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History won't be kind to Kentucky

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Kentucky defeated (1:49)

Kentucky didn't go 40-0 and win the NCAA tournament, but the Wildcats' season wasn't a failure. (1:49)

INDIANAPOLIS -- They just sat there. One of them held a sleeping child.

Two women, adorned in Kentucky gear, stuck in their floor seats at Lucas Oil Stadium as dancing Wisconsin fans shook the dome with "Jump Around" blasting through the venue's supersized sound system on Saturday. A clear stream fell from the corner of their eyes.

Heads tilted toward the floor. They never moved. But they weren't even looking at the ground. They were staring into that place of nothingness grieving men and women find when they're both present and far, far away. They didn't seem to hear the music. They didn't react to the cheers of Badgers supporters who'd turned the building into State Street for nearly two hours.

38-1.

"I mean, I think [we embraced 40-0] because I feel like we were the best team, and I think a lot of people felt like that, too," Andrew Harrison said. "We just didn't ... "

They just didn't get ... the 40-0 mark. That perfect season, the first in nearly 40 years of Division I basketball. That national title and the stainless résumé attached to it.

That 40-0 Kentucky team would have been, could have been great. One of the greatest. And now, it's just another elite Kentucky squad that reached the Final Four but fell short of its ultimate goal. Beyond that, however, these Wildcats had finally embraced the pursuit of perfection. Only seven teams in the history of the game had ever ended a year without a loss. Kentucky chased that and nearly grabbed that.

Now?

38-1.

It's impressive but not historic. It's respectable but not out-of-this-world. It's not easy to achieve, but it's also not extravagant enough to earn that permanent space in sports history.

It's not special.

Kentucky's 71-64 loss to Wisconsin in the Final Four destroyed brackets and assumptions. The Wildcats were too big, too good, too stacked, too athletic, too lottery-bound to lose. To anyone.

And then the Badgers duped the Wildcats at their own game. Kentucky had won multiple matchups with uncanny finishes, but Wisconsin outhustled and outperformed John Calipari's crew in the final five minutes, a stretch his program had previously dominated.

"I think we were either down four or six with some seconds left or a minute left and, you know, it was just a terrible feeling," Tyler Ulis said. "I just started crying, actually, on the sideline. I just really don't know how to explain it."

It's difficult to compare teams and athletes from separate eras. That's why the barbershop bickering about the greatest squads and athletes of all time never ceases. It persists without resolution.

If you think Michael Jordan is the greatest of all time, no argument about LeBron James or Bill Russell will change that. Peyton Manning versus John Elway? Good luck getting consensus. The same goes for Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson. Larry Bird's Celtics or Russell's? Well, it's complicated.

But at least they're all in the conversation, one that Kentucky exited in the final minutes of Saturday's loss to Wisconsin.

38-1.

"We were right there with them the whole time," Wildcats forward Trey Lyles said. "It takes away a lot. You want to go out on top, and we weren't able to do that. Our final goal, we weren't able to achieve."

Packs of strawberry-flavored Honey Stinger organic waffles were scattered on the floor of Kentucky's locker room, along with water bottles, banana peels, Gatorade pouches and half-eaten oranges. Jock straps had been tossed toward the middle of the room. In front of Karl-Anthony Towns' locker, there were discarded ankle wraps and damp jerseys.

Mourning gets messy. Order is the last thing that concerns young men confronted by defeat for the first time in 39 games.

38-1.

EJ Floreal, a walk-on who didn't play in Saturday's game, caved to the magnitude of the moment midway through the postgame media session. There were heaves and deep breaths that suddenly cascaded around the quiet space.

A friend asked him if he preferred to leave. Floreal remained and sobbed. He could not be consoled.

"We didn't like to talk about it, but everyone knew in their minds that once we got to the tournament, once we won the SEC tournament, that [40-0] was obviously the goal," senior Sam Malone said.

It's in these moments when you're reminded of their youth. A bunch of young men in their late teens and early 20s losing their collective dream on national television.

There were tears and stillness. There were hugs and sadness.

There was also reflection.

"I think we'll be viewed as a great team, obviously, because we made history, 38-1," Ulis said.

That's a wonderful thought by a youngster searching for positivity in a dark moment. Kentucky lost only one game all year. That's memorable. It's difficult.

But Kentucky also failed.

There are ways to digest this finish and reach other conclusions. There are alternative perspectives that might put a cherry on this sundae.

And they're false.

Kentucky's season won't be remembered for the 38 wins.

Their "almost" won't be cherished.

Their "so-close" adventure on Saturday night won't carry the eternal shine that 40-0 would have.

Kentucky will always be a team that missed perfection when it seemed inevitable for five months.

1990-91 UNLV.

1998-99 Duke.

2014-15 Kentucky.

These Wildcats were excellent.

But they should have been great.

38-1 is not.

If that feels harsh, then you don't understand history and how quickly it will forget these Wildcats.