Some teams are good. Some teams are great. Some teams are “untouchable.” The 1995-1996 Kentucky Wildcats earned that nickname for their incredible wealth of talent and massive margins of victory. The mid-90s were a great time to be a Kentucky fan. I’ll never forget staying up for games and listening to the postgame shows when my parents thought I was sleeping, or the endless sports talk debates on what each team should be nicknamed. Rick Pitino was at his peak of popularity, his presence so divine that people would sneak into his yard at night and clip blades of grass to frame in their homes (true story, and no, it was not me). Watching that team, which would eventually put nine players in the NBA, blow past their foes was a never-ending reminder of Kentucky’s return to the top, and for several years, watching the videotapes of the team’s run to the National Title was one of my favorite pastimes with my father.
During halftime of Wednesday night’s game against Mississippi State, the 1996 National Championship team will be honored for their achievements and receive championship rings from the school, an oversight by Rick Pitino’s staff that will finally be rectified. Eleven of the fifteen players on the ’96 roster will be in attendance: Derek Anderson, Jeff Sheppard, Tony Delk, Antoine Walker, Walter McCarty, Ron Mercer, Anthony Epps, Wayne Turner, Jared Prickett, Oliver Simmons and Jason Lathrem. Anderson said that the ceremony shows the program’s respect for former alumni under John Calipari’s watch: “It’s showing what the program’s giving back to us. Usually you give so much to a program and they forget about you. When your program remembers you and gives you a blessing like this, it’s just like winning. It’s like actually coming home from winning a championship. It’ll be like coming back to Rupp Arena when we won and seeing 24,000 people celebrating with us again.”
In their honor, this edition of the News and Views will be presented by tiny championship rings.
On Wednesday night, the Cats will face Mississippi State, the worst team in the SEC. You want to feel depressed? Scroll down and read my post from earlier outlining just how bad Mississippi State is statistically. Rick Ray hasn’t just had an uphill battle in his first year, he’s been stranded at the base of Mt. Everest with only a piece of fraying rope. The Bulldogs are on a 12-game losing streak, the second-longest in school history, and only managed to put up 31 points against Vanderbilt, the second fewest in Humphrey Coliseum history. They’ve lost six players to transfer, dismissal, injuries and suspensions, which means only six scholarship players will play against the Cats. You think we’re young? KenPom ranks Mississippi State 329th out of the 347 Division I schools in terms of roster experience. They only made seven field goals against Vanderbilt. Seven. I’m pretty sure I could do that and I’m slow, uncoordinated and 5’3″.
Regardless, Kentucky cannot look past the Bulldogs, something John Calipari stressed with his players this week in practice. Jarrod Polson said that during Monday’s practice, Cal made the players focus on not overlooking Mississippi State, who “have had some teams almost beat, I think Cal said.” Bless Jarrod for putting Mississippi State’s woes as tactfully as you can.
Cal echoed those thoughts in his comments to the media, saying that despite the big win over Missouri, this team may still lack the maturity needed to come out and be competitive every single night: “This team is capable and if we don’t have the maturity to understand one week ago where were we? One week ago we were in coffins, people were trying to nail them shut. Now all the sudden, we’re like ‘OK, wow.’ Well, you can go right back to where you were if you don’t have maturity or toughness. You just don’t have that mental toughness to come every day and to battle. We’ll see. You don’t have to say one word. They’re going to watch how you play, and if you do what you’re supposed to people and make their judgments.”
The most mature player on the team? Julius Mays. The praise for Mays hasn’t slowed since Saturday’s heroics, and rightfully so. For most of this season, we’ve been searching for a lovable player ala Michael Kidd-Gilchrist or Anthony Davis. You know, the type of player who not only makes you proud to be a Kentucky fan, but proud that he wears the name across your chest. After Nerlens Noel went down, Julius Mays became that player for this team. Cal said that when Mays addressed his teammates after the Tennessee loss, he asked them what makes them who they are and drives them to succeed. His answer? “I’m my mother’s only son and I refuse to fail.” Sound familiar? #WWJMD
Ever since Nerlens’ injury, I think we all have gained some perspective. Last week, Cal said he was reminded of how many coaches out there would kill for his job, despite this season’s struggles. He carried that message over to the team, urging them to remember just how lucky they are to play for a program like Kentucky: “You’re sitting in seats that everyone in the country wants to sit in. Don’t look back five years from now and have regrets that you didn’t give everything, sacrifice and do all the work.”
After beating Missouri, all eyes turned to the nation’s bracket experts, most of which have the Cats in the tournament. In his latest Bracketology, Joe Lunardi predicts that the Cats will face Villanova in the #12 seed play-in game, with the winner facing #5 Ohio State. Cal says he doesn’t listen to all of that, reminding the media of the bell curve the Selection Committee uses, and that when it comes down to it, “our F has to be better than his F.” Ultimately, the only thing that matters is how this team plays in its four remaining games and the SEC Tournament. Rick Ray may think he’s been through a lot during his first season in Starkville, but Cal said that what’s happened in Lexington is pretty unique as well:
“We got to prove ourselves every night out. Even more than any team in the country, we have to prove ourselves every time out. And so no one has gone through what we went through, losing an entire team, playing all freshmen, having your point guard out, having your big guy out two weeks, losing the best player, the heart of your team and trying to keep going. No one.”
The Cats are currently a 19-point favorite over the Bulldogs, which, dare I say it, seems a bit low? Before Saturday, I couldn’t see this squad beating anyone by more than ten, but that’s just how bad Mississippi State is.
— John Calipari (@UKCoachCalipari) February 27, 2013
Let’s switch gears to football, shall we? With spring practice twenty days away and the spring game just over the horizon, the sweet scent of a new era of UK football is in the air. Planning on going to the spring game? You’ll need a ticket. The event will be ticketed with reserved seating this year, and although the tickets are free, if you get them through Ticketmaster, you’ll still have to pay a small service fee. Starting Thursday at 9 a.m., season ticket holders may get their tickets (you’ll receive an email with instructions), along with students, who can pick up two per student ID at the Joe Craft Center ticket office. The rest of us can get them through TicketMaster beginning Monday, March 11 at 9:00 a.m., or you can just walk up to the gate on the day of the game and get one for free.
Kentucky’s next football commitment may be right around the corner. 2014 LB Tavise Stoudemire tweeted Monday night that he was about to make his decision, and all signs point towards the Cats. Stoudemire is the cousin and teammate of current UK commmit Denzel Ware, and is considered one of the most underrated players in his class. Come on down, buddy.
Don’t forget that Andrew Wiggins begins his official visit to Kentucky Wednesday morning. Both of Wiggins’ parents will accompany him on his visit, which will last through the Cats’ practice on Thursday. Let’s hope the Bluegrass charm rubs off on all of them. Lexington ladies, I don’t need tell you this, but you know you put NosillaDraw to shame.
Andrew Wiggins and the 1996 Championship team won’t be the only celebrities in the house on Wednesday night. Thanks to Big Blue Cares and Vaught’s Views, Reese Kemp will also be in attendance. It’s been a big week for the 16-year-old UK fan who is battling cystic fibrosis and diabetes. Yesterday, he received a key to the city of Nicholasville, which for his sake I hope opens up Entertainment X-Press as well. Think of all the free go-kart rides…
Congrats to Tubby Smith and Minnesota for knocking off #1 Indiana Tuesday night. After the Golden Gopher’s win over Wisconsin, Tubby Smith danced to Ke$ha in the locker room. Does that mean he upped the ante with some Beyonce Tuesday night? (Please!) And for the record, yes, Tom Crean, we know you told Sheehey to flop on that elbow:
Finally, Tennessee beat Florida on Tuesday night, which drops the Gators to 12-3 in the SEC with UK close behind at 10-4. Florida plays Alabama this weekend and bizarrely, the Cats are back in the race for the SEC title, which could be theirs if they win out. Stranger things have happened…
That’s all for now. We’ll be back before you know it to get you ready for Kentucky vs. Mississippi State…see you soon.