Once the final clock sounded and the Kentucky Wildcats were officially crowned 2011-12 NCAA champions, fans and reporters attempted to place this team within the context of history. Was this group of players simply a good title team, or had they joined the ranks of the all-time great championship winners?
As the weeks have passed since that incredible night in New Orleans, the legacy of the 2011-12 Kentucky Wildcats seems destined for the stars. Some media outlets have dubbed them as one of the greatest champions in the modern era, while others claim that they might be one of the greatest champions ever.
However, UK fans who remember the Rick Pitino era have cautioned comparing this team against the 1996 "Untouchables" roster. That team finished 37-2 and blazed through the NCAA Tournament to regain Kentucky's rightful place on top of the college basketball world. Many believe that the 1995-96 UK team is the greatest team ever assembled, or at least of the previous 25 seasons.
Therefore, which Kentucky team is greater: the 2012 "Undeniables" or the 1996 "Untouchables"?
Tony Delk Draining Three's Against Calipari's Former Big Man, Marcus Camby
The first comparison comes down to a simple question: which team had the best player?
In other words, which roster held the biggest advantage by having that one dynamic player who was a complete matchup nightmare?
To answer this question, it is necessary to determine who was the best player on each team. This is an easy task when referring to the 2011-12 Wildcats, as it is definitely Anthony Davis.
Davis came to Lexington as a freshman phenom, and he left New Orleans as perhaps the most decorated college basketball player in history. In his lone season at Kentucky, Davis accomplished the following feats:
- Named the AP College Player of the Year
- Named the Sporting News Player of the Year
- Winner of the John Wooden award
- Winner of the Adolph Rupp Trophy
- Winner of the James Naismith award
- Winner of the Oscar Robertson Trophy
- 2012 NCAA Champion
- 2012 Final Four Most Outstanding Player
- Consensus NCAA 1st-Team All American
- NCAA Freshman of the Year
- NCAA Defensive Player of the Year
- NCAA Blocks Leader in 2012
- Set an NCAA record for blocks by a freshman (186)
- Set a SEC record for blocks by a freshman (186)
- Set a UK record for blocks by a freshman (186)
- SEC 1st-Team Selection
- SEC Player of the Year
- SEC Freshman of the Year
- SEC Defensive Player of the Year
Davis needs a really big trophy case.
He is clearly the best player from the 2011-12 team and might be one of the greatest players in Kentucky basketball history.
As for the 1996 team, there is not one player who is clearly the leader over the team.
This was a deeper team and had players share the spotlight more than the 2011-12 team. However, two players appear to be better than the rest, and that would be Tony Delk and Antoine Walker. Walker led the team in minutes and was the enforcer inside.
In the end, though, Delk was the senior leader who steadied the team and hit big shots at big moments.
He was named the Final Four Most Outstanding Player and was the team's leading scorer. Therefore, I believe that Tony Delk was the best player on the 1995-96 Kentucky Wildcats.
With that said, Delk had an unbelievable season and was one of the dominant scoring guards in college basketball that year. Refer to the table below to analyze his statistics that season:
As you can see, he was a dominant shooter and scored a lot of points in only 26 minutes per game. Delk was a fantastic player and is one of the best guards in UK history.
However, there is no way he is a better player than Davis. Below are the Unibrow's 2011-12 statistics:
Even without the season accolades, Davis still would have won this comparison because of his unbelievable defensive impact and efficient offensive output. When combined with the giant trophy case of awards, and it is clear that the 2011-12 Wildcats have the better player of the two Wildcat teams.
WINNER: 2011-12 CATS
The 2011-12 Cats Had "Six Starters"
The 2011-12 Kentucky squad relied heavily on a six-man rotation featuring Anthony Davis, Terrence Jones, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Darius Miller, Doron Lamb and Marquis Teague.
Granted, Calipari did give some minutes to freshman Kyle Wiltjer and senior Eloy Vargas, but the majority of the minutes were given to UK's "six starters". This was not the deepest team, but those top six players are as good as any six-man rotation in recent memory.
In contrast, Pitino's 1995-96 team relied on a deeper bench and an endless rotation of skilled and versatile players who could play inside and out.
For an easy comparison, refer to the two tables below. They list the "six starters" by the 2011-12 team and the nine NBA players who made up the 1995-96 "Untouchables" and compare averages between the two rosters.
These two teams feature an interesting contrast of styles, while also sharing similarities.
The most striking statistics of all is that Antoine Walker played the most minutes on the 1995-96 team at 27.0 per game. That is only one minute more than the 2011-12 team's sixth man, Darius Miller, who played 26.1 minutes per game.
The difference in minutes per game is striking across the board and really determines which team you prefer more. For Calipari's Cats, he had six players averaging double figures in points and all six players played over 26 minutes per game.
As for Pitino, only three players averaged double figures but other statistics such as rebounding and assists were spread out among all nine contributors.
Having a bigger rotation does give the 1995-96 team more fouls to give, more minutes for rest and gives greater flexibility in case of injury.
One similarity between both rosters is their size. Each team features incredible height at every position. For the 2011-12 team, Darius Miller stood at 6'8" but could sub in for four positions on the floor. As for the 1995-96 team, Pitino had three players standing 6'10" who could sub and man the post, which is a great luxury to have.
Overall, this is a very tough decision as to which team has an advantage as it is merely a preference of style. The depth of the 1996 'Cats is unbelievable, but so is the versatility and production of the top six players for the 2011-12 team.
I am going to surprise myself as the statistics and versatility of the 2011-12 team really surprised me in this comparison.
In the end, I will take the better quality of players over the quantity of good players, and the six-man rotation for Calipari's squad is simply better than that of Pitino's championship team.
Winner: 2011-12 Wildcats
Antoine Walker before his Boston "Shimmy" days
Here is where the comparisons between both teams become very interesting. They mirror each other so closely in their season results, including non-conference, conference and NCAA tournament games.
For the 2011-12 Kentucky Wildcats, the team completed a perfect record of 16-0 and became one of the few teams in school history to finish undefeated in the SEC.
However, the 'Cats did not take home the SEC Tournament Championship as they lost to Vanderbilt in the final game. Therefore, they finished the full conference schedule with an impressive 18-1 record.
Normally, this would trump any result from another team. But the 1995-96 "Untouchables" are heralded as an all-time great team for a reason. They mirrored the 2011-12 team by running through the SEC schedule undefeated with a 16-0 record.
With momentum building and expectations skyrocketing, Pitino's club lost in the SEC Championship game, just as Calipari's team did as well. By falling to the Mississippi State Bulldogs, the Wildcats finished their SEC record at 18-1.
What are the odds that both teams would have the exact same result in conference play?
Either way, they both accomplished a rare feat and used the loss in the conference tournament final to propel themselves to bigger goals in the Big Dance.
Davis and Jones Shutting Down KU's Thomas Robinson
The numbers that are listed above are the two main differences between the championship runs of the 2011-12 "Undeniables" and the 1995-96 "Untouchables" and that is margin of victory.
Simply put, the '96 Cats stomped all over teams. In their six victories of the tournament, Kentucky won their games by an average of 21.2 points per game. In other words, they had plenty of extra cushion until the games became close in the Final Four.
As for the '12 Cats, they won each contest by an average of 11.8 points per game. This is still impressive, as winning by double digits in each game is plenty of room for comfort and displays the talent and dominance of this team.
However, the 1995-96 team wins this contest in a landslide.
Their margin of victory average is the third highest in NCAA Tournament history, and is the best overall since the tournament expanded to 64 teams. Their dominance is unrivaled, even with the best team of John Calipari's career.
Winner: 1995-96 Wildcats
Derek Anderson Flying High
No modern coach has placed more players in the NBA than John Calipari.
That trend should continue with this 2011-12 squad, in which all five starters have declared for the NBA Draft, to include two other players that are graduating.
There is a chance that the team has five or six players taken in the first round of the draft, which would be incredible. One more player with NBA potential is reserve Kyle Wiltjer, who came to Kentucky as a five-star recruit and should develop into a pro-caliber player during his time as a Cat.
Below is a list of 2011-12 Wildcat players who will likely play for the NBA soon:
- Anthony Davis
- Michael Kidd-Gilchrist
- Terrence Jones
- Doron Lamb
- Marquis Teague
- Darius Miller
- Kyle Wiltjer
One team that we know the facts about is the 1995-96 Wildcats. This team was loaded, to put it bluntly. They featured a jaw-dropping nine future NBA players on the roster. Here is the list below:
- Antoine Walker
- Walter McCarty
- Tony Delk
- Derek Anderson
- Ron Mercer
- Nazr Mohammed
- Mark Pope
- Wayne Turner
- Jeff Sheppard
In all reality, these teams are similar in pro potential and talent. However, the edge has to go to the 1996 roster, which might be the most talented in NCAA history.
Winner: 1995-96 Wildcats
Coming down to the final slide, here is the scorecard for both teams:
2011-12 Cats: 2
1995-96 Cats: 2
The two teams are tied on this scorecard, but that is not the final story about which team is superior in Kentucky lore.
The fact of the matter is that the 1995-96 Kentucky team might be the single greatest college basketball team in history. When you factor in their incredible depth, talent, versatility, swagger, conference run, NCAA tournament run and NBA pro potential, no other team can match what Pitino's 1996 Cats had to offer.
With that being said, the 2011-12 team is closer in the comparison than people might think. They lack the depth, but they did go seven deep if you include freshman Kyle Wiltjer. Their players were extremely versatile, and I believe that Calipari's team has a stronger top-six rotation than that of the '96 Cats.
However, their NCAA tournament run was impressive but not completely dominant, and the team does not have as many future professional players as the 1996 team does. They do have an edge with Anthony Davis, who might be the greatest Wildcat player of all-time.
After reviewing the teams from multiple angles, I declare the 1995-96 Kentucky Wildcats to be the superior team and the greatest team in school history.
Overall winner: 1995-96 "Untouchables"