The Greatest? This Year’s Cats make a play for that title
By Kenny Colston
Who is the greatest?
It’s one of sports’ most unanswerable questions, when broadened over decades. In a snapshot, it is easy to answer: whoever is the champion. The champion is always the greatest.
But the greatest of all time… well with no disrespect to Mr. Ali, that’s harder to answer outside of the boxing ring.
On the basketball court, different people will pick different answers. To narrow it down to the college ranks, likely candidates for G.O.A.T. are any of John Wooden’s UCLA championship teams (although 1972’s 30-0 team is a consistent answer), the 1996 Kentucky squad, the 1976 undefeated Indiana team or even the 2012 Wildcats.
Side note: yes, leaving out the 1992 champion was intentional. A foot stomp is a foul.
The most popular pick is the ’72 Bruins, lead by the quirky, but really good at basketball, Bill Walton. That team steamrolled its competition, its average margin of victory was more than 30 points a game and its closest win was by five in the national championship game. Solid resume.
The 1976 Indiana squad took things two games further, finishing the year 32-0. The Hoosiers featured seven future NBA players and beat the Soviet Union’s national team in a preseason exhibition. Oh yeah, the Russians had won the gold medal four years earlier.
The Untouchables (’96 Kentucky) had 11 future NBA players, although only four were drafted that year. But that team took two losses, one to UMass and another to Mississippi State in the NCAA tournament. They also ran roughshod over many other ranked teams, including a 12-point victory over Maryland and 23-point victories over Georgia Tech and Louisville.
And that Anthony Davis-led 2012 team is definitely in the conversation. A beater- buzzer loss at Indiana and a whimsical effort in the SEC tournament finals were the only losses of one of the most talented teams to play in Rupp Arena. Six players were drafted off that team the following year, a record that still stands. Not to mention Anthony Davis, future of the NBA, providing highlight after highlight. These snapshots are important to remember as another Kentucky team hopes to plant its name at the top of the list.
This year’s Cats have already started their own record-breaking trends long before March. A win at Tennessee moved Kentucky’s record to 26-0… the only Kentucky team to ever reach that mark. By Saturday, it was 27-0. (The only other undefeated Kentucky team, the 1952 25-0 team, didn’t play in the NCAA tournament due to a ban on graduate players in postseason play. Of course, Kentucky’s three best players were graduate students. Remember this when the NCAA talks about protecting the classroom).
But does 27-0 (at press) make Kentucky great if they drop a game? Such a proposal is not out of the question. Does any number with one loss make Kentucky one of the greatest? Every pundit, coach, fan and grandmother has an opinion on this. This newspaper could be filled with their thoughts. We can break down all kinds of statistics to prove greatness. We can point to the limitless star power (PLATOONS!). We can point to blowout victories over good teams (Whaddup, Kansas?). But let’s point to the four teams mentioned above. How does Kentucky stack up to them? Obviously, at this point, with a slate of games and a conference tournament left to play, final records can’t be taken into consideration.
The UCLA squad demolished every team it faced, except eventual runner-up Florida State. This year team’s is demolishing everyone… but it’s coming close. This year’s Cats have an average margin of victory of 21.3 points, bogged down by close call victories to start conference play.
That UCLA squad had several NBA players, led by the center, Walton. This year’s Kentucky squad has three great centers; two of are projected to have long, meaningful careers just like Walton. Not exactly similar, but basketball was a little different then.
And the ’76 Indiana team? They beat the Russians in the preseason and Kentucky beat the Dominicans, Puerto Rico and a French pro team. The Hoosiers had three first round picks and seven players overall eventually drafted by the NBA. Kentucky projects five first round players and at least 10 likely NBA picks over the next several years.
This year’s Cats match the NBA draft prowess of the ’96 and ’12 teams and the (so far, as of press day) undefeated records in conference play.
The bottom line is this: this year’s Kentucky team deserves to be in the conversation about any greatest team of all time discussion.
Statistically, they fit the mold. Talent wise, they fit the mold. They pass the eye test, the ear test and any test you can think of. They are deeper than any college basketball team before them and possibly after them.
The difference between this year’s Kentucky team and nearly every other one… is that this year’s team is young and many other teams weren’t youth movements.
Ideally, the question becomes easy if the Cats run the table, go 40-0 and have all seven currently projected players drafted into the NBA later this year.
But even if Kentucky loses a regular season or SEC tournament game, it won’t drop them out of the conversation. The only thing that can do that is coming up short of a national title.
So 40-0, 39-1 or 38-2… this team has cemented its spot among the all-time greats. The only question that remains is will it stay middle of the pack?
Or, as Mr. Ali put it, will they become the greatest of all-time?
This article appears on pages 4-7 of the March 2015 print issue of Ace.
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Upcoming SEC schedule:
What time is the UK game at Rupp Arena on February 28? It’s at 4 pm.
What time is the UK game at Georgia on March 3? It’s at 9 pm.
What time is the UK game at Rupp Arena on March 7? It’s at 2 pm.