The Meadowlands in New Jersey had hosted many an East Regional final, but 1996 was the first year the NCAA Tournament brought the Final Four here. The 1996 Final Four saw the two best teams in the country, including a top-heavy favorite in Kentucky and a rising midmajor in UMass. There were two relative dark horses joining them, as traditional power Syracuse and Mississippi State both played beyond their seeds in the regional runs.
Kentucky and UMass were not only ranked 1-2 in the country, but either one or the other had been ranked #1 in the country for all but three weeks in December and they held the top two spots from Christmas forward.
Ironically, given his future in Lexington, it was John Calipari who was coaching UMass as they were in their fifth year of national prominence.
UMass was led by Marcus Camby at center, and they rolled through the regional, including a surprisingly easy blowout of Allan Iverson’s Georgetown team in the final. Kentucky rolled through its own regional unchallenged.
Rick Pitino’s Wildcats took out Utah, the first of three straight seasons that Kentucky would eliminate the Utes, culminating in the 1998 national championship game. Then Kentucky blew out Tim Duncan’s Wake Forest team.
Syracuse was the #4 seed in the West, and they got an early break when top-seeded Purdue was knocked out by Georgia in the second round. The Orange then beat the Bulldogs 83-81 on an overtime three-pointer by John Wallace. This game has lived in NCAA lore by the site of CBS analyst Al McGuire dancing with the Syracuse players in the postgame interview, a scene part of highlight montages every March. The Orange then won a tough 60-57 game over 2-seed Kansas to get Jim Boeheim his first trip to the Final Four since the 1987 NCAA final when he lost a heartbreaker to Indiana.
If Kentucky and UMass were the nation’s best, and Syracuse a program everyone was familiar with, then Mississippi State was the team that came from off the grid. But the Bulldogs’ March run was the most impressive of them all. They got it started in the SEC Tournament, when 6’8″ forward Dontae Jones led the way to an upset of Kentucky for the title. After being seeded 5th in the Southeast Regional, Jones then had 36 points and 23 rebounds in successive wins over the region’s top two seeds in UConn and Cincinnati that put Mississippi State in the Meadowlands.
In 1996 the bracket’s #1 seeds weren’t positioned the way they are today, to ensure the nation’s two best would avoid each other until Monday night. Consequently, Saturday’s national semifinals had a clear undercard/marquee matchup quality to them. Syracuse-Mississippi State tipped it off to start the day, followed by the anticipated Kentucky-UMass battle.
The Orange and Bulldogs were tied 36-36 at half, and over the course of the game, Mississippi State hit its three-point shots and hit the boards. But Syracuse took better care of the basketball and they got to the free throw line repeatedly. Wallace went 8-for-10 on the stripe, while Mississippi State’s entire team went just 6-for-6. Syracuse ended up 20/24 on the line, Wallace finished with 21 points and Boeheim’s team advanced to Monday night by pulling away to a 77-61 win.
Rick Pitino’s coaching legend was built in large part by introducing an offense that repeatedly shot the three. It might come as a surprise to know the Kentucky-UMass game was not impacted by the three-ball, as each team went just 3-for-9 from behind the arc. The teams were relatively even in rebounding. This game was swung the old-fashioned way–just a little bit better execution by Kentucky, who shot 51 percent from the floor to UMass’s 45 percent.
UMass got 25 from Camby, but Kentucky guard Tony Delk scored 20 and forward Walter McCarty had 10 rebounds, to lead the 81-74 win.
Kentucky had opened the season as the favorites to win the national championship and even allowing UMass’s presence with them at the top of the polls, the Wildcats were the ones who faced enormous pressure all season. Now Pitino had to take the final step against Boeheim, who was getting a lot of casual fans rallying around him as he sought his own first championship.
Monday night saw Kentucky return to Pitino’s favored style and attack from the three-point line. Delk banged home seven treys en route to 24 points, while Ron Mercer hit three on a night he scored 20. Wallace had a big night, with 29 points/10 rebounds, but there was not nearly enough depth in the Syracuse lineup. Even though the Wildcats shot just 38 percent from the floor, the three were too much, and they built a nine-point halftime lead and won by that same margin, 76-67. Delk would be named the Most Outstanding Player of the 1996 Final Four.
Pitino would only stay at Kentucky one more year before going to the NBA and eventually returning to coach archrival Louisville. The Wildcats would make each of the next two NCAA finals, including a 1998 title under Tubby Smith. Caliper would also go on to the NBA before making his own college revival at Kentucky in their 2012 title run. And Boeheim? He’s just kept on rolling on at Syracuse, winning the 2003 national championship and making the Final Four again in 2013. They were all on center stage in the Meadowlands at the 1996 Final Four.