Column: Has UK missed its best chance to catch UCLA in NCAA titles?

By Mark Story - Lexington Herald-Leader

On the Sunday after Kentucky won the 2012 NCAA championship, my column proclaimed that UCLA’s record of 11 NCAA men’s basketball championships was now within reach for UK.

I pointed out that over 17 years, thanks to Rick Pitino’s national title in 1996, Tubby Smith’s in 1998 and John Calipari’s in 2012, Kentucky had narrowed UCLA’s edge from 11-5 to 11-8.

“If UK could repeat the same ratio, beating UCLA by three championships over the next 17 years, it would tie the Bruins in 2029,” I wrote.

As No. 7 UK (9-1) prepares to face UCLA (7-3) in the CBS Sports Classic at 4 p.m. Saturday in the Smoothie King Center in New Orleans, it seems an appropriate time to review the status of UK’s bid to catch UCLA in national championships.

What we’ve seen in the years since Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Co. raised national title banner No. 8 for UK is a reminder of just how difficult it is going to be for Kentucky to ever catch UCLA.

The 2012 NCAA championship was part of a run when Kentucky made four Final Four trips in five years, a stretch of success unprecedented in UK’s regal basketball history.

Think about how agonizingly close Kentucky came from 2011 through 2015 to making a giant leap forward on — maybe even catching — UCLA.

In 2011, the Cats fell to Connecticut 56-55 in an NCAA Tournament national semifinal that was the de facto NCAA championship game.

The contest was decided at the foul line, where UK went 4-of-12 while UConn made nine of 11 free throws. That disparity was why UConn, not UK, got to bulldoze Butler in the 2011 NCAA title game.

Three years later, Kentucky and Connecticut met again, this time in the NCAA finals. The Cats had ridden a golden run of clutch shooting from Aaron Harrison within one victory of an unexpected national title.

Yet with the big trophy at stake, it was the UConn backcourt of Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright that seized it, controlling the game in a 60-54 Huskies victory.

Kentucky was again badly hurt by its errant foul shooting, going 13-of-24 on free throws compared to Connecticut’s 10-of-10.

For UK, the deepest cut of all came in the 2015 Final Four. The Cats (38-0) got to the national semifinals two wins from an undefeated NCAA championship.

Kentucky was leading Wisconsin 60-56 when three late shot-clock violations, the result of an uncharacteristic period of UK offensive stagnation, led to a 71-64 Badgers victory.

Moral of these stories: It’s really hard to win the men’s NCAA basketball tournament.

From a historical standpoint, the most significant basketball game Kentucky has ever played remains the 1975 NCAA finals against UCLA. In what became iconic Bruins head coach John Wooden’s final game, UCLA held off Joe B. Hall’s Cats 92-85.

Flip that one outcome, and the national title count now would be UCLA 10, Kentucky 9.

Of course, other than Jim Harrick’s 1995 NCAA crown, UCLA has not added a national championship trophy since Wooden retired.

The big advantage UK has in its pursuit of UCLA is that Kentucky Wildcats basketball is a whole lot more important to the people of the commonwealth than UCLA hoops is in L.A. — which has two MLB teams (sort of), two NBA teams, two NFL teams, USC and UCLA football and countless other entertainment options.

But it is also true that, with all the emphasis and resources the University of Kentucky puts into men’s basketball, UK has won four NCAA titles since 1958.

North Carolina, which claimed its sixth NCAA championship last spring, is now closer to UK than Kentucky is to UCLA in the national title race.

Obviously, there is no unfailing crystal ball from which to view the future.

Still, in coming decades, we might look back on those three UK near misses during the recent stretch of four trips to the Final Four in five years as where the Wildcats’ best opportunity to catch UCLA got away.


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By Mark Story

Lexington Herald-Leader