Speaking to the media today, Donnie Tyndall added his voice to the conversation on this Kentucky team's place in history:
Tyndall on Kentucky: "I think it’s arguably the best team to ever be assembled." Said only 89-90 UNLV is same ballpark.— Wes Rucker (@wesrucker247) February 16, 2015
The Cats, as you'll hear even more of in the next 48 hours with their tour in our city, are 25-0. Going undefeated in league play isn't anything new since Florida just did it last year. But the last undefeated National Champion was 1976 Indiana.
We've played this game with John Calipari before, taking down a 26-0 #1 Memphis squad on February 23, 2008. (Fun fact: as part of their NCAA sanctions, Memphis vacated not only their 38 wins but their entire NCAA Tournament appearance, including the loss to Kansas in the title game. This means their official record in 2007-08 is 0-1). But that one happened at the FedEx Forum. This Kentucky team comes rolling into Knoxville as one of the best teams to ever play in Thompson-Boling Arena.
This is Calipari's first Kentucky team with a veteran presence. The Cats aren't just built around sensational freshmen Devin Booker and Karl-Anthony Towns. They have experienced sophomores in the Harrisons and Dakari Johnson and junior Willie Cauley-Stein now in his third year in the bluegrass. Historically great teams are usually carried by one or two superstars, or a balanced unit with everybody knowing and playing their roles. This Kentucky team may not have a surefire number one pick, but it has multiple lottery picks and eight players getting between 18-26 minutes.
So even if you think things might go poorly for the Vols tomorrow night, there's a part of you that might want to see this thing, to say you were there if indeed the Cats do finish 40-0. Will they be the best to ever play at Thompson-Boling? Here are nine other candidates, in chronological order:
1993 Kentucky (Tennessee 78 #2 Kentucky 77) - 30-4, Final Four
Rick Pitino's Cats were led by Jamal Mashburn's 21 points per game and current Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford, finishing the year as a 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. They won their first four tournament games by at least 21 points before bowing to the sophomore versions of Michigan's Fab Five in the Final Four 81-78. But they lost in Knoxville on one of the most famous plays in Tennessee Basketball history. Up three in the final seconds, Kentucky intentionally fouled Allan Houston rather than risk letting him shoot with 27 points on the night. With 4.9 seconds left, Houston made the first, intentionally missed the second, and chaos ensued:
If you think the Vols will be big underdogs tonight, consider these Vols were 3-9 in SEC play before they pulled this off. A few weeks later in the SEC Tournament, Kentucky got revenge to the tune of 101-40...but no one saw it thanks to the Blizzard of '93, which probably helped Wade Houston keep his job.
1994 Arkansas (#5 Arkansas 65 Tennessee 64) - 31-3, National Champions
The Hogs were led by Corliss Williamson's 20.4 points and 7.7 rebounds per game, running Nolan Richardson's 40 Minutes of Hell all the way to the title. They started SEC play 2-2 but didn't lose again until the SEC Tournament, then ran through the NCAA Tournament winning every game by at least eight points before beating Duke in the title game 76-72. Again, if you're looking for hope: these Vols were 5-22 and Wade Houston was eventually fired, but behind a strong performance from Steve Hamer they almost got the Hogs in Thompson-Boling.
1996 Kentucky (#2 Kentucky 90 Tennessee 50) - 34-2, National Champions
UK's "Untouchables" went undefeated in SEC play in the regular season, losing only to UMass in the non-conference and Mississippi State in the SEC Tournament. This bunch was littered with NBA talent: Antoine Walker, Walter McCarty, Ron Mercer, and Tony Delk. And they have already out-paced their contemporaries in league play: only Georgia stayed within single digits in regular season conference play. The Dawgs lost by five in Athens; Kentucky went 16-0 with an average margin of victory of 24.1 points in the SEC. Their biggest win came in Knoxville with five players in double figures and 20 Tennessee turnovers leading to basically a dunk contest.
1998 Kentucky (#7 Kentucky 85 Tennessee 67) - 35-4, National Champions
Tubby Smith's first team was an eventual two seed in the NCAA Tournament, riding Nazr Mohammed to another NCAA title. This team makes the list because they won it all, but they did have an unusually easy ride in the NCAA Tournament. They did take down one seed Duke in the Elite Eight 86-84, but faced a 15, 10, and 6 seed to get there, then only saw a pair of three seeds in the Final Four, beating Stanford in overtime and finally Utah to win it all.
2007 Florida (Tennessee 86 #5 Florida 76) - 35-5, National Champions
I remember watching this team in warm-ups, even after the Vols had beaten them the year before, and thinking, "We have to do everything right to beat this team." This is one of the most complete starting fives in SEC history; they were led by Joakim Noah and Al Horford but all five of them got between 10.3 and 13.3 points per game. However, on this night they were bested by Tennessee's starting five: 21 from Chris Lofton, 16 from JaJuan Smith, 10 apiece from Dane Bradshaw and Ramar Smith, and nine from Wayne Chism. Tennessee shot 58% from the floor. The Vols trailed 17-16 when they hit the Gators with a 17-0 run and never looked back, leading by 19 at halftime and as many as 27 early in the second half before winning 86-76. Not this Florida team's finest hour, to be sure, but it usually wasn't when they played the Vols.
2010 Kansas (#16 Tennessee 76 #1 Kansas 68) - 33-3, NCAA Second Round
A great example of not meeting their potential, for the team in the season and the players down the road. The Jayhawks were the last number one team to come to Knoxville, facing the Vols just nine days after Tennessee kicked Tyler Smith off the squad and suspended Melvin Goins, Cameron Tatum, and Brian Williams. Then the Vols got just 14 minutes from J.P. Prince and 19 from Wayne Chism due to foul trouble. And Tennessee still won, thanks in large part to going 9 of 18 from the three point line. Renaldo Woolridge hit four of them. And in the final minute, Skylar McBee provided the dagger with a shot clock beating three to put the Vols up six with 30 seconds to play. And unbelievably, the Vols upset the number one team in the nation.
The Jayhawks were preseason number one, undefeated til they lost to the Vols, then went 15-1 in the Big 12 en route to the overall number one seed in the NCAA Tournament. And then they lost to Northern Iowa in the second round. And other than the Morris twins, most of their talent - Sherron Collins, Tyshawn Taylor, Cole Aldrich, Xavier Henry - never really worked out in the NBA.
2010 Kentucky (#19 Tennessee 74 #2 Kentucky 65) - 35-3, Elite Eight
John Calipari's first Kentucky squad still feels like the one most talked about before this one. That's in part because playing all these freshmen was a new phenomenon, and in part because their talent was legitimate: John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins just played in the NBA All-Star Game. That first team had one major weakness: three point shooting. They went 2 of 22 in Knoxville, allowing Tennessee to hit an 18-0 run in the first half and build a lead as big as 19 in the second half. The Cats rallied to tie the game with 2:13 to play, but they were then out of gas. And after J.P. Prince scored to give the Vols the lead back, Scotty Hopson buried a three with 40 seconds to play to end the threat and give Tennessee the victory over Kentucky. If you like Wall & Cousins over Noah & Horford, which are the only two NBA All-Star duos on this list, then you can make a serious case for this team as at least the most talented to ever play in TBA.
2012 Kentucky (#2 Kentucky 65 Tennessee 62) - 38-2, National Champions
Here's the thing about seeing so many of these Kentucky freshmen: you're never exactly sure at the time if you're seeing a great college player, a future NBA all-star, or a Hall of Famer. Consider Anthony Davis: 18 points, 8 rebounds, 4 blocked shots against the Vols in his only Knoxville appearance. I wrote at the time, "You look at Anthony Davis, who looks like he's still figuring out his own body at times..." I thought the kid was a great shot blocker. I did not know he was going to become, in just three years, one of the best basketball players on planet earth. Davis got overshadowed in this one because it was the debut of Jarnell Stokes, who scored nine points in 17 minutes. Tennessee led at halftime and the game was tied 54-54 with seven minutes left. Kentucky responded with an 8-0 run, but the Vols would rally with a chance to tie in the final seconds before Cameron Tatum's three misfired. This UK team also had Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. At the time, January 14, we didn't know exactly how good they would be. Then they steamrolled the rest of the league: other than losing to Vanderbilt in the SEC Tournament, Tennessee's three point loss is as close as anyone got the rest of the year. Their 38 wins is the current NCAA record.
2014 Florida (#3 Florida 67 Tennessee 58) - 36-3, Final Four
You look at these Kentucky teams and the last Florida team to make a Final Four, and then you look at the names on last year's Florida roster, and it seems like this group just doesn't really fit. But there they were, 36-2 and winners of 30 games in a row, having had no trouble on their way to the Final Four. But after starting the game with a 16-4 lead, Florida went ice cold against UConn and, I thought, had some mental struggles down the stretch as the Huskies eventually won 73-63. This was a veteran Florida crew - Patric Young, Scottie Wilbekin, Will Yeguete - that just weeks earlier had a pair of tests from Tennessee. The Vols fell 56-49 in an insanely competitive SEC Tournament game, but before that had their chances in Knoxville as well, down one with the ball with four minutes to play before a Jeronne Maymon turnover led to a Michael Frazier three, negating one of Jarnell Stokes' best games with 20 points and 11 rebounds against the Gators.
Which of these ten teams gets your vote as the best to ever play in Thompson-Boling?
Obviously, the jury is still out on this year's Kentucky team, but they're certainly in the conversation at the moment. It's hard to compare the three I think are the front-runners - 1996 Kentucky, 2007 Florida, and 2010 Kentucky - because Tennessee is a much better basketball program than it was when '96 Kentucky beat us by 40. Still, I'm inclined to take those Untouchable Cats; they may not have the NBA All-Star one-two punch, but they did have one in Antoine Walker, and their NBA depth is ridiculous.
We'll see how this year's Kentucky squad fares when the Vols and Wildcats square off tomorrow night.