LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Kentucky begins its push toward a national championship against Hampton Thursday night at the KFC Yum! Center.

Win that one (the Wildcats are favored by 32 ½) and Kentucky will play either Purdue or Cincinnati Saturday.

But until John Calipari's team is beaten, the Wildcats are always playing multiple opponents -- one on the court, the other in the minds of coaches, writers and basketball junkies.

In fact, they played one Wednesday morning. Louisville coach Rick Pitino appeared on the Dan Patrick Show. Patrick asked Pitino how the Wildcats compared to some of the best teams in the history of the game, like the 1976 Indiana team or the UCLA clubs that won seven consecutive NCAA titles.

Pitino did not directly answer that question. But he did quickly identify another team that he believes would have beaten this 34-0 UK squad:

Pitino's 1996 team, the one that won the national title, crackling to 34 wins in 36 games.

That team won its first four NCAA Tournament games by at least 20 points before defeating Massachusetts and John Calipari by seven in the Final Four and then handling Syracuse, 76-67, in the title game.

“I don't think they're as good as my 1996 team,” Pitino said. “Because you remember the SEC was much tougher back then, much tougher teams. Our average margin of victory back then in the SEC was 28 points per game.

“They've had a lot of close games.”

Time out.

That team put three players (Tony Delk, Walter McCarty and Antoine Walker) in the first round of the 1996 draft and two more (Derek Anderson and Ron Mercer) in round one of 1997. This Kentucky team is projected to have at least four, and maybe five, first-round picks in June. Several others should be taken in round two.

This team has a king-sized edge in the center. I love Mark Pope, the starter on the 1996 champs, but he'd be overwhelmed by Karl-Anthony Towns and Willie Cauley-Stein.

Kentucky went 16-0 in the SEC that season. But according to the information in the Kentucky media guide, only one of UK's SEC opponents was ranked – Mississippi State at 12. Kentucky went 18-0 in the league this season, also beating one ranked team – Arkansas, No. 21.

The Wildcats' margin of victory in league games in 1996 was actually 24.2 in the league and 22 points over the season. This UK team has won its league games by 16.8 and all 34 games by an average margin of 20.9.

Three other SEC teams made the NCAA Tournament in 1996 – Mississippi State (a five seed), Georgia (an eight) and Arkansas (12). The league has five teams in this tournament: Kentucky, Arkansas (5), Georgia (10), Ole Miss (11) and LSU (9).

As for the close games?

UK needed overtime in its first two league games. But it won 12 of its next 16 SEC games by 10 or more. Georgia was the only SEC opponent to come within 13 of the Wildcats.

“I think they're an awesome basketball team, one of the best of all time … because of what they're doing, how they're unselfish,” Pitino said.

“They don't care about minutes. They play unbelievable defense. That's a credit to John. It's a credit to the kids, that it's not about their numbers.

“I think what John tells them all is, ‘Look you get on the national stage, regardless of how many points you score you're going to be a first round draft choice. It doesn't matter. Everybody is going to win in this situation.'

“I think they're going to go down as one of the great teams of all time.”


“Somebody is going to have to play a Villanova type game to beat them,” Pitino said. “It's going to have to be the perfect game. It's going to have to be a slow situation. You're going to have to take Kentucky's possessions away from them. They're not going to beat themselves because he can bring in another five guys if those five aren't playing well.”

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