Last night, the Kentucky men's basketball team almost lost -- something that would have made its coach so happy.
There are lots of team records in North American sports, but I'm not sure there are any more inherently fascinating than the fact that there hasn't been an undefeated Division I men's basketball team since 1976. The NFL has its 1972 Dolphins, the NBA has those 72-win Bulls, MLB has those 2001 Mariners (who didn't even do us the honor of winning the World Series after putting together 116 regular-season wins). But none of those marks stand out quite like the college basketball's quest for a perfect season. A few reasons:
• It seems like it should have happened more recently. Teams regularly lose one or two games in a season, but no one ever quite whittles that down to zero. College basketball teams always have a bunch of gimmes on the schedule, by very design. Wisconsin, currently 22-2, is a terrific basketball team, but if they were merely an "above average" basketball team, they'd be, like, 19-5. Good teams don't even have that many opportunities to lose.
• Someone always makes a run. This was true as recently as last season, when Wichita State was 34-0 heading into the NCAA Tournament before losing to Kentucky, of all teams, in the second round. It's rare there isn't still an undefeated team hanging around by mid-January, which is close enough to March that you at least have to pay attention.
• Small schools should have a chance at this, but they rarely make it. You would think someone like Gonzaga, or another high-quality team in a low-level conference, would be able to smoke through one of these years, but it hasn't happened since 2004, when a Jameer Nelson and Delonte West-lead St. Joseph's team went 27-0 before losing in the Atlantic-10 conference tournament. Even beating tiny schools regularly is hard.
• The teams that come close are always memorable. That 2004 St. Joe's team. Last year's Wichita State team. The 1991 UNLV team (which lost in the Final Four to Duke during that brief window when Duke was likable). The 2005 Illinois team, which lost to Ohio State in the final game of the regular season. The 1979 Indiana State team, who played in a somewhat memorable title game, if memory recollects. To even approach the perfect season makes you legendary.
• The team that did it was a Bob Knight team. This can't help but give it a little bit of mystique. Another fun fact about the 1976 Indiana team: Their one exhibition game was a 94-78 win over … the Russian national team.
So: Running through a perfect season in college basketball is a huge deal. Which brings us back to last night, and why John Calipari was cheering for his team to lose.
Actually, he wasn't just cheering for his team to lose: He appeared to be actively trying to facilitate it. Halfway through the second half, Karl-Anthony Towns -- one of Kentucky's endless cavalcade of McDonald's All-Americans -- drew a technical foul for hanging on the rim. Calipari was infuriated by the dumb move, and, perhaps inevitably, it set off an LSU 21-2 run that gave the Tigers a six-point lead with seven minutes left.
Most coaches -- all coaches, really -- would have called a timeout at some point during that run, and Calipari's assistant coaches begged him to do just that. But he refused. Why? "Now I doubt -- ever in his life -- will [Towns] chin-up on a basket, ever again," Calipari said postgame. "But that's why I looked like an idiot on the sideline and why I refused to call timeout. I even said, 'I hope we lose. Watch this!'" Calipari, with the team with the best chance to pull off that perfect season, was willing to watch it all vanish to teach Towns a lesson. (And also satisfy his own obvious anger at that particular moment.)
As has turned out to be the case for Kentucky this season, it all worked out. Towns hit the key basket in the closing minutes, LSU missed a 3-pointer at the buzzer that would have won it and the Wildcats moved to 24-0 on the year. At this point, it is difficult to see a scenario where Kentucky has a loss before the NCAA Tournament begins. Ken Pomeroy has them at least a 92 percent favorite in six of their seven remaining games, and the one below that is at 83 percent, a road game against likely NCAA Tournament team Georgia on March 3. (A game I'll be courtside for; I can't wait.) Considering how Kentucky has breezed through the SEC this season, the conference tournament shouldn't be much of a problem either. They're just about to pull it off.
Obviously, if Kentucky makes it into the NCAA Tournament undefeated, it becomes the only story this March that anyone will be paying attention to. This is doubly true because it is Kentucky. Three years ago, writer Chuck Klosterman, on the eve of Calipari's first title with the Wildcats, posited that Kentucky had, essentially, professionalized college basketball in a way that was destructive to the game itself. Here's the money paragraph:
Calipari has professionalized college sports, which is great for him and good for his recruits. It's just discomforting for anyone who likes NCAA basketball, assuming they're drawn to the same game that lives within their memory. He's built awesome teams for seven consecutive seasons, usually by overhauling his entire roster with transitory superstars who are only attending college because there's no reasonable alternative. He's completely up-front about this strategy, and it's irrefutably effective.
It is not fair to criticize Calipari for the national decline of interest in college basketball; there are a ton of factors much larger that Kentucky and Calipari, particularly when you remember that Kentucky missed the tournament the year after they won that title. (And were middling last season before exploding in the tournament.) But the "game that lives within their memory" … Klosterman's right, that is gone. Now, the problem with things that live in your memory is that that's not how they actually were; college basketball was a corrupt, gross enterprise long before Calipari came around, and blaming him for taking advantage of that system -- and maybe even helping some kids in the process -- is missing the point. Calipari isn't the bad guy. The Kentucky Wildcats aren't the bad guys. But they feel representative of a change in the game that is undeniable … a change the game still hasn't quite figured out how to tackle.
So to have Kentucky -- this Kentucky team, in which essentially every player would be the star recruit on any other team in the country, one that could well have seven or eight players drafted in June, none of whom reached their senior year -- be the one to finally take down one of college basketball's most sacred records feels important. It feels like a transition to a different, maybe more honest, maybe less nostalgic, time … a transition that maybe college basketball needs to make. An undefeated season would be a final exclamation point on not just this Kentucky era, but maybe this era of college basketball in general. The era of Bob Knight, and the illusion of college basketball altruism, is over. The era of Calipari -- of the professionalization of the game -- is here.
I'm not sure I can necessarily cheer for Kentucky; that old game still lives in my heart too. But I'm glad they're still undefeated. I'm glad Calipari's lesson didn't cost his team its chance at history. I'm glad this is still going. If we're going to talk about a team, and what it means, and where college basketball is going … we should probably talk about this one.