As 2016 came to a close, it found John Calipari readying his team for Southeastern Conference play and a run at another national championship. Twenty years ago, the Wildcats made it to the top. And earlier this year, they got together to talk about it, and make the case that theirs is the greatest college basketball team in the “modern era,” if not all time.
Rick Pitino’s 1995-96 team gathered in Miami in late August for a reunion. They had been honored in Lexington in 2013, when Calipari had arranged for them to receive unique NCAA championship rings (anyone who wins an NCAA championship, team or individual, gets a ring. It’s up to the individual teams to create their own, if they choose.)
Some of the players had gotten together last spring in Louisville, where Utah Valley State, coached by former teammate Mark Pope, was playing against Pitino’s Cardinals. After the game at dinner, they began to discuss a reunion. One of them suggested Miami. Perfect, said Pitino, who owns a home there. The party planning was underway.
In between golf outings and yacht excursions, some of them sat still long enough to be interviewed by people who are producing a documentary on their ballclub, people who asked them about their claim to all-time greatness.
Pitino adds the qualifier about being the best in the past 40 seasons. “I can’t go back to the Wooden era,” he says, referring to John Wooden, who coached UCLA to 10 NCAA titles during the 1960s and ‘70s (his last coming at the expense of Joe B. Hall’s UK team, in 1975).
Jeff Sheppard can.
That’s because the former shooting guard played for a coach who excelled at creating defensive game plans that could stop teams led by superstar post players. On their run to the title, the Wildcats beat Massachusetts, led by eventual Player of the Year Marcus Camby, and Wake Forest, featuring Tim Duncan, now regarded as the best power forward in the history of the NBA.
Sheppard takes aim at the two best college centers in history, both UCLA products.
“When someone says, ‘How would you have stopped Bill Walton from making every shot?’ I would say, he wouldn’t have shot it,” Sheppard says. “ ‘How would we have stopped Lew Alcindor?’ We would have double-teamed him as he caught the ball, as we did Tim Duncan and Marcus Camby.”
Anthony Epps was the point guard on that team. He believes in his guys, no matter who they were facing.
“We win. Hands down, we win,” he says. “Because of our mindset – when others thought they could beat us, we took our game to another level.”
He even says his Wildcats would have beaten the 2012 UK championship team, led by the likes of Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.
“For all those Kentucky fans out there, the2012 team was great,” Epps says. “They had a lot of great talent. But the ‘96 team beats them in my mind. I know they had a great team but I think we’re the greatest team in Kentucky history.”
Pitino agrees, and stood before his team, on a party boat in a Miami marina, to explain why.
“[As a] coach today, the last team I’d want to play on the face of the earth is [the 1996 UK team],” he told them. “I could not devise anything to beat our team. Nothing.”
“Nobody realizes how good we were. We know it, because we were there every day in practice. There’s not a team in the last 35 years that can compete with us.”
Then the “modern era” qualifier went out the window, right into the ocean.
“We were the most dominating college basketball team of all time,” he said.
Of course, there’s no way of knowing. But it’s fun to talk about, especially through the prism of 20 years of memories.