Kentucky: Until It's Affirmed

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This year, the University of Kentucky chant “C-A-T-S, CATS, CATS, CATS” sounds a lot like “W-I-N-S, WINS, WINS, WINS”.

Kentucky is in all ways the marquee team of the Tournament. They currently own the longest winning streak in history, seem head and shoulders above everyone else and they are, for most, the team people think will win it all. They’re close: win two more games and they become the first team to go undefeated as champions since the Indiana Hoosiers in 1976. For Kentucky fanatics like Gabe, the head and the heart align this year. But even if you’re not one of the Wildcat faithful, it’s at least time to sit and behold as they seek to do the improbable.

Going undefeated in college basketball these days is about as rare as winning the Triple Crown in the Bluegrass State’s other cherished sport: horse racing. The last thoroughbred to accomplish this feat was Affirmed, and he did it about as long ago, in 1978.  In each of the three races, Affirmed won in different ways: held off a challenge down the stretch in the Kentucky Derby; set the pace in the Preakness; and won by a nose at Belmont. The Wildcats have followed the same formula. Thrashings like the one they put on West Virginia in the Sweet Sixteen were exhibitions of dominance but the squeaker over Notre Dame in the Elite Eight demonstrated UK’s mettle, to say nothing of surviving a combined three overtimes to knock off Ole Miss and Texas A&M in back-to-back games in the regular season.

The latter often gets lost in the shuffle on account of that spotless record. Because there is no blemish to the bottom line, it’s easy to assume that their overall play is similarly flawless. Then again, the biggest part of Kentucky’s supposed identity – its dependence on one-and-done players – is at least somewhat overstated. Kentucky has become so associated with the one-and-done phenomenon that it’s stunning news when players stay in Lexington after their freshman year but three-fifths of the starting lineup are non-freshmen. Were this team a horse, it would be named Constellation, as much for the age and talent diversity in its ten-deep rotation  as the ways in which they go about winning.  

After disposing of the field in the SEC Tournament, Calipari marveled that the Wildcats were still undefeated going into the tournament. “That’s ridiculous if you think about it”, he said – and it is, because they’re not losing in an era where it’s harder not to lose.  In addition to the introduction of the three-point line and the shot clock, there are also more games played in a season since Indiana went undefeated. Kentucky has to win 40 games compared to the Hoosiers, who only had to win 32 in 1976.

And as the Wildcats rack up the wins, it becomes exponentially more fun to see if someone can knock them off their perch; Koma, who has even picked Kentucky to win it all, is still willing to see her bracket go up in smoke for the chance to watch the Wildcats lose, admitting that “there's a bit of schadenfreudein me that wouldn't mind seeing them go down in the Final Four.” But the degree of difficulty is exactly why we should embrace the significance of what we’re watching as the Wildcats near the final stretch of their race to perfection.  Watch them the way you would a thoroughbred on the brink of a Triple Crown at Belmont, even if you've bet on another horse since the Derby. You could be witnessing history.

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