By Davis Jones
John Calipari, by most standards, has never made subtlety a priority. The University of Kentucky men’s basketball head coach seems to need his screen time as one of the most successful and scrutinized figures in college basketball. He topped headlines again last March when he brought up his team’s chances for an undefeated record.
“Before I leave coaching, I would like to coach an undefeated team,” he said after his national championship win two years ago. “I would like to coach an undefeated team before I’m done with this. Why? Because it can’t be done. So let’s chase that.”
Actually, it can be done. Bob Knight took his 1976 Indiana Hoosiers to the league’s last undefeated season. But then again, it’s not a matter of the feat not happening. It’s a matter of quotation marks. Undefeated seasons ‘can’t’ happen in the way that winning the lottery never happens, that the precise alignment of your odds must swing so closely together that it takes another person’s cited phrase and not your own for you to really believe in its possibility.
What creates a complex situation this year stems from the team’s bravado. With a head coach, nothing sticks more to a team than his attitude; both Calipari and U.K. basketball might stand in last place for Most Humble Squad this year, or any year. I think a team like Kentucky who holds enough talent to even entertain the thought of an undefeated season might lose the same confidence they flaunt around like a packed wallet as soon as its coach labels the season as such.
It’s all mixed-up. You’d think that the shared expression of its shot in winning every game would amp up players even more to accomplish it. If your coach thinks you can do it, and the nation doesn’t quite flinch at the thought of you doing it, you’d be hard pressed to not think the same after enough time.
Because suddenly, winning ceases to be the main objective. It’s not losing now that imposes the toxic little thought bubbles into every player’s head. No losses. Not one. The train can never stop. It runs circles in the mind and exhausts you with it, the realizing that the positives of losing to learn are now signs of full-dimensioned weakness. The team supposedly has it all figured out, this thing called winning, which has to shine with no blemishes. The thought of an undefeated season can psych you up so much that it psyches you out instead.
Even a national championship win can’t replace the achievement. Kentucky could blow out every team by 50 points this year and cap it off with a win for the title. If they set out to go undefeated, though, calling themselves the top team now leaves a more accurate distinction to be desired. Not the top top. They just played better longer.
Then there’s the fact that we’re talking about Kentucky here. The program prides itself in churning out freshmen players who stay for just one season before jumping to the NBA. Some analysts say that this team holds more talent than Calipari’s 2011-2012 national championship squad. Which supposedly held more talent than the 2009-2010 squad. He can afford to preach the cycle. Come play for a team that never ages, always betters itself and all but guarantees you a job in the league.
The mix-up in undefeated talks and confidence disappears when every freshman on the team begins their careers knowing nothing other than the absolute highest expectations. They are conditioned to believe the hype in their infancies, creating a world where there are no ceilings from the very start. Surround your players with this culture of invulnerability, and even returning players will feed off it.
“If we put our mind to it, once everyone jells, I say we can do anything,” sophomore forward Alex Poythress said in September. “The sky’s the limit for this team, so why not aim at 40-0? We might as well try to do it, right? Why not? What’s stopping us?”
If Kentucky’s not careful, it might be themselves.