No. 1 vs. No. 2.
Barring a monumental upset, college basketball showcases such a game Tuesday when Kentucky plays Michigan State. That's the Nos. 1 and 2 teams in The Associated Press pre-season poll.
These kind of games don't come along very often. UK-State will be the first such game since 2008, and only the fifth since 1999. There have been only 38 since The AP began its poll on Jan. 20, 1949.
So, it's a big deal. These games excited even the UCLA dynasty teams of 1964-75.
Lynn Shackelford recalled a telling moment involving teammate Mike Warren. No. 2 UCLA was to play No. 1 Houston in the 1968 national semifinals that night.
"'Jeez, I'm not even hungry,'" Shackelford remembered Warren saying at the team breakfast. "We were so up and excited, we'd lost our appetites. And that was breakfast."
That game was the rematch with Houston. Earlier in the season, Houston had beaten UCLA in the Astrodome in one of the sport's first nationally televised games. Or as Shackelford said, "kind of the birth of college basketball."
The most recent No. 1-vs.-No. 2 saw John Calipari's top-ranked Memphis Tigers lose to cross-state rival Tennessee. Calipari's only other experience is such games came in the 1996 national semifinals when his UMass team lost to No. 2 Kentucky. So he's 0-2 in these games as the No. 1 team. Incidentally, Michigan State Coach Tom Izzo is 0-1 in such games.
Bruce Pearl, then the Tennessee coach, relished the "opportunity," as he called it, to beat a No. 1 team.
"I've always been No. 2, you know?" he said. "People think I'm full of No. 2."
Be that as it may, Pearl saw being No. 2 as an advantage.
"When I was in the locker room (before the game), I said, 'Look, I don't know if we're the best team in the country, but I know we're 40 minutes from being the No. 1 team in the country,'" he said. "In 40 minutes, anything can happen."
Memphis started strong. Tennessee hung in there. Pearl recalled the tough-minded play of JaJuan Smith, Tyler Smith and Chris Lofton.
"The pressure shifts to the home team," Pearl said, "and to the team that feels they have everything to lose."
Of course, there will be no home team when Kentucky plays Michigan State in Chicago. In neutral sites, the No. 1 team has won 15 of 22 games. Overall, the No. 1 team has a record of 21-17.
Andre McCarter, a guard for UCLA from 1973-74 through 1975-76, played in six No. 1-vs.-No. 2 games. He won three times and lost three times.
"Our mentality was every game was No. 1 vs. No. 2," he said. That's because UCLA faced an inspired opponent in every game. "You knew what your purpose was."
That purpose? To execute.
Players dream of playing in such matchups, McCarter said. That's why they went to UCLA then or a program like Kentucky now.
"Coach (John) Wooden took you away from that dream," McCarter said. "... You know the will of a group has a lot to do with the outcome. At a certain level, the talent is about the same.
"We knew because we were UCLA, we had to meet and supersede the will of the opponent."
Kentucky played in the first three No. 1-vs.-No. 2 games. UK swept all three (1949, 1951, 1954) as the top-ranked team.
Perhaps Kentucky's most heart-breaking moment — the Rupp's Runts losing against Texas Western — came the day after No. 1 UK defeated No. 2 Duke in the Final Four semifinals.
"We never considered the rankings at all," Larry Conley said of the No. 1-vs.-No. 2 dynamic. "All we wanted to know about an opponent was what do they do? Are they good? And what do we have to do to beat them?"
Compared to the endless hype and star-making machinery of today, that sounds downright runty.
Bob Guyette, one of the big men in the UK recruiting class dubbed the Super Kittens, did not feel fully satisfied when his college career ended. The Kittens eased the coaching transition from Adolph Rupp to Joe B. Hall and advanced to the national championship game as seniors. UCLA beat UK in the 1975 national championship game, which was John Wooden's final game.
"None of us felt we accomplished what we came to Kentucky to accomplish," Guyette said. "But we had a fantastic group of guys."
Me or we?
By now, we know talent alone does not win at the highest level. A unity of purpose makes the key difference for any team, including the UK team now embarked on the 2013-14 season.
"It's not individual talent," Bob Guyette said. "It's how these guys will accept playing with other great talent. You have to accept that. There are other great players. ... Are they going to look at me first or team first? What we had to learn, too. There are other great players."
Of course, this melding process is not a given.
"That's the art of it," Guyette said. "Gosh, if you could figure that out, you'd make a lot of money because you never know how the mix is going to come together."
Other great classes
The article last Sunday about great recruiting classes led to reflection. Among the classes that could (should?) have been mentioned are:
■ The UK class of 1966 — Dan Issel, Mike Pratt and Mike Casey — provided the Indian Summer of Adolph Rupp's coaching career. They rank first, 14th and 26th on UK's career scoring list. They combined for 5,032 points.
More importantly, UK went 71-12 over the next three seasons (noting that Casey redshirted during the 1969-70 season because of an injury).
■ UK fan Tom Gray noted the Cincinnati class of 1959.
"The 1959 UC Bearcat recruits were led by Tom Thacker of Covington, Ky.," Gray wrote. "He and William Grant, Tony Yates, Larry Shingleton, Dale Heidotting and Mark Altenau had a sterling record at UC: 14-1 as Bearkittens (nickname for UC frosh teams), then 86-7 on UC varsity with two NCAA titles (1961 and 62) and runner-up (1963) OT loss to Loyola (Ill.). Overall 100-8 at UC. Best ever at UC."
Gray, 62, is from Fort Mitchell. Since 1974, he has lived in Chicago, where he works for CNA Insurance.
■ The San Francisco class of 1952. This class included Bill Russell, the greatest winner in the history of team sports, and K.C. Jones. They won national championships as juniors and seniors, compiling a 57-1 record in those two seasons.
UK or UCLA?
UK fan William S. Combs works as a civilian adviser to the U.S. military in Afghanistan. He's based at Kandahar Airfield.
A co-worker happens to be a UCLA fan, which has led to many UK-versus-UCLA discussions.
"By law, I have to spend 10 hours a day in the same office with this individual," Combs wrote in an email. "... Needless to say, with me being a UK fan, we have talked for weeks about which is the greatest program in history: UCLA or UK? After awhile, we acknowledged it was counter-productive to run the subject into the ground any further and decided not to mention each other's teams going forward.
"This individual also had the nerve to argue that Coach (John) Wooden was greater than Coach (Adolph) Rupp."
Combs' trump card was Rupp's 3-0 record against Wooden.
"He turned quiet for about a week," Combs wrote. "One day, after months of this back-and-forth, discussing the merits and achievements of both teams, scrubbing the facts and statistics, I said 'Rich, who's the greatest program in college basketball?' He replied, 'Kentucky is the greatest program.'"
When not debating UK versus UCLA, Combs and his co-worker specialize in contract law, procurement, ethics, integrity, and financial oversight. They occasionally give classroom lectures to Afghan National Security Forces.
Then and now
Fifty-five years ago — let's let that sink in for a moment — Ohio State recruited a class that included Hall of Fame players Jerry Lucas and John Havlicek, plus future Hall of Fame coach Bob Knight, plus Mel Nowell, who was the Big Ten's No. 2 scorer as a sophomore.
"We had 15 guys," Havlicek said. "All from Ohio with the exception of one fellow from Pennsylvania. We all graduated. Seven master's degrees. Two Ph.D.s. and one M.D.
"That's probably something that's a lot different."
Not that Havlicek meant any disrespect to how present-day players can view college basketball as a one-year way station en route to the NBA.
"I'm sure if we had the same thing to do, we'd probably do it the same way they're doing it today ... ," Havlicek said before adding, "I'm glad we did it the way we did it."
ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas found the idea of anointing one recruiting class the greatest of all time an unresolvable. There's an unavoidable apples-and-oranges component. How do you compare classes in the era of one-and-done players to a time when freshmen were ineligible and then played three seasons?
Bilas likened this problem to comparing Tiger Woods to Jack Nicklaus or Albert Pujols to Honus Wagner.
"We'll never be able to determine who would win between the Kentucky class and the UCLA Class of 1965," Bilas said. "So it's just a barroom argument."
Bilas brings first-hand experience to this barroom argument. He was a member of Duke's recruiting class of 1982, which was ranked No. 1. Besides Bilas, the recruits included Johnny Dawkins, Mark Alarie and David Henderson.
As seniors, that class led Duke to the 1986 national championship game, where the Blue Devils lost to Louisville.
"I'd rather not lost to Louisville and won the national championship," Bilas said, "and been rated 25th-best class."
Herald-Leader book maven Cheryl Truman noted that Louisville Coach Rick Pitino will sign his new book The One-Day Contract: How to Add Value to Every Minute of Your Life from 1-3 p.m. Saturday at the Kentucky Book Fair. Pitino's co-author was Eric Crawford. The book was published by St. Martin's and retails for $25.99.
The 32nd annual Book Fair is held at the Frankfort Convention Center. More information is available at Kybookfair.blogspot.com.
To Billy Gillispie. The former UK coach turned 54 on Thursday. ... To Dwight Perry. He turned 26 on Saturday.
Date Site Result
Feb. 24, 2008 Memphis No. 2 Tennessee 66, No. 1 Memphis 62
Feb. 25, 2007 Columbus No. 2 Ohio State 49, No. 1 Wisconsin 48
Dec. 10, 2005 East Rutherford No. 1 Duke 97, No. 2 Texas 66
x-April 4, 2005 St. Louis No. 2 North Carolina 75, No. 1 Illinois 70
y-March 27, 1999 St. Petersburg No. 1 Duke 68, No. 2 Michigan State 62
Feb. 5, 1998 Chapel Hill No. 2 North Carolina 97, No. 1 Duke 73
y-March 30, 1996 East Rutherford No. 2 Kentucky 81, No. 1 Massachusetts 74
Feb. 3, 1994 Chapel Hill No. 2 North Carolina 89, No. 1 Duke 78
Feb. 10, 1991 Fayetteville No. 1 UNLV 112, No. 2 Arkansas 105
March 10, 1990 Kansas City No. 1 Oklahoma 95, No. 2 Kansas 77
Feb. 13, 1990 Lawrence No. 2 Missouri 77, No. 1 Kansas 71
y-March 29, 1986 Dallas No. 1 Duke 71, No. 2 Kansas 67
Feb. 4, 1986 Atlanta No. 1 North Carolina 78, No. 2 Georgia Tech 77, OT
March 9, 1985 New York No. 1 Georgetown 92, No. 2 St. John's 80
Feb. 27, 1985 New York No. 2 Georgetown 85, No. 1 St. John's 69
Dec. 15, 1984 Landover No. 1 Georgetown 77, No. 2 DePaul 57
y-April 2, 1983 Albuquerque No. 1 Houston 94, No. 2 Louisville 81
Jan. 9, 1982 Chapel Hill No. 1 North Carolina 65, No. 2 Virginia 60
Dec. 26, 1981 East Rutherford No. 1 North Carolina 82, No. 2 Kentucky 69
March 22, 1976 Baton Rouge No. 1 Indiana 65, No. 2 Marquette 56
Nov. 29, 1975 St. Louis No. 1 Indiana 84, No. 2 UCLA 64
x-March 31, 1975 San Diego No. 1 UCLA 92, No. 2 Kentucky 85
y-March 25, 1974 Greensboro No. 1 North Carolina State 80, No. 2 UCLA 77 2OT
Jan. 26, 1974 Los Angeles No. 2 UCLA 94, No. 1 Notre Dame 75
Jan. 19, 1974 South Bend No. 2 Notre Dame 71, No. 1 UCLA 70
Dec. 15, 1973 St. Louis No. 1 UCLA 84, No. 2 North Carolina State 66
y-March 22, 1968 Los Angeles No. 2 UCLA 101, No. 1 Houston 69
Jan. 20, 1968 Houston No. 2 Houston 71, No. 1 UCLA 69
y-March 18, 1966 College Park No. 1 Kentucky 83, No. 2 Duke 79
x-March 20, 1965 Portland No. 2 UCLA 91, No. 1 Michigan 80
Dec. 14, 1964 Detroit No. 2 Michigan 87, No. 1 Wichita State 85
x-March 24, 1962 Louisville No. 2 Cincinnati 71, No. 1 Ohio State 59
x-March 25, 1961 Kansas City No. 2 Cincinnati 70, No. 1 Ohio State 65 OT
y-March 18, 1960 San Francisco No. 2 California 77, No. 1 Cincinnati 69
x-March 23, 1957 Kansas City No. 1 North Carolina 54, No. 2 Kansas 53
Dec. 21, 1954 Lexington No. 1 Kentucky 70, No. 2 Utah 65
Dec. 17, 1951 Lexington No. 1 Kentucky 81, No. 2 St. John's 40
x-March 26, 1949 Seattle No. 1 Kentucky 46, No. 2 Oklahoma A&M 36
x-national championship game
y-national semifinal game