Mark Story

What the omens say: To win NCAA title in 2019, UK must beat UT Saturday

John Calipari: This team goes where I take them

Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari said he may have been to blame for the team’s slow start in its 70-66 win over Arkansas on Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2019. The Cats, now 13-2 in the SEC, play at Tennessee on Saturday.
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Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari said he may have been to blame for the team’s slow start in its 70-66 win over Arkansas on Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2019. The Cats, now 13-2 in the SEC, play at Tennessee on Saturday.

If you are the type of Kentucky fan who looks to history to find omens for how the Wildcats will fare in the 2019 men’s NCAA Basketball Tournament, two things should be clear:

1.) Some of the major portents that can be discerned from UK’s past championship seasons are in conflict in 2019;

2.) If you trust the patterns of the past, UK’s chance of claiming its ninth NCAA title in 2019 is correlated to whether or not the No. 4 Cats (24-4, 13-2 SEC) beat No. 7 Tennessee (25-3, 13-2 SEC) in Saturday’s 2 p.m. contest at Thompson-Boling Arena.

At least three of the major “UK basketball title-year omens” will be tested in March Madness 2019.

The omen: The “Kentucky football 10-win-season” factor.

When Josh Allen, Benny Snell, Lynn Bowden and Co. bested Penn State in the VRBO Citrus Bowl to give Kentucky football a 10-3 record, the happiest person in the commonwealth should have been John Calipari.

Citrus Bowl celebration
History says Kentucky football getting to 10 wins this school year is a very good omen for the UK men’s basketball team. Alex Slitz

The only other times in UK sports history when the Wildcats football team reached 10 wins, the Kentucky men’s basketball program went on to win the NCAA championship in the same school year.

The history: In 1950-51, Bear Bryant’s football Wildcats, led by Babe Parilli and Bob Gain, went 11-1 and beat Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl.

That same school year, Adolph Rupp’s Cats, featuring Bill Spivey, Cliff Hagan and Frank Ramsey, beat Kansas State in the 1951 NCAA title game.

The 1950-51 Kentucky Wildcats celebrated after winning the 1951 NCAA championship in Minneapolis. Team members were, front row, left to right: Lou Tsioropoulos, C.M. Newton, Bobby Watson, Cliff Hagan, Lucian Whitaker and Frank Ramsey. Players in the rear were, left to right: Dwight Price, Bill Spivey, Guy Strong, Roger Layne and Shelby Linville. Chet Magnuson AP

In 1977-78, Fran Curci’s football Wildcats, led by Derrick Ramsey and Art Still, went 10-1 and produced UK’s only unbeaten SEC record (6-0).

That same school year, Joe B. Hall’s Cats, featuring Jack Givens, Rick Robey and Kyle Macy, beat Duke in the 1978 NCAA title game.

Real factor or coincidence? Two prior school years is not enough of a sample size from which to draw conclusions.

I do think when UK football is good, it takes some pressure off Kentucky basketball by giving Wildcats fans another outlet for their zeal.

Omen two: The “in-state player as top-six scorer” factor.

Kentucky has never won a men’s NCAA basketball championship without a player from the commonwealth among its top six scorers.

The history: Rupp’s 1947-48 Cats had Louisville product Ralph Beard (second-leading scorer), Harlan’s Wah Wah Jones (third) and Wickliffe’s Kenny Rollins (fifth).

The 1948-49 UK championship team had Beard (second) and Jones (third).

Kentucky’s 1950-51 title team featured Owensboro products Bobby Watson (third-leading scorer) and Hagan (fifth) plus Madisonville’s Ramsey (fourth).

Rupp’s final NCAA title team in 1957-58 boasted Lexington’s Vernon Hatton (leading scorer), Hazard’s Johnny Cox (second), Hebron’s John Crigler (third), Farmington’s Adrian Smith (fourth) and Ashland’s Earl Adkins (sixth).

Former Kentucky basketball stars Ed Beck and Vernon Hatton remember UK’s victory over Seattle in the 1958 NCAA championship game. The 1957-58 title team is being honored as part of the UK-Auburn game on Saturday, Feb. 23, 2019.

Joe B. Hall’s 1977-78 NCAA champs had Lexington products Givens (leading scorer) and James Lee (fourth).

Louisville native Derek Anderson was the fourth-leading scorer for Rick Pitino’s 1995-96 national champions (with Lebanon’s Anthony Epps as starting point guard). Scott Padgett of Louisville was third-leading scorer for Tubby Smith’s 1997-98 title team.

Maysville’s Darius Miller (sixth-leading scorer) upheld the tradition on UK’s 2011-12 national championship team.

Real factor or coincidence? Alas, the current season is the second straight year UK does not have a scholarship player from the commonwealth on its roster.

My guess is UK will someday win an NCAA title without a native Kentuckian among its key players — but, since the NCAA tourney began in 1939, it never has.

Omen three: The “Kentucky championship teams beat Tennessee” factor.

Not one of UK’s eight NCAA title teams ever lost to Tennessee.

The history: Both Rupp’s 1948 and ‘49 title teams each swept UT two games in the regular season, then beat the Volunteers again in the SEC Tournament semifinals.

The other six Kentucky NCAA championship teams all went 2-0 vs. Tennessee.

Real factor or coincidence? Stipulating that there have been many Kentucky teams that swept Tennessee but did not win NCAA titles, I think there is something to this one.

UT has often been a thorn in the Cats’ paws, especially in Knoxville. It does not seem a coincidence that eight of the UK teams that had the talent and grit to win at UT also had enough of both qualities to win national championships.

After running the then-No. 1-ranked Volunteers out of Rupp Arena with an 86-69 beat down on Feb. 16, the 2018-19 Cats are halfway to the season sweep of the Big Orange.

Tennessee basketball coach Rick Barnes talks about his team’s 86-69 loss at Kentucky on Saturday, Feb. 16, 2019. The top-ranked Volunteers saw their 19-game win streak snapped. UT is now 11-1 in the SEC. UK is 10-2.

Expect Grant Williams, Admiral Schofield and crew to play with fervor Saturday as the Vols look to get their swagger back against the team that stripped it from them.

If the Cats can win at Tennessee under this season’s circumstances, they will have shown the mettle of a team that can win it all.


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Mark Story has worked in the Lexington Herald-Leader sports department since Aug. 27, 1990, and has been a H-L sports columnist since 2001. I have covered every Kentucky-Louisville football game since 1994, every UK-U of L basketball game but three since 1996-97 and every Kentucky Derby since 1994.