INDIANAPOLIS - The finish line is within sight for 38-0 Kentucky, but the weight of that number is growing heavier with each step. On the eve of Saturday night's rematch with Wisconsin in the national semifinals at Lucas Oil Stadium, Wildcats coach John Calipari declared, "We're not perfect. We're undefeated."
And he is exactly right. The Wildcats had to come from behind against Notre Dame in the Midwest Regional final in Cleveland last week, making their final nine field-goal attempts to pull out a two-point win that allowed them to reach Indianapolis with a shot to become the first undefeated national champion since Indiana in 1976. Those Hoosiers were 32-0, but the road is longer and more treacherous now.
Aaron Harrison said a sense of desperation kicked in a week ago with so much on the line.
"Last week, I think we did feel it more than usual because the other games that [were close] weren't the end of our season or life or death," Harrison said. "I don't think we played well against Notre Dame at all. At the end of the game, we came together and said we didn't play well enough to deserve to win, but we figured out ways to win. Karl pretty much carried us that game. That's the benefit of being on a great team."
Harrison was referring to center Karl-Anthony Towns, who scored a career-high 25 points one game after being held to a career-low one point in a 39-point blowout of West Virginia.
That's what Calipari has emphasized to his team. In games in which one of the Wildcats' nine McDonald's All-Americans didn't have his "A" game, they picked each other up by sticking together.
"They've got each other's back," Calipari said. "We got enough guys. We're undefeated, but we're not perfect."
No doubt, Wisconsin (35-3), which lost a one-point decision to Kentucky in the national semis last year when Aaron Harrison hit a three-pointer, is going to challenge the Wildcats in the same fashion Notre Dame did. The Badgers are the most efficient offensive team in the country.
That loss to Kentucky provided motivation as Wisconsin attempted to return to the Final Four, but the Badgers' Sam Dekker said it's just a coincidence that they must beat the Wildcats to reach the NCAA title game.
"We're not going to use last year's game as what you guys call 'revenge' or 'the rematch,' " Dekker told the media. "We want to play whoever we got to play and get a win."
Kentucky freshman forward Trey Lyles said it is a good thing Notre Dame raised the Wildcats' awareness of their own mortality.
"I think it definitely helped all of us, coaches and players," Lyles said. "Notre Dame challenged us in a way we haven't been challenged all year, I think, and the last couple days of preparation have really been channeled because of that game.
"I'm not going to say 'being scared,' but being in a game that was that close showed that if we come out with a lot of intensity defensively as a team, there's a great chance we won't be in that position again."
Towns expressed his admiration for Badgers stars Dekker and Frank Kaminsky, who on Friday was named AP national player of the year, saying: "They're great players, and they present matchups we all have to deal with.
"The biggest thing is that we just worry about this game. If we worry so much about how close we are to making history, we could kind of skip it and have a '1' at the end."
The Wildcats may not be perfect, but avoiding that "1" at the end is everything to them now.