On April 1, 1996, the University of Kentucky men’s basketball team won its 6th NCAA title by defeating Syracuse 76-67. It was the program’s first championship since the 1978 season. Head coach Rick Pitino, who had arrived in 1989 to clean up the mess left by his predecessor, Eddie Sutton. Pitino got to Lexington at the program’s lowest point and in short order got it back to the mountaintop. Not only did the 1996 Kentucky Wildcats win the championship, they did it in historic fashion and are certainly in the discussion as one of the best college basketball teams ever.
The Wildcats went 34-2 during the 1995-96 season. After losing the second game of the season to John Calipari coached UMASS, the Wildcats went on a run that was nothing short of dominant, not dropping another game until the SEC Tournament championship game against Mississippi State. After losing to UMASS, the Wildcats defeated Indiana, which precipitated a shift in the rivalry. And then the onslaught began. In state rival Louisville was handled 89-66 in the annual matchup. Once the SEC season began, things got even more interesting.
I was a freshman at UK during the 95-96 season. I grew up a Louisville Cardinal fan, but decided to take my talents to Lexington. Between my enrollment at Kentucky and this basketball team, I converted to the Big Blue Nation. I watched quite a bit of basketball before that season and an awful lot in the 20 years since. I have never seen a half of basketball like I did on January 16, 1996. On that night, in Baton Rouge, LA, the Wildcats scored 86 points in the first half against the home-standing LSU Tigers. 86 points. In the first half.
Much has been made of Coach Cal’s platoon system that he employed during the 2014-15 season. Truth be told, Pitino employed the same strategy with his ridiculously deep and talented roster. How deep was this group of Wildcats? Derek Anderson didn’t start. Seven players off this team were drafted and nine saw action in the NBA. The team was so good that even as great players left, the key members that remained would lead the Cats to two more NCAA title games, winning it all again in 1998.
There are so many great memories with this team. Whether it’s Tony Delk’s 7 three pointers in the NCAA championship game, or Antoine Walker’s celebratory shimmy, or Derek Anderson’s suffocating defense, or the way Anthony Epps ran the show from the point guard position, or Ron Mercer exploding for 20 points in the championship game, there are so many defining moments to that historic season.
The 1995-96 players were talented, selfless and completely dominant. They laid the groundwork for what Cal is doing now by asking his talented players to sacrifice personal glory for the good of the team. Whatever Rick Pitino has done since leaving Lexington, there’s no doubt that he was at his coaching peak with that team, balancing egos and minutes and shots. After all, Antoine Walker only shot the ball 13 times a game. And if that isn’t coaching, I don’t know what is.
After 20 years, I still consider this team to be the best college basketball team I’ve ever seen and the one that future Kentucky teams will be compared to. There’s a reason the 95-96 Wildcats are called “The Untouchables.”