Now that the Cats have completed a 16-0 SEC season and won their 30th game, it’s not too early to think a little about this team’s place from a historical context. In other words, how does the 2011-2012 Kentucky team stack up against the greatest teams of all time?
Ok, fine, I take that back. It's actually way too early to have this conversation. They still have a long road to pave if they want to be champions, and we cannot count on anything yet as a certainty. In fact, I could still see this team losing if they went on a terrible cold streak. As good as they are, you can still see the raw youth rear its head from time to time. Like early in today’s game, when Florida came back and took the lead 14-13, Kentucky was playing like freshmen, jacking up bad shots on three straight possessions. Thankfully, after the TV timeout, Darius Miller, the grizzled senior, entered the game and calmly hit a jumper to set things right again. The EXACT same thing happened right before the first TV timeout in the second half. So to me it’s clear that winning a title will take some coaching by Cal to settle these kids down and get them to recognize where to put the ball in times of trouble.
With that said, when you watch this team, you get a sense that it is historically special. The overall athleticism is an absolute comedy of riches. Terrence Jones, Darius Miller and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist are 6-8 beasts who glide in the lane, jump over you and dunk on you, or hit pull-up jumpers in your eye. All of them have become solid defenders, with MKG becoming lockdown, playing the role of DeAndre Liggins in last season’s Final Four run. Doron Lamb is likely one of the five best spot shooters in UK history (shooting an incredible 48% from behind the arc for his career). Marquis Teague, while he doesn't get the ink that many expected before the season, has about as quick a first step as anyone in the country, and lately has developed an assist-to-turnover ratio to match his talent. Kyle Wiltjer, who is starting to emerge down the stretch as a genuine weapon, is instant offense off the bench, shooting 40% from three at 6-9—meaning it is nearly impossible to stop him from getting off his shot, as opposing teams have to honor the rest of UK’s freakish size and length. And, of course, Anthony Davis is a once in a generation specimen who blocks just about everything around the goal, and completely changes the opponent's entire offensive philosophy. And that doesn’t even account for the damage he is doing on the offensive end, to the tune of 15 points per game and an array of intimidating dunks and outside jumpers.
But it's more than the collection of individuals that makes this year’s squad so remarkable. These kids play together so well, so unselfishly. All these future NBA draft picks swallowing their egos and playing rough, rugged defense—it’s a rarity in today's game. In fact, the tenacity of their halfcourt defense would be a rarity in any era of college hoops. And they respond so well to the moment. They play well under duress and rarely panic. I think one of the things that makes them so difficult to beat is the fact that they almost always get good shots out of their offense. It is tough to overstate the importance of that. College basketball is a game of momentum and emotion. When a team goes on a run, the crowd gets into it and the pressure builds. Being able to answer the bell with a bucket can make all the difference between champion and “also ran.”
So back to the original question. How would this team stack up against some of the legendary teams of yester-year? Unfortunately, we will never know, but I’ve chosen a sampling of great teams from the past and offered some quick thoughts on what kind of matchups we could expect to see with this year’s Kentucky Wildcats.
1976 Indiana Hoosiers – This is a no contest to me. Obviously, the game was a bit different in those days, so it’s tough to make a completely fair assessment. But even the legendary 75-76 Hoosiers, which remains college basketball’s last team to go undefeated, needed double OT to beat that year's Kentucky. And I think it’s fair to say that the Kentucky of Goose Givens’ sophomore year, which went 20-10 and made the NIT, was nowhere near the caliber of this year’s edition. It’s all about matchups. The great teams of Bob Knight relied on physical halfcourt defense and a methodical, motion offense where skilled post players like Scott May could get mid-range scoring opportunities. This team was not a great outside shooting team and could not match the athleticism of a modern Kentucky roster. Overall, I could see a halfcourt slugfest where the superior shooting of Cal’s Wildcats and the overwhelming speed/quickness advantage would make the difference.
1992 Duke Blue Devils – Perhaps surprisingly to some of the more ardent Wildcat homers, I think this Duke team would give UK a lot of trouble, maybe even be too much to handle. Once again, Kentucky would own the athletic advantage. But Duke could make up for it with smart, mistake free basketball and good overall defense and offensive execution (I don't have to remind anyone of "the shot" in the regional finals). Anthony Davis would have his way with Laettner physically, but you can’t underestimate how mean and feisty that Duke squad was. If anything, I could see that team getting under the skin of these Wildcats and that—frustrated—is a position we haven’t seen them in very much. Add an excellent Grant Hill vs Michael Kidd-Gilcrhist matchup and this would have the makings of a classic.
1968 UCLA Bruins– I am too young to have witnessed the UCLA dynasties of Lew Alcindor. But what I have read tells me that much of their dominance can be attributed to the fact that they simply got all the best players during an era when there were no recruiting standards. Sure, it helped to have the Wizard on the sidelines, but you cant stack a decade’s worth of championships unless you are simply pulling in the nation’s top class year after year after year after year. Incredibly, that is what John Calipari seems to be doing now in an epoch where shortcuts are that much more difficult. Kareem vs Anthony Davis would be epic. But I still take the Cats over any of the UCLA teams in the 60s. Call me biased in favor of modern nutrition, sports science and accumulated knowledge.
1982 North Carolina– How would Kentucky fair against a team with three bona fide future NBA stars (Michael Jordan, James Worthy and Sam Perkins) and three other McDonald’s All-Americans? Tough to say. You can never really bet against an MJ-led team. I think Kentucky has enough offensive weapons though that this game would be simply incredible to watch from start to finish.
1996 Kentucky– It is only fair if we are talking about past greats to compare this year’s roster to the last truly great Kentucky team. This is a comparison that many of us have been making in our heads all season. The best of Calipari vs. the best of Pitino. A collegiate matchup with a stunning amount of future NBA talent. Though history is not yet written for this year’s team, one can easily imagine 12-15 NBA players on the court if these two squads collided. But what would happen in the game? No clue, but again, I’d have to look at the matchup and believe, on first impression, that it favors the 2011-2012 team. As we have now seen the Cats beat a sound Florida Gators team twice by double digits, it’s fair to say that you run and press this Kentucky unit at your own peril. I think the truth strength of the ’96 squad, in addition to its talent, was its defensive effort from baseline to baseline. When few teams can actually match you horse for horse, running a 40-minute blitz at the opposition becomes a recipe for success. This, in essence, was the genius of Rick Pitino at his coaching zenith. If he could assemble a roster rich in skill and athleticism, he could dictate the terms of the game by hounding the opposition into submission, resting on the comfort that if anyone got in foul trouble or got fatigued, he had another future pro he could stick in the lineup behind him. But would that philosophy work in the face of a similarly talented lineup? The ’96 team never had to find out. Though it played its fair share of toughies (Camby’s UMass, Duncan's Wake Forest, Miss State of Dampier and Donte Jones, etc.) it’s not arguable that it never played a team with the top to bottom talent as the Cats of this year. So, given that this year’s team has proved it can win an uptempo game or a halfcourt grinder, you’d have to like their chances vs. Pitino’s Untouchables. Still, I give the nod to ’96 due to one thing above all, and that is ball handling. Faced with relentless fullcourt trapping and double teams, I don’t know if the 2012 boys would handle the rock well enough to weather the onslaught.
Long story short, I would like this team’s chances going into the game against any great team in modern college basketball history. Would they win them all? Probably not. But who cares, from a talent and skill perspective, I am confident they would have a chance to pull it out in every one. And thankfully, this team has potentially up to nine more games to further convince me.go back