By any measure, the Kentucky basketball program is, and has been for decades, blessed. About that there can be no debate. The program was fortunate enough to land Adolph Rupp as its basketball coach in 1930, opening the flood gates of excellence, allowing basketball greatness to wash over the Commonwealth in the form of great players, terrific teams, and transcendent champions.
The program was able to keep Rupp at Kentucky until 1972, when he was replaced on the sidelines by assistant coach Joe B. Hall, a true, blue-blooded Kentucky Wildcat if there ever was one. Coach Hall embraced the challenge of following a living legend as he continued UK's winning ways for 13 seasons, bringing a championship of his own and two other Final Four appearances to the Wildcat faithful. Since Hall's retirement in 1985, the Cynthiana native has transformed his persona from that of an all-business basketball coach, to one of the most effective and likable ambassadors the UK basketball program has ever produced.
In a muddy-water-into-wine moment, even UK's Eddie Sutton-induced probation became the advent of one of the greatest eras in Wildcat basketball history, as Kentucky athletic director C.M. Newton had the intelligence and foresight to offer Rick Pitino the vacant head chair after Sutton resigned. Of course under Pitino, the good times rolled, with Final Four appearances and a championship dotting his eight-year tenure, as he made Kentucky basketball once again relevant on the national scene.
The unenviable task of following Pitino at UK fell to Tubby Smith, who brought great integrity and respect to the UK head coaching position, as he won a title and led the 'Cats to three Elite Eights, barely missing out on multiple Final Fours.
Then, after the failed two-year Billy Gillispie era, Mitch Barnhart reached for the coaching stars and came away with John Calipari, the proverbial perfect fit for Kentucky. Despite huge expectations, Coach Cal has surpassed the Big Blue Nation's hopes and hoop dreams, posting a three-year record of 102-14 leading the 'Cats to two Final Fours and the school's first national title since 1998.
In the vernacular of the baseball diamond, Cal has thrown a 3-year no-hitter, with only a few PR base-on-balls standing in the way of a perfect game. But did Calipari, with UK's 2012 national championship triumph, put a bow on the best two decade stretch in the illustrious history of Kentucky Wildcat basketball?
To answer that question, one has to compare the original "salad days" of UK hoops, an era which began with the 1946 season and ended with Rupp's Runts in 1966, with Kentucky's most recent stretch of success; the seasons between the Unforgettable's 1992 campaign, and the 2012 title team.
1946 - 1966: Unparalleled Excellence
During the 20 seasons -- UK did not field a team in 1953 due to NCAA sanctions -- between '46 and '66, the 'Cats became the preeminent college basketball program in the land, and fostered a fan base as fanatical as any in sports. Behind the innovation and basketball genius of Adolph Rupp, UK stood out above others on the college basketball landscape, establishing a tradition still standing today.
Coach Rupp led the 'Cats to 493 wins against only 89 losses, good for a winning percentage of .847. The average record for those 20 Kentucky teams was 24.7 - 4.5. In Southeastern Conference play, the Wildcats came out on top 231 times to only 37 losses, a winning percentage of .862.
In SEC tournament play (played until 1952), Kentucky posted an incredible 26 - 1 mark (.963 winning percentage), while winning six-of-seven tourney titles (the only blemish on UK's SEC tourney record during that time was a title game loss to Vanderbilt in 1951).
In the NCAA and NIT tournaments (the NIT was then just as prestigious as the NCAA tourney, if not more so), Kentucky posted a 30 - 12 record (.714 winning percentage), winning national titles in:
1946 (NIT) -- Led by All-America Jack Parkinson, and freshman phenoms Alex Groza, Ralph Beard, along with Wilbur Schu, the Wildcats went 28 - 2 (6 - 0 SEC), and brought Rupp and Kentucky its first national title.
1948 -- Three UK All-Americans, Beard, Groza, and Wah Wah Jones, paced Kentucky to a 36 - 3 mark (9 - 0 SEC), and its first NCAA title. The UK All-America trio were bolstered by All-SEC performers Kenny Rollins and Cliff Barker, as the Fabulous Five also brought home Olympic Gold. Going 8-0 in international play, the Fabulous Five won their eight Olympic contests by an average score of 66 - 32. The squad beat France for the gold, 65 - 21. The Fabulous Five set a sky-high benchmark for greatness as they ushered in UK's golden era of basketball.
1949 -- Led by National Player of the Year Alex Groza, and All-Americans Beard and Jones, plus All-SEC players Barker and Dale Barnstable, Kentucky repeated as NCAA champs, posting a 32 - 2 record (13 - 0 SEC).
1951 -- Once again, the National Player of the Year resided in Lexington in the form of one of the first dominant big men in college basketball, 7-footer Bill Spivey. Spivey, along with All-America Frank Ramsey, plus All-SEC players Shelby Linville and Bobby Watson, led the 'Cats to a 32 - 2 mark (14 - 0 SEC) as Kentucky won its fourth national title in six years.
1958 -- The Fiddlin' Five, All-America Vernon Hatton, and All-SEC players Johnny Cox and John Crigler (along with Ed Beck and Adrian Smith), won Rupp perhaps his most satisfying national championship, posting a 23 - 6 record (12 - 2 SEC).
In addition, the 1954 Wildcat squad, led by All-Americas Cliff Hagan and Frank Ramsey, and All-SEC performer Lou Tsioropoulos, ran the regular season table with a perfect 25 - 0 record. The NCAA, though, looking out for the student-athlete as it always does, declared Hagan, Ramsey, and Tsioropoulos ineligible for post season play because of their graduate student status. UK (or more accurately, Adolph Rupp) declined the NCAA's bid to participate in the post season tournament.
In 1966, the culmination of UK's glorious 20-year run, the 'Cats came up just short in NCAA tourney play, as Rupp's Runts, an extraordinary 27 - 2 squad (15 - 1 SEC), lost in the title tilt to Texas Western (now UTEP) and coach Don Haskins. The Wildcats were led by All-Americas Pat Riley (who also won SEC Player of the Year, an award which began in 1965)), Louie Dampier, and Thad Jaracz, along with All-SEC guards Larry Conley and Tommy Kron.
During the 20 seasons between '46 and '66 the Kentucky Wildcat basketball program produced 31 All-America and 60 All-SEC selections. Two Wildcats were named National Player of the Year, Alex Groza ('49) and Bill Spivey ('51), with Pat Riley being tabbed SEC Player of the Year in 1966 (an honor he shared with Vandy's Clyde Lee).
Will the 1992-to-2012 Wildcats best UK's Gilded Age of hoops? Let's find out.
1992 - 2012: Chasing Rupp's Greatness
This era of UK basketball saw the 'Cats experience mountain top jubilation after the scourge of probation threatened to decimate the program. With four coaches contributing to Kentucky's stretch of success (well, only three if one discounts Billy Gillispie's two-years), the UK program proved it could win and win big with a variety of philosophies steering the ship.
Rick Pitino, Tubby Smith, Gillispie, and John Calipari combined to win 588 games during this 21-season jaunt, versus only 154 losses, a .792 winning percentage. On average, UK's record during this time was 28 - 7. In league play, Kentucky won 260 and lost 76, a winning percentage of .774.
In Southeastern Conference tourney play, the 'Cats posted 46 victories compared to only nine defeats (.836 winning percentage), winning 11 league tournament titles.
Kentucky, in the NCAA tournament, won 58 games against 17 losses, a winning percentage of .773. Along the way, UK won national titles in:
1996 -- One of the most dominant modern-day college basketball squads to grace the hardwood, Pitino's '96 'Cats had a 34 - 2 record (16 - 0 SEC), and swept through the NCAA tourney winning by an average of 21.5 points per game. Led by All-America and SEC Player of the Year Tony Delk, along with All-SEC players Antoine Walker and Walter McCarty, this edition of the 'Cats gave Kentucky it's first national title since 1978.
1998 -- The Comeback 'Cats, coached by Tubby Smith, and paced by All-America Scott Padgett and All-SEC picks Jeff Sheppard and Nazr Mohammed, brought to Kentucky its second title in three years, as UK posted a 35 - 4 record (14 - 2 SEC).
2012 -- John Calipari grabbed his first national championship, and UK's ninth (eight NCAA titles, one NIT championship), behind the All-America play of Anthony Davis -- who swept all the national Player of the Year awards, as well as SEC Player of the Year honors -- and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, along with All-SEC selections Doron Lamb and Terrence Jones. This group led the 'Cats to a national record 38 wins against only two defeats (16-0 SEC).
Final Four Festivities
1993 -- Bringing Kentucky all the way back from probation, the '93 Wildcats posted a 30 - 4 record on the strength of All-America and SEC Player of the Year Jamal Mashburn, and All-SEC performer Travis Ford. Although UK lost to Michigan (in overtime) in the Final Four, this group will be remembered for bringing UK its first appearance on the final weekend of the season since 1984.
1997 -- In Rick Pitino's final season at UK, the 'Cats battled a season-ending injury to star player Derek Anderson (who, despite his shortened season, was named an All-SEC performer), but the great play of All-America and SEC Player of the Year Ron Mercer, along with All-SEC point guard Anthony Epps, allowed the UK to post 35 wins versus only five losses. Eventually losing in the title contest to Arizona, the '97 team represents the second of three consecutive Final Four appearances for Kentucky.
2011 -- Calipari, in only his second season at Kentucky, brought the UK faithful its first Final Four appearance since 1998, the longest such drought in Wildcat lore. The 29 - 9 'Cats (10 - 6 SEC) were led by All-SEC picks Brandon Knight and Terrence Jones, as they recovered from a 5 - 5 start to the SEC season by winning 12 of their final 14 games. Connecticut brought UK's magical season to an end as the Huskies went on to win the national championship.
In addition, the 1992 Wildcats, forever known as the Unforgettables, restored the luster to Kentucky basketball after scandal stripped the 'Cats of players and respect. John Pelphrey, Deron Feldhaus, Richie Farmer, and Sean Woods, were the backbone of one of the most in-sync squads in Kentucky history. All-America Jamal Mashburn, and his incredibly versatile skill-set, was enough to push the 'Cats from good to great, as UK had a 29 - 7 record (12 - 4 SEC), losing in the Elite Eight in the greatest game ever played, 104 - 103, to eventual titlist Duke.
From 1992 through 2012, the Kentucky Wildcat basketball program had 13 All-America selections and 49 All-SEC picks. Winning National Player of the Year honors were John Wall in 2010, and Anthony Davis in 2012. SEC Player of the Year awards were bestowed upon Jamal Mashburn ('93), Tony Delk ('96), Ron Mercer ('97), Keith Bogans ('03), Wall ('10), and Davis ('12).
Chocolate ice cream versus apple pie
It's that tough of a decision. Is it the early 'Cats and there mass accumulation of All-America talent and titles, or the much more competitive recent years in which Kentucky has excelled under three different national championship coaches?
It's up to you, Big Blue Nation. I'm staying out of this debate.
Thanks for reading and Go 'Cats!