Well, here we are at 38-0. While many had hoped to be in this very place, few truly believed it possible, at least at first. Regardless of the outcome of the semi-final matchup with Wisconsin on Saturday, this Kentucky team has already made history with the best start ever by an NCAA team. Two games from completing an undefeated season, two games from perfection, and two games from certain greatness. Except there are many in the national media who seem determined to minimize every accomplishment of this UK team, giving us one reason after another while, although a very good team, they can never be considered an all-time great.
Many experts draw comparisons to the 1976 Indiana team, the last to have a perfect season, going 32-0. They have said the Hoosiers team was unquestionably great because they had back to back dominant seasons and were a team filled with juniors and seniors. Expanding on that point, those same experts say the 2015 Cats cannot be great because they are too young and this is just a single season. You cannot call them great because they cannot repeat this performance.
That seems to be ignoring last season’s 180-degree turnaround from being on the verge of total collapse to making one of the most remarkable and surprising runs through the NCAA tournament in 2014. That also is making the assumption that the majority of this team is not returning for another season. If we’ve learned nothing this past year, it’s that these particular young men are anything but predictable. They are unselfish and all seem to genuinely enjoy the college experience. It’s not that unthinkable that several more than anticipated will come back for another year, and another season of shutting down opponents.
The Wildcats cannot be considered great because they haven’t steamrolled opponents like the 1991 UNLV team that entered the Final Four undefeated only to fall short of the perfect season with a title. Comparisons are also made to the 1996 Wildcats who defeated their opponents by more than 20 points per game on their way to winning the title. However, they also suffered two defeats along the way. The 2012 almost mirrored the 1996 Cats perfectly, albeit with a slightly smaller winning margin. However, having the incredible Anthony Davis on the roster seemed to allow that team to be called “great” with no resistance.
Nor can this team of Wildcats, no matter what their final record is, be considered great because college basketball has been in a decline for years. It doesn’t matter how many games UK wins because they are doing so against inferior competition to the great teams of the past. This theory suggests that the one and done culture is responsible for this decline and teams in the past were filled with upperclassmen, which made them “stronger” opponents. These folks don’t point out how much the game has changed. That the elite talent is now mostly freshmen and sophomores doesn’t make it any less impressive that the 5th youngest team in the NCAA has gone undefeated, but that fact gets swept under a rug.
So what exactly defines greatness? It must be a purely subjective exercise as the standard seems to be different for everyone. A team can be great if they’re undefeated as long as they have a majority of juniors and seniors. A team can be great if they lose a couple of games, so long as they still win a title and defeat opponents by a very large margin along the way. Greatness can be achieved even without a title, provided the team makes it to the Final Four undefeated. Falling short of any of those criteria can be overcome as long as there are one or more superstars on the team. Apparently, greatness is in the eye of the beholder. So how would you define what makes a team “great?”
I believe any team that can go undefeated for the first 38 games of the season qualifies as being great. It matters not what era or what conference. That achievement itself is heady stuff. If it were easy, why have so few teams been able to even complete the regular season undefeated and even fewer arrive to the Final Four unblemished?
I believe a team that has an embarrassment of riches in terms of individual talent, yet can be the most unselfish team college basketball has seen in years can be termed as great. In this day and age, we are constantly bombarded by camera-mugging, self-promoting, attention-seeking elite athletes. To see a group of humble, respectful, team-first players mesh together with a single purpose is a rarity. When the team’s leading scorer averages a modest 11 points and 8 different players have had top scoring honors over the course of the season, this unselfishness is magnified. That none of the players have complained about lack of minutes or low individual numbers speaks to their dedication and committment to the team.
I believe greatness is achieved when a team can band together as brothers for an entire season, facing all challengers and emerging victorious each time. To face every opponent’s best shot in each game, while also facing unending media criticism and doing so with unfailing dignity and class is indeed greatness.
For those who say this team has no “superstar,” I say this team is filled with superstars. Real life superstars. The kind that will get up early the morning after winning an NCAA Regional Final to head to a hospital to visit a child battling cancer. It’s the type that will see a fan in a wheelchair at a game and then giving that fan a pair of your shoes to take home. It is also the kind of superstar that will be supporting a young boy’s ongoing battle with cancer, visiting and encouraging him regularly, then being surprised someone thought his actions were “newsworthy.” And all those superstars together, form what is indeed one of the greatest teams ever.
To those who wish to minimize what the 2014-15 Kentucky Wildcats have done, nothing I say can change your minds. But please try to at least recognize this is not just a collection of great individual players; this is a group of elite athletes who have personified in every way imaginable all season long the word “team.” Should they finish at the elusive 40-0 mark, do I think this makes them the greatest team ever? Maybe, maybe not. However, to insist these Cats are simply “very good but never great” just isn’t right. Perhaps you’re just not appreciating history as it’s being made, or maybe you still just don’t believe any team can go 40-0. As for me, and I daresay a large portion of the BBN, when we look back on this amazing, once-in-a-lifetime team of Kentucky Wildcats, we will indeed say they were great.