Brace yourselves: Kentucky should be undefeated heading into March Madness
LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Next stop, 34-0.
After Kentucky walked away from its head-on collision with Louisville here Saturday with a few scratches, a few stitches and a lot of smiles, it's fair to declare the Wildcats bulletproof from now until one-and-done time. Their 58-50 brawl with the arch-rival Cardinals was the last chance America had of beating the 'Cats before they assuredly open NCAA tournament play March 19 in this same arena as the overall No. 1 seed.
And honestly, Kentucky won't be seriously challenged then, either. It won't happen until the regional in Cleveland in late March, or early April at the Final Four in Indianapolis.
If at all.
When John Calipari's team handled the charged atmosphere of the Yum! Center and the second-best defense in the land – next to UK's own – that cleared the path for months to come. UK will roll through the Southeastern Conference like Sherman through Georgia. There will be routs on top of routs, laughers on top of laughers, mismatches on top of mismatches.
Mississippi, Texas A&M, Missouri, Alabama and Vanderbilt – UK's first five SEC opponents – are on notice. You guys are welcome to talk a good game beforehand, but understand what's coming down the pike.
The Wildcats don't put their pants on one leg at a time like you do. They jump into them on the dead run. And never leave their zipper down.
If you insist on finding a danger zone, it would be the Feb. 7-10 road double dip at Florida on a Saturday and at LSU on a Tuesday. Or maybe when Arkansas and its problematic style visits Rupp Arena on Feb. 28. But I'd be surprised if more than one of those games is even close.
Calipari, of course, doesn't want to hear it. Or at least acknowledge it. He was told several ESPN analysts have said Louisville was the last serious roadblock, and swatted it down.
"They picked the Germans in World War II, also," he responded.
Since Cal isn't likely to use his second unit to open a war on a second front, he's not going to screw this up. Still, he is understandably not going to stick his tongue out at the SEC right now. The last thing he'd like to do is feed any potential complacency in his locker room or provide bulletin-board fodder in anyone else's.
He shilled for the conference, saying that it is No. 2 in the RPI (actually No. 3 on the two websites I checked). He did not mention that the SEC is No. 5 in the Pomeroy Ratings and the Sagarin Ratings. He said five SEC teams should get in the Big Dance, which is at least one more than most people are predicting right now.
So Calipari did what he had to do, and commissioner Mike Slive can thank him for that. But the reality is, an extraordinary team now has 18 ordinary opponents between it and the SEC tournament. Then three games there against the same cast of characters, in front of what will be a virtual home crowd.
That's how you get from the current 13-0 to 34-0.
If we're all lucky, there could be a Wisconsin Final Four rematch and/or a Duke showdown with the title on the line. But I'm more confident in Kentucky than anyone else when it comes to sustained dominance all season long.
The coin of the realm in college basketball is defense, and few teams have played it as well as this UK bunch. Ever. Louisville conspired against itself by failing to move the ball well and taking a lot of difficult shots – especially guards Chris Jones (3-of-15) and Terry Rozier (5-of-18) – but there simply are not many good shots to be found against the Wildcats.
Too long. Too versatile. Too deep. Too relentless. Too athletic.
"I know one thing," Louisville coach Rick Pitino said. "They're one of the great defensive teams I've seen in my 40 years. They can switch and not cause a mismatch, they can move their feet, they can block the shot."
They can choke an offense to death.
Louisville's defense about did the same to Kentucky -- the Cardinals are good, and the Cardinals played outrageously hard. Their 2-3 zone gave up very little easy on the inside and harassed the Harrison twins into a lousy showing – a combined 3-for-16 shooting day, with five assists and seven turnovers.
But Calipari has options beyond the twins in freshmen Tyler Ulis and Devin Booker, and they were sensational. Ulis was the star of the game, scoring 14 points and not committing a turnover in 26 minutes.
Funny thing is, Ulis was an on-the-rebound signee by Calipari after being turned down by Tyus Jones and Emmanuel Mudiay. Jones now is starring at Duke and Mudiay is playing in China, after bypassing college ball due to eligibility concerns in favor of a big overseas payday.
That move left SMU, where Mudiay signed, in the lurch. And that could just as easily have been Calipari.
CBS Sports' Gary Parrish asked Calipari on Saturday if he still would have recruited Ulis if he'd gotten a commitment from Mudiay, and the answer was yes – but that's unlikely. Cal admitted that he only spent three weeks recruiting Ulis when other options didn't pan out – and it's a testament to his sales pitch that Ulis chose Kentucky over lengthy, ardent recruitments by Michigan State and Iowa among others.
Regardless, it's nice to have a fall-back, backup freshman point who can take over a heated game on the road against a top-five opponent.
"That's the best I've seen him play since I've been coaching him," Calipari said.
From there, Cal went into player management mode. He changed subjects to stroke his starting point guard, Andrew Harrison, who had played poorly. He reminded everyone that Andrew "took us to the championship game last year."
Cal knows that just about the only hiccup his team could face is dissension over playing time, and Andrew Harrison hardly looked like a happy camper in the final minutes and immediate aftermath of this triumph.
But there's the thing: Kentucky is good enough – and the opposition is weak enough – that Cal doesn't even have to play his best lineup the most minutes to win. He can stick with Andrew Harrison playing more minutes than Ulis and it won't matter.
At least not until late March, or early April.
By then, the Wildcats still will be undefeated. And we'll see whether any serious challengers stand up to stop them.