These Kentucky Wildcats have the chance to reach heights no team in the program’s history has ever achieved — become undefeated national champions.
Losing seems unthinkable.
On the other hand, a loss in this week’s Southeastern Conference tournament might not be the worst thing in the world for the top-ranked Wildcats.
Kentucky coach John Calipari seems unfazed by the prospect of a conference tournament loss — as long as it’s the last one his team suffers in pursuit of national championship No. 9.
“This week has no bearing on where we’re going to be seeded,” Calipari said during Monday’s SEC coaches teleconference, “and the most important thing for us is to be the best and the last team standing.
“Now, if that includes one loss or no losses. … You know what? I’d rather have none, but one’s OK, too.”
Kentucky (31-0, 18-0 SEC) has recently shown its resiliency after a conference tournament loss. The program’s last national title in 2012 followed a loss in the conference championship game to Vanderbilt; losing to Florida in last year’s SEC final ended up spurring the Wildcats’ run to the NCAA final.
Kentucky likely will be No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament regardless of what happens in the SEC tournament this week in Nashville, Tennessee. The Wildcats open on Friday afternoon against the Florida-Alabama winner at Bridgestone Arena, which might seem like a home game with Big Blue Nation expected to pack the place.
“We’re not really worried about the SEC tournament,” junior post player Willie Cauley-Stein said. “It’s more like we’re playing for the fans there. They’re going to travel everywhere anyway, but especially there.”
But the attention, scrutiny and pressure figure to increase substantially as the nation watches to see if Kentucky has the fortitude to win three tournament games in three days.
Murray State had the nation’s second-longest winning streak at 25 games until Belmont knocked off the Racers Saturday night in the Ohio Valley Conference tournament championship.
“It’s hard to keep winning and winning and winning …,” Belmont coach Rick Byrd said. “It wears on you. It’s tough to do. And you hear the talk, ‘Is it better to lose one like Kentucky this year? Is it better to lose one before the tournament or not?’ It’s difficult.”
Byrd said he told his Belmont players that Murray State was the one with the most to lose. The Wildcats can appreciate that, and expect to face motivated opponents that will be getting a second or third crack at them.
But freshman forward Trey Lyles said the Wildcats are not fretting about possibly losing a game.
“I don’t think it would have an effect,” Trey Lyles said. “Everybody going into March is 0-0, undefeated in March. We’ve just got to go out there and just play hard.”
Former Kentucky coach Joe B. Hall would like to see the Wildcats run the table, but believes a loss could help a squad that has had its way this season.
“This team hasn’t had that hurt that you get when you go home at night and get a bowl of antacids and a big spoon and start eating. It’s something that you have to experience,” said Hall, who led Kentucky to the 1978 NCAA title and two other Final Fours.
“I wouldn’t be surprised to see them lose a game in the SEC tournament because I think in the back of their minds they’re thinking more about being in the Final Four,” Hall added. “That’s a big danger they face in the (SEC) tournament against these teams that they’ve already beaten.”
Former Kentucky forward Kenny Walker understands that philosophy of losing as a wakeup call and character builder. That doesn’t mean he buys into it.
“It doesn’t make sense to me here because we’re out to win everything,” he said. “Plus, any competitive athlete, whether it’s playing before 24,000 in Rupp Arena or H.O.R.S.E. in the backyard, you play to win. Anytime you lose, you give teams a blueprint on how to beat you. I want Kentucky to have that edge.”
Walker sees a group dialed in on winning every game and focused its goal of a championship.
Still, Big Blue Nation might be willing to look past a loss if the Wildcats are hoisting the national championship trophy a month from now.
“For us, the perfect season doesn’t matter,” freshman forward Karl-Anthony Towns said. “A national championship is what matters to us.”