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Comparing the Two Championship Teams

Lots of questions persist about which team is better…the 1996 Kentucky team or the 2012 version.’s Jonathan Schuette broke it down, and also noticed the striking similarity in the Sports Illustrated cover photos after both titles. For more similar posts (and the kids over there have been killing it in this past week), check out

We as fans always have to know who the best is; it’s the very premise of competition. It always has to be known who the best players, coaches, and teams are. That’s why we give out awards to individuals and teams; to determine who is the very best. But, how do you determine who the best player, coach, or team is when you’re comparing them to different generations of competitors? Now that the most recent squad of ‘Cats has taken home the school’s 8th National Title the ever eternal question will be raised, which of our Wildcat Champions are the best of all time? Recently I’ve been seeing on various internet forums that some people have been comparing this year’s Wildcats to Rick Pitino’s 1996 Kentucky squad. Both teams are certainly excellent basketball teams that dominated college basketball in their respective years, so I thought it would be interesting to examine which team was better using advanced tempo-free statistics. To make the comparison of Kentucky’s most recent champions I used John Scott’s amazing Kentucky Basketball statistics site, To draw the conclusion of which team was the best I calculated each teams’ Offensive Rating, Defensive Rating, and Strength of Schedule* to determine who’s Efficiency Margin is the largest. Strength of Schedule is important because it tells you how impressive the individual teams’ efficiency margin is (0 in the strength of schedule column is average, the higher the number the tougher the schedule). The below table holds the data gathered.


(I included the 1998 national champions as a control in the experiment to give a reference at just how effective the 1996 and 2012 teams are. The pre-1996 champions are not included because there isn’t enough data to form advanced statistics for those years).


As you can see the 1998 edition of the Wildcats is considered the “worst” of the recent championship teams (if there is such a thing as being the worst champion). They have the lowest efficiency margin of all of the recent champions, outscoring their opponents by a total of 0.182 points per possession (that’s still excellent). The 1998 team accomplished this margin against a very difficult schedule, with a rating of 9.85 (ranking 9th nationally in 1998). Even so, their efficiency margin is still last in the group by a considerable margin so they are considered the “worst” of the past three champions statistically.


Now we get to the real debate; who’s the better team 1996 Kentucky or 2012 Kentucky? Both teams only lost two games and rolled to the National Title, but just who was better? According to the data the 1996 Wildcats would come out on victorious in this fictitious matchup. Even though this year’s ‘Cats outscored their opponents by colossal 0.253 points per possession, the 1996 Wildcats outscored their opponents by an even more astounding 0.276 points per possession. Those margins are nearly equal and put both teams safely into “All-Timer” category but the 1996 version of the Wildcats is that much more impressive because they did it against a more difficult schedule with a rating of 10.06 (ranking 13th nationally in 1996). Compare that rating to this year’s Kentucky team who “only” played a schedule with a rating of 7.93 (ranking 18th nationally). Both teams were certainly some of the best teams that the college basketball world has ever seen, but the 1996 Untouchables get the nod as the best Wildcats because they did it better against better competition.


When it comes to comparing teams we all have our ways that we find to be the most effective; the most professionals, the most wins, the fewest losses, or even whose coach is better. But, to really examine who is objectively the best you have to know how well a team played against their respective competition. Even though the 1996 and 2012 Wildcats are All-Time teams, the 1996 squad was just a force that was even more special. (One could argue that this year’s Wildcats were even more impressive given the fact that they dominated the game with a squad filled by inexperienced freshman, but that’s another argument for another day). But, given the fact that the’96 squad had a larger efficiency margin and played the toughest schedule, I give them the nod as best Wildcats of all time.


Follow me on Twitter @SchuetteKSR


*Strength of Schedule is a formula developed by the fine folks at



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49 Comments for Comparing the Two Championship Teams

  1. mocha
    8:36 pm April 5, 2012 Permalink

    love the davis cover being so similar to walker.

  2. ktmiln2
    8:38 pm April 5, 2012 Permalink

    But I’d say with the parity and overall better NCAA that it’s a wash.

  3. fish on
    8:57 pm April 5, 2012 Permalink

    aint no doubt the ’96 team. if u dont believe it then ur too young to know better… this team was 6 deep… that team was like 13 deep

  4. Cking98
    9:00 pm April 5, 2012 Permalink

    No way, this team should be the greatest hands down. The majority of these kids were freshmen and sophomores. Delk and mccarty company lost to Marquette in the second round when they were that young. Davis would have owned walker and McCarty. Mercer and Anderson would have got smoked by MKG. The only advantage the 96 team would have had was Delk. I would take teague over epps anyday of the week. 12> 96 all day long!!!

  5. tweener
    9:03 pm April 5, 2012 Permalink

    they both won a title … advantage: push

  6. MacGruber
    9:09 pm April 5, 2012 Permalink

    Why do we do this? They are both great champions.

  7. fish
    9:11 pm April 5, 2012 Permalink

    teague vs. epps and wayne turner
    lamb vs. delk (’96 mvp), sheppard (98 mvp), mills (hit a shit load of 3’s)
    mkg, miller vs. derek anderson, ron mercer, allen edwards
    t.jones vs. antoine walker (who is way better than jones… scored 50 plus nba game… so did delk)
    davis vs mcarty,pope, nazr mohammed
    96 all the way in a blowout

  8. TampaCat
    9:12 pm April 5, 2012 Permalink

    Anyone that doesn’t believe the 96 team is better should watch the hi-lights to the game at LSU again. That team with destroyed teams with 25 point leads in the first half. Many would say that the second five players were the number 2 team in the Country that year. They proved it with the 97 and 98 team performances.

  9. fish
    9:16 pm April 5, 2012 Permalink

    ’96 3 string won the 1998 title

  10. LAcat
    9:16 pm April 5, 2012 Permalink

    There are rumblings out here in LA that a sports writer is about to do a story on Eric Bledsoe. The story is about how Bledsoe cannot read or write. Hope this does not impact UK.

  11. BigBlue
    9:18 pm April 5, 2012 Permalink

    I like the ’12 team more…but ’96 would have won if they were to have played…

  12. fish
    9:22 pm April 5, 2012 Permalink

    4- u dont know what ur talking about, ur too young to remembr the ’96 team…. probly the best team ever

  13. Coloradocat
    9:23 pm April 5, 2012 Permalink

    Davis > McCarty
    Jones Epps

    12 bench <<< 96 bench

    Both had 2 losses. Both won the title convincingly. Both beat every team on their schedule. Pitino was 1-1 versus Cal with the 96 team. Cal was 2-0 versus Pitino with the 12 team.

    Using efficiencies and margins of victory is deceiving because Cal tended to put the reigns on this team once we got a big lead, whereas Pitino kept his foot on the gas in 96.

    It's a tough call, but I'd give the edge to 96 just based on the eye test and the talent of their bench.

  14. 00BBN00
    9:24 pm April 5, 2012 Permalink

    If you think ’12 team is better than ’96 then run the simulations at Most of the simulations I’ve done have ended up in blow out wins by the ’96 team. Although the ’12 team did win…ONCE. 96 team had too much fire power on it.

  15. Coloradocat
    9:24 pm April 5, 2012 Permalink

    Not sure what happened there.

  16. fish
    9:26 pm April 5, 2012 Permalink

    ’96 team won 2 titlles

  17. 00BBN00
    9:28 pm April 5, 2012 Permalink

    I mean how many games did that 96 team score 100+ points?!? They straight up ran teams out of the gym!

  18. bk in scottsville
    9:29 pm April 5, 2012 Permalink

    Having seen both teams first hand. there is no question that the 96 team would rule. Ith all that talent, they let their opponent know real quick that there was no possible way they were going to win the game. The 2011/2012 team had a habit of getting up by 10, then relax, get up by 10 then relax (It should have been an infomercial). The 96 team simply would not let that happen. They understood the phrase “Put your foot on their throat”.

  19. fish
    9:29 pm April 5, 2012 Permalink

    antoine walker was a bad mfr

  20. kfund
    9:29 pm April 5, 2012 Permalink

    If the 12 team stayed together into 14 then they might stand toe to toe, or even be better than 96, but 96 vrs 12, 96 wins. Saying so doesn’t disrespect the 12’s, they are champions who have nothing left to prove.

  21. ukfan28
    9:29 pm April 5, 2012 Permalink

    96 team without a doubt! The 96 bench could play with the 12 team.

  22. ukfan28
    9:31 pm April 5, 2012 Permalink

    Love the 12 team though!

  23. WhatIf
    9:31 pm April 5, 2012 Permalink

    Why compare? What does it accomplish? Just enjoy that we won. Have been following the Cats for apx 46 years. The Runts were the first team I remember well. Winning titles is pretty damn elusive. Takes talent, coaching, and some luck. Would like to think this will be a regular thing, but that’s what we thought after ’96-’98. Just revel in the present.

  24. fish
    9:33 pm April 5, 2012 Permalink

    any1 sayin this team could play w 1996 team obviously didnt watch the 1996 team

  25. UKCAT1
    9:40 pm April 5, 2012 Permalink

    Figures lie and liars figure. 1996 won #6 and 2012 won #8…. Those are all the numbers I need!

  26. fish
    9:41 pm April 5, 2012 Permalink

    4-u say a. davis and mkg would run derek anderson, ron mercer, antoine walker n walter mcarty “out of the building”?… bwaahaaahaa

  27. fish
    9:42 pm April 5, 2012 Permalink

    4- i missquoted you but still bwahaahaa

  28. ujelly?
    9:44 pm April 5, 2012 Permalink

    Liked all three teams listed obviously. Gotta go with 1996 since they went for the jugular and ended most of their games before halftime.

  29. GapToothDanny
    9:44 pm April 5, 2012 Permalink

    doubters: the question was not “who were the best players when they were freshman or sophs” The 96 team dominated the SEC during a year that saw 2 teams from the conference go to the Final Four. Four SEC teams made the Sweet 16. The 96 team scored over 90 points in a game ELEVEN TIMES, scored 100 or more NINE TIMES, and scored 120 or more THREE TIMES. Only time will tell if the 2012 squad will eventually send NINE PLAYERS to the NBA ( my money is on “no”).

  30. PennCat
    9:46 pm April 5, 2012 Permalink

    1996 team: Jeff Sheppard, Wayne Turner, Nazr Muhammad, Ron Mercer————–came off the bench!!! These guys all played in the NBA for various periods. Ron Mercer was a better all-around player than MKG–a much better shooter. Starters: Epps (glue guy), Pope (NBA player, solid inside), Derek Anderson (NBA player), Antoine Walker (perennial All-Star), Walter McCarty (NBA player). This is a good debate and a tough call. Pitino’s 1996 team were better 3 point shooters and more balanced offensively. But the 2012 team is loaded with incredible athletes and probably gets the edge defensively. Toss up.

  31. Echo 1
    9:47 pm April 5, 2012 Permalink

    96 team. They were scary good and deep. The first five off the bench could have been a #1 seed.

    9:48 pm April 5, 2012 Permalink

    98 was fun because it was unexpected. I remember a dude at work saying “Your team screwed up my brackets”.

    I don’t really remember much about 96 except for Pitino leaving. That kind of put a damper on the fun. What a turd!

  33. reedwizard
    10:00 pm April 5, 2012 Permalink

    ’96 in a landslide. Here’s how the game would unfold: two minutes in, the score is close but the ’12 team has turned the ball over 3 times already. They hound Teague and he goes out at the 8 minute timeout. Lamb gets stripped several times and throws it away several more. 10 point lead when Teague returns. ’96 goes on an 8 point run by PASSING the damn ball around Davis. He can’t block both Antoine and Walter. Game over

    Whoever the idiot is that said MKG would run Mercer and Anderson out of the the gym never saw them play. I would take both over MKG (although MKG is better than Anderson) only so I could see Anderson hanging sideways off the rim with his nads on some dude’s head!! God I miss the ’96 team (and Pitino teams at their best)

  34. ebell55
    10:11 pm April 5, 2012 Permalink

    33 exactly!!! The 12 team is great but 96’s full court pressure would have at Teague and Lamb alive. 96 wins by at least 10 and that is in no way disrespect to 2012!

  35. BlueFan
    10:14 pm April 5, 2012 Permalink

    I’ve seen both teams play. Love them both. But I gotta give the nod to ’96. They ran other teams out of the gym. And with their depth, the onslaught didn’t stop all game… a constant steam of all-stars in and out of the game. It was pure pleasure to watch.

    9 above sums it up perfectly: “’96 3 string won the 1998 title”

  36. STEVE!
    10:17 pm April 5, 2012 Permalink

    30 – You forgot the best player on the 96 team – Tony Delk. He started, not McCarty, but adding McCarty to your second five makes them even stronger. Allen Edwards also came off the bench, not Mohammed. We had a specific sub for each position. Nazr was only a Freshman and didn’t begin to come into his own until late in the 97 season. 96 also had three decent players in Mohammed, Mills, and Oliver Simmons who played on a JV Team we had that season.

  37. BigBlueSkyDog
    10:31 pm April 5, 2012 Permalink

    I’d put the 2012 team slightly ahead of the ’78 team and slightly behind the ’96 team. I will say emphatically that the 2012 team had the best starters and six man than any Kentucky team I’ve ever seen. The only reason I give the ’96 team the edge is because of the great depth they had. It would have been a game for the ages if the 1996 team played the 2012 team.

  38. mike
    10:33 pm April 5, 2012 Permalink

    96 team easy, it wasnt 20 min. of heck, it was 40 min.

  39. UHUH
    11:14 pm April 5, 2012 Permalink

    What if this years starters were Wall, Knight, MKG, Davis, and Cousins! Anyway this years team probably will have the best player between the groups in Davis but 96>12. Their second string could’ve won the title that year.

  40. UHUH
    11:17 pm April 5, 2012 Permalink

    Mercer, Anderson, Turner, Shep, and Mohammed. Yeah that’s the freaking bench players!

  41. [email protected]
    12:05 am April 6, 2012 Permalink

    #4 I couldn’t disagree with you more. Anderson and Mercer would get “smoked” by MKG is a stretch. MKG is a man for sure so I won’t take that from him but Mercer and Anderson weren’t too shabby and I don’t need to remind you that MKG, though he was our best defender, got torched a couple of times this year by players that weren’t even on Mercer and Andersons level. I think you are going with this years squad because they are more recent and you’ve forgotten just how dominating 96 was. 96 was way deeper and they did something this years Cats struggled against…press. And they did it a hell of a lot more effectively than Louisville did. Teague and co. would be giving up a lot of points off turnovers. AD would be an equalizer of sorts but when talent is even then the x factor is depth. Not sure anyone on this years team could hold delk. He would rain 3’s. Im not taking anything away from ’12. They were definitely one of the best basketball teams Ive ever seen but 96 was probably the best team ever assembled. Now had this team kept some players like teams did back in 96 and they had knight or liggins then that would be one hell of a debate. But if this years team played 96 in their prime today…right now… I would put my money on 96. You are entitled to your opinion and all but to say “Smoked” like no contest is a huge stretch.

  42. [email protected]
    12:08 am April 6, 2012 Permalink

    #4, – go here and remind yourself… or educate yourself (depending on how old you are) on just how good the greatest college team ever assembled truly was. They got their game with UMASS and Cuse if i remember correctly. And KSR fans you can also watch games from 98. Walls year and last years great OSU and UNC games. Skip the Uconn and the 92 game that never happened. I watch these games all the time. Love it

  43. [email protected]
    12:09 am April 6, 2012 Permalink

    # 39 the second string team did win the title… in 98 lol

  44. In Blue Orleans
    12:35 am April 6, 2012 Permalink


    Using efficiencies and margins of victory is deceiving because Cal tended to put the reigns on this team once we got a big lead, whereas Pitino kept his foot on the gas in 96.

    I loved the 96 team but we forget that they weren’t supermen. They lost also. Close game but I go with ’12.

  45. The Champs is Here
    1:03 am April 6, 2012 Permalink

    Depth in basketball is really meaningless in this day and age with both teams getting 5 timeouts and tv timeouts every 4 minutes. Obviously we proved that the last two years. With that said, I don’t think the depth conversation has much to do with this at all because the ’96 bench would not hang with the 2012 starters (which is who would be on the floor when Pitino made his subs).

    I think no doubt the 2012 team has the better overall talent. Davis is perhaps the best talent in UK history. We all know what a beast MKG is and how great Jones can be. Teague would be overmatched but he really came on at the end of the season and when he was on the bench this was a much different team. Most people only want to point out the depth as the deciding factor of the ’96 team but when the second five came in and played against 12’s starters, I think they would have done poorly.

    I think the game would have been ridiculously close, but I would stick with Cal’s philosophy that I’ll take talent over experience (or depth) any day.

  46. NKY fan
    3:19 am April 6, 2012 Permalink

    Witness the ’96 team ( awesome to say the least ) The ’12 and ’96 teams were crazy how there seasons was a mirror image. #1 and #2 teams in UK history.

    Match-up :

    ’96– OFF– 91 pts per a gm DEF — allowed 69 pts per a game
    advantage– Full court press and depth which allowed the ” 40 mins of hell ” Tougher SEC schedule… SEC #1 or #2 conference throughout the 90’s

    ’12 — OFF– 77 pts per a gm DEF — allowed 60 pts a game
    advantage — 344 blocks to 176 blocks of the ’96 team
    Tougher Non-conference schedule.. UNC @ full strength , KU twice, UL twice, IU twice.. the rivalry road factor to the championship

    — 7 game series— ’96 wins 4 to 2

  47. NKY fan
    3:27 am April 6, 2012 Permalink

    #46— I forgot… about the tougher SEC part. In 1996 Georgia blew the game against the CUSE in the sweet 16.. Which a Final Four in 1996 almost looked like UK, UMASS, Georgia, Miss St.

  48. playersfan
    6:29 am April 6, 2012 Permalink

    They can’t be compared by statistics. Calipari slows it down early, so no one gets embarassed. Pitino was full out all the time.

  49. Bluegrassking
    2:10 pm April 7, 2012 Permalink

    I’d take the 96 team in a seven game series because there was no let up and a real killer instinct. If the 12 team had their usual in game let down periods, they find the game over. I also think depth of that quality has an impact even with all the time outs, the constant pressure of fresh legs that can really challange and present different kinds of effective matchups makes a difference that is hard to really get a handle on because it almost never happens, maybe at a position or two but never four or five and three deep at some. It also gives you a lot more fouls to give and still have great talent on the floor in attack mode.

    The 96 team had a greater margin of error and that tends to assert its self over a larger sample.

    In a single game, anything could happen especially when the 12 team would typically beat any of the other Final Four teams from 96, though Mass could be a challange on a given day and Syracuse could win on an off shooting night. Miss. St would find a huge mirror matchup problem, I think. The guys from the 12 team seem like a perfect fit to take away what they did to score, the games might be grinders but I think the 12 team beats them like 90 times out of 100.