when he started talking about it and putting it out there that he’d love to, one day, coach a team that went undefeated,” said Antigua, who worked for Calipari up until this season, his first as the head coach of USF. “His experiences, probably, made him one of the few coaches who could even think about talking in those terms.”
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Calipari’s current Kentucky team is on the precipice of perfection. The Wildcats are 34-0, entering the NCAA tournament as the No. 1 overall seed. If all goes according to plan and they win their next six games, culminating in cutting down the nets in Indianapolis, they’ll be the first Division I team to complete a perfect season since Indiana did it in 1976.
Due to an almost unheard-of collection of elite talent, superior size and unprecedented late-season depth, this Kentucky team seems primed to make history. The Wildcats’ length and defensive intensity make life miserable for opposing offenses; they lead the nation in field-goal percentage defense. The only question mark about this team, seemingly all season, was about the mental aspect of the game. Could nine former McDonald’s All-Americans truly play selflessly — sacrificing minutes and individual acclaim for the betterment of the team?
“Everyone said our egos would be against each other,” freshman guard Devin Booker said. “But I feel like our egos fit together perfectly, and that’s why we’re having the success that we’re having.”
Said freshman guard Tyler Ulis: “I’m very strong mentally; it never got to me. It’s great how we all stayed together, with the competition, with all the great players we have, the limited minutes we’re playing. We all stuck together, and that’s why we’re doing what we’re doing right now.”
Antigua said Calipari isn’t shy about talking about his chase for perfection, but not with his current players — only his staff and some potential recruits.
“He’ll bring it up in recruiting as a way of showing that’s what he wants — his staff, his kids, his recruits — to push for more. The only way to push for more is to set your sights on things people say can’t be done or haven’t been done or are impossible to do. Why can’t it be done now?”
Yet Calipari has actually tried to downplay the significance of a perfect season in recent weeks, as it’s become within grasp. Two weeks before the end of the regular season, he brought in a sports psychologist to talk to his players and get a sense of where they stood, mentally.
“I told him that the way I was approaching it was that I just wanted the regular season over,” Calipari said. “I told him, ‘If we get dinged, we get dinged. Let’s just get on with this.’ And (the psychologist) said to me, ‘Well, (they players) don’t feel that way.’
“So, it’s kind of neat to know that they are not of afraid of what’s going on. … I kind of knew I had a team that was a little bit on a mission themselves.”
Simply put, Kentucky’s players do not want to lose. Junior forward Willie Cauley-Stein said last week he doesn’t remember the last time he lost a game — and “I don’t want to want to remember what it’s like to lose.” Ulis said the Wildcats try to treat every game “like it’s the national championship,” approaching each contest with the energy and focus required for such a significant game.
It’s clear that is a focal point for the team, and something the coaching staff requires of its players. During Kentucky’s rather routine rout of Auburn in their SEC tournament semifinal on Saturday, Calipari chewed out his players so frequently and so fervently it was hard to tell the Wildcats were up 20 without glancing at the scoreboard. But that sort of nitpicking and intensity — well, that’s one way to guard against complacency and against overlooking an inferior opponent.
“When you do something from the start of the season to the end of the season, I mean, that’s persistence, that’s resilience, that’s handling success,” said John Pelphrey, a former Kentucky player and current Florida assistant. “Success can make you better than you are and not make you want to go back and practice. If complacency sets in, that’s a deadly evil, that’s a bad sin. So, yeah, what they’ve done this (season) is, to me, awesome.”
Said Auburn coach Bruce Pearl, who has been in the profession since 1982: “It’s the best team I’ve ever coached against.”
Perfection is attainable for this Kentucky team; that much is obvious.
All of the key ingredients are here. The Wildcats play defense better than anyone in the country, even Virginia and its smothering pack-line defense. Kentucky is the nation’s most efficient team on the defensive end; being the tallest team in the nation helps with that, too. Countless times over the course of the season, opponents have passed up what appear to be open shots because they didn’t feel open, considering Kentucky’s length and ability to close out.
The Wildcats wear down opponents. They have such a deep rotation — nine players average at least 17 minutes per game, with none averaging more than 25 — that they’re fresh late in games and, now, late in the season. Even in Kentucky’s close contests, opponents have seemingly run out of gas midway through the second half, whereas the Wildcats remained aggressive and relentless on both ends.
“When you’re hitting shots and you’re getting stops, you as a group just feel immortal, like you know that you’re not going to get beat,” Cauley-Stein said. “So, now it’s like you can really do anything.”
Calipari’s “platoon system” — which isn’t really two full, distinct units anymore — has helped each player develop at a different pace this season and ebb and flow as the season has progressed. It’s allowed Calipari flexibility along the perimeter, between the Harrison twins and the freshmen duo of Ulis and Booker. It’s allowed his big men to come into games in waves, allowing for rest and ferocity. He’s dared opponents to drive into the paint against two of the best forwards in the college game in Karl-Anthony Towns and Willie Cauley-Stein.
Perhaps most impressively, despite the depth and the inherent competition a roster teeming with talent brings, these players all appear to be on the same page psychologically. It’s helped, too, that this is not a stereotypical one-and-done roster, though it gets pegged as such. There are starters who experienced a run to the NCAA tournament title game last season and can share what they’ve gained from that with the freshmen. The team has fused its veterans and its freshmen, instead of fracturing.
“(Calipari) knows we have our minds right,” Ulis said. “There’s no jealousy on the team. If someone’s playing better, they’re going to play. You can’t blame anyone but yourself.”
There’s no sulking if and when that happens, either. Players push one another to become, as Calipari puts it, the “best versions of themselves” they can be. It’s that simple.
“We have some guys that are playing better than they’ve ever played in their life, and now the question is as you go into these last few weeks, you talk about, ‘How do you add two or three percent to your game?’ ” Calipari said. “Trey Lyles’ two or three percent may be flying up and down the court — just go a little harder and attacking the backboard rebounding just a little bit harder. Aaron (Harrison)’s may be attacking the basket, not settling — will you be a defensive playmaker on every possession? Can you notch it up two or three percent? The same with Andrew (Harrison).
“So each guy has their own little thing that they can do a little bit better at, and that’s what we’re trying to get them to think in terms of.”
That mindset has carried over so well, Kentucky’s players say they rarely worry or think about actual opponents. “If we’re at the best version of us, we’ll be tough to beat,” Booker said. If Kentucky doesn’t beat itself, it knows it’ll be in position to win any game.
As the Wildcats stare down history, they know their toughest tests lie ahead. But if any team is equipped to bounce back after a rough start to a game, or have one player step up while another struggles, or methodically wear down a foe in the final minutes, or hit a clutch jumper to win the game … that is this Kentucky team.
Take it from someone who knows exactly what the Wildcats are going through: Ron Baker, a member of last year’s Wichita State team that went undefeated into the NCAA tournament, where the Shockers lost to Kentucky in the round of 32.
“It’s not easy,” Baker said. “Every team is looking at your game on the schedule. They’re giving you their best shot. … (Kentucky) has managed. They’re making plays at the right time.
“That’s what that type of team — undefeated ones — have to do to survive and advance and keep the streak going.”
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