Rick Pitino came into the 1996 Kentucky Wildcats season feeling the pressure and—at least according to him—it was coming from some unlikely places. Pitino told a story of visiting Rome during the summer and meeting Pope John Paul II. As Pitino tells the story, he went over and kissed the pope’s ring. The Holy Father then looked at the Kentucky coach and said simply—“Rick, where’s yours?”
The story was a funny joke, although the denizens of Big Blue Nation were asking the same thing and they weren’t laughing. Pitino had enjoyed tremendous success in Lexington. He rebuilt a program that had taken a dramatic step back due to NCAA probation and restored it as a national power.
The recent past had seen Kentucky lose the epic 1992 regional final to Duke on Christian Laettner’s shot. The ‘Cats made the Final Four in 1993 before losing another epic battle, this one to Michigan’s Fab Five. It was 1995 that rankled.
After winning the SEC and earning a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, Kentucky played poorly in a regional final loss to North Carolina. With key players back and an elite recruit in Ron Mercer joining the fold it was championship-or-bust for the Kentucky Wildcats in 1996.
Pitino had a deep team and no one averaged more than 27 minutes. Antoine Walker was a power forward loved by NBA scouts and he averaged 15 points/8 rebounds per game. Walter McCarty averaged 11/6. And the leading the scorer was Tony Delk, who scored 18ppg, shot 44 percent from behind the arc and won SEC Player of the Year honors.
Delk, Walker and McCarty were the core trio that played the most minutes. Anthony Epps was a good distributor at point guard and other contributors ranged from Derek Anderson to Mark Pope to the talented freshman swingman Mercer.
The great expectations for Kentucky weren’t restricted to the fan base. They were the preseason #1 and the entire country would see anything less than a national title as a failure. This season was going to be reminiscent of the program’s last championship run in 1978, a year so burdened by expectation that head coach Joe B. Hall called it a “joyless ride.”
Kentucky opened the season against a decent Maryland team and won 96-84. The next game came against fifth-ranked UMass. The Minuteman had a head coach named John Calipari and a center in Marcus Camby that would win National Player of the Year. The first signs of adversity came as the Wildcats lost 92-82. But these two teams had not seen the last of each other.
An 83-60 win over eventual ACC champ Georgia Tech got things back on track and before non-conference over, Kentucky had won its grudge match with Louisville. The Cardinals were not a great team in 1996, but they were pretty good and the Wildcats dismantled them 89-66.
Kentucky got SEC play off to a strong start when they went to 12th-ranked Mississippi State on January 9 and won 74-56. In a span of five days they rolled up huge numbers against bad-to-mediocre teams in LSU and TCU, winning 129-97 and 124-80.
A road trip to Georgia provided the toughest test of conference play. The Bulldogs were coached by another name that would become familiar to ‘Cats fans—Tubby Smith—and they would eventually make the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament. Kentucky won an 82-77 game.
The blowouts resumed with a 120-81 pounding of Vanderbilt, and Kentucky won Georgia’s return trip to Lexington by an 86-73 count. When all was said and done, the Wildcats finished the conference schedule with a 16-0 record, won fifteen of those games by double digits and cleared the field in the SEC by four games.
Pitino took his team to New Orleans for the SEC Tournament and they rolled past Florida 100-76 and NCAA-bound Arkansas 95-75. In the tournament final, some adversity finally came. Mississippi State was a good team that would make the 1996 Final Four themselves and the Bulldogs won the conference tournament with an 84-73 win.
The loss might have been disappointing, but the six games this Kentucky team would be defined by were now at hand. The Wildcats were the #1 seed in the Midwest Regional (the Southeast was not available to them since its regional finals were to be in Rupp Arena).
Kentucky didn’t play as well as you’d like on the opening weekend. They only led San Jose State 47-41 at halftime before pulling away with 63 second-half points and winning 110-72. McCarty led the way with 24 points while Delk had 22. It was a similar story in the Round of 32 against Virginia Tech. The margin was just 38-30 at intermission, but McCarty again played well with 19, while Walker put up 21/11. Another second-half blowout led to an 84-60 win.
There would be no bracket breaks in the regionals at Minneapolis. The chalk was holding in the Midwest Regional and Kentucky would have to defeat two big men that were well-thought of by NBA scouts.
It started with 4-seed Utah and Keith Van Horn, who was averaging 21 ppg and by the following spring would be the second overall pick in the NBA draft. Van Horn got his numbers against Kentucky with 23. But the Wildcats overwhelmed the Utes with their depth. Five Kentucky players scored in double figures, led by Walker’s 19/8. The score was 56-34 by halftime and ended 101-70.
Van Horn wouldn’t prove to be a great NBA player in retrospect, but the same could not be said of the junior center who was up in the regional final. Tim Duncan had led Wake Forest to the 2-seed and averaged a 19/12 line in the process. And though Duncan only scored 14 points against Kentucky, he got 16 rebounds. Once again though, Wildcat depth was too much. Delk shot 9-for-13 and drilled 25 points. The score was 38-19 by the half and the final was 83-63.
Kentucky had met the moment, beating two straight outstanding college big men and dominating each game from start to finish. Delk was named the regional’s Outstanding Player. Now it was off the Meadowlands and another battle with a top big man—UMass was waiting for a rematch.
In today’s NCAA Tournament format, these teams would not have played on Semi-Final Saturday. Kentucky and Massachusetts were clearly the top two teams in the country, but #1 seeds were not seeded themselves. The rotation format said East played Midwest in the Final Four, so a game seen as a de facto title game took place on Saturday night.
The formula was the same as it had been in the regionals. Camby got his numbers, going for 25/8 But Kentucky had the numbers—the depth. Delk scored 20, Walker added 14 and McCarty led all rebounders with ten boards. The Wildcats won 81-74 and were on the brink.
Syracuse was the opponent and this wasn’t the most talented team Jim Boeheim ever had. The Orangemen were a 4-seed, but had put together a strong run behind the play of outstanding forward John Wallace. Boeheim, having not won a national title at this point, had some sentimental backing to do it in Big East territory and knocking off the consensus favorite.
Kentucky couldn’t contain Wallace, who went for 29/10. They didn’t play well offensively, shooting just 38 percent. They saw an eleven-point lead dwindle to two in the second half. Everything was there for a nightmarish loss.
But pressure defense and the arrival of Mercer didn’t let it happen. Kentucky was able to force turnovers and the highly touted freshman scored 20 points. The Wildcats pulled back away and won 76-67. Pitino could safely travel back to the Vatican—he had his ring.
Kentucky was back on top of the college basketball world for the first time in eighteen years. This was the first of three straight years playing on Monday night. They would lose an overtime game to Arizona in 1997 and Pitino would leave for an ill-fated NBA job with the Boston Celtics. Tubby Smith took over and kept the good times rolling with a 1998 national title. Kentucky basketball was all the way back.