UK Basketball 101 (Part I)

Recently, it was brought to my attention–by some of the more avid, voracious readers of this site–that a small percentage of our readership may not be quite as in tune with the history and tradition of Kentucky basketball team as we’ve been giving them credit for.  You see, I pass this blog along to my friends—not all of them lucky enough to be born in the Commonwealth—and they all get back to me with pretty much the same response: Yeah, I guess the blog is okay, but I really don’t know who any of these people are.

In an effort to remedy that, I will do my best to give the readers–through a series of posts–a crash course in Wildcat Hoops—a UK Basketball for Dummies, if you will.  I will make it as comprehensive as possible.  We will cover everything from general tradition, beloved players and coaches, to the status and roles of our current Kentucky Wildcats.

This is Part I: Tradition, Past Coaches, and Past Players.


I’ll keep it short: The University of Kentucky is the best men’s college basketball program of all-time.  Not of the last twenty years, not of the last decade, not of the post-Wooden era…All-Time. The only other program with an argument is UCLA, who, despite having eleven championships (which, I admit, is a lot), have two glaring negatives working against them:

1) Inconsistency
2) A lackadaisical, fair-weather fanbase.

Kentucky has neither.  The only other school that comes close to matching them in terms of consistency is Kansas (FYI, Kentucky’s never finished lower than tenth when it comes to number of wins in a given decade), and if you want to talk about passionate fanbases (and I will, especially later on), the conversation begins and ends with the Big Blue Nation.

Other schools that sometimes like to pretend they have a case:

North Carolina – We have more wins and more National Championships.  Eat it, Tar Heels.

Duke – Coach K’s done a hell of a job, single-handedly bringing them into this conversation since he became the coach in 1980, but unless he suddenly finds the energy to turn them into the team they were ten years ago for the next twenty years, this case doesn’t make it to trial.

Indiana – There for awhile, they were tied with Kentucky for 2nd place on the National Titles list, but UK snagged two more in the 90’s and took a healthy 7-5 lead.

Kansas – They’re the 3rd winningest program of all-time, but they only have three National Titles.  Plus, pathetically, they still count their Helms Foundation National Championships, which is akin to counting your girlfriends from 8th grade when someone asks you about your past relationships.

Louisville – Just kidding.  Even they know better than that.

Kentucky’s resume for the top spot is too lengthy to effectively put in paragraph form, so bullet points will have to do:

– NCAA Men’s All-Time Leader in Wins (1,999)
– NCAA Men’s All-Time Leader in Win Percentage (.760)
– NCAA Men’s All-Time Leader in NCAA Tournament Appearances (49)
– 7 National Championships (won in four different decades, by four different coaches)
– 13 Final Fours
– 98 NCAA Tournament Wins (2nd to North Carolina)
– 1 Gold Medal (the ’48 team represented the U.S. in the London Olympics)
– 43 Southeastern Conference Regular Season Championships (More than all other SEC teams combined)
– 25 SEC Tournament Championships (Ditto)


I mentioned above that Kentucky has had four different coaches lead them to National Titles.  Here they are, plus a couple of other guys that popped up in between:

Adolph Rupp (1930 – 1972) – Fifteen different guys actually coached the Wildcats before Adolph Rupp took the helm in 1930, but—and this is for all you beginners out there—when you’re talking about the history of Kentucky Basketball, the era of importance begins with the hiring of Rupp.  The Baron of the Bluegrass would accomplish a fair bit in his 42 years as head coach: Four National Championships (’48, ’49, ’51, ’58), six Final Fours, 27 regular season SEC Championships, 13 SEC Tournament Championships, and four National Coach of the Year Awards.  Rupp would be forced into retirement at the age of 70 (the mandatory retirement age for University of Kentucky employees at the time), and would leave the game with more wins than any coach before him (Dean Smith and Bobby Knight have both surpassed him since).  All in all, a very impressive 42-year run.

Joe B. Hall (1972 – 1985) – Joe B. Hall, one of Rupp’s former players, as well as his top assistant since 1965, was given the keys to the program in 1972. Unfortunately, Hall was also saddled with the impossible task of following a coaching legend.  In his thirteen years as Head Coach, Hall would win one National Championship (’78), finish as the runner-up to UCLA in ’75, and win four National Coach of the Year awards.  Despite that, Kentucky fans were never completely satisfied with Hall, juxtaposing his every move with those of Rupp, who had set a nearly impossible standard.

Eddie Sutton (1985 – 1989) – The former Arkansas coach succeeded Hall and delivered moderate success in his four years as coach, going to one Elite Eight (’86) and recruiting a slew of talented players to Lexington.  Of course, there was good explanation for the latter: Kentucky was found guilty of committing several NCAA violations, the biggest being the cash-filled Emery Worldwide package–on its way to super-recruit Chris Mills–that somehow popped open and revealed several high-numbered pieces of American currency.  Kentucky was placed on probation and both Sutton and A.D. Cliff Hagan were forced to leave.

Rick Pitino (1989 – 1997) – I plan on delving much deeper into this topic in the coming weeks, so I won’t say nearly as much as I’d like to.  Pitino left the New York Knicks job to come to Kentucky behind the reasoning and promise that he would get Kentucky back to its rightful spot atop the college basketball world. Suffice it to say he would deliver on that promise.  All things considered, Pitino’s eight-year run at UK is one of the best eight-year runs of any coach in college basketball history.  He inherited a team completely depleted by scandal, and, through a fast paced, full court trapping style of ball, got them back to the Elite Eight in three years (the first year they again became eligible for post season play).  UK would make the Final Four in ’93, another Elite Eight in ’95, National Title (and the best college basketball team ever) in ’96, capping his run with another Final Four and runner-up finish in ’97.  Pitino left after the ’97 season to coach the Boston Celtics and would eventually make his return to college basketball at the University of Louisville (which, for all you neophytes out there, was absolutely, emphatically, 110% not okay).

Tubby Smith (1997 – 2007) – Smith was a former Pitino assistant and the current Head Coach at Georgia when he left to take the Kentucky job.  Smith inherited a ton of talent and won the ’97 National Championship in his first year on the job.  Unfortunately for Smith and Kentucky, that would prove to be the apex of his run with the Wildcats.  Despite having several talented teams, Smith never made it back to the Final Four.  Despite his teams’ shortcomings, Tubby was and still is a beloved figure in the Bluegrass State.  His teams and coaching methods were always a source of controversy for the fans, but all in all, most people–at the very least–appreciated Tubby for his ridiculously righteous nature.  Smith left Kentucky to take the Minnesota job in ’07.

Billy Gillispie (2007 – 2009) – At the time of the hiring, everyone called it a match made in heaven.  Gillispie was a self-professed workaholic with the reputation of a recruiter (something his predecessor was not), chomping at the bit to get his chance at a big time college basketball program.  Things didn’t work out quite as well as people expected; Gillispie went 40-27 in his time at UK, missing the NCAA Tournament completely in ’09.  Somewhat in his defense, he did inherit an untalented team (by Kentucky’s standards).  People recognized this, but they still got impatient, and Gillispie really couldn’t have done a worse job of handling their impatience.  He was not, what you might call, a People Person, and had a tough time with all the off-the-court commitments and expectations that come with being the Head Coach at Kentucky.  He was fired at the end of the ’09 season.

Five Players Every UK Fan Should Know

Ralph Beard (1945 – 1949) – Beard was the floor general that helped lead Kentucky to back-to-back National Titles in ’48 and ’49, popularizing, in the process, a fast break style of play that went against the grain of the conventional basketball thought of its era.  But what makes him matter is not the National Titles, but the point shaving scandal he would admit to (sort of) years later; Beard would admit to taking money from bookies, but insisted he never did anything to affect the outcome of a game.  His punishment was a ban from organized sports, an essential death penalty to the basketball-obsessed Beard.  Although, in typical Kentucky fashion, fans across the state still adored Beard, showering him with love and support until his death in 2007.

Dan Issel (1966 – 1970) – Issel competed in an era when freshman were not allowed to play, yet he still managed to become (and remains) Kentucky’s all-time leading scorer (2,138).  In other words, Issel did more–at least in terms of putting the ball in the basket–than any player before him or since, without the built-in advantages of a 3-point line or a fourth year of eligibility.  He also holds the record for most rebounds in a career at UK (1,078), was a two-time All-American, and would go on to a Hall of Fame career in the ABA & NBA.  Until this past season, Issel also held the single game scoring record (53), which was broken by Jodie Meeks (54) against Tennessee.

Kyle Macy (1977 – 1980) – I remember it took me about ten years of life to notice that there were an inordinate number of Kyles running around my rural Kentucky town, almost all of which falling between the ages of 5 and 15. “You can thank Kyle Macy for that,” my Dad always told me.  Although I don’t have the statistical name/date data to back it up, there’s little reason to doubt the veracity of that statement.  Besides leading the ’78 squad to a National Championship and being named All-American in the process, Kyle Macy was the quintessential corn-fed, blue-collar Kentucky basketball player–a workmanlike point guard who rarely turned the ball over and never missed a free throw.  These days, he’s probably better known for his color commentary on the UK games for WLEX, or, perhaps, as the mysterious figurehead and namesake for the wildly popular basketball camps that run every summer across the Commonwealth.  Regardless, there’s a reason that thousands of kids across the state are still told it’s good luck to rub their socks before they shoot their free throws, and that has to count for something.

Rex Chapman (1986 – 1988) – Ask any male Kentucky fan between the ages of 45 and 55 who their all-time favorite UK basketball player is, and there’s a better than average chance the answer will be Rex Chapman.  King Rex, as he was affectionately tapped, was a homegrown kid (Apollo High – Owensboro, KY), as well as being one of the biggest recruits in the nation at the time of his signing.  He really did have it all: Seemingly limitless shooting range, a 39-inch vertical leap, a flair for the spectacular, as well as a clutch element to his game that anyone who watched him play will tell you far more about than you would ever care to hear.  As if that wasn’t enough, as a freshman, Chapman led UK into Freedom Hall and blew out highly ranked Louisville, cementing his legend through a barrage of 3-pointers and run-out dunks against the defending National Champs.  Devastatingly–at least for all those King Rex sycophants out there–Chapman bolted for the NBA after only two seasons at Kentucky, just in time for people to wonder what might have been had he stuck around long enough to play for Rick Pitino, a coach who’s system was tailor-made for a guy with his skills.

Jamal Mashburn (1990 – 1993) – The general consensus around the Bluegrass is that Jamal Mashburn is the most important Kentucky signee ever, and it’s tough to disagree.  Mashburn was the first blue chip recruit Pitino signed at Kentucky (his first two seasons were spent on probation), and he delivered in a way that exceeded everyone’s already absurd expectations.  He would go on to become an SEC Player of the Year, 1st Team All-American, as well as the centerpiece of those great, overachieving ’92 & ’93 teams, leading UK to an Elite Eight (vs. Duke) and Final Four (vs. Michigan) in his only two years of post-season play.  More importantly, Mashburn gave Kentucky the go-to threat it so desperately needed, almost single-handedly making Kentucky relevant again, morphing them back into the kind of powerhouse the Big Blue Nation recalled and yearned for.  Mash was the prototypical inside-outside threat: A 6’8’’ point-forward that could handle the ball, shoot the 3, rebound, slash, and defend the way Pitino demanded.  Mashburn would get in three years in Lexington before becoming the 4th pick of the 1993 NBA Draft.

2 Responses

  1. Great post hombre!

  2. Thank Jeebus, was this necessary(!!!).

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