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Kentucky: America's most hated (and loved)

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Hello, America!

That train is rolling. And you know what? You can’t stop it.

So get on or stay off.

It’s not crazy talk anymore. Maybe it wasn’t crazy before No. 1 Kentucky’s 58-50 victory at No. 4 Louisville on Saturday.

The Wildcats could run the table. Smash the table, really.

And that possibility is good for college basketball.

Come April, Kentucky might be viewed as one of the great teams in college basketball history. But John Calipari’s Wildcats already have won the title of most polarizing team since Christian Laettner’s Blue Devils played for Mike Krzyzewski.

College basketball fans are usually hot or cold on the Wildcats.

Kentucky is the greatest team in the history of college basketball and everyone is just jealous.

They’re pompous youngsters and their coach is a cheater.

Saturday’s victory won’t make the haters happy. They’ll rally against the idea of an undefeated Kentucky. And those who support the program -- Big Blue Nation is massive -- will back the Wildcats and their potentially unblemished 2014-15 campaign.

It’s an explosive combination that will add some seasoning to the typical NCAA tournament buildup. College basketball needs a villain -- think Lakers, Yankees, Manchester United -- in its annual push for pre-March relevancy.

Kentucky will play that role for a segment of the country that would rather watch a powerhouse fall than fight for history.

“I feel like if we play good, then nobody can beat us,” freshman guard Devin Booker said. “If we’re at our best, no one can beat us. So it’s truly up to us. ... We have to focus on our own game. We can’t fall into all we’re hearing and all the outside stuff."

The “Will Kentucky Go Undefeated?” Express will roll through the SEC soon. And that’s an SEC without one ranked team other than the Wildcats. From there, it will return to the NCAA tournament, a tournament that the Wildcats nearly won last season with a team that wasn’t as good as the one Calipari has put together this season.

“I know one thing,” Louisville coach Rick Pitino said after the game, “they’re one of the great defensive teams I’ve seen in my 40 years.”

How many squads can come into the YUM! Center and commit 18 turnovers, score 22 points in the first half, see their lottery pick center (Willie Cauley-Stein) draw his third foul three minutes into the second half, overcome a 3-for-16 effort by its starting backcourt (Aaron Harrison and Andrew Harrison) and still leave with an eight-point win?

Tyler Ulis, who suffered a cut that required stitches after the game, is a freshman. With no conscience. He saved the Wildcats with big shots late. Calipari used Ulis, Booker, Karl Anthony-Towns -- who looked like the future No. 1 NBA draft pick in the second half -- Trey Lyles and Aaron Harrison for a significant stretch after halftime. Calipari couldn’t rely on his veterans, so he turned to four freshmen, and the freshmen delivered in the first true road game of their college careers.

If the Wildcats can beat the Cardinals in that kind of game with first-year players, then it’s not ridiculous to consider Kentucky’s potential to match the feat most recently achieved by the 1975-76 Indiana squad (32-0), the last team to win every game on the way to a national championship.

“They picked the Germans in World War II,” Calipari said in response to a question about the undefeated chatter.

Calipari, however, can’t stop this thing, either.

Kentucky clearly is the best team in the country. The Wildcats are big and athletic. Their defense is historically constricting. They score on penetration, second-chance points (12 on Saturday), dunks and open 3s. They’re everything a team with nine McDonald’s All-Americans should be.

And that’s why they’re a target. The target.

“It’s not fair being at Kentucky and what goes with it and what the expectations are and then everything you do is analyzed,” Calipari said. “It’s not fair. But it’s also not fair when at the end of the season, you’re in the [NBA draft] green room. Half the team. That’s not fair, either. I tell them all the time, you want to do this? This is what it is.”

Nothing wrong with a big house and a fancy car, but do you really need nine of each? That’s the cry of the folks who just can’t wait to see these Wildcats lose. They can’t wait to gloat about the first loss (if it happens).

They’re rooting for the rest of the SEC, not because they care about the league or oppose the idea of a perfect squad. They just don’t want a perfect Kentucky.

In today’s recruiting culture, a team with nine McDonald’s All-Americans -- Duke has nine, too -- is considered to be suspicious. And Calipari’s ties to NCAA investigations and vacated victories at UMass and Memphis -- although Calipari was never directly implicated in either -- provide easy explanations for the folks who suspect wrongdoing even if they don’t have any evidence of it.

Imagine how they’d respond if Kentucky is still winning in late February, if the Wildcats are still stomping opponents, still swatting shots back to Lexington and dunking on the world and approaching history?

They’ll be angry about it, but Kentucky’s strong fan base will continue to sip its tea and enjoy it.

“All I’m looking at,” Calipari said, “is let’s keep trying to see where we can take this.”