After long wait, Cats rise back to top
LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Welcome back, Kentucky. Where you been all this time?
Unless we have a ballot-rigging that would horrify even Chicago politicians, the Wildcats will be No. 1 Monday when the new Top 25 polls are released. The last unbeaten team in America made that clear by humiliating Arkansas 101-70 in a game that wasn't quite as close as the Little Bighorn score.It was, by any measurement, an awesome performance by the Cats. "If we played anyone in the country today," said Kentucky coach John Calipari, "they were going to get smashed." Arkansas was the grape confronting the Big Blue sledgehammer. "Their size and speed separate them," said Razorbacks coach John Pelphrey. "That makes them very, very unique at the college level. They're very well-coached. They very well could be the best team in college basketball this year. "I think this is by far the best team we've played this year in terms of talent." That's an instructive comment. Among those the Hogs have faced is the outgoing No. 1, Texas. Kentucky should handle the No. 1 mantle better than the Longhorns -- because, frankly, it's hard to handle it much worse. But it will have to rely on institutional memory, nothing firsthand for any of the current players. It will be the 89th week in AP poll history Kentucky has been No. 1, but the first since 2003. "I had no idea it had been that long," said marvelous point guard John Wall, after gliding through the Hogs for 16 points and seven assists. The fans know it had been that long. For them, seven years might as well be 70 -- a delay of that length violates their perceived birthright to the game's throne. Their index fingers are underworked. Since the last regular-season poll of 2003, defrocked Kentucky wandered the wilderness as a fairly common program. It has watched 17 others reach the summit, many of them more than once. It saw league rivals Florida and Tennessee get there, and in-state rival Louisville as well. It witnessed the ascent of relative commoners Stanford, St. Joseph's, Wake Forest, Wisconsin and Pittsburgh.
Once Dwyane Wade triple-doubled Kentucky out of that '03 NCAA tournament in the regional finals, humility was forced upon Big Blue Nation.Kentucky fans endured the declining returns of the back half of the Tubby Smith Era -- first when he failed to capitalize on a recruiting class of Rajon Rondo, Randolph Morris, Joe Crawford and Ramel Bradley, thereafter when the talent steadily ebbed. Then they grimaced through the two-year Billy Gillispie nightmare -- cocksure in 2007 he was an upgrade over Tubby, crestfallen in 2009 when the Cats crash-landed in the NIT. Now comes Calipari, with one-and-done lottery picks flanking him as he swaggered into the Southeastern Conference. The results have been immediate and emphatic. For the Cats, Cal's confidence is contagious.
"I'm making shots I never thought I'd make," Wall said.So is sophomore Darius Miller, no better than fifth wheel on this team but suddenly lighting it up from 3-point range (4-of-6 Saturday, and 17-of-32 over his past 10 games). Freshman Eric Bledsoe wasn't supposed to be a perimeter shooter either, but he entered this game hitting 47 percent of his 3s. The entire team came in shooting 39 percent beyond the arc. So much for the one perceived weakness after the early departure of Jodie Meeks to the NBA. "If they make perimeter shots, it's a great debate whether they can be beat or not," Pelphrey said. "It really is." So let the debate rage. Actually, let Calipari (without prodding) volunteer what he predicts will be the immediate criticism of his newly minted No. 1 team: They haven't beaten anybody.
"[Criticism] kind of inspires us," Calipari said. "So I hope you write it and our guys read it."I'll oblige. Heading into Saturday's play, Kentucky hasn't beaten a single team that leads its league. Closest: Morehead State (second in the Ohio Valley Conference) and Sam Houston State (second in the Southland). All the alleged big dogs on the schedule have encountered big trouble: North Carolina is 11th in the ACC; Connecticut and Louisville are tied for eighth in the Big East; Indiana is sixth in the Big Ten; Stanford fifth in an awful Pac-10. As for SEC opponents: The combined league record of the four teams UK has beaten is 6-12. In other words, tougher league games are ahead, specifically at Mississippi State (Feb. 16), at Vanderbilt (Feb. 20), at Tennessee (Feb. 27) and at Georgia (March 3). The Wildcats will lose eventually, and probably more than once. They are on top for the moment, not necessarily for good. But until they're knocked off, they'll welcome the spotlight that comes with No. 1. "They wanted to be No. 1 bad," Calipari said. "That's why they played this way. I told them, 'Those seven national titles are not a burden, they're a badge of honor.' No. 1 in the country is not a burden, it's an honor." Summit achieved. Honor giddily accepted after eluding lordly Kentucky for a surprisingly long time. Now that the Wildcats have it back, what -- and how long -- will it take to make them relinquish it? If the Cats keep playing like they did Saturday, they'll settle into their formerly familiar throne for a while.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.
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