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Greatest College Basketball Teams: Spotlight 1996 Kentucky
The 1996 Kentucky Wildcats basketball team went 34-2 and won the NCAA Championship. Wildcat coach Rick Pitino labeled the team the “Untouchables.” The Wildcats had a perfect 16-0 record in the SEC (the first time that had been done in 40 years) and beat their NCAA tournament opponents by an average of 21 points per game.
Guard Jeff Sheppard said “I just know with that group of talent on our team, with our system and our coach, I’d love to play any team in the history of college basketball….” Guard Derek Anderson and Forward Antoine Walker agreed. “We could play in any era with that [1996 Kentucky] team and compete,” Anderson said. “I would love to compete against the 1991 UNLV team that was led by Larry Johnson. They played up and down like we did and if you weren’t on your game, we’d get the best of you.” “We were a complete team and we were tough to beat,” Walker said.
Former Kentucky coach Joe B. Hall, who coached the Wildcats to a National Championship in 1978, agreed. “It think this team [the 1996 Wildcats] is one of the best all-time Kentucky teams, and maybe in the nation,” Hall said. “The success they’ve had, the margin of their victories and the toughness of their schedule points out what a great team this is.”
In 1994-95, Kentucky went 28-5, won the SEC regular season and tournament championships, but lost to North Carolina in the Southeast Regional Finals of the NCAA Tournament. The Wildcats returned four starters in for the 1995-96 season, including leading scorer Tony Delk, guard Jeff Sheppard, forward/center Walter McCarty and center Mark Pope. The 1996 Kentucky team was so loaded with talent, however, that Sheppard and Pope were demoted to coming off the bench.
The five starters for Kentucky in most games in 1996 were All-American shooting guard Tony Delk, forward Antoine Walker, center Walter McCarty, swingman Derek Anderson and point guard Anthony Epps.
All-American shooting guard Tony Delk averaged 17.8 points and 4.2 rebounds per game for the Wildcats in 1996. Delk was a highly prized recruit. He was Tennessee’s “Mr. Basketball” his senior year of high school and was a high school All-American. Delk shot 44.3 percent from three-point range in 1996, making 93 of 210. Delk is the Kentucky career leader in three point field goals made (283) and he is second all-time at Kentucky in career steals (201). Delk was the 16th pick in the 1996 NBA draft. In a 10-year career, Delk averaged 9.1 points, 2.5 rebounds and 1.9 assists.
Sophomore forward Antoine Walker averaged 15.2 points and 8.4 rebounds per game for the 1996 Wildcats. He left college early for the NBA draft at the end of his sophomore year and was picked sixth overall. During his 12-year NBA career, Walker has averaged 17.5 points, 7.7 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game. He has made the all-star team three times. “We have a lot of outstanding players,” Pitino said during the 1996 season, “but the one thing Antoine can do that no one else can that is unique is break down a defense and get shots for other players. Very few forwards today have that skill.”
Senior forward/center Walter McCarty averaged 11.3 points and 5.7 rebounds per game in 24.7 minutes of play. McCarty was the 19th pick in the 1996 NBA draft. In a 10-year NBA career, McCarty averaged 5.2 points and 2.6 rebounds per game.
Junior swingman Derek Anderson averaged 9.5 points and 3.4 rebounds per game in 19.4 minutes of play. Anderson was a high school All-Star at Doss High School in Louisville, Kentucky. He was the 13th pick in the 1997 NBA draft. In a 12-year NBA career, Anderson has averaged12 points, 3.2 rebounds and 3.4 assists per game.
Junior guard Anthony Epps was the assist man on the 1996 Wildcats team. Epps averaged 6.7 points, 3.1 rebounds and 4.9 assists in 22.5 minutes of play for the 1996 Wildcats and was the only starter not drafted by the NBA.
Kentucky’s bench was as impressive as its starting five.
Freshman phenom forward Ron Mercer averaged 8 points and 2.9 rebounds in 18.8 minutes of play. Mercer was Tennessee’s “Mr. Basketball” his senior year of high school and was chosen the number one high school player in the country ahead of Kevin Garnett and Stephon Marbury. Mercer was named an All-American in 1997. He was the 6th pick in the 1997 NBA draft. In an 8-year NBA career, Mercer averaged 13.6 points and 3.1 rebounds per game.
Senior center Mark Pope averaged 7.6 points and 5.1 rebounds per game in 19.8 minutes of play for the 1996 Wildcats. He was drafted in the second round of the 1996 NBA draft. In six years in the NBA, Pope averaged 1.9 points and 1.7 rebounds per game. “I’m very confident that we’re the only team in the country that works as hard as we do,” Pope said during the 1996 season. “I really believe that no team can compare with how hard we work.”
Junior guard Jeff Sheppard averaged 5.5 points and 2.1 rebounds per game in 12.8 minutes of play for the 1996 Wildcats. In the 6th grade, Sheppard claimed “I wanted to play for the University of Kentucky and go to a Final Four.” Sheppard was Georgia High School Player of the Year his senior year of high school and he got the opportunity to go to three Final Fours at Kentucky. He was named the Most Outstanding Player of the NCAA Tournament in 1998. Sheppard played one year for the Indiana Pacers in the NBA, averaging 2.2 points and 1.2 rebounds per game.
Freshman guard Wayne Turner averaged 4.5 points and 1.5 rebounds per game in 13.1 minutes of play for the 1996 Wildcats. Turner was a High School All-American. Turner played three games for the Boston Celtics in the NBA.
Freshman center Nazr Mohammed averaged 1.8 points and 1.6 rebounds per game in 5.9 minutes of play for the 1996 Wildcats. As a freshman in 1996, Mohammed weighed 315 pounds and only played in 15 games. By 1998, however, Mohammed slimmed down and became the Wildcats leading rebounder and second leading scorer. “Coming in here, Nazr knew he had to do a lot to play in this program,” teammate Allen Edwards said. “He had to lose weight and become a lot quicker. He did that.” Mohammed was the 29th pick in the 1998 NBA draft. In his 11-year NBA career, Mohammed has averaged 6.8 points and 5.4 rebounds per game.
With nine NBA players, six of them first round NBA draft picks, many opposing coaches thought Rick Pitino’s ability to manage their egos and playing time was masterful. Richard Williams, Mississippi State’s coach, said, “They think with nine NBA guys you should just roll the ball out there. But you’re dealing with egos. You’re dealing with guys who know they have a chance to play in the NBA. It takes a superb coaching job to keep those guys playing together.” Providence coach Pete Gillen agreed. “How does he keep Ron Mercer happy playing 12 minutes a game? This guy was maybe the No. 1 high school player in the country last year. Rick’s got to be the greatest psychologist since Sigmund Freud.”
“We all just loved to be around each other,” Forward Antoine Walker said. “We would go out and do everything together. That’s very hard in college. Everybody has their own thing going on. That team, from Freshman to Senior, all hung together. You need that if you want to compete for a title.”
With so many talented players, Pitino was able to utilize the full court press throughout every game, wearing down opponents. “The guys on the bench were so hungry to perform and earn more playing time that when the substitutions were made, there wasn’t a break at all,” guard Jeff Sheppard said. “Sometimes the intensity level went up because we were so hungry for playing time.”
Kentucky started the 1995-96 season on the road against 14th ranked Maryland. The Wildcats won 96-84. Four days later, the Wildcats travelled to Auburn Hills, Michigan to play Marcus Camby and seventh ranked Massachusetts. Massachusetts upset the Wildcats 92-82 behind 32 points, 9 rebounds and 5 blocked shots by Marcus Camby.
Kentucky won the next 27 in a row. One of those games was a January 16, 1996 game against LSU in which Kentucky scored 86 points in the first half in route to a 129-97 victory.
In the SEC Tournament Championship game, Kentucky faced off against Mississippi State. During the regular season, the Wildcats beat Mississippi State easily, 74-56. In the SEC tournament, Kentucky would have no such luck. Mississippi State led 43-38 at halftime and wound up winning 84-73. Dontae Jones scored 28 and Darryl Wilson scored 22 for Mississippi State. The Wildcats shot a dismal 33 percent from the field.
Despite the loss to Mississippi State, Kentucky was heavily favored to win the NCAA tournament. Right before the tournament, Connecticut’s coach Jim Calhoun said, “Kentucky might be Nos. 1, 2 and 3 in the country. They’re that good.”
They crushed San Jose State 110-72 in the first round, Virginia Tech 84-60 in the second round and 12th ranked Utah 101-70 in the third round. After the Utah game, Utah’s coach said “We could hang with any team in the tournament except Kentucky. Our kids had a great year, but we’re feeling like we were pillaged.”
In the regional finals, the Wildcats faced off against Tim Duncan and the 9th ranked Wake Forest Demon Deacons. Walker, McCarty and Pope all harassed Duncan throughout the game. He finished with 14 points and five turnovers. Kentucky won easily, 83-63.
In the Final Four, Kentucky would get a rematch with Marcus Camby and Massachusetts, now ranked number one, ahead of the number two Wildcats. “We doubled-teamed him with our big guys,” Kentucky guard Jeff Sheppard said. “We trapped him really aggressively right when he caught the ball. We forced him to pass. We did the same thing with Tim Duncan.” Kentucky led 36-28 at halftime. Kentucky extended its lead at the beginning of the second half, but then had to withstand a Massachusetts comeback to hold on to win 81-74. Despite the double-teaming, Camby still had 25 points, 8 rebounds and 6 blocked shots. Kentucky won with its depth and ability to get to the free throw line. Delk led Kentucky with 20 points, but eight Wildcats scored at least six points, seven Wildcats had at least one steal and six Wildcats had a blocked shot. From the free throw stripe, Kentucky outscored UMass 22-13. Pope was 6-6, Delk 5-9, Walker and Anderson each 4-5, and Sheppard 3-4.
In the NCAA Championship game, Kentucky faced Syracuse, led by big man John Wallace. Wallace scored 29 points and had 10 rebounds for the Orangemen. Although Kentucky held a 42-33 lead at the half, Syracuse came back and cut the lead to 64-62 with less than five minutes left. Then a Walter McCarty tip in, followed by a Derek Anderson three-pointer, gave Kentucky a 69-62 lead. The Wildcats coasted to a 76-67 win from there. Tony Delk led Kentucky with 24 points, including seven three-pointers. He was named Outstanding Player of the NCAA Tournament. Ron Mercer scored 20 off the bench, including three three-pointers. Despite Wallace’s performance, the Kentucky defense did its part, forcing 24 Syracuse turnovers.
“We could beat you inside and out and we could defend,” Antoine Walker said. “We had a deep bench. We had a lot of guys who could step up at anytime and knock down the big shot.” They certainly did.
Name Pos Class Pts Reb Ast
Tony Delk G SR 17.8 4.2 2.4
Antoine Walker F JR 15.2 8.4 2.9
Walter McCarty F/C SR 11.3 5.7 2.6
Derek Anderson G/F JR 9.4 3.4 2.4
Ron Mercer F SR 8.0 2.9 1.4
Mark Pope F/C SO 7.6 5.1 1.0
Anthony Epps G JR 6.7 3.1 4.9
Jeff Sheppard G JR 5.5 2.1 1.9
Wayne Turner G JR 4.5 1.5 1.6
Allen Edwards G FR 3.3 1.1 1.2
How would the 1996 Kentucky Wildcats do against the greatest teams of all time?
The 1996 Kentucky team had incredible depth. Walker, Anderson, Mercer and Mohammed all scored more points per game in the NBA then they did in 1996 at Kentucky. The Wildcats’ pressing defense gave opponents fits, forcing nearly 800 turnovers over the course of the season. The 1996 Wildcats also had a spectacular perimeter office that was very difficult to defend. Tony Delk shot 44.3% from three-point range, Anthony Epps 41%, Derek Anderson 39% and Jeff Sheppard 50%. Even the big men, 6’10” Walter McCarty (46.7%) and Mark Pope (37%), were three-point shooting threats. There is no doubt that 1996 Kentucky should be on any short list of greatest teams. This team may be the single best team of all time.
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