INDIANAPOLIS — The conversation will be had regardless of what happens this week in Indianapolis. Whether or not Kentucky actually leaves Lucas Oil Stadium with a pair of wins, an unblemished record and a national title, the question is going to eventually be asked: where does this team rank among the greatest college basketball teams ever assembled?
Are they the best ever?
There’s no easy answer, but this is what happens when you are the first team in 24 years to enter the Final Four without a loss. It’s what happens when you are the first team to ever start a season 38-0. And it’s what happens when you do all of that with nine players that will likely end up playing in the NBA one way or another, some as lottery picks and potential all-stars.
But there probably isn’t a right answer, either, because comparing teams across eras is not only difficult, it may not be possible.
It starts with the obvious: players don’t stay in college as long as they did 20 or 30 years ago. Take, for example, Jerry Tarkanian’s 1990-91 UNLV Runnin’ Rebels squad, the last group to reach the Final Four without a loss. That team was led by Larry Johnson, Greg Anthony and Stacey Augmon, all of whom were seniors and top 12 picks in the 1991 NBA Draft; Larry Johnson went No. 1 overall. George Ackles, a second round pick in 1991, was a senior, too. Anderson Hunt, a junior that season, was the youngest member of the starting lineup. Indiana’s 1975-76 team, the last one to finish a season undefeated, was led by four seniors — Scott May, Quinn Buckner, Tom Abernathy and Bob Wilkerson — and junior Kent Benson. May, Buckner and Wilkerson were all picked in the top 11 of the 1976 NBA Draft, and Benson went No. 1 overall in 1977.
This Kentucky team? They’re considered “old” because they start junior Willie Cauley-Stein and sophomores Andrew and Aaron Harrison. They’re “veteran-laden” because their rotation includes four sophomores and Cauley-Stein in addition to Karl Anthony-Towns, Devin Booker, Trey Lyles and Tyler Ulis.
For comparison’s sake, if early entry wasn’t a thing and college basketball players still spent four years in college, Cauley-Stein — a first-team all-american — and Towns — the potential No. 1 overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft — wouldn’t be playing all that much because Anthony Davis, Nerlens Noel, Julius Randle and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist would all still be in college.
The development curve of an athlete is never steeper than when they are in their late-teens and early-20s. It’s when they go from a prospect to a player, and while Coach Cal has worked his magic with these prospects, we’ve never actually seen what happens if he was able to coach them as “players.”
But there’s another level to this. Player development happens at an earlier age these days, whether it’s the result of specialization in one sport or more emphasis on time spent in the weight room or the age at which these kids get thrown into the fast track towards being a professional. In other words, freshmen get to campus better prepared both physically and from a skills standpoint to be able to contribute when they set foot on campus. It’s not as simple as saying the best seniors on the best teams in the 80s are unequivocally better than the best freshmen on the best teams today.
Another question that needs to be asked is just how good these kids end up being as pros. There’s no question that Towns has a chance to be a franchise player in the NBA, but who else on this Kentucky team will end up being an NBA All-Star? Trey Lyles, maybe. Devin Booker’s got a shot, and so does Willie Cauley-Stein. None of those are locks, however, and fair or not, the way that we will remember this team 15 or 20 years down the road will largely depend on just how good these kids end up being at the next level.
Think about it like this: there’s an argument to be made that this isn’t even one of Cal’s top two teams that he’s had at Kentucky. Some will tell you that it was the 2012 team that won the national title, the one that had Kidd-Gilchrist and Davis, but how much of that is a result of the fact that Davis has turned into one of the NBA’s top four players? Others might tell you that it’s the 2010 team, the one that featured John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Eric Bledsoe and Patrick Patterson on the same roster. That’s a direct result of Wall, Cousins and Bledsoe have all become max — or near-max — NBA players, because that year the Wildcats finished the season ranked 27th in offensive efficiency, according to KenPom, and lost in the Elite 8 to West Virginia because they simply were not able to shoot the ball from the perimeter.
So you tell me.
John Wooden’s UCLA teams from the ’60s. Indiana’s 1975 and 1976 teams. Georgetown’s Hoya Paranoia teams from the mid-80s. What about the 1991 UNLV team, or the Duke team that beat them and repeated in 1992? Kentucky in 1996. Duke in 1999 or 2001.
Where does this Kentucky team rank among that group?
We’ll never be able to reach a consensus.
But I will say this: a loss on Saturday or Monday night shouldn’t change how you feel about this group historically, but if they do end up winning the title, Kentucky will have undoubtedly completed the greatest season in the history of our sport.
And that may actually mean more than being the greatest team of all-time.