By Steve Silverman
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It has been nearly four decades since there was an undefeated national champion in college basketball, and if Kentucky can make it past Wisconsin and the winner of the Duke-Michigan State game, John Calipari will find his name etched next to John Wooden and Bob Knight in the record book.
Wooden, of course, was the Wizard of Westwood who led the UCLA Bruins to 10 national championships, including four with undefeated teams. The perception is that Wooden was not only a brilliant basketball coach, but a gentleman of renowned decency who emphasized academics and fair play to all his students.
But when the Los Angeles Times pulled back the cover with an investigative report years after Wooden retired, it was clear that the beauty queen had several warts hidden below the surface.
Knight ran a tight ship as he led the Indiana program to a magnificent on-the-court run that included three national championships, including a brilliant undefeated run by the 1975-76 team that was powerful and undefeated.
Wooden’s championship teams were led by superstars like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (known as Lew Alcindor during his college career) and Bill Walton. Abdul-Jabbar would go on to become one of the greatest players in NBA history, and Walton might have joined him if damaged knees and feet had not short-circuited his career.
Knight’s undefeated champions had top players like Quinn Buckner and Kent Benson, but they were never at the level of Abdul-Jabbar and Walton.
UCLA’s undefeated champions and Indiana’s were far greater than the sum of their individual parts. Wooden’s Bruins functioned brilliantly and their ability to play their best and most efficient basketball during the most crucial parts of the game separated them from the competition.
Knight’s undefeated champions also played at a very high level, but they also embodied their combative coach’s personality. When the game was on the line, so was their collective manhood. Knight had assembled a group of players that depended on toughness to survive the most crucial moments. They didn’t necessarily want to physically pound their opponents, but they would not give in at any time when the game was on the line.
Calipari’s team is more like the great UCLA teams than the Indiana powerhouses. Calipari is a brilliant recruiter who has been assembling the best talent in the nation in recent years, and he has gotten those players to perform at their best since the start of the season.
The individual stats don’t bear out how strong the Kentucky roster is this season. Sharpshooting guard Aaron Harrison is the Wildcats’ leading scorer with an 11.0 ppg average, while Devin Booker and Karl-Anthony Towns are both right behind with 10.1 ppg marks. They are followed by Andrew Harrison (9.2 ppg) and Willie Cauley-Stein (9.1 ppg). However, Trey Lyles may be the most talented of the group and he is the team’s sixth-leading scorer at 8.7 ppg.
Kentucky’s symphony almost always comes together on the defensive side of the floor. Their size, length and athleticism make it difficult for all but the best teams to have a chance. However, it’s the work they have done on the practice floor that has allowed them to come through in every game.
Calipari could have sat back and just rolled the ball on the court, and the Wildcats would have likely won the SEC title this season. But he has done so much more than that. Like Wooden and Knight at their best, he has gotten his players to throw out their individual dreams for the good of the team.
That’s why the Wildcats were able to survive a monumental effort by a Notre Dame team in the regional finals last weekend. Notre Dame was at its absolute best and led Kentucky until the final moments, but Kentucky’s ability to execute on both ends spelled doom for an Irish team that just could not find a way to execute at the highest level in the game’s last two-plus minutes.
Calipari has shown he can coach the most intricate and important parts of the game. He has gotten his players to buy in to the team concept, and that’s incredibly difficult considering that he recruits only the best blue-chippers who have basketball goals far beyond the college level.
The competition this weekend should be classic. Wisconsin has its player of the year in Frank Kaminsky, and he gets support from a crew of talented and hard-edged players like Sam Dekker and Nigel Hayes. Mike Krzyzewski and his Blue Devils are once again formidable, and most expect a Kentucky-Duke championship game. Tom Izzo has this year’s Cinderella team, and Travis Trice and Denzel Valentine lead Michigan State’s upset-minded Spartans.