Hayes: Contextualizing Kentucky’s unprecedented season


Bob Hayes, Opinion Editor

It may be inherently paradoxical to label any success as improbable from the best team in its sport’s history. Yet, this weekend’s culmination of Kentucky basketball’s quest for perfection is nothing short of extraordinarily improbable and historically unprecedented.

By perfection, I mean it in the most unqualified way possible: Tipping off nearly five months ago with an elementary win against the Grand Canyon Antelopes, the Kentucky Wildcats have yet to lose in the 38 games they have played.

Facing a semifinal matchup on Saturday with fellow one seed Wisconsin followed by a potential Monday championship versus a talented Duke or a streaking Michigan State, Kentucky is 80 minutes away from the first 40-0 season in college basketball history.

Many readers are aware of my sobering and often exasperating tendency to immediately shoot down superlatives, recency bias and faulty conclusions, but I took the time to write about the non-Northwestern Wildcats because of my confidence in the assertion that I have repeated to anyone who will listen all week: Virtually any possible outcome for Kentucky this weekend in Indianapolis will be one of the most breathtaking, heartbreaking and unforgettable moments in the 77-year history of March Madness. No matter how existentially meaningless basketball is, this weekend will profoundly affect millions of lives, present and future.

Coming off a shocking run to the championship game as an eight seed last year, Kentucky added four more ESPN top 25 recruits to an already star-studded roster. Its starting lineup consists of two 6-foot-6 identical twin guards and three athletic forwards listed at 6-foot-10, 6-foot-11, and 7 feet, and its bench players would be superstars at almost any other school. The Wildcats deserve an A-plus in any eye-test evaluation, yet all year hardly anyone believed they could complete an unbeaten season due to the absurd improbability of any team winning 40 games without a loss.

Simple statistics tell us that a team would need an average win expectancy — meaning we can expect a given team to win a given game x percent of the time — of 98.3 percent in each game to finish without a loss in just half of 40-game samples. Any team with such a high average win expectancy is unfathomably good. But before we grant Kentucky such a prestigious honor, we must remember that win expectancies are by nature future-oriented, normative statistics, so we cannot accurately say, “Kentucky had a win expectancy of x percent” without some statistical disagreements and nuances that muddle any meaningful conclusions.

However, we do have a number of tangible statistics that display just how ridiculous Kentucky’s season has been.

Of Kentucky’s last 23 games, just two have finished within one possession, with one of them being Saturday’s sensational 68-66 Midwest Regional final win over Notre Dame. In the Midwest semifinal, the Wildcats doubled the score of a strong West Virginia team, whose 39 points were the fewest ever in a Sweet 16 game since the tournament expanded in 1975.

Kentucky’s 38 wins heading into the weekend match two other teams for the most in the history of college basketball, with the others being current Kentucky head coach John Calipari’s 2012 Kentucky champion and Calipari’s 2008 Memphis runner-up. No team has entered the Final Four undefeated since UNLV lost its 1991 semifinal matchup. Most notably, no champion has gone undefeated since Indiana in 1976, when most current students’ parents were teenagers.

Kentucky’s 85.6 adjusted defensive efficiency ranks as the second lowest since statistics pioneer Ken Pomeroy began tracking in 2002, behind Calipari’s 2009 Memphis team. Amazingly, Kentucky’s next opponent, Wisconsin, posts the highest-ever adjusted offensive efficiency in the Pomeroy era. But on the other end of the court, Wisconsin ranks 55th in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency, while Kentucky ranks fifth in adjusted offensive efficiency. By any metric, this Kentucky team — which Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight gave a monstrous 41% chance to win the title entering the tournament — seems too good to be true.

Regardless of what happens this weekend, this Kentucky team will go down as one of the best to ever play basketball at a collegiate level. A single loss to another top team does not overwrite any of Kentucky’s accomplishments, but as trite as it sounds, no accolade stacks up with winning a title.

In the end, what makes Kentucky’s bout with perfection so exciting is the inevitability of the proverbial “one shining moment” — a culmination of the inherent unpredictability of sports coupled with the life-depends-on-it passions of players entrenched in a fleeting system of contrived amateurism. Sometime this weekend in front of that massive behemoth of a crowd in Indianapolis, an unforeseen turn of events will change lives forever.

Next Monday, we will forever remember Kentucky as the first 40-0 team in college basketball history, or its one loss will be the one game we all remember.

Bob Hayes is a Weinberg sophomore. He can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].