Remembering A Golden Era Of Undefeated College Basketball Teams If they can pull it off, this year's Kentucky Wildcats would be the first undefeated team in almost 40 years. But back in the 1970s, flirting with perfection was practically routine.
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Remembering A Golden Era Of Undefeated College Basketball Teams

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Remembering A Golden Era Of Undefeated College Basketball Teams

Remembering A Golden Era Of Undefeated College Basketball Teams

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath. In college basketball, the Kentucky Wildcats have just capped off a perfect regular season with a 67-50 win over the University of Florida. If you're wondering whether anybody can beat Kentucky, you are not alone.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: How beatable do you think Kentucky is or can they be beat?

UNIDENTIFIED PLAYER: You know...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Who can beat this Kentucky team?

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Bottom line, are they going to do it? Is Kentucky going to do it?

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: I don't know if we can beat Kentucky at Kentucky, you know? I just don't know.

RATH: That has been the question this year in college basketball because no team has gone undefeated in almost four decades. NPR's Becky Sullivan looks back.

BECKY SULLIVAN, BYLINE: If you think you're sick about hearing whether anyone can beat Kentucky, just be glad you weren't watching college ball in the '60s and '70s.

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UNIDENTIFIED BROADCASTER #1: And for the last couple of days around St. Louis, people have been asking can anybody here beat UCLA?

SULLIVAN: No one beat UCLA in 1964 or 1967 or '72 or '73. The Bruins, under legendary coach John Wooden, were a dynasty, and it wasn't just them. In the 1970s, seven teams finished the regular season undefeated - seven. One of them was the '75 Indiana Hoosiers. They cruised through 31 games before losing late in the tournament. The next fall, coach Bob Knight sat his players down and told them this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BOB KNIGHT: Our goal this year is to play this season completely undefeated from our opening game through the championship of the NCAA Tournament. That's what this team is capable of doing and I expect it to do just that.

SULLIVAN: And they did. Indiana went 32-0, polishing it off in the national title game over Michigan.

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UNIDENTIFIED BROADCASTER #2: And Indiana now has a 15-point lead. They're capping off an undefeated season.

SULLIVAN: I love how nonchalant that announcer sounds right there. Oh, you know, just an undefeated season. But they just witnessed the last one for decades. The point guard for that Indiana team was a guy named Quinn Buckner. He told me that coach Knight seemed to know that.

QUINN BUCKNER: Because he said at our senior night to all the people in Indiana - take a look at this team. You're never going to see another one like it.

SULLIVAN: He was right. After the '70s, the undefeated season basically disappeared. I called up Dana O'Neil from espn.com to ask about the reasons why. First, she says, there's the three-point line, which showed up in college ball in 1986.

DANA O'NEIL: That, to me, was a huge equalizer. You found a team that had one kid that could shoot the ball pretty well, and all of a sudden that changes everything.

SULLIVAN: Second is the talent - O'Neil says there's more talented players around now. But there's also more turnover because those players are leaving for the NBA.

O'NEIL: So you get a team that's wildly talented, but very young. And in November or December, they play a team that's not nearly as talented, but has been together for a lot more years. And that other team is going to win. And so there goes your undefeated chance.

SULLIVAN: And last is the tournament has gotten bigger and bigger. In the '60s and early '70s, only about 24 teams took part. But this year, 68 teams will be invited. No wonder only one team has really come close in all these years - the 1991 Runnin' Rebels from UNLV. They waltzed into the NCAA's at 30-0, but then they lost to Duke in one of the most memorable Final Four games ever.

(SOUNDBITE OF 1991 FINAL FOUR GAME)

UNIDENTIFIED BROADCASTER #4: Off the backboard.

UNIDENTIFIED BROADCASTER #5: Popped it long...

UNIDENTIFIED BROADCASTER #4: Duke has done it. Duke has upset UNLV.

SULLIVAN: Then it was a long 23 years before the next team would enter the tournament undefeated. That was last year's Wichita State Shockers. But they only made it to the third round, where they lost to - you guessed it - Kentucky.

(SOUNDBITE OF 2014 NCAA TOURNAMENT)

UNIDENTIFIED BROADCASTER #6: He's going to take the three for the win - no, and a perfect season has come to an end.

SULLIVAN: So back to this year's Kentucky team. Even though they beat Florida today and they've got that perfect regular season, they'll still have nine more games to go. And they'll be nine really tough games. But Dana O'Neil thinks another perfect team would be good for the sport.

O'NEIL: I think it would be exciting. I'm trying to imagine, like, if you're just a casual sports fan on April the 6 and Kentucky is 39-0, you're going to watch that championship game.

SULLIVAN: Although, she says, one perfect season would be enough. Please, no more dynasties. Becky Sullivan, NPR News.

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