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Sports Notes: UK still has a few milestones to reach during its quest for ninth national title

John Calipari gave his team a day off Monday before beginning preparations for Thursday's NCAA Tournament opener in Louisville (UK Athletics Photo / Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports)

John Calipari gave his team a day off Monday before beginning preparations for Thursday’s NCAA Tournament opener in Louisville (UK Athletics Photo / Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports)


Kentucky’s preseason check list of goals is just about complete:

Southeastern Conference championship? Check. SEC Tournament title? Check. Longest winning streak in school and conference history? Yep. Perfect conference and regular season record? Done and done.

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All that’s left on the to do list is the one thing no one wanted to talk openly about for fear of jinxing it.

Too late for that now, though, as all that’s left is the magical 40-0, which would also result in a ninth National Championship for Coach Cal’s Cats.

With that in mind, here are a few notable items to consider while you fritter away the hours between now and 9:45 p.m. Thursday, studying your brackets.

Another record is attainable for the Cats. The 2011-12 titleists finished with 38 wins, which is the most any team has ever recorded in a single season. That nice, round 40 would be the first time any team has won so many games. Five teams completed championship runs with 37 victories.

At 34-0, Kentucky is already tied for the best record without a loss entering NCAA Tournament play. Several teams have come in at 34-0, including Wichita State last year. Pardon me, but is that Wichita State in the bottom of Kentucky’s Midwest Region bracket, opposite Indiana and a game away from playing Kansas?

Four other schools have unbeaten national championships on their resumes: San Francisco (with Bill Russell) and North Carolina in the 1950s, UCLA four times in the 1960s and 1970s (consider that a minute) and, of course, Bob Knight’s Indiana Hoosiers in 1976 (32-0). As an aside, one of my favorite games of all time was Kentucky’s win over the then-unbeaten Hoosiers in the 1975 regional final. Absent that epic 92-90 decision, Indiana may have been going for a second straight unbeaten title.

You might be interested to know the Wildcats have never played prospective second-round opponents Hampton or Manhattan. Kentucky is 6-2 against Purdue and 27-10 against Cincinnati, one of whom will be the foe on Saturday. In the only NCAA Tournament appearance against Cincinnati, Kentucky won 69-60 in the Round of 32 in 2005.

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Despite its magical run though last year’s tournament to the championship game against UConn, Kentucky was not a very good free throw shooting team. That’s changed this year and it’s probably not the players you are thinking about who are making the difference.

A year ago, Kentucky shot 68 percent as a team with Willie Cauley-Stein knocking down just 48 percent of his tries. Dakari Johnson was even worse, connecting on just 44 percent from the stripe.

This year? As a team, the Wildcats are 596-825 so far, which works out to 72.2 percent. Johnson and Cauley-Stein are both over 60 percent this year.

But unless you’ve been paying close attention, this could come as a shock. Freshman post man Karl-Anthony Towns is the team’s second-best foul shooter, connecting on of 92 of 113 (82 percent). That trails only Devin Booker.

That’s the kind of stat that could make a big difference during tournament time.

Kentucky shot 77.8 percent from the foul line (21 of 27) in the SEC Tourney final against Arkansas and have connected at a success rate of 77.9 percent over its last 10 games (187 of 240). During the tournament, Towns converted all 13 of his tries from the line, Kentucky was 70 of 85 and the Cats outscored three opponents by 31 points on free throws alone.

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Thomas More’s unbeaten women’s basketball team posted a pair of impressive wins over the weekend in the NCAA Division III Championship, advancing to the Final Four for the first time in school history.

The Saints are 31-0 and ranked No. 1 in the nation after knocking off No. 8 Washington University of St. Louis and No. 2 St. Thomas behind a combined 72 points from guard Sydney Moss. St. Thomas came into the game undefeated at 30-0 as well.

Thomas More’s opponent next weekend on the campus of Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, will be No. 5-ranked Tufts University (30-1). That game is set for Friday at 5 p.m. No. 3 George Fox (31-0) faces No. 7 Montclair State (30-1) in the other semifinal. The championship game is set for Saturday.

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Western Kentucky’s women’s team toppled Southern Miss 60-57 to claim the Conference USA championship in the Hilltoppers’ first year in the league. Along with a second straight NCAA Tournament appearance, the win improves WKU to 30-4 on the year, just the second time in program history that plateau has been reached.

The Toppers will play in their 18th NCAA Tournament and will be looking to advance to the Final Four for the fourth time in program history. WKU reached the National Championship game in 1992 and also owns six Sweet Sixteen appearances.

With its 30th win on the season, WKU becomes the first team in Conference USA history to claim 30 wins in a season while a league member. Western finished with a 32-4 record in 1985-86 on its way to the Final Four, the only other time that WKU has reached the 30 win mark.

Finally, the win gave head coach Michelle Clark-Heard her 100th career victory in five seasons as a head coach and second conference tournament title in three years at the helm.

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The NAIA men’s and women’s national tournaments are being played this week in Kansas City, Mo. The men will battle in Municipal Auditorium March 18-24 while the women’s site is the Independence Events Center.

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As usual, Kentucky’s Mid-South Conference members are well represented. On the men’s side, No. 5 Campbellsville, No. 7 Pikeville, No. 12 Georgetown and No. 24 Cumberlands are all in the field. The top-ranked team in the tournament is Hope International.

For the women, state participants are No. 4 Campbellsville, No. 21 Lindsey Wilson and No. 23 Pikeville. Freed-Hardeman comes into championship play as the team to beat.

For the Georgetown men, this is the 24th consecutive year to play in the tournament and 34th overall, both records.

The Pikeville men and women qualified for postseason play in the same season for just the second time. While the Bears are heading to nationals on the men’s side for the third straight season and ninth time overall, this is the first trip for the women since 2003. Prior to that, they had been just one other time (1998).

Men’s head coach Kelly Wells, in his ninth season at UPIKE, is 26-5 and over the last five seasons, the Bears are 130-34 with a national championship.

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