The Kentucky Wildcats were two games away from history.
Sitting at 38-0, all they had to do is beat Wisconsin and then beat Duke to become the first team since Indiana in 1976 to go undefeated and the first team ever to go 40-0 in a season.
But as the semifinal game wound down, it all fell apart for the Wildcats. And instead of them getting the chance for basketball immortality in the championship game, it was the Badgers playing the Blue Devils for all the marbles.
Even though the season didn’t end with an undefeated record or a national championship, however, this Kentucky team was/is a great team.
Put aside your bias against the Wildcats if you have one and take a step back to look at this. They might be a group of freshman who won’t be back for next season, but they certainly were the top team in the league right up to almost the end.
One of the problems with using a postseason tournament like this is that most of the time you don’t get the truly best team winning it all, particularly when it’s lose and go home like the NCAA tournament. Sometimes that will happen, like when Germany won the World Cup this past summer. But other times it ends up that, say the Dallas Mavericks in 2011, who weren’t the best team in the regular season, get a couple of good matchups against teams that they can beat and up taking the title. That’s not to take away from what they did that year, but it’s hard to say that they were definitely the best team that season.
Likewise, you can’t take too much away from Kentucky for losing one game and going down fighting along with it. Were they overrated going into that game? Possibly, but they had taken on all comers up to that point, including taking down Duke and Kansas early in the season. And before thr tournament began, you would have been hardpressed to find someone who didn’t believe that the Wildcats didn’t deserve the No. 1 ranking.
And getting to the Final Four, muchless back-to-back Final Fours, is an impressive feat in itself. The competition was always going to be fierce at that level no matter who the Wildcats played. Just because they lost it doesn’t mean they’re not a great team.
Now because they lost and failed to take the title this season does mean that they shouldn’t be anywhere close to bean discussed as one of the greatest teams of all time. Getting into that discussion requires winning a championship at least. Phi Slamma Jamma was a great team for Houston from 1982 to 1984, but because they didn’t win a title, it’s hard to include them in the greatest of all time discussion.
But those two things — being great and being the greatest of all time — are mutually exclusive. They are different from each other. And just because Kentucky failed to win it all this year doesn’t mean they weren’t a great team.