By Steve Silverman
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Phil Jackson is paying attention to Kentucky basketball, and you should be, too.
The Wildcats are a multi-faceted juggernaut who are one win away from recording an undefeated regular season and moving on to college basketball’s postseason with a chance to become the sport’s first undefeated national championship team since Indiana in 1976.
While Bob Knight had a powerhouse team nearly 40 years ago, with Scott May and Kent Benson leading the way, all deference must go to John Wooden and his UCLA teams when the subject is undefeated championships.
Wooden’s UCLA teams won 10 national titles between 1963-64 and 1974-75, and four of those teams were undefeated.
That’s enough history, because this year’s Kentucky team is worthy of your full attention even if you are among those who believe college basketball is not the sport that it was 15 or even 10 years ago.
John Calipari may sound like a huckster when he gets in front of the microphones and starts holding court, but he is a masterful recruiter and a sharp game strategist. He failed at the NBA level when he coached the New Jersey Nets (1996-99), but that doesn’t mean he would fail if he got another chance to coach in the association.
Cal is a brilliant college coach, and he has done two things that make him special. It’s one thing to recruit the most talented players in the country like Willie Cauley-Stein, Karl-Anthony Town, Andrew and Aaron Harrison and Dakari Johnson, but it’s quite another to meld them together and get them to buy in to the concept of team basketball.
Obviously, team basketball is something that is very close to Jackson’s heart. He lived it when he played for the Knicks under Red Holzman with the great team that included Willis Reed, Walt Frazier, Bill Bradley and the rest, and then he taught it throughout his coaching career with the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers.
He must feel that the concept is dead and buried when he looks at the current Knicks and their NBA-worst 12-48 record, but he can see its rebirth in Lexington.
That’s where Calipari is deserving of respect. Many old-time college basketball fans hate the fact that the powerhouse Wildcats have players who stick around for one or two years at most before moving on to the NBA. That’s the way it has been in college basketball for decades, and it’s not going to change any time soon.
Players like Doug McDermott, who played four years at Creighton and was a first-round draft choice last spring, are incredibly rare. Nearly all American-born first-round draft choices leave college early and that’s a fact.
However, it is the rare coach who can get these young superstars to throw out their individual goals during the short time they are on the college basketball stage. Kentucky moves the ball with precision and efficiency and it doesn’t matter who hit the winning shot in the last game. The Wildcats only want to find the open man and make sure he gets the ball on the next possession.
The scouts have spoken and it is clear that Town and Cauley-Stein are both going to go early in the first round. Town could be the No. 1 or No. 2 pick – he could move ahead of Duke’s Jahlil Okafor – while Cauley-Stein looks like a No. 5 or No. 6 pick.
Jackson saw both of them live and in person last Saturday against Arkansas, but his observations didn’t stop there. He may have been drawn to speedy guard Tyler Ulis, versatile Devin Booker or explosive Trey Lyles.
But before the draft, the Wildcats will have an opportunity to win the national championship that got away from them last year.
They are a team of superstars that plays team basketball and does it beautifully. They have had a storybook, undefeated season to this point, and they are worthy of a place at the sports head table.
They are never going to surpass the old UCLA legacy, but they are a magnificent team that has a chance to do something very special. Do yourself a favor and watch this team play.
Follow Steve on Twitter at @ProFootballBoy