UK Men's Basketball

As dynasties collide, Kentucky breathing air UCLA no longer enjoys

Kentucky forward Willie Cauley-Stein was pressured by Columbia forward Chris McComber, left, and guard Maodo Lo.
Kentucky forward Willie Cauley-Stein was pressured by Columbia forward Chris McComber, left, and guard Maodo Lo. Herald-Leader

If you're looking to contrast basketball dynasties, how Kentucky and UCLA are flying to Chicago for Saturday's game is one place to start.

UK chartered a flight with Miami Air International, which services professional teams, U.S. military and governmental agencies and Fortune 500 companies.

UCLA flew commercially.

Message: With UCLA, oh how the mighty have fallen. Meanwhile, Kentucky is soaring higher than ever.

UCLA made history by winning 10 national championships in a 12-year period in the 1960s and 1970s. Kentucky aims to make history this season.

"I think the guys from Kentucky, they have what we had," said Andre McCarter, who played on the UCLA team that beat Kentucky in the 1975 finals. "Which was the pressure to face teams that bring their best game to every game."

As UK Coach John Calipari likes to say, every opponent sees a game against Kentucky as the Super Bowl. That description probably fits UCLA on Saturday.

"Obviously, we know we're playing the best team in the country," Coach Steve Alford said, "and we're looking forward to that opportunity and challenge."

ESPN analyst Dick Vitale noted a large gap between the programs with the two most national championships: UCLA 11, Kentucky eight.

Vitale saw significance in the empty seats in Pauley Pavilion this season. UCLA's average attendance is 6,567. Pauley's listed capacity is 13,800.

"If you want to be considered an elite program like UCLA should be, based on its history, you're not elite if you have 5,000 at a game," Vitale said. "I don't care who Kentucky is playing or who Duke plays or who Carolina plays, that place is going to be jumping. ...

"It's sad in a way. Really sad. I feel bad for Steve and his team."

Alford, who is in his second year as coach, suffered a setback in restoring UCLA's luster when three underclassmen left after last season and became first-round draft picks. The NCAA ruled another player ineligible.

"For Kentucky, that doesn't mean much," said Sean Farnham, a former UCLA player who now works as an ESPN analyst.

For UCLA, it was a blow.

Of course, John Wooden, the Wizard of Westwood, retired as UCLA coach after the Bruins beat Kentucky in the 1975 finals. UK players Tyler Ulis and Trey Lyles, who weren't born until 20-some years later, said they knew of Wooden.

Ulis noted how his father put Wooden's Pyramid of Success on a wall.

Wooden remains a revered name on campus. "He just embodies everything UCLA is and stands for," Alford said.

But Wooden's level of success is not the goal. "We're in different eras and different parities, obviously," Alford said.

McCarter sounded almost wistful in saying the UCLA magic remains.

"Everybody that sees those four letters, which I try to tell the young guys, despite you not being at the level we used to be on, those letters should mean something," he said. "It's UCLA."

The immediate concern seems to be re-establishing UCLA's presence on the national scene. Alford booked the team in a nationally televised event in the Bahamas earlier this season. A home-and-home, two-game series with Kentucky also helps.

So does Saturday's game in Chicago's United Center.

"Games like this help UCLA get back to that level," Farnham said. "There's no question about it. Players want to play in big games."

Meanwhile, Kentucky inspires people to speak in superlatives.

"Kentucky, to me, has the best defense I've seen in probably my 30-some years at ESPN ... ," Vitale said. "I never thought in today's era, with the three-point shot and the one-and-dones, I didn't think we'd see a team with the potential to run the table. I firmly believe Kentucky has that potential.

"I think it's going to take a Villanova kind of game to beat Kentucky."

In the 1985 national championship game, coincidentally played in Rupp Arena, Villanova made 22 of 28 shots in upsetting Georgetown.

UCLA went undefeated several times in its glory days. Kentucky may prove the eras and parities are not that different.

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