UK Men's Basketball

John Clay: Kentucky fans might be thinking 40-0 but won't dare say it

Kentucky forward Willie Cauley-Stein scored on an uncontested dunk in front of Georgetown College guard Noah Cottrill.
Kentucky forward Willie Cauley-Stein scored on an uncontested dunk in front of Georgetown College guard Noah Cottrill. Herald-Leader

It seems that we are right back where we started.

Kentucky's 2014-15 basketball season officially starts Friday night when John Calipari's Cats welcome Grand Canyon to Rupp Arena for an 8 p.m. SEC Network tilt.

The recent watchword for this preseason seems to be the same watchword we heard preseason last year. The word is "undefeated" — part of the prescient question can the Cats go undefeated?

If you remember, last year there were T-shirts. The inscription read "40-0" and the shirts were in stock at local stores.

UK didn't manufacture those T-shirts. Contrary to popular belief, Calipari didn't invent the slogan. His sin was to mention, after Kentucky won the 2012 national championship, that he'd love to coach a 40-0 team before he retired. When the 2013-14 team appeared to boast the necessary parts, the "40-0" talk appeared.

That hasn't really been the case this year. There are no shirts, no slogans, at least that I've seen. And we have last year to thank.

As we know, not only were last year's Cats beaten, but they were also beaten 11 times. Burned once, shame on you. Burned twice, shame on the fan base.

Then Sunday night in Rupp Arena, a former UK manager revisited the subject. After his Georgetown College Tigers had been smoked 121-52 by the AP preseason No. 1, head coach Chris Briggs gushed.

"They could have beaten some NBA teams tonight," said Briggs in the postgame news conference. "There's no doubt in my mind."

As Jon Stewart might say, "Go on ... "

"Honestly, I don't see how they're going to be beat this year," Briggs said. "I hate to say that."

Calipari didn't love it either, pushing back via Twitter, at least against the notion that his collection of ridiculous talent could beat an NBA team. "If we played ANY NBA team, we would get buried," Cal tweeted. "ANY."

On Monday, however, during an ESPN teleconference, Jay Bilas hedged.

"They're probably going to drop a game here or there. They're not going to go undefeated," Bilas said, before adding the all-important qualifier. "I don't think."

Let's review. No team has navigated an entire season without losing a game since the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers, coached by Bob Knight.

Since then, a few teams have flirted with perfection. That 2012 Calipari title team, led by Anthony Davis, finished 38-2. Jim Calhoun's Connecticut team ended up 34-2 in 1999. Rick Pitino's 1996 national team at Kentucky finished 34-2.

The year before, UCLA under Jim Harrick won the title at 31-2. Duke's 1992 team, which famously beat UK in that epic East Region/Christian Laettner final, went 34-2. North Carolina ended 32-2 in 1982. Joe B. Hall's 1978 Kentucky champions wound up 30-2 after beating Duke in the NCAA Tournament finals.

This time a year ago, I branded 40-0 talk silly. No modern team, no matter how talented, can complete a season without stubbing its toe at least once. There is too much balance, too much luck involved, too many good players spread across the land. And while I didn't see the 2013-14 Cats suffering double-digit losses, I was fairly confident they would taste defeat.

This year? This year I concur with Bilas. While Kentucky will probably win the most important game at the end of the season, it won't win every game. At least, I don't think it will win every game.

For one thing, Calipari has chosen to play an ambitious pre-conference schedule, and should be congratulated. Just next Tuesday, UK plays Kansas in Indianapolis. (Though Kansas' coach, Bill Self, said this year's UK team has "more McDonald's All-Americans than the Lakers.")

On successive December weekends, UK plays Texas, North Carolina, UCLA and Louisville, the last two at Chicago (UCLA) and Louisville. Happy holidays.

And there is last year's object lesson on degree of difficulty. Preseason expectations proved over the top, which has contributed to the lack of "undefeated" chatter.

This year, if Kentucky fans really believe their team is going unbeaten, not as many are willing to say it out loud.

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