Mark Story

Mark Story: 2012 champs have stiff competition for 'best UK team ever'

Walter McCarty and the rest of the 1996 Untouchables walked off champs in East Rutherford, N.J., after beating Syracuse.
Walter McCarty and the rest of the 1996 Untouchables walked off champs in East Rutherford, N.J., after beating Syracuse.

An NCAA men's basketball championship should produce rampant giddiness. Even at Kentucky, with all the resources and emphasis the school puts on men's hoops, there have been only four NCAA crowns since 1958.

Kentucky's 2012 NCAA champs were an appealing crew. As John Calipari has pointed out, there are "teach your children" lessons that can be drawn from the way a team packed with individual stars sublimated personal goals for the greater good of the team.

With the entire Kentucky starting five turning pro before any reached their junior year, many of the top Cats did not wear the UK uniform for long — but they did wear it well.

Yet in the justified euphoria since Kentucky cut down the NCAA's nets for the eighth time in school history, I've been a little surprised by the number of people who want to anoint the 2011-12 Cats as the greatest team in school history.

As a former Louisville football coach is wont to say, not so fast, my friends. Has the present so crowded out even the recent past that people have forgotten how good Kentucky's 1996 NCAA championship team was?

Now, there are some similarities between Rick Pitino's one UK championship team and Calipari's one (so far).

Both teams were considered the most talented in the country in their respective seasons.

Both lost only two games, and one of those for each came in the finals of the SEC Tournament.

However, the two teams that beat Pitino's 1996 champions, Massachusetts and Mississippi State, were better than the two teams that beat the 2012 Cats. Both UMass and MSU went on to make the 1996 Final Four.

The two teams that defeated the 2012 Cats were a good-not-great Indiana (which lost to UK in a rematch in the NCAA tourney round of 16) and a talented but underachieving Vanderbilt (lost in the round of 32).

It is partly a function of tempo, but the '96 Wildcats had far fewer close calls. In the 34 wins amassed by Kentucky in 1996, only four teams played UK closer than 10 points. The 2012 Cats won 11 games that were decided in single digits.

If there could be a head-to-head matchup between 1996 and 2012 UK champions, Anthony Davis from the '12s would be the most physically talented player on the floor and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist might be second.

But the '96 team would overwhelm the current Cats with experience and depth of talent.

This year's UK champions started two sophomores (Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb) and three true freshmen (Davis, MKG and Marquis Teague) with senior Darius Miller as sixth man.

The 1996 Cats had experienced talent, starting two seniors (Tony Delk and Walter McCarty), a fourth-year junior (Ohio State transfer Derek Anderson), another junior (Anthony Epps) and a sophomore (Antoine Walker).

Yet what made the 1996 Kentucky Wildcats one of college basketball's all-time great teams was a remarkable level of talent up and down the roster.

In the 1996 Final Four showdown with No. 1 U-Mass, UK star Delk cramped and had to leave a tense game at crunch time. Junior Jeff Sheppard, a starter the season before, took his place and scored seven points in the final six minutes.

When Kentucky was struggling to score against Syracuse in the 1996 national finals, true freshman forward Ron Mercer — one of the most recruited high school players in the country in 1995 — came off the bench and rifled in 20 points.

So deep was that '96 team, that many of that squad's reserves — Sheppard, Wayne Turner, Allen Edwards, Nazr Mohammed, Cameron Mills — came back two years later and were the nucleus of a team that won the national title in 1998.

So as impressive as it is that the top six players on the 2012 Kentucky team are likely to be chosen in the 2012 NBA Draft — maybe all in the first round — there were six players on the '96 team that ultimately went in the first round of NBA Drafts (a seventh eventual first-round pick, Scott Padgett, was sitting out academically ineligible in 1995-96).

Overall, nine players on the 1996 Cats (not counting Padgett) played in the NBA.

Bottom line: Experienced talent, and lots of it, trumps youthful talent.

So if, through time travel, Kentucky's 2012 champions could face UK's 1996 NCAA Tournament winners, it would not be a hard game to handicap.

The '96 Cats would smoke the present champs.

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