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More Kentucky Basketball


By Richard "The Professor" Cheeks

February 6th, 2005


How Good of a Coach is Tubby Smith?


Last week, I compared the current Kentucky basketball team to the 1996 championship team coached by Rick Pitino.  By making this direct comparison, I suggested the 1996 team is the benchmark, against whom all other Kentucky teams are measured.  Few teams win the NCAA tournament as easily as the 1996 Kentucky team did.  The 1996 team is the most consistently powerful Kentucky team since 1972.


Kentucky has fielded many teams that compare favorably to the 1996 group.  Some of the more noteworthy teams since 1972 include:


1975 - In the NCAA Finals, lost in Coach Wooden’s farewell game.

1978 - NCAA Champions [a powerful set of Wildcats]

1997 - Lost in the Championship game to Arizona

1998 - NCAA Champions [Coach Smith’s First Kentucky team]

2003 - Unbeaten in SEC play.


Kentucky has seen many other outstanding teams. The Fabulous Five, the Hagan/Ramsey/Tsioropoulos teams, the Fiddlin’ Five and Rupp’s Runts come to mind.  Their records clearly establish the fact that these Championship caliber teams were as dominant in their time as the 1978, 1996, or 1998 champions. 


When Coach Smith arrived in Lexington, he willingly embraced the full tradition of and the pressure that accompanies Kentucky Basketball.  Coach Smith has not simply survived in this pressure-cooker.  He has established himself as arguably the best coach at Kentucky since Rupp, and he is in the process of writing his own chapter of Kentucky Basketball history.  Therefore, it is necessary to consider Coach Smith’s accomplishments at Kentucky within the context of the tradition he embraced.


Historical Perspective of 1972 – 2005


The 1972 season was the last team coached by the late great Adolph Rupp, culminating a 43-year career that placed the University of Kentucky on the international basketball map.  Coach Rupp’s teams won four national championships, and set many standards.  Commentators have credited Coach Rupp for transforming the game into its modern form.

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From 1973 through 1986, Joe B. Hall coached the Kentucky basketball team, earning three trips to the Final Four, and one national championship in 14 years.  The data is clear, Coach Hall’s tenure at Kentucky displays a split personality, marked by two distinctly different 7-year segments.  The data are undeniable, and most clear with respect to game pace.  The Hall teams from 1973 through 1979 averaged over 93 possessions per game while his last seven teams averaged an historic low 79 possessions per game. 


I have never heard any explanation for this clear shift in coaching philosophy, but it appears to me that after Coach Hall won the big prize in 1978, he became more conservative in his coaching philosophy.  When he retired from coaching following the 1986 season, Coach Hall accepted a position with a local bank.  For several years, local folks would often stop a friend and ask, “Did you hear that xxxx Bank was robbed today?”  Following the customary “No,” the jokester would quip, “Yeah, Joe Hall was in the lobby, but he wouldn’t let the guards shoot.”


The University of Kentucky hired Eddie Sutton to continue the tradition of Kentucky basketball in 1987 when Coach Hall retired.  Coach Sutton’s recruiting produced near immediate results.  By the end of his second season at Kentucky, he had assembled a tough basketball team that won the SEC Tournament and prompted many regular attendees of the SEC tournament to comment to this writer in Baton Rouge during the tournament that Coach Sutton was about to create a huge talent gap between Kentucky and the other SEC teams.  However, none of us knew during that SEC tournament that the wheels would come off the Kentucky program in a few weeks.


Coach Sutton’s time at the University of Kentucky ended abruptly and unhappily after NCAA investigations concluded the program under Coach Sutton’s leadership lacked institutional control.  Coach Sutton’s third season with the Cats would be his last and would result in Kentucky’s only losing season in memory, at least since 1930 when Coach Rupp arrived in Lexington. 


NCAA sanctions prohibited Kentucky from TV and post season play for two seasons [1990 and 1991].  These sanctions produced a broad pessimism among The Big Blue Nation about the future.  However, these low expectations created a ripe environment for Coach Pitino when he arrived in Lexington for the 1990 season with the singular mandate; restore Kentucky basketball to its rightful place of respect, pride, and championships. 


Coach Pitino did just that, and in record time.  In his second season, Kentucky achieved its only goal, to “win” the SEC regular season.  The 1991 rag-tag team of Kentucky native leftovers meshed with prize Pitino recruit Jamal Mashburn, and their only reward was a parade through downtown Lexington.  The sanctions prevented any official recognition of their accomplishment.  In 1992, Pitino’s third Kentucky team competed in the NCAA East Regional Final against the top ranked Duke Blue Devils. 


Many people say the 1992 Kentucky-Duke East Region Final game is the  greatest college game ever played.  Pitino’s team missed a trip to the final four in just his third season after Duke converted the Hail Mary play that “never works” in real life.  Caywood Ledford’s distinguished broadcasting career also ended with The Play by Duke. 


Pitino teams then advanced to the Final Four in 1994, 1996 and 1997, picking up one Championship and one runner-up trophy.  Coach Pitino gave Kentucky 8 seasons, two of which he functioned under the sanctions.  In the remaining 6 seasons, 1992-97, his teams were Elite Eight twice, Final Four three times with the championship in 1996. 


Coach Smith Has Earned His Standing


Coach Smith arrived in Lexington for the 1998 season to follow in huge footsteps.  Not only the huge image and persona that is Rick Pitino, but the unparalleled accomplishments that define Kentucky basketball from Rupp through Hall.  Some fans injected unneeded obstacles in Coach Smith’s path, injecting race, nepotism, and other hateful issues into the public discourse.  Others openly challenged his coaching ability.  Others challenged his ability to recruit.  Some critics openly expressed their disdain for “Tubby Ball” as boring, or “not Pitino-ball.”  Many critics predicted that Tubby could not survive tempest of expectation and criticism known as Kentucky basketball. 


While these comments had to bite deeply, Coach Smith publicly ignored all the garbage, and he dedicated himself to success, while maintaining his integrity.  This current season, 2005, is Coach Smith’s 8th at Kentucky, proving the cynics wrong.  Furthermore, Coach Smith’s teams have competed in the NCAA tournament, appearing in one final four and winning a championship in 1998.  In addition, Coach Smith has had two Elite Eight appearances. 


Coach Smith’s teams have competed in then SEC as well.  His teams are 13 -2 in SEC tournament play, winning five of seven SEC tournament titles.  The regular season SEC record is an equally impressive 94 – 24 [see below], winning the regular season title 4 of his 7 seasons.


SEC Regular Season Record: 1998 through 1/25/05


West Div          W-L

Alabama          4-3

Arkansas         5-2

Auburn              7-1

LSU                   7-1

Mississippi      6-2

Miss St              6 -1


East Div            W -L

Florida               10-4

Georgia             11-4

USC                   15-0

Tennessee       10-4

Vanderbilt          13-2


Totals                 94-24


Coach Smith has distinguished himself and his record speaks for itself.  Indeed, Coach Smith’s accomplishments scream out for acknowledgement.  Coach Smith’s current team may be his best.  That is why I compared them to the best of the best last week.


Of all the parameters I track and monitor, Net Game Efficiency correlates best to success when measured by Final Four appearances and Championships.  Using the Net Game Efficiency as the criteria, Tubby’s 2005 Cats are Tubby’s best and the third best Kentucky team since 1972. 


The 2005 Kentucky team has posted a 14-2 record while producing a Net Game Efficiency of 0.184 points per possession.  Coach Smith’s other powerful teams include 1998 [National Champions, 0.142 ppp], 1999 [Elite Eight loss to Michigan State, 0.147 ppp], and 2003 [Undefeated in SEC play, Elite Eight loss to Marquette, 0.141 ppp].  These four Smith coached teams also stack up well when their Net Game Efficiencies are compared with all teams since 1972.  Only the 1996 [0.203 ppp]  and 1997 [0.201 ppp] Pitino teams posted higher Net Game Efficiencies than the 2005 Smith team.  Four of the top eleven Kentucky teams in this category are Smith teams [2005, 1998, 1999, and 2003].  Four Pitino coached teams place in the top 11, and three Hall coached teams appear in the top 11.  Coach Sutton’s best team, 1988, ranks 17th of 34 for Net Game Efficiency [0.111 ppp].


Kentucky basketball has a rich tradition and heritage.  Coach Smith has earned his place in this illustrious history.  Whether he could fill the giant shoes that Coaches Rupp, Hall and Pitino left behind has been a source of continuous debate since Coach Smith’s arrival in Lexington.  I will not resolve that debate. 

Coach Smith Teams - Sorted on “Net Game Efficiency”
1998 through 2005

        Pts Pts Poss Poss Offensive Defensive Net Game Poss per TO
Year Wins Loses Win % Ky Opp Ky Opp Efficiency Efficiency Efficiency KY Opps
2005 14 2 0.875 75.0 57.6 83 80.1 0.904 0.719 0.184 6.57 4.1
1999 28 9 0.757 75.4 62.7 83.7 83.2 0.901 0.754 0.147 5.66 5.17
1998 35 4 0.897 80.1 67.0 87.2 86.2 0.919 0.777 0.142 5.83 5.29
2003 32 4 0.889 77.3 64.1 82.6 80.8 0.935 0.794 0.141 5.94 4.91
2001 24 10 0.706 79.8 70.6 86.4 87.5 0.923 0.806 0.117 5.73 5.4
2004 27 5 0.844 73.9 63.6 81.5 79.8 0.906 0.797 0.109 5.57 5.02
2002 22 10 0.688 76.9 68.2 87.5 85.2 0.879 0.801 0.078 6.08 5.15
2000 23 10 0.697 69.1 62.8 83.1 81.3 0.832 0.773 0.058 5.46 5.57


Tubby Smith vs Previous Coaches


# Name Wins Loses Win % Pt/Gm Pt/Gm Ky TO Opp TO Off Eff. Def. Eff. Net. Eff.
        Ky Opp          
14 Joe B 23.5 7.4 0.753 77.3 68.7 471.6 470.6 0.889 0.81 0.079
7 Joe B, 73-79 22.0 7.7 0.734 83.1 74.3 499.6 529.0 0.877 0.803 0.074
7 Joe B, 80-86 25.0 7.1 0.773 71.6 63 443.6 412.1 0.902 0.815 0.087
3 Sutton 19.3 12.0 0.615 72.3 69.5 437.3 480.7 0.893 0.859 0.034
8 Pitino 27.4 6.3 0.804 87.1 73.3 511.0 699.4 0.934 0.795 0.139
7 Tubby 27.3 7.4 0.782 76.1 65.6 510.6 556.3 0.899 0.786 0.113


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