John Clay: Ex-Cat Delk recalls late loss helping '96 title team

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistMarch 13, 2012 

Former University of Kentucky guard Tony Delk, who is now an assistant coach at New Mexico State.

  • Kentucky vs. Western Kentucky

    When: 7 p.m. Saturday
    Where: LP Field in Nashville
    TV: ESPNews
    Radio: WBUL-FM 98.1; WLAP-AM 630; WWRW-FM 105.5

Random (NCAA) notes:

■ Sunday was the day everyone turned their clocks forward, yet everyone here wants to turn the clock back to 1996.

In 1996, a one-loss Kentucky team lost the SEC Tournament finals in New Orleans.

In 2012, a one-loss Kentucky lost the SEC Tournament finals in New Orleans.

In 1996, Kentucky proceeded to win the NCAA title.

In 2012, Kentucky is the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Tony Delk, now an assistant coach at New Mexico State, was on that 1996 Kentucky team, of course. I interviewed him last year for a feature in the official NCAA Tournament program.

He talked then about how that SEC tourney loss motivated that team.

"It was a game where I thought that was the best loss we could have had," said Delk, who was a senior in 1996. "Because going into the tournament, you didn't want to be too high.

"If we had won that game, it could have been, 'OK, we're going to cruise through this and we're going to win easily.' We could have gotten knocked off early. We re-focused ourselves."

But then, as Delk pointed out, that was a veteran team that knew how to react to a loss.

"That's what you have to do with losses," he said. "It's one thing to lose. Nobody likes losing. But what can you gain from that loss? And we gained in both our losses.

"It was like, 'Hey, you know what, we have to go out there and play for 40 minutes, and we can't be beat.' When you win 25-30 games in a row, you're thinking you're invincible. That loss let us know that we weren't invincible going into the NCAA Tournament."

■ One more from Delk:

"Winning it all, that's all we cared about. ... That was something that Coach (Rick) Pitino said, he said, 'You know what, you guys can be a part of history. That's something that will be with you for the rest of your life.' Just that alone made me think just how important it is to win these next six games. I think other guys who were younger didn't really understand that at the time."

■ Five of the last six NCAA Tournament champs won their conference tournament. The exception was North Carolina in 2009. The Heels lost to Florida State in the ACC Tournament semifinals before rebounding to cut down the nets in Detroit.

■ Which team was the last to lose its conference tournament finals and then win the NCAA title?

That would be that 1996 Kentucky team.

■ Delk's New Mexico State Aggies are in the NCAA Tournament, by the way.

■ Mark Whicker of the Orange County Register picks Michigan State to beat Kentucky in the Final Four.

His reasoning: "Young adults over adolescents."

■ I can see why South Carolina gave up on Darrin Horn after four years. After all, everyone wins at South Carolina in basketball, right?

The school has been to four NCAA Tournaments since 1975. It hasn't won an NCAA tourney game since 1973. Bill Foster, George Felton, Steve Newton, Eddie Fogler and Dave Odom all tried and failed there.

True, Horn was 13-35 in the SEC his last three years. That puts him one behind Fogler's final three years (14-34) and two behind Odom's final three (15-33).

History seems to suggest the problem is not the coach, but the program.

■ Tough break for Syracuse, losing starting center Fab Melo to an eligibility question just as the tournament is about to start.

Here's the question: When did Syracuse know Melo was ineligible, before the NCAA Selection Committee announced the Orange as the No. 1 seed in the East?

Might the committee have seeded differently had it known that Melo was not going to be dressed for the Big Dance?

■ I do have one quibble with the selection committee. Florida State swept North Carolina and beat Duke two out of three, yet the Seminoles ended up a No. 3 seed, while UNC is a No. 1 and Duke a No. 2. If you figure in the ACC Tournament records, North Carolina was 16-3, Florida State 15-4 and Duke 14-4.

John Clay: (859) 231-3226. Email: jclay@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @johnclayiv. Blog: johnclay.bloginky.com

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