Wiedmer: UK's Cal dreams of perfect season

Wiedmer: UK's Cal dreams of perfect season

October 17th, 2013 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

SEC Southeastern Conference

SEC Southeastern Conference

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. - 40-0. As in 40 college basketball wins and no losses in a single season. As in the best record in the history of the sport.

That's Kentucky coach John Calipari's dream. Not his goal necessarily. But his dream.

"For eight years I've said that before I retire I'd like to coach a team that goes 40-0," Calipari said during his time at the Southeastern Conference basketball media event on Wednesday. "It's never been done before. Will it happen? I don't know. But I think it would be neat."

He's come remarkably close twice. His Memphis team went 38-2 in 2008, its perfect season ended late by Bruce Pearl's best Tennessee team before Kansas nipped him in overtime in the national title game, though the NCAA brass later erased that excellence over questions concerning point guard Derrick Rose's high school standardized test scores.

His third Kentucky team also finished 38-2 two seasons ago, winning it all against Kansas, of all teams.

But neither of those earlier Cal squads could count seven McDonald's All-Americans on the roster, which this bunch can.

"My concern," said ESPN analyst Jimmy Dykes, "is that somebody's going to have to come off the bench. Last time I checked, you can only start five. Darius Miller was amazing in that role two years ago, as good as anyone I've ever seen. But can they find that guy this year?"

The better question might be whether or not they can navigate a rougher, tougher SEC, one likely to earn at least two more NCAA Tournament bids than the paltry three it received last season, when Florida, Missouri and SEC tourney champ Ole Miss were its lone invitees.

"I definitely think we'll be better this year," said second-year LSU coach Johnny Jones. "I think we're recruiting better, I think the league is older. I see us getting back to where it was in the 1980s, when guys like Charles Barkley played in this league."

C.M. Newton played at Kentucky, coached at Alabama and Vanderbilt and later became the UK athletic director who hired Rick Pitino to revive a struggling program in 1989. He has watched Big Blue claim three national titles since then -- one each won by Pitino (1996), Tubby Smith ('98) and Calipari (2012). No school has won more over that time, only Connecticut has won as many.

Now a consultant for the league, he shakes his head over the thought of the Wildcats going 40-0, even as yet another freshman-dominated UK team has already been picked to win the league and rookie Julius Randle has been tabbed its preseason player of the year.

"It used to take two years to win 40 games when I was coached," Newton grinned. "But I really do think they're going to have to sweep through a league that's going to be much improved from a year ago, and I'm not sure the NCAA didn't get it wrong last year with so few SEC teams being picked.

"You go back to last year and Tennessee was on a big uptick at tournament time. Alabama, too. And Ole Miss. They finished with 27 wins and the committee apparently wasn't going to put them in the tournament if they hadn't won the SEC tournament. I hope we'll be treated better this year."

In fact, Florida might be better suited to talk about a 40-0 run than the Wildcats. And not just because the Gators reached an NCAA regional final last season while UK was losing in the first round of the NIT.

"All those redshirts," said Georgia coach Mark Fox in discussing the Gators. "People forget about those guys. Florida's got size, athleticism and experience. They're going to be very, very good. They'll be hard to beat for everybody."

Indeed, in 6-10 junior Damontre Harris (South Carolina) and 6-8 sophomore Dorian Finney-Smith, plus Rutgers transfer Eli Carter, Florida coach Billy Donovan may have all the extra firepower he needs to lift senior Patric Young into the Final Four after three straight years of regional finals. Especially with senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin and sophomore sharpshooter Michael Frazier II keying a dangerous backcourt. Throw in the super 6-10 freshman forward Chris Walker if he becomes academically eligible in the second semester and it's almost tougher to see UK winning the SEC East than finishing second.

"If you're chasing 40-0 late in the season the attention would be tremendous," Dykes said. "Whether it's Kentucky or anyone else, it would be great for college basketball.

"It's a real long shot for UK, though. Michigan State in their third game. They go to North Carolina. They host Louisville. They've got to be ready right off that bat. I really like their chances of running a long way late in the year. I just think them winning every game this season would be tough to pull off."

And it would. Which might be why the Kentucky players' dreams are at least a wee bit less lofty than those of their coach.

"We have high expectations," said sophomore forward Alex Poythress, the Clarksville, Tenn., native. "We want to win a national championship. But we've never said anything about 40-0. We just want to take it one game at a time."

And hope that mindset leads to a 40th game on the final Monday of the season in the NCAA title game. Kind of the same dream as everyone else who plays college basketball has this time of year.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com