Among the three major sports, you probably notice it more in football, as there are fewer games. The 2007 Kentucky team raced off to a 5-0 start. The “zero” attracted so many votes from reporters and coaches that the Wildcats floated all the way to number eight in both the Associated Press and the coaches’ polls. Suddenly, there was interest in quarterback Andre’ Woodson, who began to pop up in conversations about the Heisman Trophy.
And then all of that came tumbling down with a Thursday night, nationally televised loss at South Carolina. Losses are rarely good in football. You only get so many chances to win.
Baseball? Too many games to talk about a perfect record; long win streaks are fun but not quite the same.
Basketball is where the glowing zero comes to full attention and a stubborn (no doubt dwindling) chorus of Kentucky fans already is dreaming the dream about the season still more than seven months away. Could THIS be the year their heroes run the table?
John Calipari once again will deliver one of, if not the, best recruiting class in all of the land. Then, he’ll set about teaching them what’s what about college basketball, just as he does almost every season. Only this time, he won’t have what has become a luxury in the UK program: Experienced veterans.
This past season, all three players honored on Senior Night were solid, vital contributors. The team that set a record by ripping off 38 straight wins, against a glowing zero that disappeared in the Final Four, featured twin brothers in the backcourt who had come back for a second season and the top defensive player in the SEC, Willie Cauley-Stein, who was back for a (gasp!) third.
Calipari’s 2012 national title team started two sophomores, Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb and included, perhaps most importantly, a senior sixth man named Darius Miller.
The 2012 team didn’t have to deal with the glowing zero under “L” very long, thanks to Indiana. The 8-0 Wildcats lost in Bloomington on a last-second shot, a bucket that instantly served as a barricade between that UK squad and the “Greatest Ever” debate. One loss will do that.
It also can serve as a motivator. To a man, each Wildcat on that 2012 team cited the loss to IU as a catalyst that drove Kentucky to the NCAA championship. They’d felt the sting of defeat. They wanted no part of it.
The Gonzaga Bulldogs felt the same way this season, after their loss in the regular season finale at Brigham Young. It was the Zags’ only pre-tournament setback. In it, they blew a 12-point second-half lead. And yet, as soon as it was over, they recognized it for what it could be.
“I thought it was good for us from the moment the buzzer went off,” guard Silas Melson told Yahoo! Sports. “For one, we experienced the taste of losing. We don’t want to feel that, but it helps. I also don’t think the Sports Gods respect undefeated teams. Wichita State went undefeated. Lost. Kentucky went undefeated. Lost. The Patriots went undefeated. Lost. Everybody is going to take an L eventually. I think ours came at the perfect time.”
He made his remarks just before the national championship game with North Carolina. Gonzaga had transformed the bitterness of a spoiled won-loss record into the desire to remain perfect from then on.
Critics had become cynical about the Bulldogs’ ability to square off with quality tournament teams, citing a lack of true competition in the Mountain West Conference. And yet, when they fell behind South Carolina after blowing a 14 point-lead in the second half of the national semifinal, they bounced back and won their way to the title game.
Because, they said, they knew how to handle it. They knew how losing felt.
So, now, do the women who played basketball this season for the Connecticut Huskies. They saw their 111-game undefeated string melt away at the hands of Mississippi State, the first college loss they’d ever experienced. After the game, coach Geno Auriemma was all smiles. He hated the outcome but appreciated the fact that this was the ultimate teachable moment.
Calipari likely will have a few of those this coming season with his tender team of youngsters. Incoming freshman Jarred Vanderbilt, in an interview with USA Today, already has guaranteed a 2018 national title.
“Put that on Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter,” he told the newspaper. “We’re going all the way.”
It did make the rounds on social media, but take a closer look – no mention of an undefeated season.
Wise young lad.