The Wildcats have the deepest roster. The tallest personnel. The most potential 2015 NBA draft picks. And there’s that other thing -- they’re undefeated. But has anyone stopped to consider, what if we're missing something? What if that one weakness that could take down the Wildcats isn’t so obvious from the outside?
Before handing over the trophy and renaming the tournament the Kentucky Invitational, let’s stop to consider some of the greatest teams that didn’t win it all. Take it from three coaches who have both lost and won against teams built to win it all -- the improbable can and does happen. Even for a big favorite.
Former Connecticut Huskies coach Jim Calhoun was on the winning side in ’99 when his team took down Duke. But he was on the wrong end in 2006 when UConn looked like a lock for the title with four players picked in the first round of the NBA draft that season.
When the Huskies lost as a No. 1 seed to No. 11 George Mason in the Elite Eight, Calhoun was the least surprised.
“That was one of the few teams I actually knew it,” Calhoun said. “Sometimes the coach knows that maybe he does have a fatal flaw.”
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski pointed to understated reasons that helped the Blue Devils beat UNLV in 1991, such as the fact the defending national champions faced Duke in the semifinals instead of the title game.
“There’s a chance they weren’t at their best,” Krzyzewski said. “And we had a week to prepare not just X-and-O-wise, but psychologically. … I thought that was as well prepared as we’ve been for a game -- and we won by two points.”
There were the upsets we never saw coming such as the NC State Wolfpack beating the Houston Cougars in 1983 or the Villanova Wildcats beating the Georgetown Hoyas in 1985. There were injuries that ended hopes, such as Kenyon Martin's broken leg in 2000 with the Cincinnati Bearcats.
That’s why as great as Kentucky has been in the regular season, let’s hold off on the coronation.
“They’ve separated themselves but that doesn’t mean they are going to win it because, again, you have to be lucky,” North Carolina Tar Heels coach Roy Williams said. “Things have to go right. I never thought that Villanova had a chance against Georgetown a hundred years ago. … That was something else.”
It’s something else only when it’s your team doing the winning. There’s only misery when the team expected to win it all loses.
Krzyzewski still blames himself for the ’99 loss to UConn. The Blue Devils had four first-rounders selected in the NBA draft that season, including Elton Brand, who was the first overall pick.
Krzyzewski said by the final two weeks of the season, he was coaching from a stool because of a bad hip that required surgery after the season. Duke lost only once in the regular season and took a 32-game win streak into the title game.
“I wasn’t as good as that team deserved me to be,” Krzyzewski said. “That’s on me. People will say those guys were thinking of going pro. Whatever they were thinking of, if I’m sharper or better at that time, I should have helped them.”
Williams still carries the disappointment from his 1997 Kansas Jayhawks team that held the No. 1 ranking in the Associated Press poll for all but two weeks but lost to eventual national champion Arizona in the Sweet 16.
Kansas had all the components for a deep run: a veteran point guard in Jacque Vaughn, a strong post presence in Raef LaFrentz and a gifted scorer in Paul Pierce. The Jayhawks’ only regular-season loss was by two points in double overtime at rival Missouri. Kansas was so good that, despite the loss, it stayed No. 1 in the polls.
“Even in 2007 when I was inducted in the Hall of Fame, I spent some moments apologizing to the ’97 team for not getting to the Final Four because I felt like at that time, and still do, it’s something that I can’t get over,” Williams said.
Many from UNLV’s 1991 squad are still so despondent over losing to Duke in the Final Four that they still don’t want to talk about it to this day. As Kentucky chases immortality, the list of great teams that didn’t win the title is not the kind of history the Wildcats want to make.
“They’re the best team this year, clearly,” Calhoun said. “They can be beat. Clearly.”