A look back: Pitino’s team embodies ‘One For All’

  • Kentucky's Walter McCarty and Tony Delk (00) celebrate Kentucky's 83-63 win over Wake Forest in the NCAA Midwest Regional final in Minneapolis on Saturday, March 23, 1996. (AP Photo/Morry Gash) MORRY GASH—ASSOCIATED PRESS

  • Wake Forest’s Tim Duncan fights his way through Kentucky’s Antoine Walker, left, and Walter McCarty during the NCAA Midwest Regional finals in Minneapolis on March 23, 1996. Kentucky won 83-63. AP

Staff Writer
Published: 3/27/2020 3:54:49 PM

Editor’s note: With the NCAA Tournament canceled, the Gazette looks back to when UMass made its run to the 1996 Final Four. This story appeared in the Gazette on March 28, 1996.

NEW YORK — Kentucky coach Rick Pitino, never accused of having a frail ego, has built the Wildcats into a powerhouse by getting his players to submerge their egos for the good of the team.

Pitino and his pack of big-time players will arrive in the Big Apple today and take on the top-ranked University of Massachusetts Saturday in the NCAA semifinals. That game will follow the first national semifinal contest (5:40 p.m., CBS) between Mississippi State and Syracuse.

The Kentucky coach knows that his team is loaded. While UMass has only one McDonald’s High School All-America (Donta Bright), the Wildcats have four: Tony Delk, Ron Mercer, Antoine Walker and Wayne Turner. Also, the Wildcats have three other players who earned high school All-America status – Walter McCarty (Parade), Jeff Sheppard (Converse) and Mark Pope (Converse).

The talent runs 10 deep with almost no discernible drop-off in performance. Pitino has never shied away from admitting that this is the most talented squad he has ever coached. He has also made the point that having the most talent does not always make for the best team.

After the Wildcats lost to UMass 92-82 in November, Pitino called a team meeting to discuss the situation.

“I said, ‘Guys, we’re never going to have 11 players of this caliber in our program at once,”’ Pitino revealed in a Final Four teleconference yesterday. “‘We can go two ways. It can be very difficult for you not playing. It can be very difficult for me seeing you unhappy. And it can be a difficult experience for all involved.

“‘Or we can go the other way. We can look at the Magic Johnson and the Larry Bird philosophies, people who have gone on to greatness who just care about the team, with one thought process, and that’s winning.’

“The players, fortunately for all of us, chose the latter.”

Kentucky comes into the Final Four with a 32-2 record, with both losses coming against teams that are still playing, UMass and Mississippi State.

UMass coach John Calipari said yesterday that Pitino’s ability to get his team to play unselfishly is testimony to his mentor’s coaching skills.

“They all stepped back – each player stepped back – so that they all could take three steps forward,” Calipari said. “What Rick’s been able to do, to get that collection of talent to play together, you don’t understand how hard that is. A good coach can get nice players, and make them a pretty good team. But only a great coach can get great players to sacrifice enough to make that a great team.”

■■■

Pitino tries to exploit Kentucky’s depth by playing the game at a breakneck pace. The Wildcats have scored more than 100 points on nine occasions, including three games of 120 or more.

UMass has yet to crack the century mark this year. The Minutemen prefer a halfcourt game, but they have shown a chameleon-like ability to adapt, playing faster when warranted (as illustrated by the 92-82 win over Kentucky).

Pitino describes UMass as “a mid-tempo team.”

Calipari says, “We do want to run. We do want to play fast. We just don’t want to be in a hurry.”




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