NASHVILLE — It's pretty simple, really.
Kentucky has to go 40-0.
"We've got no choice," said freshman guard Tyler Ulis.
If this Kentucky basketball team is going to achieve its ultimate goal and win the school's ninth national championship, it will have to become the first team since Indiana in 1975-76 to finish the season undefeated and the first team in college basketball history to go 40-0.
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Even 39-1 won't get that done.
"We want to win a national championship," said Willie Cauley-Stein, the junior forward who was named the SEC Tournament's Most Valuable Player after his 15 points and 10 rebounds led UK to a 78-63 win over Arkansas in Sunday's finals at Bridgestone Arena that ran the Cats' record to 34-0.
The quest's first step happens Thursday down Interstate 64 at Louisville's KFC Yum Center where, as the No. 1 seed in the Midwest Region, Kentucky will play the winner of Tuesday night's "First Four" matchup between Manhattan and Hampton.
That's the same Manhattan coached by former Kentucky walk-on Steve Masiello, who was all set to become South Florida's head coach before this season, until it was learned that Masiello had never completed his undergrad degree at UK. Masiello closed that hole in his résumé. Manhattan took him back. And the Jaspers won the Mid-Atlantic Tournament.
That's just one possible matchup in Kentucky's Midwest path. The region's No. 2 seed is Kansas, trampled by the Cats 72-40 on Nov. 18 at the Champions Classic in Indianapolis in what was this glorious season's first "wow" moment.
The No. 3 seed is Notre Dame, a terrific offensive team that just beat Duke and North Carolina to win the prestigious ACC Tournament. The No. 4 seed is Maryland, which more than held its own in its debut in the powerful Big Ten. At No. 5 is Calipari's old friend Bob Huggins and West Virginia, which upset Cal's first Kentucky team in the 2010 Elite Eight.
Villanova (East), Duke (South) and Wisconsin (West) joined the Cats as No. 1 seeds. Duke didn't win the ACC regular season or tournament but got a No. 1. Virginia won the regular-season title but was relegated to No. 2. Arizona won the regular-season Pac-12 title and blasted Oregon in the tournament finals but is the West's No. 2.
Meanwhile, the NCAA dubbed Louisville a No. 4 seed and shipped the Cardinals to Seattle to play UC-Irvine for an East Region matchup. The only way the Cats and Cards could meet in this NCAA Tournament is in the final game.
Then again, the prevailing wisdom is no team wants to play the Cats, not these Cats, who beat 11 teams that made the NCAA Tournament field — Arkansas (twice), Buffalo, Georgia (twice), Kansas, LSU, Louisville, North Carolina, Ole Miss, Providence, Texas and UCLA.
Four of those are SEC teams, giving the league five bids for an oft-criticized conference that saw Kentucky take its tournament over the weekend by winning three games, each more physical than the one before. And the physical play isn't about to stop now.
"Definitely," freshman Trey Lyles said in Saturday's victorious locker room. "Postseason, guys ramp it up one more step. Every game is going to be more physical. We're prepared for that. We practice for that."
That they do, thanks to Calipari's decision to alter his normal practice plan and insert more scrimmage time for this particular team, which gets bored easily by simple drills. A team so deep and so talented, they'd rather be beating on each other. And by all reports, they do just that in the wars at Joe Craft Center.
"That's the best team we're scrimmaging against, ourselves," Lyles said. "We know each other's games. We know each other's plays."
"It's very physical in practice, maybe even more physical than in the games," echoed fellow freshman Karl-Anthony Towns. "That's really helped us — the best in the country gets to go against the best in the country every day."
To prove they are indeed the best in the country, the Cats have to stretch this remarkable 34-0 mark to that historic 40-0.
"At this point, we got no choice," said Cauley-Stein. "It's win or go home now. You've got to play every second on the floor like it's our last time playing with each other."
It's all pretty simple. The Cats have to get to 40. And the magic number is six.