The 1988-89 season was by any estimation the low point of modern Kentucky Wildcat men’s basketball. After going 13-19, their first losing season ever, the Cats were hit with severe NCAA sanctions for recruiting violations and cheating on the ACT, including a two-year ban on postseason play, no live television appearances, and a reduction of scholarships.
After coach Eddie Sutton resigned at the end of the season, new AD CM Newton was tasked with finding the next head coach of the storied Wildcat program. The coach he found would be tasked with leading the program out of the wilderness and back to prominence.
The coach he found was Rick Pitino (pictured). Little did Newton know he had his man.
Employing a press at all cost defense and an offense predicated on the three point shot, Pitino electrified BBN and college basketball, leading UK to the 1996 national championship. But before that, Pitino led a group of four players on a journey that would end with jerseys in the Rupp rafters and a “Unforgettable” place in the hearts and minds of UK fans everywhere.
Now, for those fans just now enjoying our little history class, let’s review our concept with them.
Quick history lesson. Mount Rushmore is located in the Black Hills of South Dakota and is comprised of the carved heads of former presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln. History class over. Back to UK history.
The object of this series of articles is to establish who in UK history deserve a spot on the mountain. Knowing it is simply too hard to compress UK basketball as a whole to four spots, I felt like it would be easier to divide UK basketball into championship coaches eras -- the Adolph Rupp Era, the Joe B. Hall Era, the Rick Pitino Era, the Tubby Smith Era, and the John Calipari Era.
I also knew that I couldn’t undertake this endeavor alone, so I called upon my crack group of sports loving friends and family to help me put this together (in case people hate this, I won’t mention their names.) Each person had four spots to fill and I totaled every vote together to come up with the four selections. To also give credit where it's due, each person who didn’t make the monument will be mentioned in a “Receiving Votes” section.
With the parameters laid, let’s begin sculpting shall we? Our era of choice is the Rick Pitino era.
Quick refresher. Pitino was 219-50 in eight years in Lexington. He won five SEC championships, four major tournaments including the Maui Invitational and the Great Alaska Shootout. His squads were 104-28 in SEC play and 17-1 in the SEC tournament. He led Big Blue to the 1996 national title and the 1997 national championship game. At UK, Pitino coached three All-Americans, eight All-SEC picks, six NBA first rounders, and three NBA lottery picks.
Derek Anderson: The ultra quick guard from Louisville transferred to UK from Ohio State and became a fan favorite and the catalyst on the 1997 NCAA runner-up squad. Many believe if he didn’t hurt his ankle in the NCAA tournament, the Cats would've won the national championship going away.
Walter McCarty: The long, athletic forward from Evansville, Indiana was a key contributor on the 1996 championship squad. After an extended career in the NBA as a player and coach, McCarty is now the head coach at the University of Evansville.
Jeff Sheppard: Sheppard makes his second appearance on the panel, also holding a spot on the Tubby Smith era.
Travis Ford: The point guard from Madisonville transferred to UK from Missouri and was also a fan favorite for his passing and ability to hit the three.
Anthony Epps: Perhaps the unsung hero on the 1996 champs, Epps directed the pyrotechnic Cat offense and is one of the best lead guards in UK history. Epps also led Marion County to a KHSAA Sweet 16 championship.
“The Unforgettables:" The flash point of the Pitino era. The group, made up of John Pelphrey, Deron Feldhaus, Richie Farmer, and Sean Woods weathered the NCAA probation storm and led the Cats to an East Regional final against Duke that is considered the greatest college basketball game in history. Each player in the group have their jerseys retired to the Rupp Arena rafters.
Antoine Walker: Walker was a leader on the 96 champions, an All-SEC selection, and a lottery pick of the Boston Celtics. He enjoyed a long career in the NBA.
What a group! You can make the case for any of them for the sacred monument. But alas, there can be only four. Let’s unveil the monument, shall we?
4. Ron Mercer: Mercer played for two years at Kentucky. During his stay he was an All-American, SEC Player of the Year, All-SEC, All-SEC Freshman, a two-time All-Final Four selection, NCAA Regional Tournament and SEC Tournament MVP. After his decorated run, Mercer was a lottery selection of the New Jersey Nets in the NBA draft.
3. John Pelphrey: The forward from Paintsville was perhaps the best player of “The Unforgettables,” reaching the UK Hall of Fame after his revered career in Lexington. Pelphrey, along with his teammates, became the face of the Wildcat program during a three year run that many Wildcat fans hold dear to their hearts. Individually, Pelphrey was an All-SEC selection and ranks 32nd in UK All-Time scoring with 1,257 points.
2. Tony Delk: The sharpshooting guard from Clarksville, Tenn., was a four year starter for the Cats. Delk led the Cats to the 1996 national championship and was selected as an All-American. He was SEC Player of the Year, three-time All-SEC, Final Four MVP, two-time all NCAA Regional pick, MVP of the NCAA Regionals, and SEC All-Tournament. After his career, Delk’s jersey was retired and he was selected to the UK Hall of Fame. Delk also ranks fifth in UK history with 1,890 points.
And now, the number one selection to the Pitino Mount Rushmore is…
1. Jamal Mashburn: Mash was the recruit that turned the Pitino era from a feel good time to a time of domination in Lexington. The 6-8 forward from the Bronx is without question one of the greatest Wildcats of all time. In his three-year stay, Mash was an All-American, SEC Player of the Year, three All-SEC selections, All-SEC freshman, All Final Four, two time All-NCAA Tournament, SEC Tournament MVP, and All-SEC Tournament. He also finished his career as the sixth all-time scorer in Wildcat history with 1,843 points. After a nice NBA run, Mashburn had his jersey retired by UK and was selected to the UK Athletics Hall of Fame.
His post career notwithstanding, BBN owes Rick Pitino a heartfelt thank you. He took the program at its lowest and brought it back to prominence. It’s hard to argue his success and his impact on UK basketball.
Shane Shackleford is a regional sports writer in Speedwell, Tenn. You can reach him via email at email@example.com, his website Coach Shack’s Corner at www.coachshack50/wixsite.com/coachshackscorner, Facebook, or Twitter @shack_daddy_1.
Photo of Pitino by Jamie H. Vaught