JOE COX: Time Machine Sends Coach Cal's Wildcats Back to Face Pitino's 1996 Kentucky Team
By Joe Cox
It was a typical day at work when a text message hit my phone. “Text me back at this number,” it said. I looked at the number and didn’t recognize it. New phone number, new area code. But the text was signed by Jamie Vaught, so I figured it was legitimate. The head honcho of KySportsStyle360.com commands respect. I texted him back. “You can’t tell anyone,” he texted me, “But I found a time machine. You can use it for the weekend.”
I needed no further instructions.
It was hard work convincing the entire 2014-15 UK basketball team, never mind transporting them, but once they loaded into the old WV bus that cleverly concealed the inner workings of a time machine, we knew when our next stop was.
April 2, 1996. Lexington, Kentucky.
Rick Pitino’s national champion 'Cats had just returned to Lexington. Their dominance of college basketball was complete, and their swagger was in full effect. Until WCS stepped off the bus.
I told them, as quickly and simply as possible, that this was a UK team from the future that had come to challenge them. I don’t think any of them took me seriously until Coach Cal stepped off the bus. They’d played against him a few days before (in the 1996 NCAA semifinals, beating Cal's UMass), and knew that no amount of "makeup" could age a guy nearly 20 years overnight. Either it was that, or when the 2015 ‘Cats started running a layup line. The competitive instincts kicked in. It was on.
They lined up, man versus man. Walter McCarty and Karl Anthony-Towns prepared for a jump ball. Tony Delk and Aaron Harrison waited side by side for the chance to grab the rock. It was really happening.
UK of 1996 started out fast. Delk drained a trey and Antoine Walker hit an eight-foot shot. When Derek Anderson had a steal and jam, 1996 led the game 7-2. Calipari leaped onto the floor and called for time.
Tyler Ulis joined the Harrison brothers in the backcourt. Suddenly the game shifted. Cauley-Stein buried a jump-hook. Devin Booker checked in and nailed a three. At the under 12-minute timeout, it was 13-11 in favor of the 1996 team.
Defensively, the length of the 2015 team caused some havoc. McCarty was simply not strong enough to muscle Towns or Dakari Johnson, and Mark Pope was vastly overmatched. At the other end, Delk proved to be impossible to contain. Anderson and Ron Mercer put up points on Trey Lyles, who struggled to keep up. At the half, though, Delk had 14 points and 1996 led 39-32.
Calipari had his team ready in the early second half. When Cauley-Stein drew a costly third foul on Antoine Walker, Lob City was in session. On one memorable play, Derek Anderson broke up a lob intended for Trey Lyles, only for Towns to grab the loose ball and throw it down to begin a three-point play.
Back and forth the teams went. It was racehorse basketball -- sometimes physical, always blindingly fast. The 2015 club drew closer and closer, even taking a 75-74 lead with a minute to go on a jumper from Lyles. The 1996 team executed slowly, with Anthony Epps driving the lane as the game clock ticked to 30 seconds. He drew help from Cauley-Stein, who was a split second late getting back out on Walter McCarty, who buried a left corner trey and pumped his fist. 77-75, 1996 lead.
On the last possession for 2015, after a Calipari timeout, Johnson set a wide screen for Aaron Harrison, who curled and caught a pass from his brother. He jabbed hard, and for the only time in the entire game, Tony Delk made a mistake, backing up the slightest bit. With the game clock inside five seconds, Harrison smelled blood, stepping back, arching a high, long trey over the lengthy hands of Delk. It spun toward the basket on target, as both benches leaned in, with wide-eyed reserves holding their breath….
BEEP! BEEP! BEEP!
The alarm continues to scream at me, and suddenly, I find myself awakening. In my bed, at my house outside Bowling Green.
Somehow…it was all a dream.
I stumbled to the mirror, and thought just how real the dream was. What a great game it was, and how it was a shame that it hadn’t really happened, how these two teams, 1996 and 2015, were both incredibly talented, incredibly special. About how they were both gifts from God, really, and we’d all been lucky to see them.
A thought hit me. I checked the phone. No text from Jamie, at his normal number or otherwise. So there. It was DEFINITELY a dream.
It wasn’t until mid-day that I noticed another text. Another unfamiliar number.
“Joe, that was fun. I’d say let’s do it again, but I’m thinking the 1948 team is next. Thanks for the time machine. And watch out for the 2172 UK team. Those guys can play ball, Cal.”
* * * *
All right, fun aside, the topic of best UK team ever is one that is making the rounds. The truth is that it’s far too soon to know. Basketball isn’t as much about how a team starts as how it finishes. That said, if Kentucky can escape Louisville on Saturday with a victory, the perfect season talk will really begin to amp up… and justifiably so.
I’m a little surprised at the vehemence of the 1996 guys in insisting that their team is superior. It was a phenomenal team. It also lost two games, and had a center who would get his lunch eaten by the current UK big men. Here’s the thing—when Derek Anderson or Antoine Walker compare these teams, they’re using the April 1996 version of UK’s team. The December 1995 version of the team is the fair comparison—and it’s pretty darn close.
But there are other entries into this field that merit consideration. The 1948 UK team really may have been the best UK team of all time. Joe B. Hall thinks so, and he’s rarely wrong. For that matter, his 1978 squad wasn’t exactly chopped liver. And the 1953-54 squad DID go unbeaten—albeit without playing the NCAA Tournament.
Moral of the story: Enjoy the journey. This is a really talented team that has an excellent chance to be great. But they are the first of their kind, and their narrative is amazing enough without beating them up with comparisons.
* * * *
Meanwhile, UK football went and hired Shannon Dawson from West Virginia as the new offensive coordinator. I like the hire. It has Hal Mumme’s blessing, and demonstrates Stoops’ commitment to run an attacking, high-scoring style of offense. A lot of folks are getting bent out of shape about the fact that Dawson apparently didn’t call the plays at West Virginia. Relax. He’s no football neophyte. Guy knows the game, and deserves a fair shot. His predecessor wasn’t exactly Bill Belichick out there. He’ll be fine.
* * * *
And so this is Christmas. I’ve enjoyed being a part of KySportsStyle360.com, which seems to be really finding a niche in the online community. I enjoy seeing what my colleagues have to say, and how the editor can hold it all together.
I encourage you all to remember that sports, like life, is ultimately about people. I think about the personalities that we’ve met or learned about in the last year from Lexington and I’m grateful for each and every one. I can’t imagine what lies ahead for them, but I’m glad to get to see it. And I’m glad for readers who can go there with me. Have a very Merry Christmas and a happy rivalry game!
Joe Cox is contributing editor for Kysportsstyle360.com. He grew up in Letcher County and Bell County, and has written three books involving UK sports -- 100 Things Wildcats Fans Should Know and Do Before They Die, Fightin’ Words: Kentucky vs. Louisville (both with Ryan Clark), and Voice of the Wildcats: Claude Sullivan and the Rise of Modern Sportscasting (with Alan Sullivan). Joe is an attorney and lives in Logan County with his wife and children. You can reach him at email@example.com.