Alex Woff of Sports Illustrated recently put a different spin on the classic “Which team is best?” musing, instead pondering a slightly different metric. Rather than wonder which team would win a hypothetical matchup, he questioned which teams have changed the college basketball landscape the most with their impact. And, it’s no surprise that when the question, “Which teams have had the most far-reaching and long-lasting influence on college basketball?” is asked, folks with UK ties would make the list.
At #9 is Coach Cal’s Memphis team from 2008, which, as you might know, failed to nab a national title after letting a late nine point lead slip away to Bill Self’s Jayhawks. But, this list was less about winning games, and more about changing mindsets. And Coach Cal started changing minds at Memphis with this squad. According to Woff:
“As [DDM creator Vance] Walberg put it, to coach DDM is to teach players ‘how to play basketball, instead of how to run plays.'”
Calipari has gained a reputation for a lot of things over his career; some of it’s fair, some not so much. The reputation of letting guys play freely in the dribble drive started at Memphis with Derrick Rose and Co. in 2008. Cal had done it before then, but hadn’t seen the level of success that this team achieved. 2008 showed that not only was the dribble drive motion offense liberating, it was good. With the right pieces, it was very good. Cal, as you might know, would eventually go on to take his DDM offense to a championship. To some degree, you can thank the 2008 Tigers for that.
Immediately after the #9 Memphis Tigers come the #10 Kentucky Wildcats of 1996. You had to know Kentucky would be on this list, and you probably suspected that one of the most dominant teams of the last 50 years would be the team to make it. Woff says that this team could have made the list if only for “its having sent nine players … to the NBA.” And probably also, you know, because of the denim.
But in addition to a dazzling array of talent and style, this team, and Coach Pitino, developed a deadly pairing: pressure defense and great outside shooting. “Pitino hinted at what could be done if you braided the three-point shot to pressure defense; here, with superior talent taking the shots and hunkering down for each stop, his Wildcats showed it.” While today’s Kentucky teams might not emphasize 3-point shooting as much (even though guys like Brandon Knight and Doron Lamb could handle their own in that area), it’s clear that the Bluegrass is still filled with defensive-minded teams: both in Lexington and Louisville. In this state, there’s no doubt that the ’96 Wildcats were the most influential team on this list.
Overall, any old-school college basketball fan will appreciate the list as it was put together. And those who weren’t around in the 60s and 70s, like me, will be able to learn a few things about how college hoops came to be the way it is. As Woff said about these teams:
“They’re cited for their role in popularizing or paving the way for a lasting trend, or impacting basketball culture, or clarifying some deep hoop truth, or otherwise firing the pebblegrain imagination.”