Each week until March Madness, I’ll be taking a broad look at trends and faces on the national college basketball scene, with notes from around the country and a quick look at the best games coming up. The feature may also run some weeks in the print edition.
This week on the SEC teleconference, John Calipari, the Kentucky coach, was riffing on how a team needs to play close games to find out about itself, to figure out how to survive stiff challenges.
Then he said, “Enough is enough. Let’s get some games that are a little easier for us.”
Done. The No. 1-ranked Wildcats (16-0) must be listening. They performed on demand Tuesday night, stonewalling Missouri, 86-37, in a command performance that will again stir the possibility of them going undefeated.
It seems almost a ridiculous proposition, given history and the fact that the two teams that took Kentucky to overtime last week, Ole Miss and Texas A&M, aren’t considered anything special. They each have 10-5 records.
Then there’s the weight of precedent. Nobody since Bob Knight’s Indiana Hoosiers has done it since 1976, 39 years ago. Unlike then, the game is populated with challenges almost every week. Virtually every team has good players capable of a big night, and human nature will limit the Wildcats from executing at peak level every game out.
“Every game we play is someone’s Super Bowl,” Calipari said. “They’re going to play out of their minds. The kid from Mississippi (Stefan Moody, who had 25 points) had cramps and said, ‘You can’t have cramps, not in the biggest moment of your life.’ Like what? The biggest moment of your life? But that’s how guys feel playing against us.”
How tough is it, the notion of going undefeated, running the table all the way through the first weekend in April?
Well, monstrously difficult, even with Kentucky’s roster. Think about this: The last year it was done, by Knight’s Indiana team, Rutgers also entered the tournament unbeaten at 28-0. Since then, only twice has a team gone into the NCAA tournament undefeated – Larry Bird’s Indiana State team in 1979, and Jerry Tarkanian’s 1991 UNLV outfit. (Indiana State lost in the final, UNLV in the semis.)
I asked Calipari if last week’s two cliffhangers had anything to do with his players feeling the pressure of outsiders speculating about going unbeaten.
He demurred, but said he was going to talk to his team about: “Have we lost our swagger? Have we lost our edge? Have we lost a little bit of our focus? And then if we have, what was our swag about? What gave us an edge? If we lost it, the question becomes, how do we get it back?”
Kentucky must have regained it against Missouri. This is still a team of surpassing talent, even without injured forward Alex Poythress. It has game-changers at the rim in Willie Cauley-Stein and Karl-Anthony Towns. The shooting of the Harrison twins has been off, but the NCAA tournament of last year tells you it’s not a good idea to count on that.
Calipari seemed almost to welcome the January challenges, saying, “I don’t want us to be like it’s March right now. It’s too early for us to be like March.”
And he sounded a warning for the rest of college hoops.
“Every team in the country is working through issues (right now),” he said. “Every team is working through something.
“All I’ll tell you is, I’m happy coaching this team. I believe I have the best team in the country, with the best players.”
And What’s More . . .
- Washington and Washington State, each of which has wins over San Jose State, won’t be getting any RPI help from the Spartans, riddled by suspensions and player departures. The San Jose Mercury News says SJSU is down to eight healthy roster players, and coach Dave Wojcik, a former Leon Rice assistant at Boise State, is 9-38 in two seasons. The Spartans’ two wins this year are over Bethesda and St. Katharine’s, two non-Division 1 teams.
- Eastern Washington’s victory at Indiana looks even better when you consider the Hoosiers have a Big Ten-best three wins over ranked teams.
- Texas Southern hosts Grambling State this weekend – its second home date this year after a 15-stop road show that included games at Indiana, Tennessee, SMU, Baylor, Gonzaga, Michigan State, Auburn, Kansas State and New Mexico State (and victories at Michigan State and Kansas State). The sole home game so far was against Lamar on Thanksgiving weekend, so if you’re a TSU student/fan, you likely haven’t seen your team play, two months into the season.
- In case you missed it, Stew Morrill, a ’74 Gonzaga grad known as a cagey bench coach, will retire at 62 after this season at Utah State. He was one of two finalists when Washington State hired Ken Bone in 2009.
- The Utah-Arizona meeting this week in Tucson is the first matching Pac-12 programs in the top 10 since 2008, when Stanford and UCLA met at Pauley Pavilion. That was also one of the best competitive years in conference history.
- When Oregon freshman Jordan Bell had eight blocks last week against Arizona State, it tied the school record of Blair Rasmussen, the seven-footer from Auburn, in 1984.
This week’s best
No NFL Saturday, and the day is a delicious one for a hoops fan.
Start it with suddenly-struggling Duke at Louisville in a 9 a.m. (Pacific) breakfast matchup, with Coach K stuck on 997 career victories.
The afternoon gets good with eighth-ranked Utah visiting No. 10 Arizona at 4 p.m. on Pac-12 Networks. You can warm up with 45 minutes of No. 16 West Virginia – Bob Huggins’ team is back after a lull the past couple of years – at No. 20 Texas at 3:15 p.m. on ESPN.
At 6 p.m., ESPN has No. 9 Kansas at 11th-rated Iowa State.
Most Schools from One State
All-time in the NCAA tournament
New York 19
North Carolina 14