By Tim Letcher
SEC Digital Network
Kentucky completed an incredible season on Monday night, by beating Kansas to claim the 2012 NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship. This team of young stars won a school-record 38 games and claimed the school’s eighth national championship.
Now, it’s time for the comparisons to begin. Most notably, the comparisons between John Calipari’s first championship team and Rick Pitino’s Kentucky champions of 1996.
Both teams had overwhelming talent. The 1996 team featured Tony Delk, Derek Anderson, Antoine Walker and Walter McCarty. The 2012 team boasted Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Doron Lamb and Terrence Jones.
Pitino’s 1996 ‘Cats lost a game early in the season (to UMass), then had a 20-plus game winning streak before losing in the SEC Tournament Championship in New Orleans. That team bounced back to win six in a row and claim the national title, beating Syracuse 76-67.
Calipari’s 2012 ‘Cats lost a game early in the season (at Indiana), then had a 20-plus game winning streak before losing in the SEC Tournament Championship in New Orleans. This team also bounced back to win six in a row for the national championship, downing Kansas 67-59.
The 1996 Wildcats had seven players that went on to play at least for a while in the NBA. Some of those players had long careers. The 2012 Kentucky team appears to have at least six future NBA players, and maybe as many as seven. Time will tell.
The major difference between the two teams is style of play. The 1996 Kentucky team had depth. Nine players on that team averaged at least 10 minutes per game, and no player averaged more than 27 minutes per game. Eight players on the 1996 team averaged at least five points per game, but no player averaged more than Delk’s 17.8 points per outing.
The 1996 team wore its opponents down with a full-court pressing style and with unrelenting bodies coming off the bench. Pitino substituted liberally with the ’96 team, and was able to do so because, in some cases, the players coming off the bench were as good as, if not better than, the starters.
Calipari’s 2012 champions took another route to win the title. The core of the team (Davis, Kidd-Gilchrist, Lamb, Jones, Marquis Teague and Darius Miller) played the majority of the minutes. The seventh man, Kyle Wiltjer, averaged 12 minutes per game. The eighth player, Eloy Vargas, averaged just six minutes per game. No other player averaged as many as three minutes per game.
The 2012 champions were very balanced. They nearly became the first team in Kentucky history to have six players averaging in double figures.
To take the comparison even further, here is a breakdown, position-by-position:
The 1996 point guard, Anthony Epps averaged 6.7 points and 4.9 assists per game. His job was to get the ball to the multiple scorers on the floor, and he did that very well.
In 2012, Marquis Teague was the point guard. Teague averaged 10 points and 4.8 assists per game. Teague came a long way as the season went along, and his play down the stretch was big for this championship team.
Advantage: 2012 champions
In 1996, the shooting guard was perhaps the best player on the team. Tony Delk held that position, and he led the team in scoring at 17.8 points per game. Delk shot 44 percent from three-point range for the season, and was named Most Outstanding Player in the Final Four.
Doron Lamb was the shooting guard for the 2012 ‘Cats. Lamb was also an outstanding shooter, hitting 46.7 percent of his three-point shots, while scoring 13.7 points per game. Lamb’s 22 points led all scorers in the 2012 title game.
Advantage: 1996 champions
In 1996, Kentucky used a tandem at center. Mark Pope generally started, but Walter McCarty actually played more minutes on the season. McCarty, who was an outstanding outside shooter, was third on the team in scoring, posting 11.3 points per game. Pope averaged 7.6 points and 5.2 rebounds for the year.
Anthony Davis was the center on the 2012 team. All Davis did was become the SEC Player of the Year, National Player of the Year, all while setting an NCAA record for blocked shots by a freshman. Davis averaged 14.2 points and 10.4 rebounds per game, which both led the team. His 186 blocked shots broke that NCAA freshman record, as well as the SEC single-season record.
Advantage: 2012 champions
The 1996 team had a pair of outstanding small forwards. Derek Anderson, who had transferred to UK from Ohio State, was the starter, and he averaged 9.4 points per game. Ron Mercer came off the bench to average eight points per game. Both of these players were also outstanding defenders who could guard multiple positions.
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist held down the small forward position for the 2012 ‘Cats. Kidd-Gilchrist averaged 11.9 points per game, third on the team, as well as 7.4 rebounds per contest. Kidd-Gilchrist could aslo defend multiple positions, as he proved once again in the championship game by defending Kansas point guard Tyshawn Taylor.
Antoine Walker was the power forward for Kentucky in 1996. When his attitude and mind were right, Walker was as good as any player in the country. He averaged 15.2 points per game, second on the team, he led the team in rebounding (8.4 per game) and was second on the team with 104 assists.
Terrence Jones, similar to Walker, was as good as any forward in the country when his mind was right. Jones averaged 11.7 points and 6.8 rebounds per game for the 2012 team. Jones was second on the team in 2012 with 68 blocked shots.
Advantage: 1996 champions
The 1996 team had incredible depth and played a style that flustered its opponents. Pitino’s hard-driving style led this team to its 34-2 season and the school’s sixth national championship.
The 2012 team played together very well, with each player sacrificing for the betterment of the team.
The starting five of the 2012 team was probably more talented overall, but the depth of the 1996 team was what made them great.
Both of these teams will go down as among the greatest in college basketball history, and it’s tough to differentiate between the two. Any way we could settle this on the court?