When the University of Kentucky visits Ole Miss tonight for a 9 p.m. Southeastern Conference basketball game on ESPN, the Wildcats will do so as college hoops' all-time winningest team.
It's an accomplishment UK has held tightly to for much of its history, save a brief run by North Carolina in the early 1990s. But for most of the past 50 years or so, that record has been Big Blue's calling card. Through UCLA coach John Wooden more than doubling the four NCAA titles that Adolph Rupp won with the Cats (Wooden won 10 in 12 seasons); through the recruiting scandal under Eddie Sutton's watch that led to the Sports Illustrated cover story "Kentucky's Shame"; through the coaching mistake that was Billy Gillispie, UK has almost always been able to point to that single stat — most wins in NCAA history — as validation for boldly (foes might say arrogantly) proclaiming itself: "The Greatest Tradition in the History of College Basketball."
But by the end of this COVID-19-driven, stop-and-start, unprecedented season, UK may be looking up at KU, as in Kansas, when it comes to owning the most college hoops victories.
That's what can happen when you're mired in a current 8-14 season that's running out of games at the same time the Jayhawks not only stand 18-8, but look to have as many as six or seven more victories in them.
Since UK currently leads KU by but six total wins (2326 to 2320), you can see a legitimate reason for Kentucky's Big Blue Nation to fear headaches and heartache over the season's final month.
Especially with the Jayhawks not only winning six of their last seven games, but also knocking off then-No. 2 and previously unbeaten Baylor on Saturday night by 13 points.
Meanwhile, the Wildcats have won but three of their last seven after falling at home on Saturday to Florida. And unless UK were to win the SEC Tournament next week in Nashville, the maximum number of games it has left is six — Tuesday at Ole Miss, Saturday at home against South Carolina and whatever it can achieve in the conference tournament.
The more likely scenario — given that the current SEC standings would have the Cats facing SEC regular-season champ Alabama in its second SEC tourney game (should it win its opener), and UK having already lost to the Tide twice — is Big Blue winning three more at the most.
Of course, if that were to happen, it would mean Kansas would need nine more wins to catch Kentucky before next season. That's doable, given the way the Jayhawks are playing of late in the highly-regarded Big 12, but that would also mean KU would have to reach the NCAA title game, which seems iffy at best.
Still, let the Wildcats lose tonight against the Rebels, survive the Gamecocks, but meekly fall in their opening-round SEC tourney game and all bets would be off. That would leave UK with nine wins on the year, it's worst mark ever in a season of 20 or more games. KU will pick up its 19th win on Thursday against UTEP in a game that wasn't scheduled until last week, which would then open the door for the Jayhawks to reach a tie with the Cats by merely winning the Big 12 tourney and reaching a regional final.
Of course, there are also plenty of backstories here. For one, Rupp — who was responsible for 876 of UK's victories during the Baron of the Bluegrass's 41 seasons in charge of the program — both grew up in Kansas and played at KU for legendary coach Phog Allen.
For another, though John Calipari coached Kentucky to victory over Kansas in the 2012 NCAA title game, Bill Self's Jayhawks have won four of the last five meetings against the Cats with Cal in charge, including a 65-62 victory earlier this season.
Then there's that 1989 game in Lawrence during Rick Pitino's first year on the job at UK and current North Carolina coach Roy Williams' first season at KU. The Jayhawks won that one 150-95, which remains the largest margin of defeat in UK history.
This is not to say KU is the equal or better of UK across the board. The Wildcats have eight NCAA titles total to the Jayhawks' three. Even should KU top the all-time wins list, it would still trail UK in winning percentage — .763 to .727. And there's the all-time head-to-head, which still favors UK, 23-10, though Self and Cal are tied 4-4 since Cal got to UK in 2009-2010.
When Kentucky lost to Florida on Saturday, Calipari said of where this most shocking of Wildcat seasons goes from here: "It's back to the drawing board."
It just might also be back to No. 2 on the all-time wins list for the first time in a long time. And should that happen to it, one doubts that next year's Big Blue media guide will proclaim the program to have "the second greatest tradition in the history of college basketball."
Contact Mark Wiedmer at firstname.lastname@example.org.