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UK Basketball: How We Got Here

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As we did the podcast this past Saturday, a comment made by Kenny Walker sparked an idea. Walker was talking about the eating habits of Melvin Turpin and it occurred to me that the room full of college students listening to the taping were not even born at the time Turpin played and most had never heard of him. That struck me as unfortunate and led me to this post, a breakdown of my 31 living years of Kentucky basketball. In addition to my desire to write about UK’s history, I also was influenced by my reading of Bill Simmons’ basketball book, particularly his year-by-year writing on the history of the NBA. If it is good enough for the NBA, it is certainly good enough for UK. So what follows is a short, concise description of each year of Kentucky basketball since the one in which I entered the Earth. It is by no means definitive and will be expanded on in my book…but for now, its a good Tuesday read (thanks to Jon Scott’s amazing UK History site for some memory jogging:

1978: On August 28th, I was born but the state was already in celebration mode. The Cats won a national title in St Louis, defeating the Duke Blue Devils 94-78, led by a masterful 41 point performance by Jack Givens. The Goose was joined by Rick Robey, Kyle Macy, James Lee and Mike Phillips, and bulldozed to a 30-2 record and the first title for UK in 20 years. After the Championship, they toured Japan during the summer, winning seven games in the first college basketball tour in Asia.

1979: After the previous title, Joe B Hall returned a young team that struggled with inconsistency all year, finishing 19-12. Kyle Macy was the team’s leader, but after a strong start, the season had very few highlights. The Cats lost in an OT thriller in the SEC Tournament to Tennessee and ended up receiving a trip to the NIT, where they lost to Clemson in the first round. Unfortunately the most memorable moment of the year may have been the fact that UK lost three times to one opponent in a year for the first time in school history (Tennessee).

1980: The Cats bounced back the next season with a 29-6 team that remained in the top 5 most of the season. The Cats were led by Senior Kyle Macy, but also a transcendent performance by a Freshman Sam Bowie, who made first team All SEC. The Cats beat #1 Indiana, #5 LSU, #8 Notre Dame and #9 Purdue during the year. However the season was bookended with losses to Duke, first in the Tip-Off Classic and then in the Mideast Regional Semifinals, right before a potential battle with Louisville (who went on to win the title).

1981: It was another year of transition for UK, but one in which they finished 22-6 and had success all season. Playing a bit easier schedule, the Cats were led by Sam Bowie and Dirk Minnifield and won big games all season. However trophies alluded the Cats, as they came in second in the SEC, lost in the first round of the SEC Tournament and were upset in the NCAA first round by a little team that has given fits to the Cats over the years…Gene Bartow’s UAB.

1982: This was the year in which injuries took out Sam Bowie and left the Cats depleted against the rise of teams with great big men. Derrick Hord was the star of the team and the Cats finished 22-8 and tied for the SEC regular season title. They famously lost a regular season game, while ranked #2, to #1 UNC, the only time those two schools have ever played while being ranked 1 and 2. The Cats lost in the SEC Tournament finals to an Alabama team that held the ball on them (pre-shot clock) for most of the second half. They then were shocked in the NCAA Tournament by Middle Tennessee State, arguably the most random team to ever knock the Cats out of the Big Dance.

1983: This season will always be remembered for one thing…the Dream Game. While the Cats won the SEC and had an All American in “Dinner Bell” Mel Turpin, the only game that mattered that year was the first meeting of UK-Louisville in recent memory. People now cant understand just how big this game was, with the Cats and Cards meeting in an NCAA Regional final in Knoxville, Tennessee for the right to be champions of the state for the first time. The Tournament put the matchup together and it lived up to the hype, going into Overtime before the Dirty Cards pulled it out. The rivalry was born and the game became a yearly statement of national importance.

1984: A renaissance year for Kentucky basketball, as the Cats spent the year at the top of college basketball, ranked either #2 or #3 for most of the season. Kentucky had a dynamite lineup with Bowie, Turpin and Kenny Walker, all of whom helped lead the Cats to the Final Four in Seattle. While there, the Cats laid a bit of an egg, shooting a dismal 25%, while losing to Patrick Ewing and Georgetown 53-40. Some say this was one of the best UK teams not to win the title…and they are right.

1985: It was Joe B Hall’s last season at UK, and for most of the year, the team struggled. It was the year of Kenny Walker and the young guns, as he was joined by a Sophomore Winston Bennett and a Freshman Ed Davender. The Cats finished 18-13, including two rare three-game losing streaks during the season. With the Lexington holding the Final Four for the first time, it looked as if the Cats might miss the tournament all together, but sneaked in as a #12 seed. While there, they made some noise for Joe B, winning their first two games, before bowing out to Chris Mullin’s St Johns team in the Sweet 16.

1986: The new era in UK basketball began with a Coach who knew that the only way to the fans’ hearts was with a perm. Eddie Sutton began his UK tenure with a bang, finishing 32-4, winning the SEC regular season, the SEC Tournament and a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. It was Kenny Walker’s final year and “Sky” had one of the best seasons in UK history, finishing as a consensus First Team All American. The Cats rolled through the NCAA Tournament until they met LSU in the regional finals. The Cats had already beaten LSU three times that season, but the fourth was the charm for #11 seed Dale Brown’s team, John Williams and Ricky Blanton popped the upset and ruined Eddie Sutton’s best team in Lexington.

1987: With Walker gone, it was time for a new star on the UK horizon in the form of “King” Rex Chapman from Owensboro. The Bluegrass native burst on the scene by scoring 26 points against defending champ Louisville in an 85-51 drubbing that stands as the worst beating the Cats ever put on the Dirty Cards. The rest of a season however was a let down…no regular season title, SEC and NCAA first round losses and generally mediocre performances. But man, Rex was amazing.

1988: With Rex Chapman and Ed Davender having another year of seasoning and Winston Bennett returning after an absence, much was expected in 1988, and much was accomplished. The Cats finished 25-5 and spent a decent part of the year at #1 before an upset loss at home to a Chris Morris-led Auburn team. The Cats won the SEC and SEC Tournament, but then were upset in the Regional Semifinals in Birmingham by a Rollie Massimino Villanova team that had no business taking out Rex and the boys. And oh year, this whole year was later vacated by the NCAA after probation…but that doesnt mean it didnt happen!

1989: Worst year ever and I dont really want to talk about it. Lets just put it like this…the team was investigated all season by the NCAA, most of the players were involved in some sort of issue and UK lost at home to BOTH Northwestern State and Bowling Green. 13-19 (only losing season in modern UK history), coach was fired after the year and UK was put on harsh probation. Yeah you can say it sucked.

1990: The Rebirth. A pre-Porcini’s Rick Pitino arrives in Lexington and wins over the state in ways only since matched by Calipari. The team was undersized…the team was essentially four Kentuckians (Hanson, Farmer, Feldhaus and Pelphrey) and two hungry out of staters (Miller and Woods), but they found a way to compete. They took bad losses (150-95 vs Kansas…we still owe them), but also had great wins. They were undefeated at home in the SEC, including a victory over Shaquille O Neal, Chris Jackson and Stanley Roberts’ team that was so improbable that you simply would not believe it. Oh and none of the games were on television…so dont complain when a game is on ESPNU young fella!

1991: The feel-good story became a real-life power. The Cats were still on probation, thus not eligible for the postseason, but Pitino managed to take them to 22-6 and a championship in the SEC. Pitino had lured top 5 national recruit Jamal Mashburn to Lexington even though his first year would not be spent in the postseason. Mashburn combined with the Unforgettables to have a great year and beat Kansas (payback) and Louisville in the process. Pitino came back to Lexington and gave the team a parade for their efforts…fans were ready to party.

1992: Only the greatest season of all time. Seriously, if you dont know about this team, go ask someone. Four Senior starters that are the heart of the UK program. Jamal Mashburn as a player from another planet in terms of talent. They won the SEC Tournament in as big a celebration as I have ever seen by a UK fanbase live and then went to the NCAA, where they played the Greatest Game in the history of this sport. You have seen the Laettner shot and yes it is painful. But the 45 minutes prior are basketball at its best and will make you proud to be a Kentucky fan. Cawood’s last game, UK’s favorite team and a Regional Final that will never be repeated.

1993: For my money, the best UK team that didnt win a championship in my lifetime. 30-4…three losses all close to Vandy, Arkansas and Tennessee on the road. Beat the living tar out of teams, including a 20 point drubbing of the Cards. The team won the SEC regular season title and Tournament rather easily and then found itself in the Final Four after absolutely dismantling the Southeast Regional (Rodney Rogers and Sam Cassell still feel the pain of those beatings). Jamal Mashburn, Travis Ford, Dale Brown and (yes) Jared Prickett led a team that looked unstoppable. Then they ran into the Fab Five in the Final Four…Dale Brown gets hurt, Mashburn fouls out and Jalen Rose and Chris Webber cant be guarded in Overtime. A tough loss to the only team in the country that year that could have beaten that team.

1994: The closest thing to a rebuilding year you could have had in the Pitino era…and they were still really good. Travis Ford struggled without Mashburn to free up looks, but the team still went 27-7, winning the SEC and SEC Tournament yet again. It was a year in which the two best players (Tony Delk and Rodrick Rhodes) both were young and the injury to Rodney Dent halfway through the season left them vulnerable to a team with solid big men. They met that team in the 2nd round of the NCAA, when they met the fighting Jim Mcillvane’s of Marquette. The Cats were never really in it and lost in St Petersburg, beginning a run of misery against Marquette in the NCAA.

1995: Sometimes you remember teams by moments and images. This team has two…the first is Rod Rhodes after his up and down season, missing the two free throws that could have given UK an SEC Tournament win against Arkansas in regulation (they won in overtime). He left at the end of the year. And the second was the NCAA Regional final when Rasheed Wallace and Andre Riddick choked each other in a moment that will last a lifetime. This team was led by Tony Delk who was otherworldly at times, and made all the big shots all year. An Elite Eight loss set up….

1996: The best team in UK history. Its easy to forget how good this team was if you didnt watch them on a daily basis. 34-2…the only losses to UMass and Mississippi State, both of which made the Final Four. The Cats dismantled teams in every way imaginable. Eight players off this team played at least one year in the NBA. One other player is one of the best PGs in UK history (Wayne Turner), another is a Final Four MVP (Jeff Sheppard) and another may have been the most important role player in UK history (Anthony Epps). This was Walter McCarty before he was a Card, Tony Delk before he was underrated and Antoine Walker before he was broke. What a team.

1997: The team that will always be remembered for a torn ACL. When Derek Anderson went down halfway through the season, it looked as if the hopes for a repeat title were gone with him. But Ron Mercer took over, becoming the last Consensus First Team All American at Kentucky and having one of the best half-seasons in modern history. UK got hot at the right time, rolled through the tournament (beating Rick Majerus and Utah in the Elite Eight), and were knocked off in OT by Miles Simon and Mike Bibby in the Finals. Anthony Epps hit a big three to send the game to OT, but the shots got cold in the extra session. For my money, a team that vastly overachieved after Derek Anderson’s injury and it may be Pitino’s best coaching job outside of his first season.

1998: The Comeback Cats become my second favorite team of all-time. Tubby Smith replaced Rick Pitino and went on to win a national championship in his first go-around. There were struggles early, incluidng a loss to Louisville that had the natives restless. But then a team led by Scott Padgett, Jeff Sheppard, Wayne Turner, Allen Edwards and others, found their way, with big production from Nazr Mohammed in the tournament. They beat Duke in a second classic in the Elite Eight, forever making the image of Jamal Magloire putting Wojo in the rack, a favorite for UK fans. The Cats beat Stanford and Utah in the Final Four (a pretty easy draw) and won their second title in three years.

1999: This was a pretty heady time for UK basketball. Three straight title games, six of the past seven years in the Elite Eight. One could be forgiven if UK fans got a little presumptious in their expectations. This season saw UK beat Indiana (Tubby owned Bobby Knight), lose to Louisville (Denny owned Tubby early), lose the SEC Title (to Chris Porter and Auburn of all teams), win the SEC Tournament and then fall to Michigan State in the Elite Eight. It was the Senior year for Padgett, Turner and Heshimu Evans. In Turner’s case, he left UK as the winningest player in the history of college basketball. Read that sentence again. It is amazing.

2000: I like to call the next three years the “blah” years. Not because the teams were bad…they werent. But they were a letdown from the previous nine years and should have been a bit better than they were. This was the first of the “ten loss” Tubby teams and the Cats finished 23-10, but still managed to share the SEC title. They were upset in the first round of the SEC Tournament in Atlanta (still the best tournament for random stories of the Matt Jones era), and were then upset again in the NCAA by Syracuse, after barely surviving St Bonaventure in the first round. This was the team led by Jamal Magloire, who in addition to being the most random NBA All Star of all time, also could be the most random First Team All-SEC. I love Jamal Magloire and will defend him to anyone…so watch it.

2001: This is an underrated UK team, mainly because of what happened the next season. But this was the “very good Tayshaun/great Keith Bogans” year, in which the two guys showed the potential they both had as UK legends. Kentucky lost a number of games early (including the famous “Wear silver uniforms game” against Michigan State), but hit their stride in the SEC. They won the SEC title, won the SEC Tournament easily and headed into the NCAA, in which the Tournament tried its best to recreate Kentucky-Duke Part 3…this time in Philadelphia again. The Cats didnt live up to their end of the bargain however, losing to Scalabrine and Sam Clancy’s USC team. The best player you dont remember from this team is Jason Parker, who set the Freshman rebound record this season and had a great year no one remembers.

2002: Team Turmoil. Enough said. Probably the most disappointing year in modern UK history. Tons of talent…Bogans and Prince both back from testing the draft and while Tayshaun played well, Bogans did not and this year still haunts his UK legacy. Jason Parker got kicked off the team, Rashaad Carruth stayed in trouble, as did Jules Camara, Desmond Allison and most of the team. From a talent standpoint, it was a VERY good team, as seen by the fact that they took eventual national champion Maryland down to the end in the NCAA 2nd round. But for every good (Tayshaun’s 41 vs Tulsa in first round and game winners vs Florida), there was bad (a loss to Patrick Sparks and Western Kentucky in Rupp). A disappointing year that still makes fans shake their heads.

2003: For my money, the most fun team to watch when clicking of any team all time. Led by Keith Bogans and slew of Juniors (Gerald Fitch, Eric Daniels, Cliff Hawkins and Marquis Estill), the 2003 team was Tubby Smith basketball at its best. Defense led to offense and the passing was almost magical. No team in recent Kentucky history has found the open man better than this bunch and their fun was infectious. People have to remember that this is the ONLY SEC team in HISTORY to go undefeated in the SEC and win the SEC Tournament…only one. Take that in for a second. They beat teams senseless, including a win in Rupp over #1 Florida that stands as one of my 5 favorite games. They lost to (guess who) Marquette and Dwayne Wade in the Elite Eight, when Keith Bogans went down with an ankle injury and Wade introduced himself to the world. Tough ending for a team that should go down as one of the all time UK greats.

2004: For the second straight year, this team went into the tournament as the #1 overall seed, an amazing accomplishment, especially for this bunch. The Cats lost Bogans and Estill, but the Juniors added Chuck Hayes and Antwain Barbour to the rotation, and still played well. They won the SEC, SEC Tournament and only lost 4 regular season games (to ranked Louisville, ranked Vandy and for some reason, twice to Georgia), The tournament then had their terrible matchup with UAB, when some guy named Squeaky hurt UK and their running style presented terrible matchup problems for the Cats. This game still gets me because UK came all the way back from an 18 point deficit to lead and had a wide open Gerald Fitch shot to win. But it missed, knocking the Cats out and leaving Fitch a notch below where he should be in the UK legends circle.

2005: Until this season, Kentucky’s last good chance at a Final Four. Tubby Smith brought in a #1 ranked recruiting class and combined it with Chuck Hayes, Patrick Sparks and Kelenna Azubuike for a team that was very good all year. They won the SEC, but couldnt beat Florida for the SEC title (the first time the Gators had beaten UK in 8 games…and they won the next 7). After Shagari and Woo hurt Andrew Bogut, the Cats faced Michigan State in the Elite Eight in a classic game. Patrick Sparks did his thing (as he did against Louisville earlier in the year) and hit a shot at the buzzer to send the game into Overtime. But UK could get no rebound when it counted and came up short…a loss that Tubby Smith once told me was the hardest he ever had to take.

2006: A change in eras for Kentucky as the “Tubby guys” of Hayes, Kelenna, etc gave way to a new era of players in the form of Crawford, Rondo, Morris and Bradley. All season the team struggled to connect and produced one of the more disappointing years in recent UK history. Even though the team oozed talent, it never connected and as the year went on, the team got fat (look at Sparks, Stockton and Heissenbuttel before and after the season) and slow. They did not win the SEC or SEC Tournament (the first team in 15 years to not do either) and lost to UCONN in the NCAA Tournament, in what may have been the Cats’ best game of the season. Rondo’s UK career ended, having never really reached the heights he could of at the college game.

2007: The last year of the Tubby regime was somewhat painful. The same cast of characters returned, absent Rajon Rondo and very little changed. When he wanted to, Randolph Morris could be dominating and during the season, he put forth some amazing. But generally he was lackadaisical, as was the team. All season the Cats followed a pattern…they beat everyone they were supposed to and lost to anyone good. When it came time for the tournament, they surprised people by beating Villanova in the first round (as they were supposed to) but then were ran over by #1 seed Kansas in the second round. At the end of the season, Tubby departed for Minnesota and a new era of excitment began…or so we thought.

2008: Aww the Clyde era…short, but not short enough. The Gillispie era had an auspicious, but telling, beginning, as the Cats lost to Gardner Webb in his second game…at home…by 16…and it wasnt that close. The early part of the year was painful…loss to San Diego…BLOWN OUT by Indiana, Louisville and North Carolina…and consistent disappointment every time the team took the court. But then Ramel Bradley, Patrick Patterson and Joe Crawford gutted out a win versus an undefeated Vandy team at home (on the road they lost by 41) and things got better. The team lost in the SEC (in the infamous tornado game to Georgia) and then made the NCAA, before being beaten in the first round by (guess who) Marquette. It was a poor season, but we didnt think it could get worse until….

2009: The second worst season of my lifetime. Gillispie presided over the collapse of a program, slowly but surely. Even though he had two potential All Americans in Jodie Meeks and Patrick Patterson, Gillispie found ways to lose…to everyone. VMI at home, LSU at home and the worst, a Georgia team with a lame duck coach and no talent, playing Kentucky…at home…on Senior Day…with the Cats needing a win to potentially make the NCAA Tournament. The season was saved by two moments, Jodie Meeks’ breaking of the scoring record when he went for 54 against Tennessee and an NIT game against UNLV at Memorial Coliseum, which was one of the cooler games in recent memory. The season ended with an NIT loss to Notre Dame and Gillispie was gone thereafter.

And now here we are…those are a lot of words. I hope you enjoyed them…and maybe one day we will do them in more detail. But not tonight…my fingers are tired from the typing.

Article written by Matt Jones