|Kentucky became the first team in nine years to go undefeated in a major conference. (AP)|
By Matt Norlander
We're in a rush, an anxious crouch, to see what Kentucky does when it matters most, but let's stop and realize the accomplishment this team of young Cats just completed. Going undefeated in major-conference play is like spotting a white leopard in the wild. It's extremely rare and normally fleeting; no matter who arrives on campus in Lexington next year, I'd be willing to wager with you that a 16-0 SEC isn't happening for John Calipari's team in 2013. And probably not too soon thereafter.
But it happened this year, once Kentucky won on the road at Florida, 74-59 Sunday afternoon. Not only did UK become the first team to sweep its league in a Big Six conference since 2003, when Kentucky was naturally the last squad to pull it off, the Wildcats also won 30 games in the regular season for the first time in program history. What a feat. This team is truly scary good (have you seen the way opposing players' bodies curdle when they find themselves suddenly in the paint on offense?), better on offense than it is on defense, in fact, and yet it will only be judged by a national title.
That's a bit unfair, but comes with the types of teams Calipari recruits. His message, that fan base and the college basketball universe look to Kentucky with adoration, hate, expectation, confusion and skepticism. It all squeezes into equal parts cynical and pragmatic forecasting of a national title, whether that was supposed to come two years ago, last year, this year. If it's going to happen, it has to be this year, right? If anything, getting this undefeated season in a worse-than-expected SEC only reinforces that.
Yet when UK did this nine years ago, it was felled by this newcomer named Dwyane Wade. Running the table in the SEC may prove to be nothing compared to the unrelenting heat lamp in March. That heat is inescapable and covers more earth than Anthony Davis. I think about that, then know -- it could be so much more stressful than this. Kentucky is one Christian Watford shot away from pressure as heavy as a Jupiter moon. The Wildcats should be thankful. John Calipari is.
That loss negated an undefeated season. I think this team could handle it, but it's so much better off not having to. It was the early season loss that will have no impact on the team's ultimate seeding and only a positive impact on its ability to keep distracting questions, like ones about undefeated seasons, away.
So, at least for today and the next few days, let's not judge or speculate what Kentucky will be. Instead, can we applaud an increasingly rare achievement in college basketball? College football sees undefeated conference runs every year. Perfection in league play in this sport has only proven to be tougher as basketball's become bigger, quicker, more talented and more popular. Every year is a season happening in a convection oven when you don Kentucky threads. That elusive ultimate trophy remains that for Calipari -- elusive. But this, what Kentucky did with one of the youngest and certainly the most talented team in the country, so far compares to 16-0 in the SEC in Calipari's tenure in Lexington.
Bigger things can come. A national championship could be won. And that success could be repeated. This one, 16-0, it's very likely the 2011-12 Kentucky Wildcats just finalized something that Calipari won't ever achieve again.