Abby Witt and Zack Peñalva
January 31, one of the two unbeaten teams in the NCAA, the University of Virginia, suffered a 69-63 loss to Duke University. Meanwhile, the Wildcats 70-55 win over the Crimson Tide of Alabama moved UK to a 21-0 overall record and a unanimous spot as the No. 1 team in the nation.
The last time a Division I team went undefeated through the regular season was Wichita State in 2014. The Shockers aspirations for a perfect season were put to an end after a 76-78 loss against the University of Kentucky in the third round of the NCAA tournament. No team since the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers have won the national championship after an undefeated season. Looking at UK’s remaining schedule it’s not hard to see them making it thorough the season unscathed. With the toughest competition out of the way already, the Wildcats finish off their season against a string of SEC opponents, none of which are ranked.
But how has Kentucky been able to consistently outmatch their opponents. The platoon system UK opted for early on in the season was put in jeopardy after the injury to 6’8 forward Alex Poythress. Freshman Trey Lyles was asked to step up and has proven himself so far (7 points per game, 5 rebounds per game). Across the board, the freshman players have responded well. Devin Booker (10ppg) and Karl-Anthony Towns (8ppg, 5 rbds) have both averaged near 20 minutes a game.
Even when not at their best, Kentucky still have an advantage based on pure athleticism. With the exception of freshman guard Tyler Ulis; the entire Wildcat team is over 6’6. On the higher end of that scale is 7’0 junior Willie Cauley-Stein who has been a major force this season. Averaging 8.9 ppg and a field goal percentage of .593, his offensive contributions have matched his defensive side, making him a favorite among Wildcat fans.
With nine games remaining against beatable opposition, the main focus for UK has to be on the NCAA tournament. The real question is whether or not teams will have figured out a way to stop them by then.