CRAWFORD | Halfway to 40-0, does Kentucky need to lose a game? A - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD | Halfway to 40-0, does Kentucky need to lose a game? Absolutely not

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Kentucky's Devin Booker enjoys the final moments of UK's victory at Missouri. AP photo. Kentucky's Devin Booker enjoys the final moments of UK's victory at Missouri. AP photo.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — Have you noticed, conversation about the University of Kentucky basketball team has evolved over the course of this season?

Through December, the question was, “Will Kentucky go undefeated?”

Now that January is turning to February, and the Wildcats (20-0) are halfway to 40-0, the question has changed. Now they're asking, “Should Kentucky go undefeated?” Implicit is the question, does Kentucky need to lose a game? Would it benefit this team to drop a game heading into the postseason?

After the Wildcats beat Missouri 69-53 Thursday night in Columbia, Mo., I have the answer to such questions.

Absolutely not. No way. Nada.

I reserve “needing to lose a game” for teams that lose focus, for teams that are adrift and showing little improvement, for teams that seem less-than-motivated or that seem to have gotten full of themselves, playing with little urgency, or with little notion of their potential.

These are not the hallmarks of this Kentucky team.

This is not a team in crisis mode. This is not Team Turmoil. These guys are Drama Free. They're almost boring. They're leaving commentators around the nation scratching their heads over what else they can say about them. They don't have to throw devastating knockout punches. They put opponents into a sleeper hold.

There is no lone standout. There's not one personality to sell to the nation. But nor is there any controversy. Aaron Harrison isn't fighting with Devin Booker. Andrew Harrison and Tyler Ulis aren't at each other's throats. Nobody is openly stepping outside of the team concept.

No, as John Calipari likes to say, these players aren't machines. But this team plays like a machine. Even if some guys are off, Kentucky's redundant systems take over and pick up the slack.

Kentucky has had its scares. It had back-to-back overtime wins. It had a closer-than-expected game against Vanderbilt. But be honest. Did you expect the Wildcats to lose any of those?

And they worked their way through those experiences to get better.

More often, you get a game like this one at Missouri, an ugly, physical, foul-fest, with an overmatched opponent trying to muck up a game, hoping that Kentucky might fall asleep, or not respond. But here's the problem. Booker has been playing like the best scorer in college basketball for the past three weeks. On Thursday night, back where his father played, he didn't have it. Willie Cauley-Stein is a Wooden Award candidate. When they put an ESPN graphic up early in the second half, he had 0 points and one rebound. He finished with two points and three rebounds.

Did it matter? Not really. Andrew Harrison had 15 points. Aaron Harrison had 13. Ten different Wildcat players scored. UK led by 20 with eight minutes to play, and coasted. About the most excitement anyone encountered was Calipari having water bottles thrown at him during his postgame interview with ESPN's Seth Greenberg.

“We had 10 guys score baskets, I love that,” Calipari said. “We had too many turnovers, not enough assists. . . . You just want to see who will step up and make plays, who will make free throws, who will do their things. I thought Dakari (Johnson) did some good things today. I've got a good team. I've got good players, and I've got a good team.”

The other teams for which I reserve an “it's OK to lose” qualification are those playing very difficult schedules. UK's SEC schedule is better than you think. These SEC teams are all right. But no, the road in the SEC isn't what the road is in the ACC or Big 12. The teams UK is playing are good, but they're not great, and they certainly can't teach UK's players anything they don't already know.

If UK played at Virginia or Duke or Wisconsin before the end of the season, losing to one of those might be instructive. But it doesn't. If UK loses one between now and the postseason, it will be because it played far below its abilities on a large scale, and what use is there in that?

Of course, this can all change. A team can lose its edge. It can lose interest. It can become complacent. Calipari understands, things change. When he was asked this week if he thought his team might need to take a loss, he actually put some thought into the answer.

“When I was at Memphis, I believe we won our first 26 games,” Calipari said. “We're playing Tennessee in our building and there are 5,000 people outside of a 20,000-seat building watching it on screens. It is ridiculous. We're going to win the game, and then we fumble the ball. They make a three at the buzzer to beat us by one. Was that lucky for us or unlucky for us? It all depends on how you deal with it. For us, from that game, my team went whoop–bing (gestures pointing upward). We beat Michigan in the NCAA Tournament by 30 at halftime, Texas in Houston, and UCLA. Do you want to name some of those guys (on UCLA): Kevin Love, Russell Westbrook, and there's like nine of them. They went down by 20. And (in the championship game) we have a nine-point lead (over Kansas) with two minutes to go, miss free throws and lose the national title. Tennessee, on the other hand, it was not good for them. It was unlucky because they beat us and went like (pointing downward) from there on in and finished the season with a dud.” 

But that doesn't necessarily mean that a loss is good for all teams.

“It depends,” he said. “It depends on how you would deal with it. I know what we did with Memphis. We took that game, cut it up, and our kids took it on and went to another level. The Indiana game (2011-12) – was that (regular season IU win) lucky for us or lucky for them? Was that good for us or good for them? From that point, my team went (gestures pointing upward), but it was pretty good for them. The problem was they had to play us again and it wasn't so lucky that they had beaten us early because there was no way that my team wasn't going to win that game. It was a great game and they lost by 10. We're just trying to get better. We'll deal with things as they come. We have a great group of kids.”

In fact, at this point in the season, I'm going to advance this notion — it is better for this team to be undefeated than to not be undefeated heading into the postseason.

Because of the number of top-level players on this team, no single player is feeling the brunt of all the pressure. That's one reason that having the aura of an unbeaten — and some might say unbeatable — team going for you.

General George S. Patton: “The one great element in continuing the success of an offensive is maintaining the momentum.”

You keep the ball rolling and let others worry about stopping it at full speed. Some will fear the momentum as much as the object.

Some teams have great success, embrace it, and need to ponder their mortality before the end of the season. Every once in a while (but not since 1976 in college basketball) comes one that benefits more from pondering its immortality, then living up to that ideal.

Whether this is the latter type of team, we won't know until April in Indianapolis. But in February in Columbia, Mo., it most certainly not the former type of team.

Let the good times roll. These Wildcats don't need to lose.

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