Mark Story

First loss could be net gain for Cats

The Kentucky Wildcats have reached late January without losing one basketball game. The Cats enter Tuesday night's contest at South Carolina as a unanimous No. 1 in both major polls.

Which means that, by the perverse logic of sports, the raging debate is whether the nation's only remaining undefeated men's college basketball team (19-0) now "needs" to lose.

Among the things pointed to by those saying yes is 1996, when a No. 1-ranked Kentucky had a 27-game winning streak snapped by Mississippi State in the finals of the SEC Tournament.

Properly chastened, Rick Pitino's uber-talented roster came back to win six more games and the NCAA title.

The question on the floor: Is taking at least one loss more beneficial for a team than entering the NCAA tourney undefeated?

For an answer, I surveyed some members of the 1996 Cats.

"Here's what I would say to that," said Jeff Sheppard, the former Kentucky guard. "Whatever it is, you need something as a team that refocuses you so you play six games of your best basketball (in the NCAAs). Usually, a loss is the thing that does that.

"I know the loss to Mississippi State did help us get refocused to play our best basketball of the year entering the NCAA tournament."

Taking a late-year defeat can have benefits both psychological and strategic, said Cameron Mills, a reserve on the '96 Kentucky team.

"When you are dealing with young players, especially McDonald's All-Americans and highly recruited players, you understand why they could have a tendency to get a little arrogant," said Mills. "Taking a loss helps you get hungry and get humble."

The other advantage of at least one 'L,' said Mills, is it makes players receptive to coaching going into the do-or-die games of March.

"If you get beat, 95 percent of the time it shows a vulnerability in your team," Mills said. "Coming off a loss, a coach can get players to listen and you can address that problem. If you don't have a loss, a lot of times players don't feel the urgency to fix a vulnerability even if the coach sees it on tape."

The desirability of the current Cats experiencing at least one loss was not unanimous.

"I think if you can win them all, you win them all," said Anthony Epps, starting point guard for the 1996 national champs.

While acknowledging the '96 Cats entered the NCAA with a high sense of purpose after the Mississippi State loss, Epps said "we were already focused totally on winning a national title. We didn't need to lose to have that mind-set. We had it."

Even Sheppard, who says losing in the SEC title game benefited the '96 Cats, said "we were going to win the national title in 1996 anyway. But losing to Mississippi State helped us do that."

The 1995-96 season was Rick Pitino's seventh year at UK. His system was deeply ingrained. He started two seniors, two juniors and a sophomore from a stacked roster that ultimately sent nine players to the NBA.

In the years before 1996, Kentucky had been to a Final Four (1993) and an Elite Eight (1995).

The current Cats have four freshmen and three sophomores among their top eight players. It is the first year of John Calipari's coaching tenure at Kentucky. No one who now wears UK blue has ever advanced past the second round of the NCAA tourney.

Which means that, given the relative youth and lack of tournament experience on the Cats roster, the added pressure of carrying an unbeaten season into March Madness could be problematic.

On the other hand, being the team that replaced Bob Knight's 1976 Indiana Hoosiers as the most recent undefeated national champ would be highly cool.

So would losing a regular-season game or two make Kentucky more likely to end up cutting down nets on the final Monday of the season?

"The fear I'd have for the current Kentucky team is that, if they enter the tournament undefeated, they won't play their best basketball there," said Sheppard, the Final Four Most Outstanding Player for Tubby Smith's 1998 national champions.

"No matter how much talent you have, something has to get you to play your best basketball in those six games. In my experience at Kentucky, both in 1996 and 1998, it was usually a loss that got us to that level."

Added Mills: "I don't know. I do know when I was at Kentucky (1994-98), I think we lost 12 games (actually 16). We benefited from every one of them."