By Mitch Howard
LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. —
Now that UK has claimed an eighth national title the debate can begin over whether or not this is the best Kentucky team ever. There are even discussions that this is the best college team ever.
When you start comparing this year’s UK squad to teams like Florida’s back-to-back champions, Indiana’s unbeaten season, and the Tar Heels when Jordan played, you cross a whole new boundary. I’m not going to say one of those teams were better than UK, so why even go there.
Compared to other UK teams you have to mention the 2010 team with John Wall and Demarcus Cousins. They did not win a title and they did not have great chemistry. So we will move on.
It is hard to compare different eras, but I do not think the national champion teams of the 40s and 50s translate well for comparison.
The 1978 squad finished 30-2 with a win over Duke in the national championship game. Every UK fan should know Goose Givens scored 41points in that game. They should also know the names of players like Rick Robey, Mike Phillips, and Kyle Macy that played that year. They seemed bigger than life.
But the true discussion comes down to two teams: 1996 vs. 2012.
The 1995-1996 Untouchables capped a 34-2 season with a 76-67 win over Syracuse for the national title. Tony Delk earned MVP honors by hitting seven three-pointers. Ron Mercer came off the bench to score 20 points as a freshman. Other key players included Walter McCarty, Mark Pope, and Derek Anderson.
Some of the highlights for the 1995-196 team included winning 27 straight games and scoring 86 points in the first half against LSU. That was the season Kentucky passed North Carolina for most wins.
Like this year’s team, they swept through the SEC without a loss, the first team to do so in over 40 years. Both of Kentucky’s losses that season were to Final Four teams.
Since the Sagarin Rating began in the 1970s, the 1996 UK team has the highest rating, although research has shown some of John Wooden’s UCLA teams would have been higher. Nine players made it to the NBA, including Jeff Shepherd, Nazr Mohammed, and Wayne Turner.
The 1996 Wildcats were loaded at forward with Antoine Walker and Walter McCarty. Off the bench you had Ron Mercer, who was the No. 3 prospect out of high school behind Kevin Garnett and Stephon Marbury. It’s easy to forget that Pitino in 1996 had the kind of recruiting power we think only Coach Cal can swing.
Walker averaged better than 15 points, eight rebounds, and three assists. McCarty scored 11 points with just under six rebounds, and three assists. Those numbers equal or beat the combined numbers of Terrance Jones and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist of 12 points and seven rebounds per game. Mercer came off the bench in 1996. Darius Miller is this year’s sixth man. Let’s just call that position even and move on.
The problem is you can argue the guard position just as well. Tony Delk averaged more points than Doron Lamb, but he had to score more. Lamb is statistically a better shooter. Marquis Teague may have been the weak link at times on this team, but he played a key role in the post season. The 1996 Wildcats also had Anderson, Shepherd, and Turner. So you have to give the 1996 team an edge in depth. The depth alone probably gives the edge to 1996.
But when you start matching player for player, would Mark Pope really get any playing time over Anthony Davis. Mohammed would later make the pros, but didn’t see a lot of action in 1996. The National Player of the Year might be enough to give an edge to the 2012 team.
But the fun part about being a Kentucky fan, we always think next year’s team will be better. Nerlens Noel and Shabaz Muhammad could make us forget 2012.