Year in and year out, the Kentucky Wildcats are one college basketball’s biggest powerhouses. They’ve won multiple championships and have put scores of players in the NBA. While John Calipari is the team’s current coach and does a good job keeping them in the national spotlight, they had many great squads before he got there. One of those squads was the 1995-1996 version.
The 1996 Kentucky Wildcats remain one of the greatest teams in college basketball history. Let’s take a look back at their historic run.
The stacked roster of the 1996 Kentucky Wildcats
The Wildcats were built to win the title. They had a deep team stocked with talent at every single position. Below are just a few of the major contributors to that squad:
- Tony Delk: 17.8 points per game, 4.2 rebounds per game, 1.8 assists per game
- Antoine Walker: 15.2 points per game, 8.4 rebounds per game, 2.9 assists per game
- Walter McCarty: 11.3 points per game, 5.7 rebounds per game, 2.6 assists per game
- Derek Anderson: 9.4 points per game, 3.4 rebounds per game, 2.4 assists per game
- Ron Mercer: 8.0 points per game, 2.9 rebounds per game, 1.4 assists per game
Rick Pitino was the Wildcats’ coach that year. He’s widely regarded as one of the best college basketball coaches of all time. On both the sideline and on the court, Kentucky was absolutely loaded.
How the team fared in 1996
That season, the Wildcats were defined almost as much by one team that beat them as much as they were by the teams they beat. In only the second game of the year, the heavily favored Wildcats dropped a game 92-82 to the University of Massachusetts.
Led by one of the nation’s best players in Marcus Camby, the Minutemen stayed atop the polls at number one for the majority of the season until they dropped a late-season Atlantic 10 game to George Washington University.
The run by UMass was almost immaterial. The Wildcats dominated the majority of their opponents that season, going 34-2 with a school-record 27 game winning streak. Until they dropped the SEC conference tournament final to Mississippi State, they looked unbeatable. The Wildcats won their NCAA Tournament games by an average of 21 points.
Faced with a rematch against UMass in the national semifinal, this time the Wildcats were victorious. A 76-67 win in the national title game over Syracuse gave Pitino and the Cats a championship to cap off a tremendous year.
Where are the 1996 Kentucky Wildcats now?
That Kentucky team had plenty of representation at the NBA level. They had five players selected in the first round of the NBA Draft. The Boston Celtics drafted Walker and Mercer, McCarty went to the New York Knicks, the Cleveland Cavaliers selected Anderson and Delk ended up with the Charlotte Hornets. Four other players on the roster ended up making it to the NBA: Nazr Mohammed, Jeff Sheppard, Wayne Turner, and Mark Pope.
Pitino left the team a few years later to try his hand at coaching in the NBA with the Celtics. There he was reunited with Walker, Mercer, and later McCarty via trade. Pitino failed to succeed at the pro level, eventually returning to the NCAA with the Louisville Cardinals. He won another championship in 2013 that the NCAA later stripped due to recruiting violations. Iona recently hired the disgraced coach.
The Kentucky Wildcats may have not produced any Basketball Hall of Famers. Their stories all may have culminated with that perfect 1996 season. But what a season it was. Their overall record and championship win puts them up there with some of the greatest Kentucky teams of all time and might make them the best — an incredible accomplishment in and of itself.