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Kentucky Basketball: Why UK Would NOT Be Better Off Losing

There is strong media chatter that this group of Wildcats needs to take one on the chin before the tournament if they want to bring home #9... I disagree.

Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

The Kentucky Wildcats just wrapped up a very solid SEC road win in Knoxville beating the hated Volunteers by 18 points, and taking one step closer to their "quest for perfection."  Kentucky is now a school record 26-0 and one of the louder media agendas going is that the Wildcats need to lose a game if they want to win a national title.  I do not agree with this, but before I get into why I at least wanted to touch on the rationale that could make sense.

  • Losing a game brings a team down to earth; makes them realize they actually could lose, and need to play hard every night out to avoid getting snake bitten.
  • Losing a game exploits weakness and allows a coach to fix it before the NCAA Tournament.
  • Losing a game releases the tension of being "perfect" that is perpetuated by the media, the fans, and the players themselves
  • Losing a game allows a team to regain motivation, and get their eyes back on the bigger picture.

I will first say that up until this year's Kentucky team, I put serious merit into this thinking.  After this year is over, I would still likely agree that a loss could be a good thing in certain circumstances.  However, the first thing I wanted to do is look at history to see if there was support for the theory that a superior team under the pressure of a potential perfect season would need a loss to lead to a championship.

We all know the last undefeated team was the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers.  Since that time the amount of teams to lose a game heading into the tournament, propelling them to a national title is exactly ZERO.  There are no 1-loss champions during that time, and you have to go all the way back to 1974 and Coach Valvano's N.C. State Wolfpack to find one.  That is 40 years worth of multiple loss champions; interestingly enough though, the 35 years before 1974 there were six champions with one loss.

  • 1939-1974: 6 Champions with one loss
  • 1974-2014: 0 Champions with one loss

You can look at this in many ways but for me it says there is no historical evidence in the last four decades to support losing a game helps you win a title.  Knowing all this, it would be weak to simply say that it has not happened in 40 years so it must not be relevant and that is why UK should not lose a game.

The point is that the game has changed and media members who are perpetuating the thought of needing to lose are the same ones basing it off antiquated results and, truth be told, pure laziness.

So, let us look at the teams who went into the tournament undefeated and did NOT win a national title.  These should be the perfect case study for proving that losing a game helps you, right?  Since Indiana went undefeated, there have been a total of Four times that went into the tournament undefeated only to go home bitter.

Rutgers 1976

The very next season Rutgers was undefeated going into the tournament only to lose in the final four to Michigan.  I know little about this Rutgers team and there is very little about the team online, but I do know that Michigan was a top 10 team and it was in the Final Four.  At that point, you do not lose games because you are trying to stay undefeated for glory; you lose to better teams or not being able to step up in the moment.  For arguments sake though, let us say that this team could have used a loss.

Indiana State 1979

Just three years later: it was little known Indiana State and Larry Bird that went undefeated all the way to the finals vs. Magic Johnson and Michigan State.  The Spartans would ride Magic to the title and there was nothing Bird, or Indiana State, could do about it.  That loss had everything to do with Magic and the Spartans just simply overmatching Indiana State.

UNLV 1991

Fast-forward to 1991 and the uber-talented Runnin Rebels of UNLV with Greg Anthony, Anderson Hunt, Larry Johnson, and Stacey Augmon nearly pulled it off.  The 34-0 Rebels lost to #6 Duke in the Final 4 in that year and on the surface, it could be a candidate for needing a loss.  The results, however, and what followed the next season told another story.  After playing the final four minutes without senior point guard Greg Anthony, Duke won the game on two late Christian Laettner free throws and a missed three at the buzzer.

The truth is the Rebels ran into a buzz saw in Duke. The Blue Devils had a few names you have heard of in Bobby Hurley, Christian Laettner, Thomas Hill, and Grant Hill.  Duke would go on to win the national title in 1991 and come back largely intact to repeat in 1992.  It is hard to make an argument that UNLV losing a game before the tournament in 1991 would have made any difference.

Wichita State 2014

We are all very familiar with last season's Wichita State Shockers and how their attempt at perfection ended at the hands of our Wildcats.  The simple way to put it is that Wichita State could have done nothing more than they did to win that game.  Sports Illustrated even called it the best game of the 2014 season... in any sport.  The Shockers played their best game of the year; it just was not enough for Kentucky's finest performance to that point.

That is it, that is the list... zero teams that won a title with only one loss in the last 40 years and of the four teams that entered the NCAA tournament undefeated, you can only argue one of them could have benefited from a loss.

That is a lot of history and analysis and anyone could do that, but what makes this particular team even more equipped to deal with a perfect season.  I want to circle back to my earlier comments on the rationale for a loss and see how the 2015 Wildcats stack up.

"Losing a game brings a team down to earth"

I cannot imagine a team more in touch with the gravity of what is happening than this group.  This is one of the most coachable teams that Cal has ever had.  They are also possibly the only 26-0 team in history that does not have a problem with players "reading their press clippings too much."

"Losing a game exploits weakness"

This team's weaknesses have been exploited... good luck figuring out which one could be their downfall.  It is likely a combination of two weaknesses and a team playing lights out.  Kentucky has been killed on the boards and still blown the team out.  Kentucky has shot terribly and still won easily.  They have turned the ball over enough to be run out of the gym but covered the spread.  They have been trailing with less than a minute left without possession of the ball and won, twice.  Through all of that, they have come through unscathed.

"Losing a game releases the tension of being perfect"

This aspect is where I think Coach Cal deserves much more credit than he will ever get.  The pressure to play at Kentucky is more than nearly any other player will feel at another school.  Add to it the larger than life expectations on this season and the media circus that follows the program and it could be viable that a tension releasing loss could make sense.  Having said that, Coach Cal is a master manipulator and he does a fantastic job of deflecting.

There was the preseason and early season media obsession with the platoon system.  There was the tweak version 2 during fall break.  He even messed up his daughter's birthday on Twitter.  Most recently, there was the Trey Lyles scavenger hunt.  Whether through intent, dumb luck, or both, Calipari has managed to pull just enough focus off his guys to keep it from being a factor.

This is also where the platoon system has really paid dividends.  He is like the magician who is waiving his right hand while hiding the trick with his left hand.  In our case, the trick is protecting his players while the talking heads debate the merit of his tweak or the platoon.  The platoon system allows one or two guys to be no-shows and it not really matter.  It takes ALL the pressure off the individuals, simple but brilliant.

"Losing a game allows a team to regain motivation and get their eyes back on the bigger picture"

Probably Calipari's toughest challenge is keeping kids motivated and eyes on the prize.  This team is better than most teams it plays, to the point that Cal admittedly had trouble finding ways to motivate them.  He would challenge them to personal in-game goals that had nothing to do with the scoreboard as a way to keep a strong focus.

He has also done a masterful job of turning this team into the most hated team, outside of the Big Blue Nation, in America.  Cal has somehow planted a Trojan horse worm into these kid's heads that runs on a loop repeating the message that it is you against the world.  With every negative article it just becomes louder and louder.

He has built such a stream of venom directed toward this team that rather than his team worrying about the pressures of being perfect, they are more concerned with feeding everyone in America a big old crap burger by winning every game.

With all that being said count me in the corner of thinking not only does this team not need a loss...  I think a loss would actually hurt them more than it would help.