On Valentine’s Day, 1998, Mississippi Rebels point guard Michael White had 16 points and six assists in Rupp Arena to spark Ole Miss to a 73-64 upset of the Kentucky Wildcats.
It turned out to be the final defeat of the 1997-98 season for Tubby Smith’s Cats, who won their final 13 games and the NCAA championship. White and Ole Miss also had a date with March Madness destiny, winding up on the wrong side of Bryce Drew’s famous buzzer beater for Valparaiso.
On Saturday, White, 39, will be back in Rupp looking to make another lifetime memory. The second-year Florida head coach will lead the Gators (23-5, 13-2 SEC) against John Calipari and Kentucky (23-5, 13-2) in a game that will likely decide the SEC regular season championship and the No. 1 seed in the league tournament.
UK will also be seeking to avenge an embarrassing 88-66 beatdown White and the Gators applied to the Cats on Feb. 4 in Gainesville.
In a big-picture sense, White is seeking to do something no other men’s hoops coach in SEC history has ever done. That is inherit a program that the prior coach, in his case Billy Donovan, had made into the biggest threat to Kentucky’s league supremacy and successfully maintain it as UK’s main league nemesis.
To understand what White is up against, it is instructive to look at what happened with the successors of previous coaches who threatened Kentucky’s SEC superiority.
Ray Mears: As Tennessee coach from 1962-77, Mears fought Kentucky to a draw — 15-15 in 30 games — and won three SEC championships.
The successor: Under Don DeVoe (1978-1989), the Volunteers were still an annoyance to UK, going 11-12 vs. the Cats. But UT won only one SEC Tournament (1979) and shared in one regular-season crown (1981-82) and DeVoe was eventually let go.
Dale Brown: No one beat Kentucky more often than Dale Brown (18-33) did as LSU head coach (1972-97). Under Brown, the Tigers won or shared four SEC regular season crowns and an SEC Tournament (1980) and played in two Final Fours (1981 and ’86).
The successor: LSU’s program went stale at the end of Brown’s tenure (four straight losing seasons), so John Brady did not inherit a robust situation. Brady had his moments, sharing an SEC title (2000) and winning one outright (2006) while making one Final Four (2006).
Yet not even two full seasons after his Final Four trip, Brady was fired during the 2007-08 season with a 2-9 mark vs. UK.
Nolan Richardson: After Arkansas joined the SEC in 1991-92, Nolan Richardson led the Hogs to a pair of SEC titles (1991-92 and ’93-94), two trips to the Final Four (1994 and ’95) and the 1994 NCAA championship. In 19 meetings with UK, he won seven times.
The successor(s): Arkansas is now on its third head coach since Richardson, and has won zero SEC titles and a whopping two NCAA tourney games since his departure.
Billy Donovan: Before Donovan left Gainesville to coach Russell Westbrook and, fleetingly, Kevin Durant in Oklahoma City, he established Florida as essentially the SEC’s alternate axis of power to Kentucky.
The SEC record book tells an emphatic tale.
Most Final Fours: Adolph Rupp, Kentucky, 6; Donovan, Florida, 4; John Calipari, Kentucky, 4.
Most SEC regular-season titles: Rupp, Kentucky, 27; Joe B. Hall, Kentucky, 8; Donovan, Florida, 6.
Most wins by a coach at one SEC school: 1. Rupp, Kentucky, 875; 2. Donovan, Florida, 467.
If White and the Gators prevail in Rupp Arena on Saturday, it would send an emphatic message about the arc of the Florida program post-Donovan.
Kentucky preventing that would be yet another reminder that, in SEC men’s basketball, the current boss always seems to ultimately end up looking like the old boss.
Coaches with the most all-time men’s basketball victories against Kentucky:
Coach: Record vs. UK
Dale Brown: 18-33
Billy Donovan: 17-29
Ray Mears: 15-15
Bobby Knight: 15-18
Roy Skinner: 14-18
Dean Smith: 13-3
Kevin Stallings: 12-23
Don DeVoe: 11-14
Wimp Sanderson: 11-18
C.M. Newton: 10-32