LEXINGTON, Ky. – John Calipari wasn’t up for cliff diving Tuesday. Not quite.
The Kentucky coach stepped away from the ledge a little bit, backed off the talk he stirred up himself about a 40-0 college basketball season. At UK media day, Calipari said he’s talking in generalities about one day coaching an undefeated team – not necessarily about this particular team.
“I’ve said before I retire, I would love to coach a team that goes 40-0,” Calipari said. “I’ve said it for 8-10 years. Will that happen? I don’t know. … We don’t talk about it as a team. It’s not like, ‘Oh, we’re going 40-0.’ We don’t.”
Not taking the perfection plunge. Neither was freshman point guard Andrew Harrison.
“We don't talk about that at all,” Harrison said. “We just try to get better every day. Everyone knows we have a lot of talent on our team. We know we have a lot of talent. But a ball could roll the wrong way. One bad shot, that could turn a game. We don't focus on being 40-0.”
Wise move by Cal and his 'Cats, because 40-0 talk is crazy talk. Nobody has even gone 32-0 since 1976, much less 40-0. And the last unbeaten (Indiana) did it with a veteran group that was 31-1 the previous year.
Not exactly the same as an unproven team coming off a disaster of a season that ended with a loss to Robert Morris in the first round of the NIT.
It’s true that 2013-14 Kentucky bears scant resemblance to 2012-13 Kentucky. The players are almost all brand new, which is the norm at Roster Churn U. The players also are much better this time around, as the oft-labeled Greatest Recruiting Class in History gets ready for six months of the college hoops experience.
It’s that kind of talent that got Calipari revved up on the undefeated talk. He mentioned it back in 2012 after winning the national title, and he mentioned it again last spring after putting the finishing touches on this monster recruiting haul.
“We’re chasing perfection,” he said in May. “We’re chasing greatness. We’re chasing things that have never been done in the history of our game. What I like about that, people say, ‘Pressure!’ Man, pressure brings out the best.”
Calipari pointed out that three of his previous teams have come close to going undefeated – Massachusetts in 1996, Memphis in 2008 and Kentucky in 2012. All three lost two games. All three made the Final Four. One (Kentucky) won it all. All three were great teams.
So he’s come close to perfection. Kind of.
None of those teams took the burden of unbeaten into one-and-done tournament basketball. The UMass team lost to George Washington in its 27th game. The Memphis team also took a perfect record into late February before losing to Tennessee at home. Kentucky got its loss out of the early, in December at Indiana.
I’ll submit that it’s far easier to win it all if you haven’t won them all entering March Madness. Especially in the current climate. The hype would be hysterical and the pressure would be roughly the equivalent of a day on Jupiter.
A team of teenagers would not seem ideally suited to handling an unbeaten season in March, and it really doesn’t need to deal with talk about going 40-0. Even teenagers this lavishly gifted.
Calipari thought about it for a while Tuesday when I asked if, with experience taken out of the equation, this is his most talented team. He mentioned the ’12 national champs. He mentioned the 2010 Wildcats, with five first-round picks and top-five selections John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins – both of whom recently signed NBA max contracts.
“I’d like this to play out a little bit and look back,” he said. “I will tell you this team is deeper than (the 2010) team.”
Given that talent and the completely altered terrain of high-level college hoops, it is reasonable to rank Kentucky No. 1 heading into this season. Of course, it’s also reasonable to rank defending national champion Louisville or Michigan State No. 1, since both have a vast edge in experience over the 'Cats. (And both play Kentucky. Set aside time right now for UK-Michigan State on Nov. 12 and UK-Louisville on Dec. 28.)
It’s also reasonable to wonder whether this shockingly young UK team might be vulnerable to one of the biggest issues last year’s shockingly young UK team was. There is no upperclass leader with a significant role to rely on in times of crisis, as there was with Calipari’s first three teams – no Patrick Patterson, no DeAndre Liggins, no Josh Harrellson, no Darius Miller. Who steadies the boat when the seas get rough?
A reasonable question that can create a reasonable doubt – except to the bluenatic fringe of Kentucky fandom. CBS analyst Doug Gottlieb caused outrage in the Bluegrass this week by daring to rank the Wildcats seventh in his preseason poll. Outrage is a natural state for the bluenatic fringe, so the very fact that someone isn’t completely in love with a group nobody has seen play together yet was fresh fodder.
(Should this team flop – not likely – some of the same members of that fringe will blame the media for overrating it to begin with. Set your watch by that.)
Calipari’s radical remake of how to build a basketball program is intriguing on many levels. It is an unapologetic belief in the notion that whoever has the most toys tends to win. It is an embrace of the challenge of turning star players into cohesive role players for the common good. It is an ambitious and exhausting endeavor to reinvent a team every year – although this comment on Tuesday undoubtedly will draw a chuckle from some of his coaching colleagues: “I would not wish this on anybody, every year trying to coach a new team.”
Right. Ask the guys at the bottom of the Southeastern Conference trying to win with sub-Developmental League talent if they might want to take on that burden.
The Great Calipari Experiment has been a huge success at Kentucky, with one glaring exception last year. This looks like a return to glory as usual – but even the coach who brought up the idea of 40-0 is wisely unwilling to go there right now.