John Calipari’s Kentucky Wildcats play Rick Pitino’s Louisville Cardinals in the Final Four on Saturday in a game that will determine the best team in the Commonwealth this season. But even if UK crushes the U of L, as expected, will Pitino still have bragging rights over Calipari?
This UK team appears to have transcended contemporary comparisons, moving on to the ranks of the all-time greats. But where do Calipari’s 2012 Cats stack up against Pitino’s national championship winning 1996 Untouchables?
Which is the best Kentucky basketball team ever? There are seven national champions — 1998, 1996, 1978, 1958, 1951, 1949 and 1948 — with an eighth (2012) possibly on the way.
2012: 36–2 overall, 16–0 SEC; suffered losses at Indiana and to Vanderbilt in the SEC title game. Advanced to the Final Four, where Louisville awaits.
1996: 34–2 overall, 16–0 SEC; suffered losses to No. 1 UMass, a team coached by Calipari and led by Marcus Camby, and Mississippi State in the SEC title game. Defeated Syracuse in the national championship game.
Edge: 1996. Both losses came against teams that ultimately made the Final Four, with Pitino’s Wildcats getting revenge against Calipari’s Minutemen in the national semifinals of the NCAA Tournament. The 1996 squad cut down the nets; only time will tell whether the 2012 team will win it all.
2012: The National Player of the Year, freshman Anthony Davis, averages 14.3 points on 63.3 percent shooting from the field and 71.2 percent from the free throw line, while adding 10.1 rebounds, 4.6 blocked shots and 1.3 steals per game. With a wingspan that seemingly stretches from end line to end line, Davis is the most intimidating defensive presence the college game has seen since Patrick Ewing. Eloy Vargas is essentially an emergency option with five free fouls to give.
1996: Senior Mark Pope played his role on a loaded roster, averaging 7.6 points, 5.1 rebounds and 1.2 blocked shots. Freshman big man Nazr Mohammed played a major role on Tubby Smith’s 1998 title team, but was a raw backup for Pitino in 1996.
Edge: 2012. Davis has been historically great, as the Player of the Year, Freshman of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year and likely No. 1 overall pick in the upcoming NBA Draft.
2012: Freshman phenom Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and enigmatic sophomore Terrence Jones provide Coach Cal with a pair of versatile NBA talents capable of overpowering the opposition in the paint or dribble-driving from the perimeter. Kidd-Gilchrist averages 12 points and 7.6 rebounds per game and is generally perceived as the No. 2 prospect in the 2012 NBA Draft — behind only teammate Davis. Jones adds 12.6 points, 7.2 rebounds and 1.8 blocked shots to the mix; his ability to man up and take over stretches of games is undercut by his oft-immature nature and semi-frequent run-ins with Calipari. Off the bench, senior Darius Miller brings defensive intensity and veteran leadership, while underrated freshman Kyle Wiltjer — who was a McDonald’s All-American out of high school — has a high basketball IQ dangerous outside shot.
1996:Antoine Walker was in his prime as a sophomore. The athletic point-forward who was a terror in the full court press — kicking balls on inbounds plays and trapping ball-handlers in corners with his lateral quickness — in no way resembled the overweight 3-point-happy ‘Toine from late in his NBA career. Walker averaged 15.2 points, 8.4 rebounds, 2.9 assists and 1.7 steals per game as UK’s top all-around player since Jamal Mashburn. Senior Walter McCarty averaged 11.3 points, 5.7 boards, 2.6 assists and 1.4 blocked shots per game while teaming with Walker to give Pitino a dynamic duo capable of taking over at either end of the court. Freshman Ron Mercer was the consensus third-best prospect in his high school senior class, behind Chicago’s Kevin Garnett and New York’s Stephon Marbury. Mercer exemplifies the Cats’ otherworldly depth, averaging 8 points and 2.9 rebounds as an open court terror with a polished mid-range halfcourt game.
Edge: 1996. The length and skill set of Walker, McCarty and Mercer was amplified by the trio’s reliability, compared to the home run or strikeout quartet of Kidd-Gilchrist, Jones, Miller and Wiltjer.
2012: Sophomore combo guard Doron Lamb is the stabilizing influence on this year’s UK crew. A natural shooter with an instinctual feel for the game, Lamb averages 13.6 points while shooting an eye-popping 47.1 percent from the field, 47.1 percent (73-of-155) from 3-point range and 82.9 percent from the free throw line. The New York native is also a suffocating perimeter defender and capable point guard when the situation calls for him to become the primary ball-handler. Freshman Marquis Teague may be the X-factor where the 2012 squad’s national title hopes are concerned. A streak shooter with a ball hog streak, Teague averages 10 points and 4.8 assists; but tends to freelance at inopportune times more than any other player in blue.
1996: Senior bomber Tony Delk as named the NCAA Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player after hitting a record-tying seven 3-pointers against Syracuse in the national title game. A long-armed, pressing menace, Delk averaged 17.8 points while shooting 44.3 percent (93-of-210) from long range. Athletic junior wing Derek Anderson played his role to smooth perfection, averaging 9.4 points, 3.4 rebounds, 2.4 assists and 1.7 steals as a coast-to-coast fast break finisher and athletic defender. Junior Jeff Sheppard, freshman Wayne Turner and junior Anthony Epps were bit players off the bench in 1996 but played larger roles in the 1997 runner-up team that lost to Arizona in overtime of the national title game in Pitino’s last game as coach of Kentucky.
Edge: 1996. Delk and Anderson have the edge in experience, production and athleticism over Lamb and Teague. Depth also is in favor of 1996, with Sheppard, Turner and Epps all capable of producing in big game minutes.
2012:John Calipari is in his coaching prime. No one in the country is better.
1996:Rick Pitino was in his coaching prime. No one in the country was better.
Tie: The 2012 Calipari and 1996 Pitino are nearly mirror images of each other — a fact that fuels the pair’s ongoing personal and professional feud.
The 2012 Kentucky Wildcats may be better at the very top, but the 1996 Kentucky Wildcats were undeniably deep and had a habit of wearing down their opponents with a suffocating full court press on defense and a wide open, bombs away offense that was nearly unstoppable in the open court. Nine players from the 1996 roster went on to play in the NBA; seven saw action in the title game victory.
This year’s UK team is one of the best in the history of college basketball; it’s just not the No. 1 team in the rich history of Kentucky basketball.