Any review of college basketball in the calendar year of 2016 must include Kentucky’s victory over North Carolina last weekend. Louisville Coach Rick Pitino called it “as exciting a college basketball game as I’ve seen in quite some time.”
In the media workroom immediately after Kentucky beat North Carolina, someone asked if it was the greatest UK game in, say, the last 35 years.
With time to reflect and allow the thrill of watching such competitive excellence to subside, here’s a totally subjective list of 10 other UK games to consider. Several were more than instant classics, they were instant history. Because we’re limiting this to the last 35 years, we leave out any of the Dan Issel-Pete Maravich shootouts in the late 1960s and the historical milestone that was the championship game against Texas Western in 1966.
1. The so-called “Laettner Game” must top any list of great Kentucky games. Not that UK fans need reminding, but Sean Woods made a shot with 2.1 seconds left in overtime to put the Wildcats ahead in this 1992 East Region finals. Christian Laettner hit the game winner at the buzzer, a shot that has been replayed more often than episodes of “The Andy Griffith Show.”
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Laettner’s shot denied UK not only advancement to the Final Four, but the chance to punctuate a three-year rebuilding effort with an exclamation point. And “not guarding the inbounds pass” became part of the Kentucky basketball lexicon.
Incidentally, it was the last game called by iconic UK play-by-play announcer Cawood Ledford. He signed off in style, quoting the poet John Greenleaf Whittier: “Of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these: ‘It might have been.’”
2. The original “Dream Game.” Kentucky and Louisville had not played in 24 years, and not played in a regular season since 1922. UK refused to acknowledge Louisville as a rival (think North and South Korea arguing about the shape of the table to be used for peace talks). Finally, UK and U of L collided in the 1983 NCAA Tournament Mideast Region finals.
Just seeing UK and U of L warming up on the same court was riveting. An overtime thriller — later assisted by a state legislative threat to mandate a regular-season series — forced Kentucky to schedule Louisville. Thus, we get top-shelf basketball entertainment every season.
3. UK-Wichita State, 2014 NCAA Tournament. Arguably the best first-weekend game in NCAA Tournament history. Apologies to No. 1 seed Georgetown surviving 16th seed Princeton 50-49 in 1989 and 14th seed Cleveland State beating third seed Indiana in 1986.
As well as UK and UNC shot (a combined 53.6 percent), UK and Wichita State shot better (54.5 percent).
Neither team led by more than nine points. Neither team deserved to lose. Wichita State Coach Gregg Marshall likened it to the Laettner Game, except the final shot (by the Shockers’ Fred VanVleet) did not go in.
4. UK-Duke, 1998 NCAA Tournament. Sweet revenge for UK in the teams’ first meeting since the Laettner Game. Kentucky rallied late as Tubby Smith showed his in-game coaching skill down the stretch by not calling a timeout (Duke had none left) and directing Wayne Turner to exploit Steve Wojciechowski in the point guard matchup.
5. UK 70, Florida 55. Feb. 4, 2003. Florida came to Rupp Arena ranked No. 1 for the first time in program history. The Gators left humiliated. UK led 45-22 at half. By then, Florida was already competing half-heartedly. Perhaps the loudest atmosphere in Rupp history.
6. UK-UMass, 1992 NCAA Tournament. Maybe John Calipari remembers this Sweet 16 game. His UMass team closed within two and seemed poised to go ahead when referee Lenny Wirtz called a technical foul on Calipari for being out of the coaches’ box. Wirtz made the call from the opposite baseline and across the court from the UMass bench.
UK won 87-77. If UMass had won, there would have been no Laettner Game.
7. UK 95, Arkansas 93, 1995 SEC Tournament finals. Basketball drama at its finest. Arkansas was the defending national champion. UK would win the next year’s national championship. In the final seconds of regulation, a tortured soul, Rodrick Rhodes, shot two free throws. He missed both, then was too distraught to play in overtime.
8. The Mardi Gras Miracle, Feb. 15, 1994. Kentucky trailed by 31 points with less than 16 minutes left. UK beat LSU 99-95. Hope, especially when propelled by the three-point shot, is a powerful thing.
9. UK 100, LSU 95, Feb. 15, 1990. The pure joy evoked by Pitino’s Bombinos reached its zenith in this David-versus-Goliath game. Despite having only eight players (none taller than 6-foot-7), UK beat No. 9 LSU, which had Shaquille O’Neal, Stanley Roberts and Chris Jackson. O’Neal and Jackson made the All-SEC first team. Roberts made the All-SEC third team. The Bombinos made a long-lasting memory.
10. Georgetown-UK, 1984 Final Four. All you need are numbers to summarize this national semifinal: 3-for-33. Of course, that’s what Kentucky shot in the second half in losing to Georgetown 53-40 in the national semifinals.
Doctor of Monk?
Malik Monk, whose 47 points against North Carolina led the U.S. Basketball Writers Association to name him its National Player of the Week, has been compared to Rex Chapman. But Chapman offered what he considered a better comparison.
“He reminds me of Darrell Griffith,” Chapman said of the player who led Louisville’s famed Doctors of Dunk circa 1980. “And Darrell is who I tried to be like. You’ve got to go back and remember how high Darrell jumped, how effortlessly he shot the ball. . . . He’s like Darrell Griffith-2016 to me. He’s a fun player to watch.
“And he’s one of the guys I would pay to watch. One of the few guys.”
When it was suggested that Monk seems like a nice young man, Chapman said, “Like Stephen Curry, don’t let the smooth taste fool you. He’s a killer. He will get you.”
The loss at Louisville on Wednesday dropped Kentucky’s record to 2-6 in its first “true” road game in John Calipari’s eight seasons as coach.
This might reflect how these UK teams depended on freshmen, who were getting their first taste of true hostility. It might also say something about the caliber of competition: two games at Louisville, Indiana and North Carolina, plus one each at UCLA and Notre Dame.
The six losses came by a combined 35 points, so Kentucky did not wilt in any of the games.
‘It’s a process’
Kentucky’s loss at Louisville might make this important to remember: Throughout his eight seasons as coach, John Calipari has tried to bring perspective to Kentucky basketball. As former Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson liked to say, not all illness is death.
In other words, defeat happens. Learn from it, move forward and prosper.
Earlier this season, Calipari pointed out that his UK teams in 2010-11 and 2013-14 made Final Fours with eight and 10 losses, respectively.
“It’s a process,” Calipari said on his weekly radio show recently. “The way we look now, I’m seeing teams out there, 10, 15 teams that are ahead of us, and some of them are way ahead. . . . And most of it is they have some veteran guys.”
The process of trial and error, learning and adapting can close the headiness gap.
Kentucky has scored 100 or more points in four games this season. This reflects talent, of course, but also pace of play.
In John Calipari’s time as coach, the only other UK team to score 100 points in four games was the 2009-10 Cats.
The last season a UK team scored 100 or more points in five games was 1993-94. Of course, that was in the frenetic time with Rick Pitino as coach. The Cats scored 100 or more points in four or more games in six of his eight seasons.
The 1995-96 team hit the century mark in nine games.
The program record? The 1970-71 Cats scored 100 or more points in 15 games.
The current Cats average 93.1 points per game. If maintained, that would be the third-highest scoring average for a UK team. The Cats of 1969-70 (Dan Issel’s senior season) averaged 96.8 points. UK averaged 95.4 points the following season.
Somehow it’s no surprise that Las Vegas is Dick Vitale’s kind of town. The ebullient broadcaster said his granddaughters, ages 15 and 12, were jealous that he saw a concert by Drake while in Las Vegas.
Vitale said he had also attended performances by an eclectic mix of entertainers: Lionel Richie, Kenny Chesney (“seven or eight times”), Tim McGraw, Jennifer Lopez, Reba McIntire and the duo of Brooks and Dunn.
“I love seeing people who can put people in the palm of their hands and entertain,” Vitale said.
To Western Kentucky Coach Rick Stansbury. He turned 57 on Friday. . . . To Cliff Hawkins. He turned 35 on Saturday. . . . To former South Carolina coach (and pride of Tates Creek High) Darrin Horn. He turned 44 on Saturday. . . . To Rodney Dent. He turns 46 on Christmas Day. . . . To former Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson. He turns 75 on Tuesday. . . . To Kansas Coach Bill Self. He turns 54 on Tuesday.