Best of Kentucky basketball: Ranking the eight greatest teams in Wildcats history

Kentucky trails only UCLA in college basketball lore, at least when it comes to most national titles won. The Wildcats have won it all eight times, starting with fabled coach Adolph Rupp’s run of three titles in four years from 1948 to 1951. Since then, Kentucky’s five additional titles have come under five coaches, starting with Rupp’s last championship in 1958 and stretching back through the tenures of Joe B. Hall, Rick Pitino, Tubby Smith and, of course, John Calipari. 

Billy Gillespie and Eddie Sutton are the only Kentucky coaches since the Great Depression who didn’t win a national title during their tenures — a fact that speaks to the tradition and resources of the program.

So of all the success the Wildcats have experienced over the last 75-plus years, which eight seasons were their best? The simple answer is that it was the eight national title teams, but there are several historic Kentucky squads that came up short of cutting down the nets. Are they more deserving of inclusion in such a ranking than some of the less-heralded title teams?

Whittling it down to just eight was a challenge, but here is the rundown of the best Kentucky basketball seasons of all time.

1. 1995-96 (Won NCAA championship)

Led by a deep cast of future NBA players including Tony Delk, Antoine Walker, Ron Mercer, Derek Anderson and Walter McCarty, Kentucky started the season ranked No. 1 and never fell below No. 5 in the AP Top 25 as it snapped an 18-year national title drought. The Wildcats finished 34-2 (16-0 SEC) and cruised through the NCAA Tournament with a 21.5-point average margin of victory. 

The team’s only losses came against opponents it also beat. The Wildcats throttled Mississippi State on the road in the regular season before losing to the Bulldogs in the SEC Tournament Championship Game. With a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament locked up, that loss was of little significance. UK’s only other loss came against UMass in the second game of the season. Kentucky avenged that defeat in the Final Four by winning the second meeting 81-74. Thirteen years later, the coach of that UMass team, John Calipari, would become Kentucky’s coach.

2. 2011-12 (Won NCAA championship)

There are striking similarities between the 2012 championship team and the 1996 team, but Pitino’s squad gets the edge on Calipari’s lone title-winner because of how deep it was. Still, there’s no doubt the 2011-12 team is one of the greatest in UK history. Led by freshman phenom Anthony Davis, the Wildcats allowed fewer points per game than any other Kentucky team since the introduction of the 3-point line until the 2014-15 team later broke that record.

Much like the 1995-96 team, the 2011-12 team’s only losses came against teams it also beat. The Wildcats lost to Vanderbilt in the SEC Tournament title game after beating the Commodores twice during the regular season. Their only regular-season loss was a one-point road defeat against Indiana. Kentucky avenged that loss in the Sweet 16 on its way to the program’s eighth title.

3. 2014-15 (Final Four)

A Kentucky team whose leading scorer averaged just 11 points came within two games of completing arguably the greatest season in college basketball history. The Wildcats entered a Final Four contest against Wisconsin 38-0 and having held the No. 1 ranking all season. But even after losing 71-64 to the Badgers and having their magical season cut short, this UK team still comes in ahead of some Kentucky squads that won national titles. 

This team’s depth and defense made it one of the best in school history as it allowed just 54.3 points per game. The 71 points Wisconsin scored in the Final Four loss were the third-most the Wildcats surrendered all year in a season that saw Kentucky hold 15 opponents below 50 points.

4. 1947-48 (Won NCAA championship)

The competing interests of the NCAA Tournament and the NIT in crowing a champion and the eventual integration of UK’s rosters makes comparing the early Kentucky greats to its more modern teams a challenge. But the “Fabulous Five” of 1947-48 won the team’s first national title and deserves a prominent place on any list of the program’s great seasons.

The team didn’t just win — it dominated. Kentucky’s average margin of victory in the SEC Tournament was 26.5 points, and it won its three NCAA Tournament games by a margin of 15.7 points. This squad helped cement Kentucky’s place as a national power in the post-World War II era of college basketball and launched one of the most prolific eras of success in the sport’s history.

5. 1965-66 (Lost in NCAA final)

Thanks in part to the movie “Glory Road,” this team is now known by many for playing in the national championship game against a Texas Western team featuring an all-Black lineup. The all-white Kentucky team known as “Rupp’s runts” lost 72-65 in a matchup viewed today as a landmark moment in college sports amid the continued resistance to athletic integration demonstrated by some universities.

For Kentucky fans, though, this team is also remembered for starting 23-0 without a player over 6-foot-5 in the lineup. Former NBA player and five-time NBA championship-winning coach Pat Riley, who is currently president of the Miami Heat, led the Wildcats with 22 points per game.

6. 1997-98 (Won NCAA championship)

The 1998 title-winning team was by no means a slouch, but its claim to a spot on this the list is due primarily to its improbable run through the final three games of the NCAA Tournament. The “Comeback Cats” as they became known, fell behind by 17 against Duke in the Elite Eight, by 10 against Stanford in the Final Four and by 10 against Utah in the title game.

First-year coach Tubby Smith’s squad rallied each time as this scrappy group of veteran Wildcats etched its place in school lore without a clear-cut superstar in the beginning of the post-Pitino era.

7. 1977-78 (Won NCAA championship)

This team, coached by Joe B. Hall, spent 11 weeks at No. 1 and only dropped to No. 3 after an overtime loss at LSU in February. The Wildcats never lost again as they rattled off 13 straight wins to close the season with a 30-2 record and the program’s first national title won by someone other than Rupp.

Lexington native Jack Givens totaled 41 points in the team’s 94-88 win over Duke in the national title game, which was an especially impressive performance considering it took place before the establishment of the 3-point line.

8. 1991-92 (Elite Eight)

This team lost seven games but produced one of the most meaningful — and therefore, best — seasons in program history. On the heels of a two-year postseason ban, this group of Wildcats, led largely by in-state players, restored the program to prominence.

Of course, most causal college basketball fans remember this Kentucky season for how it ended, with Duke’s Christian Laettner hitting an overtime buzzer-beater to beat the Wildcats in the Elite Eight. But after several years of suffering, Kentucky was officially back, thanks to the efforts of this group.

Read More