Joe B. Hall grew up 20 minutes north of the University of Kentucky campus. He played basketball at Kentucky under legendary coach Adolph Rupp. He later coached under Rupp, then replaced him as head coach, and in 1978, he guided Kentucky to a national championship.
Hall understands Kentucky’s storied history in college basketball as intimately as anyone.
And he’s never seen a team quite like the current Kentucky squad.
“This has to be the best team Kentucky has ever had,” Hall said.
That’s lofty praise considering the school has won eight national championships and won more games than any program in Division I history.
A segment of Big Blue Nation might dismiss Hall’s assessment as premature because the current team as yet to win a championship, a necessary benchmark to be compared with other Wildcat teams of lore.
But as Selection Sunday arrives, Kentucky enters the NCAA tournament as the overwhelming favorite to claim the title and, barring an upset in the SEC tournament championship Sunday, become the first Division I team in nearly four decades to finish a season undefeated.
Not since the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers has a team posted a perfect season. Like a snowball rolling downhill, Kentucky’s bid for 40-0 has gained momentum with each win.
“Every game they played this year is an event, every game is somebody’s Super Bowl,” coach John Calipari said. “They took on the challenges.”
A national championship would cement the Wildcats’ legacy as one of the best teams in school and NCAA history. Anything short of a March Madness coronation will be labeled a disappointment for a team that made mincemeat of the regular season and enters the postseason on a pedestal.
The Wildcats are like the New York Yankees in that regard. Love ’em or loathe ’em, public perception seems to lack middle ground. Their pursuit of history amplifies strong feelings about the program.
The face on the bull’s-eye belongs to Calipari, a polarizing figure and uncompromising leader who keeps his team on edge by refusing to back off the throttle. Calipari pushes players relentlessly in practice and games, even in blowouts, because he knows complacency can lay waste to greatness.
“They’re looking at me like, ‘We’re up 25 and haven’t lost and you’re losing your mind,’ ” Calipari said.
Not crazy, just aware of the carrot dangling in front of his team. And only one conclusion will satisfy a basketball-obsessed fan base that values Kentucky basketball as a state treasure.
“It’s more than a sport, it’s a religion, truly,” Hall said. “For the people out in the rural communities, Kentucky basketball is next to church [in importance].”
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The Commonwealth has placed its collective faith in this team, and for good reason. The Wildcats finished the regular season 31-0, with the highest average margin of victory (21.2 points) in the nation.
“What they’ve done may not happen again for a long, long time,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said.
Kentucky’s blueprint involves stockpiling blue-chip talent. Calipari has revitalized the program with three Final Four appearances in five seasons by replenishing his roster with prep All-Americas as a counterbalance to the one-and-done exodus of players to the NBA.
Calipari already has had 19 players selected in the draft at Kentucky, and six to eight players from this team could be drafted, including projected top-10 picks Karl-Anthony Towns and Willie Cauley-Stein.
No team can match Kentucky’s size, talent and depth. Nine players on the roster were McDonald’s high school All-Americas. Ten players stand at least 6-6, including a pair of 7-footers. Six players measure 6-9 or taller.
Five players have a wingspan of 7 feet or more.
“I’m sure you’ll find some teams in the NBA that have the height and length,” said former Kentucky player Mike Pratt, who now serves as the team’s radio analyst. “But in college, no. It’s a rare, rare bird.”
Their size suffocates teams, particularly on defense. The Wildcats allowed only 53.4 points per game during the regular season, the third-best mark in the country. They led the nation in field-goal percentage defense (35.1 percent), finished second in blocks and have the most versatile defender in college basketball in the 7-0 Cauley-Stein.
If defense serves as Kentucky’s hallmark, the team’s identity rests in Calipari’s ability to entice star players to accept lesser roles for the good of the group. No player averaged more than 25 minutes or 11 points per game this season.
Aaron Harrison led the team in scoring at 11.2 points, the lowest total for their leading scorer since the 1946-47 season.
“This is a great story for college athletics,” Calipari said. “Instead of me, me, me, it’s us, us, us. Every one of these players has benefited by this. I’m not just talking about they won. No, their stock personally has risen, every one of them.”
The Wildcats are so balanced and deep that Calipari unveiled a new “platoon” substitution strategy this season. Much like hockey lines, he rolls in mass substitutions because he doesn’t worry about a drop-off.
“More than any team I’ve coached, the strength is in the pack,” he said. “It doesn’t mean we don’t have some aggressive, tough wolves that will come after you. But by themselves they’re not the same. In the pack we have a little swag about us.”
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An NCAA record five different coaches have won national titles at Kentucky, which trails only UCLA (11) in national championships.
Kentucky’s program gained prominence in the late 1940s under Rupp, who won four national championships and 876 games.
For Wildcat fans, picking a “best” team in school history is like trying to choose a favorite child. The contrast in styles, athletic ability and rules across different eras further muddies that conversation.
The Fabulous Five — Ralph Beard, Wah Wah Jones, Alex Groza, Kenny Rollins and Cliff Barker — that won the school’s first championship in 1948 still holds a special place in the hearts of old-timers. Rupp’s Runts of 1966 remains a beloved team but that squad lost in the championship game.
Hall’s 1978 championship squad featured the great Jack “Goose” Givens.
Rick Pitino’s “Untouchables” in 1996 went 34-2 and featured a lineup that included Antoine Walker, Derek Anderson, Ron Mercer, Walter McCarty and Tony Delk.
Calipari’s 2012 team lost only two games in winning a championship behind one-and-done freshmen Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marquis Teague.
Hall was an ineligible freshman on the Fabulous Five squad and won his own championship as coach, so he’s partial to those teams. But he gushes at the size and skill of the current team.
“They’re better physically, they’re more graceful, they’re stronger, they jump higher, they shoot better, they play defense better, they’re quicker,” he said.
At the NBA’s All-Star weekend this season, Davis was asked if this Kentucky team could beat his 2012 squad.
“Oh, I mean, we’d destroy them,” Davis said. “No question.”
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Hall traces the state’s obsession with basketball to the 1920s and ’30s in rural communities that revolved around high school sports. Basketball took root in schools too small to field football teams.
The popularity of Wildcats basketball coincided with Rupp’s arrival in Lexington and his fast-break offense.
“That enthusiasm in those rural communities, they were infected with the spirit of basketball,” Hall said.
The Wildcats have led the nation in average attendance 17 of the past 18 seasons and averaged more than 23,000 fans per game every year since Calipari’s arrival.
“When a couple has two tickets, a man and wife, and they get a divorce,” Hall said, “each one of them takes a ticket and they’ll come back and sit together during the game. It’s amazing.”
That passion has its drawbacks. In 2007, Tubby Smith grew tired of the pressure-cooker climate and escaped to a less stressful job at Minnesota.
“I tell people that Kentucky is not for every player,” former All-America center Sam Bowie told the Star Tribune a day after Smith’s stunning exit. “You may think you know what expectations are and what pressure is, but you have no idea until you get to the bluegrass of the Commonwealth.”
The current Wildcats have thrived in that fishbowl environment without a hint of fear or uneasiness about an undefeated season, their legacy, or the inevitable backlash and enjoyment of critics if they fail to finish the job.
Their season has been a success so far. March will determine how they are remembered.
“The biggest thing I’m trying to tell these guys, I’m telling my staff, man, we all have to stay connected and enjoy this,” Calipari said. “If you want to attack what we’re doing, be nasty about it, have at it. Coaching this team, with these kind of kids, you’re not stealing my joy.”