John Calipari has 40-0 goal in sight

By David Schuh | Managing editor
dschuh@kykernel.com

Seven teams have achieved it. No one has done it in 37 years. And for UK men’s basketball coach John Calipari, it is his last personal goal.

He wants an undefeated season before he retires and to go 40-0.

Bob Knight’s 1976 Indiana Hoosiers were the last team to go undefeated, finishing 32-0 the year UK won the National Invitational Tournament.

“We don’t talk about it as a team … The way we do this is a process,” Calipari said Tuesday at media day. “I’ve had three teams that almost did it … and by not doing it, we won the most games in the history of the NCAA.”

In today’s game, with a longer season and conference tournaments, 40 is the new mark. Calipari has coached two teams that finished 38-2, UK and the University of Memphis.

Given that he has come relatively close, one would think it’s an attainable goal. But there are several reasons why perfection is much harder to attain today than it was in the past.

College basketball is much deeper. Take a look at the teams that went undefeated.

The University of San Francisco in 1956 went 29-0 behind two future Basketball Hall of Famers, Bill Russell and K.C. Jones.

The University of California, Los Angeles went 30-0 in 1967 behind 7-foot-2 center Lew Alcindor, who, after changing his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, became the NBA’s most-prolific scorer.

UCLA did it again in 1972 and 1973, led by 6-foot-11 center Bill Walton, another future Basketball Hall of Famer.

The main trend is that several of the undefeated teams in the past were driven by uncharacteristically tall players for the time. Russell, Abdul-Jabbar and Walton dominated their eras. UCLA won 88 straight games partly due to that advantage.

Today, the height, talent and depth is spread widely around the country.

One player cannot affect the outcome of one game, nonetheless an entire season.

The other major difference today is the media.

UK saw a small dose of it in the 2009-10 season when the team won its first 19 games in Calipari’s first season.

In theory, as a team got closer to a perfect season, the overwhelming media scrutiny would surround these college kids in a way we’ve never seen before.

In 1976, Indiana University did not see half the hysteria that even an average team would experience today.

If UK were to run the table, it would be just as much about the team’s mental ability to overlook the prognostications as it would be about their on-court performance.

All that being said, this year is Calipari’s best chance to date at achieving a perfect season. He has the depth, star power and experience to overwhelm a lot of teams on the Cats’ schedule.

Freshman forward Julius Randle could be the No. 1 pick in next summer’s NBA Draft and was named preseason SEC Player of the Year. With fellow freshman center Dakari Johnson and sophomore forwards Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein returning, UK has the roster to dominate nearly every frontcourt in college basketball.

And there is no shortage of wealth in the backcourt either.

Freshmen guards Aaron and Andrew Harrison will be more talented than nearly every group of guards they face this season, and there are quality reinforcements behind every starting position. Calipari just has to figure out how to effectively allocate them.

I won’t say UK is going undefeated. They face two consensus top-3 teams before the conference schedule begins, and that doesn’t include a trip to the University of North Carolina.

They may have the chance if everything falls into place, but no team warrants or deserves that kind of prediction, especially not one that has the lack of experience in the college game like this team.

He has his NBA draft picks. He has his national title. This is the only major feat he hasn’t obtained.