Hiccups on the Road to History

Times Staff Writer

Nobody much cares about Kentucky's 23-game winning streak now.

What matters are the six more games the Wildcats need to win for the school's eighth national title, a total of 29 in a row.

It's an imposing task, and teams with far more star power than this Kentucky team have failed to win the championship after entering the NCAA tournament with long winning streaks.

"It just keeps building. The pressure keeps mounting," said Jerry Tarkanian, whose 1990-91 Nevada Las Vegas team was 34-0 before Duke stunned the Rebels in a national semifinal game.

"To this day, that game hurts me so much," Tarkanian said. "It was our best team by far, far better than our national championship team [in 1990]."

The Rebels weren't the only team that got waylaid on the way to the history books. Eight years later, Duke took a 32-game winning streak into the title game against Connecticut.

But all the talk about the Blue Devils being the greatest team ever ended when they became only the second-best team of 1999, losing to Connecticut in the final to finish 37-2.

At least Kentucky (29-3) isn't burdened by history.

No one is suggesting this is one of the best teams ever assembled, or even the best Kentucky team of the last decade.

Unlike the 1995-96 team that had Tony Delk, Antoine Walker, Walter McCarty, Derek Anderson and Ron Mercer, the Wildcats don't have a player on their roster who figures to be a first-team All-American or an NBA lottery pick.

This team's best player, guard Keith Bogans, probably will be a second-round draft choice. Maybe Jules Camara and Marquis Estill will play in the NBA, but nobody expects them to be stars.

Still, by adding the Southeastern Conference tournament title to an undefeated SEC season, this team accomplished something that hadn't been done since 1952, when another Kentucky team completed the sweep.

Coach Tubby Smith -- raking in the national coach-of-the-year awards for the job he has done after a 6-3 start -- at one point called the Wildcats "an average team doing extraordinary things."

"We have better-than-average players -- I didn't mean to indicate that our players are just average -- but they have done extraordinary things to go undefeated in this league," he said.

The streak has given the Wildcats a No. 1 ranking in the final polls and the No. 1 seeding in the Midwest Regional as they open their pursuit of the NCAA title today against Indiana Purdue Indianapolis.

No, this isn't the 1998-99 Duke team with Elton Brand, Shane Battier, Trajan Langdon, William Avery, Chris Carrawell and Corey Maggette.

It isn't the 1990-91 UNLV team of Larry Johnson, Stacey Augmon, George Ackles, Anderson Hunt and Greg Anthony either.

Maybe the Wildcats should think of themselves more along the lines of the 1994-95 UCLA team. Nobody called those Bruins the best ever. But they won their final 13 regular-season games, entered the NCAA tournament with a No. 1 seeding and the No. 1 ranking, survived Missouri on Tyus Edney's miracle shot and in the end went home as national champions with a 19-game winning streak and a 31-2 record.

Some believe Kentucky would have been better served by a loss in the SEC tournament.

A slip-up against Mississippi State in the SEC final, say. Or even something like Arizona's first-round loss to UCLA in the Pacific 10 tournament.

Already virtually assured of a No. 1 seeding, Arizona went home and rested up for the tournament that matters most.

Tarkanian has been there.

"There's no doubt in my mind a loss probably would have helped, but when you're coaching, you don't want that loss. We wanted to win them all," he said. "No doubt, the pressure mounts as you keep winning.

"But you know, I'd still want to win them all. If I would have talked to Tubby last week, I'd have told him the same thing. You never want to say you're better off with a loss."

How to explain Kentucky?

The Wildcats are simply a versatile team that plays suffocating defense and excels in almost all areas of the game.

After early losses to Virginia, Michigan State and Louisville, Smith made sure his team clamped down on defense, particularly against the three-point shot. (Opponents now make a mere 32.8% against Kentucky.)

Since the winning streak began, 15 of 23 opponents have failed to shoot 40% from the field, a stunning statistic.

The Wildcats shoot well, at 48.2%. They outrebound their opponents by almost six a game.

And during the streak, they have forced an average of 17 turnovers a game, fueling the running game the Wildcats love.

They win at home and on the road, they win by playing fast or playing slow, they win by scoring outside or scoring inside.

But can they win 29 in a row?

The problem with winning so many in succession is in how it affects the mind-set of the players and how it shapes the questions and conversations they hear around them.

Another problem: Margin of victory.

In the 1999 tournament, Duke won by 41, 41, 17 and 21 points before beating Michigan State by six in the semifinals. Best ever?

"I don't think the UNLV team of [the 1991 tournament], even though they were defending national champions, was under the close scrutiny" that Duke was under in the 1999 tournament, Coach Mike Krzyzewski said.

When Connecticut took a one-point lead in the title game as the seconds ticked away, Duke seemed stunned into paralysis.

Langdon, trying to score a go-ahead basket, was called for traveling, and the Huskies' Khalid El-Amin made two free throws with five seconds left to give Connecticut a 77-74 lead.

Then, with one last chance to tie, Langdon lost control of the ball and the game was over.

In the 1991 semifinals, a Duke team of another era upset UNLV, 79-77.

The Rebels were another team that had forgotten how to win the close ones -- because there hadn't been any close ones. They had even defeated Duke by 30 points (103-73) in the 1990 national championship game.

"Every time I'd get our guys up about how big and tough games were going to be, they'd go and blow the team away," Tarkanian said. "After a while, they didn't believe me.... So much of it is mental and emotional."

Since the beginning of the Kentucky streak, the Wildcats have won by an average of 16.6 points. But maybe Kentucky, with memories of a humiliating December loss to Louisville still fresh, won't be fooled into thinking it will be easy.

After the Wildcats won the SEC tournament title over Mississippi State at the New Orleans Superdome, they left the nets on the rims.

They want to come back for them at the Final Four, which will be held in the same arena.

"I think the upperclassmen especially said, 'We'll wait to cut them down,' " Smith said. "That tells me they feel we have another tournament to play, and we'll focus on that one."

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*--* Arizona and Oklahoma won Thursday, keeping top-seeded teams unbeaten in the first round since 1985. Kentucky and Texas play today. The round-by-round records of top-seeded teams Rd. 1 Rd. 2 Rd. 3 Reg. Final Semis Final Total 74-0 62-10 50-12 32-18 17-15 11-6 246-61

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