History says UK needs a loss. No team since Indiana in 1976 has entered the NCAA Tournament with more than a 13-game winning streak.
UK would reach 25 straight wins if it ran the table. And history has a tendency to repeat itself. It has for the last 35 years, at least.
But history also has to be bucked. Has to at some point, right? History would never be made without someone breaking a trend.
Can the Cats be that team? Can they be the first team since 1976 to enter the tournament on a massive roll, and then continue that roll through six more increasingly difficult games?
The players certainly think so.
“If you’re worried about losing the game, that’s when you do lose,” freshman forward Anthony Davis said last week. “Coach Cal says that all the time. He wants to make sure we get better and as long as we get better, he says we’ll be ready for March.”
Then again, there’s no way a player would ever admit to wanting or needing a loss. That’s the exact opposite of the mindset athletes must have. So it really comes down to: would a loss help refocus this team?
Others in the past have felt that way. According to multiple reporters, Rick Pitino all but threw the 1996 SEC Championship game, sitting Antoine Walker for nearly all of the second half. UK had been on a 27-game winning streak before that game. After the loss, it went on a six-game streak to the national championship.
But we also don’t know how that season would have turned out with a win in that game. And more history suggests it might be too late in the season to “need” a loss. Twenty-one teams since that 1976 Indiana team entered the tournament with a win in its most recent game, including five of the last six champions.
Fourteen did not.
The other side of the argument: would a loss create an unwanted sense of mortality in a team that has been preached the virtues of having a “will to win” since the beginning of the year? Is there anything else to learn about this team? Their mentality seems to be one that avoids not only complacency but also arrogance, the two traits a late-season loss is supposed to guard against.
“I know we don’t need another loss for us to stay motivated,” senior guard Darius Miller said, “because we stay motivated each and every day in practice, going against each other.”
Plus, the Cats have already lost. True, it was all those months ago. But at the time, UK was coming off a huge win against North Carolina and was riding a feeling of euphoria.
Then it came crashing down with a buzzer-beating 3-pointer. For a young team, that created one of the strongest possible feelings, one they didn’t want to replicate. Davis recalled the players looking around the locker room following that game, each of them mad — not at each other, just mad at losing like that.
Can that empty feeling be sustained through a 25-game winning streak? Does it matter?
“We don’t want to have that feeling again,” Davis said. “That was a tough loss to swallow.”
It would be tough to handle a second loss if it happened now.
It would be even tougher to handle if it happened in the tournament. Really, that’s the only thing that matters — how UK can handle those six straight games.
The previous 25, or one, don’t matter except for getting the Cats prepared.
It’s whatever works.