Before the NCAA Tournament, Kentucky Coach John Calipari joked that the difficult path he expected the Division I men's basketball selection committee to give his team would include the Los Angeles Lakers, but "they can't pull out of the NBA right now."
He went on: "I think if we had to see Oklahoma City or Cleveland, those would be tough. I'm not sure. And they tell me that Portland's as big as we are, so those would be teams I wouldn't want to see."
Though his point was taken, on this specific nuance he was wrong: As of the start of the NCAA Tournament, the NBA's Trail Blazers were not as big as Kentucky. Nor were the Lakers, the Thunder or the Cavaliers. According to a calculation by The New York Times, counting players who played at least one quarter of a game's minutes on average, the Minnesota Timberwolves were the only NBA team taller than Kentucky, whose oldest regular player is 21.
The Wildcats, still undefeated at 37-0 after Thursday night's rout of West Virginia, are the tallest team in college basketball. And Calipari would have it no other way.
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"My goal is to have a 6-9 point guard — I'll take a 6-8 — and a team that's 6-9 across the board," he said recently.
He added, "So when you ask me what's the downside, well, we're big, and it's tough on the airplanes."
Not even freshman guard Tyler Ulis, who is 5-9, drags Kentucky's height down to second place, which is occupied by Florida State.
"It helps me be able to play my game, get up on the ball," Ulis said of being surrounded by comparative giants. "Sometimes if I make a mistake, there's 7-footers in the lane — you can't really shoot over them."
Though Kentucky is taller than average at all five positions, its advantage really shows up in the frontcourt, which at any given time is invariably occupied by two of five players — Marcus Lee, Trey Lyles, Karl-Anthony Towns, Dakari Johnson and Willie Cauley-Stein — who are 6-9, 6-10, 6-11, 7-0 and 7-0, although assistant John Robic has referred to Cauley-Stein as "7 and a half-inch." All play substantial numbers of minutes.
The statistics site KenPom.com attempts to quantify height further with a figure called "effective height," which adjusts team height by position. Here, too, Kentucky was tops in the college game at plus-6.9 entering the tournament. Its height advantage shows up most starkly at power forward, and then at center. Only three teams since 2007 have had higher effective heights.
As early as last year's NCAA Tournament, some Internet commenters took to calling the Kentucky team Monstars, a reference to the gigantic alien dream team that takes on the ragtag bunch led by Michael Jordan in the 1996 film Space Jam.
"They've tweeted pictures of it to us," Lyles said early this month. "It's a funny thing that the fans do."
Cauley-Stein added with a grimace — a sign, perhaps, that he knew that the Monstars in the film ultimately lose — "It's good stuff."
It might sound silly to say that having an abundance of tall players is a distinct advantage for a basketball team — sort of like asserting that an ability to project one's voice is an advantage for a public speaker.
Yet, if anything, height might be underrated, according to David Epstein, author of the book The Sports Gene. After crunching numbers, Epstein found that height and wingspan — a related measurement, of the arms from fingertip to fingertip — correlate strongly with total rebounds, offensive rebounds and blocks.
"Even in the NBA, which is restricting your data to the best people in the world, it still has some predictive value," Epstein said.
In the case of Kentucky, height is crucial, but primarily as a starting point. According to analysts, opposing coaches and the players themselves, Kentucky's achievement, particularly on defense, is also the result of general athleticism and disciplined play.
"It's not a complicated game if you've got really good talent, that size, they play together, and are well-coached," CBS analyst Clark Kellogg said.
It is difficult to say exactly where this year's Wildcats team ranks compared with those of past years, given that this is a down season for offenses. But this team is historically good on that side of the court, coming into the tournament holding opposing teams to the fewest points per possession and the lowest field-goal percentage since 1975. Adjusting for opponents, Kentucky was the second-most defensively efficient team since at least 2002, according to KenPom.com.
The one team even better on defense was the 2008-09 Memphis Tigers. They, too, were tall. And they, too, were coached by Calipari. For the record, he said, he is around 6 feet.