Coming off an impressive 58-43 victory at South Carolina, John Calipari's Kentucky Wildcats (19-0) are more than halfway to an undefeated regular season. Ahead for the Cats are 12 more regular season contests — including six conference road games — and potentially three SEC Tournament contests.
This seems as good a time as any for a rhetorical question: If you were the head coach of the University of Kentucky's men's basketball team, would you want your team to be unbeaten on the day the 2015 NCAA Tournament tips off?
Would a chance to chase history by becoming the first undefeated men's hoops national champion since Bobby Knight and the Indiana Hoosiers pulled it off way back in 1976 be a positive motivating factor in the Big Dance? Or does the extra pressure that would come from entering March Madness unbeaten actually make a national championship less likely?
I asked two guys who have coached a little.
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If he were currently the Kentucky head coach, former UK head man Joe B. Hall said he would want to begin the Big Dance with an unblemished mark.
"I definitely would," Hall said Monday morning. "If you're the team that (achieves an undefeated national championship), you're doing something that will be talked about forever, you are making history. I can't understand why you wouldn't want to have that as something your team could achieve."
On the other hand, if he were currently the Kentucky head coach, ex-South Carolina and Western Kentucky head man Darrin Horn said — with a caveat — that he would prefer to enter the Big Dance with at least one loss.
In explaining why, Horn pointed to UK history. Kentucky's 1996 and 2012 NCAA championship teams each lost in the finals of the SEC Tournament, but then won six in a row when it mattered most.
"You look at what happened for them in '96 and 2012, I thought losing those games helped re-focus them right before the (NCAA) tournament," said Horn, now a college hoops analyst for ESPN and the SEC Network. "As a coach, you never want to lose, but I thought (losing in the SEC Tournament finals) worked out pretty well for those two teams. From the outside, I thought it helped them get where you want to go."
The possible exception to his stance, Horn said, "is you need to actually be the Kentucky coach (now) to know the personality and mind set of that team. You could have a team that has really embraced the idea of running the table, that is sort of feeding off that goal. In that case, if you have a team so invested (in going unbeaten), then it could be better not to have a loss going into the tournament."
A season ago, Kentucky had a brush with a team trying to complete an unbeaten, national-championship season. Wichita State was 35-0 when it faced the eighth-seeded Wildcats in the NCAA tourney round of 32.
On the day before the Shockers played UK, Wichita State Coach Gregg Marshall explained how he had handled his team's bid for perfection. "We just had fun with it," Marshall said.
As the Wichita State winning streak grew, Marshall started assigning each win a name that corresponded with the jersey number of a famous sports figure. Win No. 20, for instance, was "Barry Sanders."
"I just think that our guys have enjoyed it," Marshall said. "They have relished it. It's been really special."
Of course, the next day, Wichita State lost to Kentucky in an NCAA tourney classic. But the Shockers did not play like a team weighted down by expectations. They went out firing.
For all its regal basketball history, UK has never entered an NCAA Tournament undefeated. Led by Cliff Hagan and Frank Ramsey, Kentucky's 1953-54 team went 25-0, but Adolph Rupp turned down an NCAA tourney bid because his best players were graduate students and ineligible for tournament play.
In 1965-66, Rupp's Runts won their first 22 games before falling at Tennessee in the next-to-last game of the regular season. That team went on to lose to Texas Western in the NCAA title game.
Still, Hall said he does not believe there would be extra pressure on the current Cats if they make it to the NCAA Tournament unbeaten.
"They have the expectations of winning the national championship (anyway)," Hall said. "Once the tournament starts, the pressure is not to have your season end."