They were one of the greatest college basketball teams that didn’t reach the Final Four. Need proof? At the end of the 1969-70 season, while UCLA walked away with their sixth NCAA Tournament title, Kentucky walked away with the no.1 ranking in both the AP and UPI polls (remember, this was before ESPN was a twinkle in its creator’s eye).
Their best player was a future Hall of Famer who battled all comers inside despite giving up nearly four inches in some games. Dan Issel averaged 33.9 points before the three-point shot and engaged in one of the most entertaining battles that ever took place when he engaged Pete Maravich in a forty-minute game of H-O-R-S-E. By the time the Memorial Coliseum filed out in amazement, Maravich had 64 points, Issel had 51 and Kentucky added another notch to their belt.
Issel wasn’t alone in battling all comers. Small forward Mike Pratt, who now does color commentary for the UK radio broadcasts, came within a whisker of averaging 20 points and ten rebounds a game for the season. Undersized power forward Tom Parker, who went on to own one of Lexington’s long-time favorite fast-food restaurants (Parkette Drive-In), contributed double-figure scoring in his initial season. Future Portland Trail Blazer Larry Steele and Terry Mills (whose son, Cameron, would have a couple of Tournament titles by the time he finished his Wildcat career) were rocks in the backcourt.
Together, this collection of Adolph Rupp’s finest put up enough points to make NBA teams take notice (96.8 points a game). Passing was their forte as they doubled their opponents’ assists during the season but they also worked the boards with a vengeance (outrebounding their opponents by nine a game). When it was all over they finished with a 26-2 record. One loss was difficult to see coming. The other was a war lost due to attrition.
Nixed In Nashville
Much like today’s version, the Wildcats entered Nashville to take on Vanderbilt ranked number 2 in the AP poll and sporting a 15-0 record. The Commodores weren’t ranked and didn’t figure to give Kentucky much of a fight. They would finish with a 12-14 record.
But for one day the ‘Dores conjured up some magic. Tom Arnholt made a living at the line by sinking fourteen of fifteen at the stripe on his way to 28 points. Perry Wallace, who was the first African-American to play SEC basketball, chipped in 20 points and 19 rebounds. Issel and Pratt combined for 46 points but it was a rare game where the ‘Cats were dominated on the boards by a 57-41 advantage.
It was the highlight of Vandy’s season as the final score was 89-81. On the plus side, Kentucky wouldn’t lose another game until the NCAA Tournament.
Just Short Against Jacksonville
The Wildcats had ridden another winning streak heading into the 1970 NCAA Tournament. They received a bye into the Mideast Regional and survived a 109-99 battle against Austin Carr and Notre Dame. Their opponent, Jacksonville, barely survived against Iowa thanks to a tip-in by a seven-footer not named Artis Gilmore.
The Dolphins had Gilmore and Rex Morgan as their dynamic duo (indeed, the two were known as Batman and Robin). The Wildcats had Issel and Pratt. It set up to be a classic battle.
By halftime Jacksonville had gotten out to a 52-45 lead. Kentucky wasn’t shooting well and the fouls were starting to pile up while Jacksonville super-sub Chip Dublin was lighting it up. However, the ‘Cats started pressing and made a comeback until Issel was whistled for his fifth foul midway through the second half.
At the end of the day, Issel, Pratt, Steele and Mills all fouled out while Gilmore and Morgan combined for 52 points. Dublin chipped in 19 for the Dolphins, who would eventually face UCLA in the title game. The final score was 106-100, Jacksonville.
Reflecting On the Past
There are a lot of similarities between the 1969-70 and current version of the Wildcats. Both teams like to score in bunches and have big men that can pound the boards relentlessly. Both teams can bring key contributors off the bench. Both teams emphasize the pass.
Of course, the 1969-70 team didn’t have a point guard of John Wall’s caliber. Would that have made a difference? No offense to Terry Mills, but I think it might have. Dan Issel also didn’t have a DeMarcus Cousins to help him against an opponent like Gilmore (or Bob Lanier of St. Bonaventure, had they gotten that far).
Still, that team had a great run. It was the last great team Rupp would have (his last two squads finished eighth and 18th in the polls, respectively). They deserve their place in national history as one of the great units in college hoops history.