There was nothing better than Nolan’s Hogs vs. Pitino’s ’Cats
Southeastern Conference men’s basketball hadn’t had anything like it before. And try as it might, it hasn’t had anything like it since.
Two teams, with rosters full of future NBA draft choices, guided by two flamboyant coaches, playing a style that covered every inch of the 94-foot court at a relentless pace that rarely slowed in a 40-minute game.
Kentucky vs. Arkansas, 1992 through 1997, six seasons of hoops bliss matching coaches Rick Pitino of Kentucky vs. Nolan Richardson of Arkansas.
Ten games with a 6-4 edge to the Wildcats before Pitino left UK to coach the Boston Celtics.
Kentucky ranked in every game, Arkansas ranked in the first seven.
Four games in the SEC tournament, including the 1995 finals, considered the best game in league tourney history.
Two regular season championships each for Kentucky and Arkansas in that stretch, a national title each (Arkansas 1994, Kentucky 1996), two national championship game appearances each (Arkansas 1994, 1995 and Kentucky 1996, 1997).
How was this perfect storm created?
Kentucky stunned everyone by hiring Pitino away from the NBA’s New York Knicks in the summer of 1989. With the Wildcats on NCAA probation and low on talent level, he decided his first UK team – nicknamed Pitino’s Bombinos – would launch as many three-pointers as possible.
How many threes? That ’90 team led the nation with 10.04 three-pointers made per game, which is still a SEC record and was a NCAA record at the time. And that team attempted 40 or more threes in a game six times, including 53 vs. Southwestern Louisiana.
Not only was it entertaining, it was attractive to recruits who loved such a freewheeling offensive style.
“We couldn’t have hired anybody better than Rick Pitino,” former UK player Bret Bearup once said. “His style of basketball is fun, it’s entertaining and it’s fun to talk about.”
The first year UK was off NCAA probation, the Wildcats lost to Duke, 104-103, on Christian Laettner’s miracle shot in the 1992 East Regional finals.
That was the same season that Arkansas, which had advanced to the Final Four in 1990 and to the Southeast Regional finals in 1991, joined the SEC.
By the time Arkansas made the leap from Southwest Conference to the SEC, Richardson had been coaching the Hogs for six seasons. Fickle Razorback fans, who loved precious coach Eddie Sutton’s deliberate, disciplined brand of basketball, took several years to warm up to Richardson’s “Forty Minutes of Hell” style that he brought with him from the University of Tulsa.
But once Richardson finally recruited enough of the long, quick and versatile athletes necessary to play his in-your-face style, the Razorbacks’ faithful bought in when the 1990 Hogs went 30-4 and advanced to the Final Four.
Like Kentucky and Pitino, Richardson’s Razorbacks loved to run and shoot threes. Like UK and Pitino, Richardson’s Hogs thrived in full-court defensive pressure.
Arkansas used various full-court and half-court zone traps while Kentucky preferred a run-and-jump, man-to-man approach. The difference was Arkansas liked to press the entire game using every player on its bench.
Plus, the Hogs’ defensive press was not conventional; you couldn’t find it in a basketball textbook. It was instinctual. Richardson trusted his players to pick their spots to trap ball-handlers, and they’d trap just anybody anywhere on the court.
How did the rest of the SEC react?
“I know Nolan Richardson likes to call his team's style 'Forty Minutes of Hell,' '' late Auburn coach Tommy Joe Eagles once said. ''It's really like 'Three Hours of Hell.' From the time you walk in the building until the time you walk out, the students are there. The 9,000 fans are right on top of you.''
“Arkansas's press is like stepping into a bunch of bumblebees - they're all over you,'' LSU coach Dale Brown said. ''Kentucky is like getting hacked from each side by a bunch of giants. Arkansas seems like it's always scrambling on defense.''
The secret to Richardson’s style was brutal physical conditioning that made the Hogs mentally tougher than most opponents.
“I never wanted to get into a halfcourt, 'my turn, your turn' game,” Richardson said “I didn’t like passing the ball 12 times and getting a pretty basket. I wanted to wear out teams.''
So Richardson made his practices torture.
“The last five minutes of games are like our practices,” former Arkansas All-SEC forward Corliss Williamson once said. “Coach puts five minutes on the clock and says, 'You've got five minutes to come back - play as hard as you can.”
Richardson’s players totally bought in.
''There's no other system in college basketball I'd rather play for,'' Arkansas forward Darrell Hawkins once said. ''What other system could you shoot 2-for-12 like I did (in a East Regional first round) and your coach tells you, 'Hey, keep shooting, those are good shots.' Coach just asks that you give 110 percent. What kid wouldn't want to play in his system?''
When the Hogs and Cats had it going on, with Pitino in his designer suits matching wits with the cowboy-boot wearing Richardson, it was a sight to behold. I once drove eight hours from Memphis to Lexington – the last three hours in a snowstorm – just to cover one of the Arkansas-Kentucky, Nolan vs. Ricky P. battles.
That’s how good they were. So here is my Fave Four of those 10 battle royals:
1. No. 9 Arkansas 105, No. 8 Kentucky, 88, Jan. 25, 1992 at Rupp Arena
First-ever meeting between the teams sparked plenty of pre-game rhetoric.
'We're going to find out which team is really in shape,'' said Kentucky sophomore forward Jamal Mashburn, the Wildcats' leading scorer. Arkansas senior forward Todd Day, the Hogs' top gun, replied, ''We really want to beat Kentucky bad.''
More than 300 media credentials were issued. Kentucky had a 22-game SEC homecourt-winning streak on the line.
How it played out:
Arkansas, the SEC's top free throw shooting team, made 23-of-24 free throws in the final half, including their last 20 consecutive attempts to finish 41-of-49.
Both teams had key starters in foul trouble. Arkansas center Oliver Miller and Day, who had 18 points, played sparingly as did Kentucky's Mashburn. Mashburn scored a season-low four points.
''They live and die by the three-point shot,'' Miller said. ''The three-point shot stopped falling, and they died.''
“When we weren't able to shoot the threes against their zone, we were kind of confused,'' UK forward Deron Feldhaus said.
''This is the greatest basketball atmosphere - it was like a Final Four atmosphere,'' Richardson said. ''The fans, even in defeat, understand and appreciate the game.''
2. No. 3 Kentucky 95, No. 5 Arkansas 93 in overtime, March 12, 1995, SEC tournament championship game final in Atlanta’s Georgia Dome
Earlier in the ’95 season on Super Bowl Sunday, the defending national champion Hogs edged UK 94-92 in Fayetteville. Both teams shot about 50 percent in that game, and both coaches agreed their teams couldn’t play much better. Thurman hit an 18-foot fallaway for the game-winner with 8.2 seconds left, then Arkansas’ Clint McDaniel stripped Kentucky's Jeff Sheppard of the ball on a drive with six-tenths of a second left.
How it played out:
The Wildcats rallied from a 19-point first-half deficit, and from a 91-82 hole with 1:39 left in overtime. With the game tied at 80-80 in regulation, UK had a chance to win the game in regulation. But Rodrick Rhodes missed two free throws and was so distraught Pitino never put him back in the game.
The Razorbacks, refreshed with new life, hit their first four shots in overtime for a 91-84 lead. Then, Williamson fouled out with 1:32 left. A combination of four missed Razorbacks' free throws and two turnovers in the final 1:11 of overtime led to a Wildcats’ lead. Then, UK’s Antoine Walker forced Thurman to miss a game-winning three-pointer with 0.6 of a second left.
Walker won the tourney's Most Valuable Player award, scoring 23 points and grabbing seven rebounds. He not only limited Thurman to just two points in the second half after Thurman's 15-point first half, but helped offensively inside match Arkansas’ Williamson's 22 points.
''At the end, I didn't know whether to laugh, smile or cry because I've never been involved in something like that,'' Pitino said. ''We were dead three or four times.''
''Things just went haywire,'' Arkansas point guard Corey Beck said. ''We played like little kids - we didn't play smart.''
''Coach Pitino told me he (Thurman) likes to start a drive, then pull up for a shot,'' Walker said of Thurman’s last shot. ''I couldn't believe he shot from that far out, and he still almost made it.''
3. No. 3 Arkansas 90, No. 4 Kentucky 82, February 9, 1994, at Rupp Arena
Since the Hogs won their first trip to Rupp in 1992, Kentucky had won 33 straight games and split two meetings with the Razorbacks in 1993, including an 11-point win over the Hogs in the SEC tournament semifinals in Lexington.
How it played out:
The Razorbacks had enough heart to fight back from a 15-point first-half deficit. Thurman scored 10 of Arkansas's first 20 points of the second half as the Razorbacks roared from a 47-41 halftime deficit to their largest lead at 68-59 with 9:21 left.
Thurman, who had 26 points, 6 rebounds and 6 assists, had his juices flowing. With his shots dropping and UK falling apart, he turned to Kentucky's Tony Delk with about 12 minutes left, clapped his hands, pointed at his chest and said, “You gotta have heart.''
“I knew in the second half that somebody had to step up and hit some shots and that somebody had to be me,'' Thurman said.
“He (Thurman) was right – we didn't play with enough heart and I don't know why,'' Delk said.
“This is the most disappointed I've ever been in a team in my 20 years of coaching,'' Pitino said.
“It's like playing the Los Angeles Lakers – they (Arkansas) never panic and they keep coming at you,'' Kentucky forward Jared Prickett said.
4. No. 14 Arkansas 101, No. 2 Kentucky 94, February 10, 1993, at Barnhill Arena
This marked the first-time ever Kentucky traveled to Fayetteville and it was the last season that Barnhill Arena was the Hogs’ homecourt. In a good-natured salute to Pitino’s heritage, the Arkansas Hog Wild pep band, when Pitino walked on the court shortly before tipoff, played the theme from the movie “The Godfather” with band members holding up their hands in a “kiss my ring” gesture.
How it played out:
Arkansas caused 21 turnovers, making 10 steals. The combination of the noise level and Arkansas's pressure wilted the Wildcats early. After Kentucky led, 7-2, Arkansas scored 13 straight points and only lost the lead once the rest of the way.
Six Arkansas players scored in double figures, led by freshman center Williamson’s then-career high 22 points. Kentucky’s Mashburn had 20 points and 10 rebounds, but didn't have a field goal in the second half until 2:32 remained.
''It seems like every time I caught the ball and turned, there were four guys around me and they were all slapping at the ball,'' Mashburn said. ''It was very difficult to get a good shot.''
''It was your-turn, my-turn basketball for us - a different guy at different times,'' Richardson said. ''It was one of our great performances. Our fans helped this one.''
''Kentucky likes to play an up-tempo game, but we feel if we play with 110 percent intense pressure, it's what we're all about and not too many teams are going to beat us,” Arkansas’ Hawkins said.
The rivalry was never as heated or the same once Pitino left UK at the end of the 1997 season to coach the NBA’s Boston Celtics. Tubby Smith became UK’s coach and immediately won the 1998 national championship.
Richardson went 3-5 against Smith, finishing a collective 7-11 vs. Kentucky before he resigned during the 2002 season.
Since then, neither Kentucky or Arkansas has won a national championship, but both programs seemingly are finally getting back to their 1990s roots.
Three years ago, UK hired John Calipari, who in 1996 coached Massachusetts when it lost to Pitino’s Wildcats in the Final Four semifinals. Like Pitino, he understands the enormity of the UK job and grasps what the program means to the Commonwealth of Kentucky.
Just last year, in Calipari’s second season, he had UK in the Final Four for the first time since the last national title in ’98. His current Wildcats are ranked No. 1 nationally, 25-1 overall and 11-0 in the SEC.
Last March, Arkansas went back to the future by hiring Mike Anderson, who was Nolan Richardson’s long-time assistant. Anderson good-naturedly promised that his young team in his first season might like “20 Minutes of Hell and 20 Minutes of What the Hell Are We Doing?”
But so far, the Razorbacks, boosted by a 17-1 home record, are 17-8 overall and 5-5 in the SEC, still contending for a NCAA tourney berth.
Anderson lost in his first shot at Kentucky this season, 86-63, on Jan. 17 at Rupp. But the way those glory days of past played out between the Razorbacks and Wildcats, he might see the Big Blue against at the SEC tournament during March in New Orleans.
He hopes he can get the Hogs-Cats rivalry back to where it was once.
“They were some awesome games,” Anderson says. “I thought it was the SEC at its best.”