UK Men's Basketball

Longtime SEC coaches laud Kentucky's depth, defense, historic potential

Kentucky Wildcats forward Willie Cauley-Stein (15) went baseline for a dunk for two of his 5 points as #1 Kentucky defeated  #4 Louisville  58-50 on Saturday December 27, 2014 in Louisville, KY. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff
Kentucky Wildcats forward Willie Cauley-Stein (15) went baseline for a dunk for two of his 5 points as #1 Kentucky defeated #4 Louisville 58-50 on Saturday December 27, 2014 in Louisville, KY. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff Herald-Leader

History makers admire what Kentucky and John Calipari have accomplished so far this season. But they advise a wait-and-see attitude before pronouncing UK one of the great, if not greatest, teams in Southeastern Conference history.

"The jury would be out as to whether this is going to be the best team ever," said Wimp Sanderson, the winningest coach in Alabama history. "Because their question is whether they shoot it as well from the perimeter as they need to to be a great team."

Sonny Smith, who led the Auburn teams that featured Charles Barkley and Chuck Person in the 1980s, also noted perimeter shooting as a question.

"I don't think I've seen a team that's deeper than that team," said Smith, who coached Auburn from 1978 through 1989 and now works on radio broadcasts of Auburn games. "The only thing that would bring up a thought is whether they're a great shooting team. I don't know about that part."

Kentucky, 13-0 and ranked No. 1 in the nation, went into this season talking about historic achievement and watershed moments.

Dale Brown, the winningest coach in LSU history and the winner of more SEC games than any coach other than Adolph Rupp, saluted Kentucky.

"Whether to say this is the best team in the history of college basketball is almost impossible," he said. "But I don't think there has ever been a team that had more depth or been this good this young."

The latter gives the best-ever question an apples-and-oranges component. Great teams of the past — Kentucky in 1977-78 and 1995-96, Florida in 2006-07 — had much more experience than Kentucky this season. Their top players were much further along the developmental curve.

Yet Brown used one of his most impactful players, Shaquille O'Neal, to laud how Calipari has made freshmen like Karl-Anthony Towns, Trey Lyles, Tyler Ulis and Devin Booker — so productive.

"It's difficult for a freshman," Brown said. "Even Shaquille, a magnificent, bright young man and talented as heck, I even benched him so I could talk to him."

Hugh Durham, the only coach in Division I history to lead two schools to their only Final Four appearances (Florida State in 1972 and Georgia in 1983), noted how Calipari has fashioned a willing and cohesive defense out of a roster that includes eight healthy McDonald's All-Americans plus projected lottery pick Willie Cauley-Stein.

"When you have prima donnas, which is basically what they are; they can be good kids, but that's what they are," Durham said. "They've bought in and taken a lot of pride in being a great defensive team.

"It's a hell of a job Calipari has done. They've got great talent. But all talented guys don't use their talent, particularly on defense. ...The job he's done with their defense, I think, that's off the charts."

Kentucky has held opponents to 29.7-percent shooting, which not only leads the nation but is on pace to shatter the Division I record in the era of the three-point shot and 35-second shot clock. UK also leads the nation in points allowed (47.2, on average).

In perhaps the most jaw-dropping examples of great defense, Kentucky limited Kansas to 12 points in the second half on Nov. 18 and UCLA to seven points in the first half on Dec. 20.

"I mean, that just doesn't happen," Durham said.

Brown said that Kentucky lacks a transcendent player.

"The only thing missing," he said. "No, Anthony Davis."

When asked what difference such a player makes, the former LSU coach said, "Well, that superstar can carry you. Very few national championships are won by teams with no superstar."

Brown cited Villanova in 1985 and North Carolina State in 1983 as examples of championship teams that lacked such a superstar.

Given Kentucky's quest for history, it's odd to think of Kentucky as a modern-day Villanova or N.C. State. That's particularly true when multiple ESPN announcers and analysts keep talking matter-of-factly about Kentucky breezing through the SEC schedule, which begins Tuesday against Mississippi.

"I think that's a Grimm's Fairy Tale," Brown said of UK hardly breaking a sweat against league competition.

Yet, Sanderson said he considered the SEC as "Kentucky, plus 13."

Smith described one scenario — maybe the only scenario — in which Kentucky could lose.

"I personally think there's only one way somebody in the SEC could beat Kentucky," he said. "That is if they were knocking down a ton of threes, and making a lot of 15-footers. I don't think a team that attacks the rim against Kentucky is going to beat them."