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.
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
1978 - NCAA
Champions [a powerful set of Wildcats]
1997 - Lost in
the Championship game to Arizona
1998 - NCAA Champions [Coach Smith’s First Kentucky
2003 - Unbeaten in SEC play.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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
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
Coach Smith Has Earned His Standing
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.
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.
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.
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.