Derek Anderson coaches during the John Calipari Fantasy Camp. (Photo by Jon Hale)
Even before the 2011-12 UK men’s basketball team had cut down the nets after the school’s eighth national championship, comparisons to the 1996 title team had been rampant.
Like the 1996 team, the 2012 championship team was considered one of the best teams in recent college basketball history. Both teams lost just two games in their respective runs to the championship. The first loss for each team came early in the season.
The 1996 championship team lost to Massachusetts in the second game of the year. The 2012 championship team lost to Indiana in ninth game of the season.
Both teams then rattled off long winning streaks, including an undefeated run in Southeastern Conference regular season play, before losing in the SEC Tournament final.
Wayne Turner. (Photo by Jon Hale)
Both teams also earned the chance to avenge their earlier losses in the NCAA Tournament. The 1996 championship team beat Massachusetts in the Final Four. The 2012 championship team beat Indiana in the Sweet Sixteen.
UK head coach John Calipari had a close view of both teams. He of course lead the 2012 team to its championship, but was also the head coach of the Massachusetts team that handed the 1996 Wildcats one of their two losses.
“I think both teams were good in different ways,” Calipari said Thursday at his fantasy camp, in which members of the 1996 championship team are working as guest instructors. “You could say that those are maybe two of the better teams in the last 25 years.”
The 1996 championship team featured impressive depth that may not have been matched by any team since. Seven members of that team were eventually picked in the NBA draft, and nine members played in a NBA game.
Comparatively, six members of the 2012 championship team were drafted in the NBA. Only one player who saw significant minutes on that team is still at UK.
So, who would win if the two teams matched up?
“We’re too old right now, but I think in ’96 it would have been a game,” said Wayne Turner, who was a freshman on that team. “Where I think we may have had a little bit of an advantage is we had a bench. We could go one through 10.”
Ten players on the 1996 championship team averaged at least 10 minutes per game. Then freshman Nazr Mohammed only averaged 5.9 minutes per game and did not appear in the championship game but is the only member of the team still playing in the NBA. He just finished his 14th professional season.
The 2012 championship team had seven players average more than 10 minutes per game, but four averaged more than 30 minutes per game.
“We could press the whole game. I think that would really hurt them,” said Walter McCarty, who was a senior on the 1996 championship team. “Their top six players played so many minutes. It just would have been tough.”
The 1996 team’s plethora of weapons would have been too much for the 2012 team, said Derek Anderson, a junior on that squad.
“I love Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, but him guarding me and Ron Mercer for 40 minutes would have been tough,” he said. “I think talent-wise, they were equally as talented, but we just had different players and different things with the way we played.”
Comparing the two teams is a fun exercise for fans, but Calipari was quick to note the 1996 team had an advantage his team didn’t enjoy.
“That team wouldn’t have been together because they would have all left early if it was now,” he said.
Three of the 2012 team’s top five scorers were freshmen. The other two were sophomores. Only one upperclassmen saw significant minutes on the team. Six current NBA players would still have been eligible for that team if they hadn’t left UK early for the professional ranks.
The 1996 team boasted four seniors, three of which enjoyed long NBA careers. Three more juniors saw extensive action.
“It really hurts them just playing our style of play,” McCarty said. “Now, if we play their style of play, it’s a different story.”
Both teams shared the ability to put personal egos aside for the benefit of the team.
None of the nine future NBA players on the 1996 team averaged more than 26.3 minutes per game. None of the six NBA draft picks on the 2012 team averaged more than 10.5 shots per game.
“They also sacrificed for each other where guys were playing 23, 24 minutes per game,” Calipari said. “In this day and age, that is a little harder to do.”
Several members of the 1996 team will return to the Rupp Arena floor Saturday as part of the UK Alumni Charity game festivities.
The 1996 team will play a group of all-stars from the Calipari fantasy camp at noon. While most of the 1996 Wildcats are past their playing days, they are approaching the game with one goal in mind.
“I’m planning on winning,” Anderson said. “I’m not (just) playing.”
Some of the 1996 team members will even suit up in the afternoon game that pits current UK professionals against each other.
“If they need an extra body to run up and down the court and pass the ball or shoot some threes from half court, I’m the guy,” McCarty said.
UK fans should not expect to see the same style of play from 1996 Wildcats. Turner, who shot 53 percent from the field in 1996 and attempted just four three-point field goals in the season, says his game has evolved.
In a four-on-four game he even surprised some of his former teammates.
“I’m making shots. They’re all backing up (on defense),” he said. “I’m like, ‘This is not ’96.’ It’s a different ball game.”
Proceeds from the fantasy camp and ticket sales for the alumni game have combined for more than $300,000 to go to charities so far, Calipari said. He plans to have players hand out checks to the charities on Saturday.
“(It’s) to let them understand that you’re coming back and yeah we’re all together and this is about our family and all that, but by coming together we can have an impact on all these difference organizations,” he said.
The charitable aspect makes the return all the more sweet for the 1996 Wildcats.
“On senior night, we’re thinking that’s our last night we’re ever going to play in Rupp Arena,” Turner said. “Then we get a call from Coach Cal saying we want to bring you guys in and do a charity game for people here in Kentucky. I think it’s awesome.”
You might also be interested in a photo gallery from the John Calipari Fantasy Camp featuring members of the 1996 championship team.