When I want to remind myself how difficult it is to win men's NCAA basketball championships, I think about University of Kentucky hoops history.
With all the resources and emphasis, all the pride and passion that UK and its rabid fan base put into men's hoops, the Wildcats have claimed four national titles since 1958. Over the last 57 years, UK — with all its advantages — has averaged a national championship once every 14.25 years.
For my money, to run the gauntlet of six NCAA Tournament games under lose-and-go-home pressure is the most difficult championship to claim in major American team sports.
Kentucky and its fans got a painful reminder of just how hard it is to cut down the final nets in men's basketball Saturday night when the Cats bid for an undefeated national championship ended with a crushing 71-64 loss to Wisconsin in the national semifinals.
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My first-hand memory of Kentucky Wildcats basketball begins (fleetingly) with Adolph Rupp's final season (1971-72) on the Kentucky bench. To me, Saturday's loss was — pick your adjective — the most difficult, disappointing, painful defeat for a UK men's basketball team in all that time.
What made the loss to Duke on Christian Laettner's famous buzzer beater in the 1992 NCAA round of eight so jarring was the dramatic swing of emotions UK backers endured. In overtime, Sean Woods had given Kentucky the lead with a running bank shot with 2.1 seconds left.
UK fans were experiencing the exultation of being on the verge of eliminating the defending national champions when Laettner took in Grant Hill's three-quarters-court pass, spun and broke their hearts.
Yet as traumatic as that was, UK entered that game as a steep underdog. Though it was painful to see the careers of the four seniors (Richie Farmer, Deron Feldhaus, John Pelphrey and Woods) who had stuck with the Kentucky program through a harsh NCAA probation end in that way, the game signaled that Kentucky basketball was rising again under Rick Pitino after being laid low by an Eddie Sutton-era cheating scandal.
On several levels, this season's loss to Wisconsin is tougher to stomach.
One reason is simply how close UK was to something historic. When you make it to the Final Four unbeaten, there's no way anything less than a national title can seem a fitting end to the season.
The other is the way Kentucky lost. Deep into the second half, the Wildcats appeared to be doing what they had done in close games every time they had been challenged — using their stifling defense to seize control.
They held Wisconsin, by most metrics the best offensive team in the country, without a field goal for more than seven minutes. Down eight points, 52-44, with 14:41 left, UK rallied to take a 60-56 lead with only 6:35 to go.
At that point, Wisconsin looked physically gassed and ready to submit.
Yet, whether it was Kentucky deliberately trying to milk the clock or just an offense that went stagnant at the worst possible time, UK went more than five minutes without scoring itself.
That pause allowed the Badgers to catch their breath, and they then did what good, veteran teams do: They marched through the door that UK uncharacteristically left open.
In a sense, the worst part of Saturday's defeat came after the game ended.
Whatever the motive, a good bit of the country seems to be looking for reasons to dislike the current UK men's basketball program. Apparently, some Wildcats players did not shake hands with the victorious Badgers after the game. That was followed by UK guard Andrew Harrison's "hot mic" invective toward Wisconsin star Frank Kaminsky. Both gave people inclined to think the worst of UK basketball ammunition.
Which is a shame, because I thought the defining off-the-court characteristic of the 2014-15 Kentucky Wildcats was how nice and empathetic toward others so many of the players seemed to be.
Inside Kentucky, this past season's Cats deserve to join Rupp's Runts and The Unforgettables among non-NCAA title-winning teams that hold a special spot in UK lore.
To the ever-lasting regret of Wildcats fans, they will also stand as another painful reminder of just how hard it is to win the men's NCAA basketball championship — even at Kentucky.