This Kentucky basketball team isn’t perfect, coach John Calipari likes to say, just undefeated.
The distinction was illuminated Saturday at Quicken Loans Arena, where the presumed inevitability of an unblemished Wildcats romp to the national title was in jeopardy until the last hundredth of a second flickered off the clock against Notre Dame.
After Kentucky’s Andrew Harrison gave the Wildcats a 68-66 lead on two free throws with 6 seconds left in the NCAA Tournament Midwest Regional Elite Eight matchup, Notre Dame’s Jerian Grant rumbled down the left sideline but could negotiate only a misfired prayer from the corner.
So history will show that Kentucky is the first team to go 38-0, and chances are as good as not that it will be the first to go unscathed since Indiana in 1976, with Wisconsin up next at the Final Four on Saturday in Indianapolis.
But this game wasn’t just about the pluck of the Irish, Notre Dame’s inspiring testimony that there is no such thing as a sure thing in sports. Or that, as Notre Dame’s Pat Connaughton put it with an apt cliché, it’s still more about the size of the fight in the dog than it is the size of the dog in the fight.
Kentucky might have nine NBA prospects, but it can play only five at a time. The abiding beauty of basketball is that a group with a certain baseline of skill that meshes still can trump superior talent.
“It’s extremely tough to know how close we were to doing something so special,” Grant said. “About 39 of 40 minutes I felt like we really controlled the game.”
But this was also about Kentucky being something more than the bloodless colossus it’s made out to be, about Kentucky showing that it’s got grit and heart even if it has other more obvious attributes.
That’s what it took for Harrison to make those free throws, after all, and what it took for them to come from six points down into the stretch by making repeated stops against a team that had been dissecting it with exquisite ball movement.
“Desperation,” Harrison called it.
That’s the last thing anyone would have thought Kentucky would need to kick in on Saturday.
For a sliver of an understanding of its dominance this season, consider that Kentucky entered the game Saturday having trailed for 191 minutes 5 seconds out of 1515 minutes — just more than 5 minutes a game.
In three NCAA Tournament games, the Wildcats had been behind for 8:11 — including not so much as a millisecond in their 78-39 smothering of West Virginia on Thursday in the most lopsided Sweet 16 game since the NCAA field expanded to 32 in 1975.
As it happens, each of those time figures is less time than Kentucky players usually spend watching their opposition. Notre Dame was no exception.
“It’s like if a team does something really well, then we’ll spend, you know, 10, 15 minutes on handling that,” said Willie Cauley-Stein, a 7-foot senior center out of Olathe Northwest. “And everything else we do is just about our script and what we do.”
If that sounds presumptuous or arrogant, though, that’s not the point.
“I want them worried about us,” Calipari said.
Why not? Wildcat fans always do, so much so that Calipari says he’d be in the fetal position under his desk if he paid attention to that.
Meanwhile, everyone else around the game also has been fretting over the Wildcats, who arguably have assembled more talent top-to-bottom than anyone in NCAA history.
“We don’t have subs … we have reinforcements,” said Calipari, speaking Friday to how another team might feel when it’s got Kentucky in its clutches “and you look up and there’s about 12 tanks coming over the hill. (Then it’s) ‘what the — what?’ That’s what we’ve been doing.”
He has this swarm at his disposal as his reputation for cultivating NBA talent feeds off itself: In his first 22 seasons as a head coach, Calipari has produced 21 first-round selections, including 12 in the top 10 — and more of those to come soon.
Based on a combined average of recruiting rankings of ESPN, Rivals and Scout, Kentucky has lured more top-10 players the last five seasons than 28 entire conferences have. And more than 25 percent of all top-10 recruits have ended up there.
So based on Calipari’s rogue history and the parade of high-profile prospects, it’s tempting to dismiss this as just a stockpiling of talent and a rolling out of the ball.
But these aren’t automatons, either, and nothing just happens without a buy-in from these players during their stay at the NBA way-station.
And that’s a credit to them and Calipari, who always makes you feel a little disturbance in the force when he speaks but whose charisma and eloquence are undeniable.
So somehow he can simultaneously sell an NBA future without being able, or willing, to guarantee playing time and asking this of them: “Don’t be a hog. Everybody’s trying to eat.”
Somehow he can recruit by promising only that he’ll be in your grill.
“If you accept mediocrity, you’ll get it every time,” he said.
So this is a team dripping in talent, yes, and that might mask its character some … but that’s there, too.
It’s not perfect, after all — just undefeated.