The University of Kentucky Wildcats men’s basketball program is rich in tradition, success, and following. They trail only the UCLA Bruins in total national championships, and trail only the North Carolina Tar Heels in total Final Four appearances. Countless Wildcats players have earned All-American honors and gone on to have highly successful professional basketball careers. Lastly, Big Blue Nation, the nickname given to Kentucky’s notoriously loyal fanbase, can easily hold their own against the following of any college or professional team in the United States.
In honor of the Wildcats’ ongoing pursuit of perfection, here is a look at the top five program-defining moments in Kentucky Wildcats basketball history.
1. Back-to-Back National Championships in 1948 and 1949.
After 17 highly successful seasons under the legendary Adolph Rupp, the Wildcats finally got over the hump and won their first NCAA Tournament championship in 1948. With the majority of their 1948 championship team back for the 1949 season, Kentucky was able to successfully defend their title and become one of the seven programs in NCAA history to win back-to-back NCAA Tournament championships. While Kentucky was undoubtedly a strong program prior to winning their first title, it was taking home their first national title that entrenched them as one of the elite programs in all of college basketball.
2. “Comeback Cats”
In Tubby Smith’s first year as Kentucky’s head coach, he inherited a team that was coming off of a loss in the NCAA Tournament Championship Game the year before. He led them to a 35-4 overall record and a national championship, but what this team did along the way earned them the “Comeback Cats” nickname. Against Duke in the South regional final, the Wildcats erased the Blue Devils’ 17-point lead with just under 10:00 remaining in the game. In their Final Four game against Stanford, they battled back from a double-digit halftime deficit to win the game and advance to the NCAA Tournament final. In the title game, the Wildcats once again erased a double-digit halftime deficit to defeat Utah for the seventh national title in program history. This national championship gave Kentucky an even stronger case for being considered the premier college basketball team in the country during the 1990s.
3. The 2012 NBA Draft
The 2011-12 Wildcats went 38-2 and won the eighth national title in program history. In an unprecedented move, the entire starting five from that team opted to forgo their remaining college eligibility and enter the 2012 NBA Draft. The group consisted of freshmen Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, and Marquis Teague, and sophomores Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb. Davis went on to be the top overall selection, while Kidd-Gilchrist went second overall. All five players were selected, as was senior forward Darius Miller. Here is a look at how the NBA Draft played out for this group:
- Anthony Davis – 1st round, 1st overall pick, New Orleans Hornets
- Michael Kidd-Gilchrist – 1st round, 2nd overall pick, Charlotte Bobcats
- Terrence Jones – 1st round, 18th overall pick, Houston Rockets
- Marquis Teague – 1st round, 29th overall pick, Chicago Bulls
- Doron Lamb – 2nd round, 42nd overall pick, Milwaukee Bucks
- Darius Miller – 2nd round, 46th overall pick, New Orleans Hornets
The Wildcats also had five players selected in the first round of the 2010 NBA Draft, but nothing can quite compare to the starting five of a national championship team all declaring for the draft together, and all of them going on to be selected on draft night.
4. “The Untouchables”
The 1995-96 Kentucky Wildcats, coached by Rick Pitino, are still arguably the most talented college basketball team of all time. Pitino gave his team the nickname of “The Untouchables” after they thoroughly dominated their competition all season. They posted a 34-2 overall record, went undefeated in SEC play, and rolled through the NCAA Tournament field en route to the sixth national title in program history. Nine players off of this team would go on to play in the NBA, and this group is largely responsible for Kentucky’s return to dominance during the 1990s.
5. The First Fabulous Five
The Michigan Wolverines’ Fab Five gets most of the attention, but it was a group of Kentucky Wildcats who were the first group to earn the nickname all the way back in the late 1940s. The starting five on Kentucky’s 1947-48 national championship team followed up the first national title in program history by earning the right to represent the United States in the 1948 Olympic games in London. The group would go on to win a gold medal in London, and with most of the Fabulous Five still intact, they would go on to repeat as national champs in 1949.
Kentucky’s Fabulous Five consisted of Ralph Beard, Alex Groza, Wallace Jones, Cliff Baker, and Kenny Rollins, with Rollins being the only player missing from the 1949 national championship team. This group went 68-5 in two NCAA seasons with two national titles, and went 8-0 in Olympic play on their way to winning a gold medal.