The 1992 Kentucky basketball team is remembered nationally for being on the wrong side of the most celebrated play in NCAA Tournament history. The team is known to Big Blue Nation though, as “The Unforgettables” and that’s a more fitting legacy.
Kentucky had hit rock bottom following an NCAA investigation after the 1988 season. Recruiting and academic scandals came to light. Sanctions hit and the team suffered a losing season under outgoing coach Eddie Sutton in 1989. Rick Pitino came on to rebuild and got the program back to .500 in 1990. In 1991, while barred from postseason play, the Wildcats won 22 games. They were eligible for NCAA Tournament action again in 1992 and had the opportunity to show the nation they were back.
Jamal Mashburn, a future top five pick in the NBA draft, was the clear focal point of the lineup, averaging 21 points/8 rebounds. Pitino filled in the spots around with him with steady, if unspectacular double-digit scorers in John Pelphrey, Sean Woods, Deron Feldhaus and Richie Farmer. With a preseason ranking of #4, the excitement was back in Lexington and a 106-80 blasting of a good West Virginia team to start it off didn’t hurt.
Two nights later, the Wildcats did not play well in a home loss to mediocre Pitt and they fell out of the Top 10. They stayed on the outside throughout the rest of non-conference play, even though December included wins over national contender Indiana, NCAA-bound Louisville and Notre Dame.
There was also a 90-69 blowout of Massachusetts, who had a rising coach named John Calipari. But there was also a one-point loss at Georgia Tech, a future NCAA team themselves, just before Christmas that kept the Wildcats ranked #17 when SEC play began.
Kentucky got out to a 4-0 start in the conference against mostly soft competition when the season’s most serious bout with adversity hit. They were crushed 107-85 at Tennessee, a mediocre team that would not make the NCAA. The Wildcats came back home to face fellow SEC contender Arkansas with its explosive backcourt of Lee Mayberry and Todd Day.
Two years earlier the Hogs had reached the Final Four and if we peek ahead two years we see them winning the national championship. Nolan Richardson had a strong program and Kentucky got torched again, losing 105-88. The Wildcats went to LSU, who had Shaquille O’Neal in the low post and were pounded 74-53. It added up to three losses in four games, none of them competitive.
The SEC, as is its basketball norm, wasn’t a deep league and only four teams would end up in the NCAA Tournament. The schedule softened and Kentucky reeled off seven wins in a row, the most notable being over Alabama, the fourth league team to make the Dance.
It put Kentucky in a three-way tie with Arkansas and LSU with an 11-3 league record as they vied for the regular season title. The Razorbacks and Tigers had to play each other in the final week, so the Wildcats controlled their destiny for at least a share of a two-way title.
But they coughed it up with another bad loss, this one a 17-point beatdown at Florida. Arkansas knocked off LSU and closed out the conference championship over the weekend. Kentucky took a small measure of revenge over Tennessee with a 99-88 win and went to Birmingham for the SEC Tournament.
An easy win over Vanderbilt in the quarterfinals got Pitino’s team another crack at Shaq and they made the most of it, getting an 80-74 win to reach the final. Hopes for a revenge chance at Arkansas disappeared when the Hogs were upset by Alabama in the other semi. UK made the most of their opportunity with an 80-54 rout of the Tide to take the tournament trophy. It got Kentucky the #2 seed in the East Regional, the highest seed line of any SEC team.
The Wildcats were sent to the Northeast to play in Worcester, MA for the opening weekend. In the blue-collar town west of Boston, the blue-collar Unforgettables went to work.
Old Dominion, a .500 team that had won their conference tournament was the first opponent and the Monarchs hung with Kentucky for a half. But the Wildcats were pounding the offensive glass, particularly Mashburn, who had eight offensive rebounds. It made up for his poor shooting night, Pelphrey added 25 and Kentucky pulled away 88-69.
Mashburn kept rebounding against Iowa State, getting nine boards and his offense returned to normal. He led all scorers with 27, while Pelphrey and Woods combined for 38. The points flowed freely in a 106-98 win over the Cyclones. Kentucky was going to to Philadelphia for the Sweet 16.
Calipari was waiting, with 3-seed Massachusetts, but the Minutemen weren’t quite ready for prime-time. Mashburn poured in 30 points and paved the way to an 87-77 win.
The regional final was set for Saturday night against Duke. This is a game upon which books have been written and documentaries filmed. Kentucky believes—correctly—that Blue Devils’ star Christian Laettner should have been ejected after he deliberately stomped on Wildcat reserve Aminu Timberlake when the latter was on the ground. The officials either didn’t see the stomp or ignored it and Laettner was on the floor to score 31 points and catch a full-court pass from Grant Hill, hit a turnaround shot at the buzzer and break Kentucky’s heart 104-103 in overtime.
There’s more to that game that deserves to be remembered though. Mashburn was brilliant again, scoring 28 points and grabbing 10 rebounds. Woods scored 21 and had hit what looked to be the game-winner right before the Hill-Laettner heroics. Perhaps one regret Kentucky might have is being outrebounded 31-19—for as much attention is given to Grant Hill for his laser strike to Laettner, had Hill not gotten ten rebounds, the game would have been over before that.
Duke went on to a repeat NCAA title. But—as hard as it may seem to believe now, when Kentucky is back in its role as the favored villain, this 1992 team had won the country’s heart. They overachieved. They nearly took down a dynasty. And they set the stage for the total revitalization of the program. Mashburn led the team to a Final Four in 1993. By 1996, they won a national championship. It’s with good reason that Kentucky fans have made sure the kids of 1992 are Unforgettable.