One team won 34 games, completed an undefeated romp through the Southeastern Conference during the regular season, got refocused with a SEC Tournament championship game loss and went on to win a national championship, defeating one of only two teams to beat it along the way.
The 2012 team finished 38-2 and sent six players to the NBA
The other team won 38 games, completed an undefeated romp through the SEC during the regular season, got refocused with a SEC Tournament championship game loss and went on to win a national championship, defeating one of only two team to beat it along the way.
They are both considered among the best college basketball teams of the past 25 years, but just how would the 1996 and 2012 Kentucky teams fare against each other? With members of that devastatingly good 1996 NCAA title team back on campus for the John Calipari Fantasy Camp the question was hanging there like a belt-high curveball.
Would the 1996 teams' depth and experience overwhelm the younger and thinner 2012 squad? Or would the unique talent of Anthony Davis and perfect combination of puzzle pieces of the 2012 be enough to stem the 1996 group's tide?
“Of course I'm going to say us because I played on that team,” former UK forward Walter McCarty said with a sly smile.
“But I think the thing about us was we had two starting five teams. We had two teams so we could press the whole game and I think that would really hurt them because their top six players played so many minutes. We could put five out there to play their butts off, take them out of the game and not lose anything and put five more guys out there to continue to press. Our bench would give us a big advantage. If we played their style of play it's a different story. In our style of play and with only one point guard I'd give us the advantage.”
McCarty's evaluation was a familiar refrain amongst the former champions back at the Joe Craft Center. It wasn't so much the nine players from that team who went on to play in the NBA that made the difference in their eyes, it was the depth and ability to pressure Calipari's first national championship team that would affect the outcome.
“We were just a different team,” former UK guard Derek Anderson said. “We had nine guys go to the NBA and 11 guys that played at a top level. I mean, I love Mike Gilchrist but him guarding me and Ron Mercer for 40 minutes would have been tough. I think talent-wise they were as talented as we were, we just had different players and the way we played. No one could press like we did. They beat teams by seven or 10 and we beat teams by 20-plus. There was a difference in how we played but the talent level was similar.”
“We're too old right now but in '96 it would have been a game with 2012,” former point guard Wayne Turner added. “Where I think we may have had a little bit of an advantage is we had a bench. You sub out Anthony Epps and put me in. You sub out Derek Anderson and put Ron Mercer in. So we had a bench. I think our team in '96 may win by wearing them down.”
Bravado aside, the members of the 1996 team all said they found great pride and pleasure in watching the 2012 group go about their business. In many ways, it reminded them of, well, themselves.
“It was a privilege to put this jersey on,” McCarty said. “We love the 2012 team because they reminded us so much of us, the way they had fun, how they felt about each other, the smiles on the court, playing for each other. That's what really made us a good team. We were so close and loved being around each other and you can tell that's what last year's team was about.”
In a twist of fate, Calipari was tied to both teams. His 1996 Massachusetts squad may have been the second-best team that year, defeating Kentucky early on before losing to the Cats in the national semifinals. The up close look at both teams gives him a unique perspective.
“That (1996) team wouldn't have been together because they would have all left early if it was now,” Calipari said. “If you want to put us back then I'll tell you they had guys who didn't play (on that team) who are still in the NBA. That's how good that team was. They also sacrificed for each other where guys were playing 23-24 minutes a game, which in this day and age is a little harder to do. Both teams were good in different ways and you could say those are maybe two of the better teams in the last 25 years.”
While the debate will go on for years the members of the 1996 team were just happy to be back a part of Kentucky basketball.
“There is no place like Kentucky,” McCarty said. “You know how Dorothy said in the 'Wizard of Oz' there is no place like home. There is no place like Kentucky. It doesn't get any better than this.”
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