Rick Pitino took over the Kentucky Wildcats for the 1991 season, after the program had crashed on the reefs of NCAA probation and had a bad year. Pitino quickly started winning again in ‘91, even if the team was ineligible for postseason play. In 1992 they nearly made the Final Four before losing one of the great games of all-time against Duke in the regional final. The 1993 Kentucky basketball team took the next step and made the program’s first Final Four in ten years.
Jamal Mashburn was the biggest reason why. The power forward and future NBA lottery pick was a great all-around player, averaging 21 points/8 rebounds/4 assists in 1993. Pitino surrounded him with a deep supporting cast whose most notable player was point guard Travis Ford.
A future head coach, Ford knocked down 14ppg and handed out five assists per night. Roderick Rhodes was effective at the forward spot. But mostly it was Mashburn and waves of depth that drove Kentucky in ‘93.
The Wildcats were ranked #5 in the preseason polls and had an impressive December against a good non-conference schedule. They beat Georgia Tech and blew out Louisville, both of whom would be 4-seeds in the ‘93 NCAA Tournament. Kentucky went up to Madison Square Garden and beat St. John’s, an eventual 5-seed.
Most impressive was an 81-78 win over a great Indiana team on the day after New Year’s in Louisville’s Freedom Hall. By the time SEC play began, the Wildcats were 11-0 and ranked #2 in the country.
Kentucky won their first two conference games, including an 84-70 win over Tennessee and future NBA guard Allan Houston. The ‘Cats moved to #1 in the polls, but then promptly lost 101-86 at Vanderbilt. The Commodores were a good team led by guard Billy McCaffrey and their joust with Kentucky would define the regular season race in the SEC.
Alabama was up next and even though the Tide would underachieve this season, they had two outstanding forwards in James Robinson and Jason Caffey. Kentucky played well in a 73-59 win. Then the Wildcats dropped 100-plus points on South Carolina and LSU and followed it up with a blowout of Florida. On February 6, Vanderbilt came into Rupp for the rematch and Kentucky delivered an 82-67 win. Pitino’s boys were riding high again.
And again they came down to earth. A visit to Arkansas, who was NCAA Tournament-bound and had the core of talent that would win them the 1994 national championship, saw the defense take a night off. The Hogs beat Kentucky 101-94 on a midweek night in Fayetteville.
The Wildcats recovered on the weekend with an easy non-conference win over a bad Notre Dame team, then knocked off South Carolina and Georgia, neither of whom were going anywhere. Kentucky was still 10-2 in the SEC and tied with Vanderbilt for the league lead.
Tennessee was an underachieving team that would fail to make the NCAAs, in spite of Houston’s 22ppg. But on a Wednesday night in Knoxville, they knocked off the ‘Cats 78-77. That same night Vanderbilt struggled at Georgia, but survived. Kentucky now needed help in the conference race.
They barely survived Auburn and their excellent guard Wesley Person the next time out. Wins over mediocre Ole Miss and Florida closed the regular season, but Vanderbilt held serve and took the regular season title.
But there was still the league tournament and it would be in Rupp Arena. Kentucky took full advantage. They got their revenge on Tennessee with a devastating 101-40 blitzing. The Wildcats won a sizzling semifinal game over Arkansas, 92-81. Earlier that day, LSU had knocked off Vanderbilt, denying Kentucky a chance to complete their revenge tour against the three teams that had beaten them. But the ‘Cats still easily won the final and the NCAA Tournament Committee rewarded them with the 1-seed in the Southeast Regional.
Kentucky opened NCAA play in Nashville and started with the predictable blowout of 16-seed Rider, shooting 59 percent from the floor in a 96-52 win. The Wildcats followed it up with Utah, starting an odd trend in this decade where these two programs repeatedly met in the NCAAs, including in the 1998 national final. As would happen throughout the decade, Kentucky won. The 83-62 win sent them to Charlotte for the regionals.
The Wildcats played their best basketball of the season—perhaps the best basketball anyone in the country would play all year—during that weekend in Charlotte. They torched Wake Forest, shooting 62 percent from the floor, taking a 60-26 lead by halftime and winning 103-69. Ford knocked down 26, while Mashburn added 23.
Florida State was the #3 seed and had two future NBA players in Sam Cassell and Charlie Ward. The Seminoles hung in for a half, trailing 54-46 at intermission. But Kentucky was too deep and too hot. They shot 54% from the floor, while holding FSU to 41 percent. The Wildcats dominated the boards. Even with Mashburn having an off-game, Jared Prickett stepped up with 22 points/11 rebounds. Ford added 19 and was the regional’s Most Outstanding Player. The final was 106-81.
The surge through the regional round had Kentucky as the hot team coming into a stacked Final Four at New Orleans. Fellow 1-seeds North Carolina and Michigan were there and the Wolverines were the opponent in the featured game on Saturday.
Michigan hadn’t played well in its run through a gutted bracket, but were still loaded with the Fab Five—the recruiting class that had played for the national title as freshman in 1992 and was now back to finish the job. They were led by Chris Webber and Jalen Rose and were significantly more talented than Kentucky.
It would be a magnificent basketball game, with Mashburn getting 26 to lead the ‘Cats. But he only had six rebounds. Michigan was more balanced and more physical. The game went to overtime, but Kentucky fell 81-78.
For the second straight year, it was a crushing loss in the NCAA Tournament, but Kentucky was back on the national stage. They took a modest step back in 1994, ending up as a 3-seed and losing in the second round. In 1995, they were a 1-seed again before losing in the regional final. And in 1996, they finally took the last step and won the national championship.