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Vaught’s note: As an editor of The Catsâ€™ Pause and sportswriter and sports editor for The Richmond Register, Nick Nicholas covered the University of Kentucky basketball program from 1985-1995. He is currently the director of sports development with Nicholas & Lence Communications in New York, NY. Today he adds his input on whether the 1978 national champion Wildcats should compare to the 1996 or 2012 championship team
By NICK NICHOLAS
I understand there is a playful squabble going back and forth between whoâ€™s better: the 2012 Kentucky Wildcats or 1996 Kentucky Wildcats. Both enjoyed domination over opponents en route to their respective national championships. Each base passionately argues for their favorite, either the 2012 or 1996 national champion, claiming theirs was the most dominant.
One problem. Arenâ€™t you forgetting another Kentucky squad to be in the conversation: The 1978 Kentucky Wildcats? Remember this Wildcat team that went 30-2? Remember this Wildcat team that was No. 1 for nearly the entire 1977-78 season? Remember this Wildcat team that won by an average of 14.5 points per game, won 12 of its games by more than 20 points and three by 30 or more?
Iâ€™m not saying Joe B. Hallâ€™s championship squad would defeat either John Calipariâ€™s 2011-12 team or Rick Pitinoâ€™s 1995-96 team. Thatâ€™s not the point.
But the â€™78 Wildcats should be in this conversation. Thatâ€™s the point
(Forgive me for not adding any of Adolph Ruppâ€™s four championship teams. Thatâ€™s for someone else to bring up. I may be old, but Iâ€™m not that old).
The â€™77-78 season was a different time and different style that didnâ€™t include the shot clock, conference tournament, 3-point line, NCAAâ€™s mega $$$ investment and domed stadiums in the tournament and designer basketball shorts clinging to the knees.
Nope, these were simpler times.
The core of the â€™78 Wildcats were starters Jack Givens, Rick Robey and Mike Phillips along with “Sixth Manâ€™â€™ and fan favorite James Lee. Each had been through the wars as freshmen, sophomores and juniors.
As freshmen they were an active part of the â€™75 team along with senior leaders Kevin Grevey, Jimmy Dan Conner, Bob Guyette and Mike Flynn that knocked off No. 1 and undefeated Indiana in the Mideast Regionals before losing in the NCAA Championship game to coaching legend John Woodenâ€™s last UCLA squad.
The next season as sophomores they won the National Invitational Tournament in New York when the NIT still meant something and NCAA bids werenâ€™t a dime a dozen.
During their junior years they were one of the countryâ€™s top teams, only to lose to North Carolina in the East Regionals. That was one of those days I recall as if it were yesterday. Only hours earlier I had watched my beloved Owensboro Red Devils lose to No. 1 Louisville Ballard in a Saturday morning semifinal session of the Sweet 16 at Freedom Hall. We went back to our hotel room at the Executive Inn to painfully watch UNCâ€™s Four Corner offense suffocate Kentuckyâ€™s dreams of going to a Final Four.
Unlike todayâ€™s college game where fans have to wonder if their schoolâ€™s star freshmen, sophomores or juniors will forgo their remaining college eligibility for the NBA, Kentucky fans could look to something special in 1977-78.
Now throw in a talented transfer from Purdue who would be Hallâ€™s coach on the floor and this Kentucky team transformed itself into a Big Blue Machine.
With the exception of another player from Indiana (Larry Bird, Indiana to Indiana State), Kyle Macy may be the most significant transfer in college basketball history. The 6-foot-3 Macy directed traffic on the hardwood, and with precision passes and outside jumpers his talents as a point guard made this UK team the preseason favorite to win its fifth national championship.
Macy was the final piece to this championship puzzle to fit nicely with the sharpshooting Givens, 6-foot-10, 235-pound bookends Phillips and Robey, Leeâ€™s intimidating and uplifting play and Truman Claytor and Jay Shidlerâ€™s vital contributions on the perimeter.
Hall had a team practically invincible, mirroring Pitino and Calipariâ€™s championship teams. The â€™78 teamâ€™s only losses were to one of those “offâ€™â€™ nights in Tuscaloosa and one of those “crazy Dale Brown overtimeâ€™â€™ nights in Baton Rouge.
Nevertheless, “the season without celebrationâ€™â€™ delivered a 16-2 run in the Southeastern Conference followed by NCAA victories over Florida State, Miami (Ohio), Michigan State led by freshman Earvin Magic Johnson, Arkansas with its noted Triplets of Sidney Moncrief, Ron Brewer and Marvin Delph coached by a guy named Eddie Sutton and Duke in the title tilt at St. Louisâ€™ 20,000-seat Checkerdome.
Wait a minute. Duke vs. Kentucky in the finals? A lot of media buildup? Remember, this was the Dick Enberg era of college basketball, not Dick Vitale. It didnâ€™t create the same hype that youâ€™d expect today in a Blue Devil vs. Wildcat championship game.
Twice in the NCAA tournament the â€™78 team scored in the 90s â€“ remember no shot clock and no 3-point line. They survived a 52-49 half-court struggle against Michigan State thanks in part to Macy sinking six consecutive free throws in the gameâ€™s final three minutes.
Givens had a dominating senior year comparable to Anthony Davisâ€™ superb freshman campaign. The 6-foot-5 small forward with a deft southpaw touch was a National Player of the Year, Final Four Most Outstanding Player, Mideast Regional Most Outstanding Player and a First-Team All-SEC selection.
That night Givens lit up the Blue Devilsâ€™ zone defense for 41 points as UK controlled the Blue Devils for most of the night â€“ much like the â€™96 team did against Syracuse and the 2012 Wildcats against Kansas â€“ with a 94-88 score that wasnâ€™t that close.
Givensâ€™ profile was tattooed on the cover of that weekâ€™s Sports Illustrated with “The Goose was Golden.â€™â€™
“Jack Givens played the best game I have ever seen anyone play,” said Duke’s junior captain Jim Spanarkel. “I guess we played him on a night we shouldn’t have played him.”
Both Robey (No. 3) and Givens (No. 16) were selected in the NBAâ€™s first round while Lee was taken in the second round and Phillips was the first pick of the third round. Ironically, Macyâ€™s Kentucky career ended two years later with a loss to Duke in the NCAA Mideast Regional semifinals in Lexington.
If you did a tale of the tape between the three teams, the â€™96 team might have the most talent overall (starters and reserves), the 2012 team might have had the best starting five, but the â€™78 team might have the best chemistry.
Givens, Macy and Shilder (the Blonde Bomber) would have benefited greatly with a 3-point shot. And, Phillips, Robey and Lee might have been remembered as being more agile given room to roam underneath.
Put the â€™96 team and the 2012 team in a time machine set for 1978 and see how they do. They wouldnâ€™t have liked the idea of matching up against deliberate styles.
I would like to hear Coach Hall or perhaps then-UK assistant and current Florida State coach Leonard Hamiltonâ€™s assessment of how the â€™78 team would fare against either club. Yes, those were different times, but all three teams produced the same results in the same dominating fashion.