JAMIE H. VAUGHT: Kentucky's Historic 38-1 Season Will Be Remembered For Generations To Come
Just a few days after Kentucky's Karl-Anthony Towns graced the cover of Sports Illustrated with the Wildcats gunning to become college basketball's first undefeated squad since 1976, UK's memorable campaign came to a crashing halt this past Easter weekend.
As you saw it in person or on television, Kentucky's dream season ended prematurely on a disappointing note after dropping a 71-64 decision to Wisconsin before a crowd of 72,238 in a Final Four showdown in Indianapolis.
Anyhow, before the game, a fellow photographer told me, "I'm really worried."
I was somewhat concerned, too. As the exciting contest progressed throughout the night, I began to have the most uneasy or uncomfortable feeling that I have had in a long time (perhaps in my lifetime) as a Kentucky-based sportswriter while sitting on the press row. Many of the media folks, including yours truly, had hoped to witness a major historical moment in college basketball with the Cats finishing out the year with a bang.
It was a very tight matchup with seven lead changes and the score tied 11 times. Kentucky -- which raced to a 5-0 lead, its largest of the night -- had bounced back twice after falling behind nine points (during the first half which ended in a 36-36 tie) and eight points (during the second half). That semifinal should have been the national championship game, not the eventual Duke-Wisconsin final.
Even the day before the Wisconsin showdown, UK coach John Calipari reminded the folks again about his team, saying "We're not perfect. We're undefeated."
The newly-elected Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer is certainly right. His Wildcats committed several costly mistakes and lost to Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan and his Badgers, who later dropped to Duke Monday night.
UK's rabid Big Blue Nation is still reeling after that Saturday night's heartbreaking nightmare, expecting to see the Wildcats win two more to become a historic 40-0 team.
But, instead of focusing on Kentucky's failure for perfection, the Cats should be praised for their unbelievable performance this season. They have nothing to be ashamed of and Calipari is very proud of them.
With an incredible season record of 38-1, UK still became the winningest team in college basketball history in Division I, tying Kentucky's 2012 national championship team and Calipari's former team at Memphis in 2008. The latter two finished with an identical 38-2 record. Five other teams followed with 37 wins (against two or three losses).
Nevertheless, this "once-a-lifetime" campaign is something the faithful fans will never forget. These Wildcats will be talked about for generations to come. And we probably won't ever enjoy another team like this again in our lifetime.
"I'm so proud of these kids and what they did," Calipari told the TBS audience moments after the loss. "It was a great game, and disappointing, and it hurts because we were really close to doing something even more historic than 38 (wins) in a row."
UK All-American Willie Cauley-Stein, who probably has played his last game as a college player, was asked if the pressure of being undefeated had affected the team.
"I don't think it weighed in on us, the 40-0 hype," said Cauley-Stein, a likely Top 10 pick in the 2015 NBA Draft. "If that was the case, we would have lost a long time ago."
Said Calipari, "These kids wanted to win it in the worst way. But you have to give Wisconsin credit. They did to us what we have done to teams."
Calipari, who has a record of 22-4 in NCAA Tournament games while at UK, commented he can live with that one-loss season. He said if the team gave its best effort, then he can live with the result.
"I've been doing this so long, I've had some tough losses and some unbelievable wins at the buzzers. It's all part of this," he said. "My concern are these young people right here, making sure they keep this in the right perspective. They just had an historic year. Don't you look at anything else.
"There's not one kid in this team that would be blamed for us losing this game. If you want to blame somebody, blame me. We were down eight. The game probably should have been over. These kids just fought. All of a sudden I look up, we're up four. I'm like, We're going to win this thing. Then, you know, a play here, a play there, all of a sudden we don't post it. They crowd us, we don't post it again, we take a late shot... We're not a team that takes shot clock violations. We got three.
"Again, the best thing for me (is that) every one of these players has helped themselves even though they've sacrificed and been selfless. Every one of them has taken their game and their own personal stock to another level. They did this together. I told my wife before the game, We could lose. They're good enough to beat us. I'll live with it. I mean, I've done this a long time."
Calipari, by the way, ended the post-game news conference with the following comment.
"It hurts. We would have loved to have been 40-0. Let's see if we can take another stab at it. But 38 (wins), what these guys did in a row. Incredible stuff."
Needless to say, I'm very thankful to have had an opportunity to cover this year's Wildcats, who by the way are expected to be a Top 5 team next winter according to several "very early" pre-season rankings by the media.
This just-concluded season has been a great and fun ride. We got to see NBA legends Oscar Robertson and Phil Jackson at Rupp Arena. Before the Final Four, we got to watch the fun-loving and humble kids beating everybody, including Kansas, Texas, North Carolina, UCLA, Louisville, Cincinnati, West Virginia, among others, with some of them in huge blowouts. We got to see UK capture the 2015 SEC Tournament title in Nashville with the legendary Oak Ridge Boys singing the national anthem in the tourney final.
And, while we unlikely will ever see another super-talented club at UK like it just had, the Big Blue Nation -- now slowly recovering from Saturday night's massacre -- still will be expecting more fun rides down the road at Kentucky.
Jamie H. Vaught, a longtime columnist in Kentucky, is the author of four books about UK basketball. He is the editor of KySportsStyle360.com online magazine and a professor at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College in Middlesboro. You can follow him on Twitter @KySportsStyle. He can be reached via e-mail at KySportsStyle360@gmail.com.