Past Imperfect is a series focusing on the history of the game. Every two weeks, RTC contributor Joshua Lars Weill (@AgonicaBoss|Email) highlights some piece of historical arcana that may (or may not) be relevant to today’s college basketball landscape. This week: the dominance of Kentucky’s 1996 ‘Untouchables,’ and the banishment of Rodrick Rhodes.
Rodrick Rhodes was a very good college basketball player. He was versatile, athletic, long and skilled. He was good enough as a teenager that most folks who knew of him figured he wouldn’t be in college very long, that one or maybe two seasons at Kentucky, his college choice, would be all that was necessary for Rhodes to showcase the game that would make him an instant NBA millionaire. A month into his freshman season, it looked like those lofty expectations were spot on. The Jersey City, NJ, native wowed national audiences, had ESPN’s Dick Vitale preaching his impending stardom and was set up neatly to slide in as the Wildcats’ next mega-star, following in the imposing footsteps of another former New York City-area prep star, Jamal Mashburn.
But Rhodes wasn’t Mashburn, either in internal strength or in shooting touch, and somewhere along the way to getting his name in the rafters, something changed. Rhodes showed some flaws, and by the end of his sophomore season, Kentucky coach Rick Pitino seemed to sour on Rhodes and on dealing with Rhodes’ older brother, Reggie, who Pitino felt was whispering NBA dreams nonstop into his brother’s ear.
Finally, following a series of disappointing showings by Rhodes in his junior season, including a miserable game in UK’s Elite Eight loss to North Carolina, Pitino had had enough. After the enigmatic junior forward opted to enter his name into the NBA Draft pool, Pitino moved on. When Rhodes bombed an audition for pro scouts and decided he wanted to return for his final season at Kentucky, Pitino reportedly told Rhodes he could redshirt if he wanted to return, but whether out of pride or exhaustion with his situation, Rhodes demurred and instead asked for his release to transfer. Pitino obliged and Rhodes the next great Kentucky star became the Rhodes the ex-great Kentucky recruit.
Pitino’s replaced Rhodes with Ron Mercer, a five-star small forward from Nashville who arrived in Lexington as the anti-Rhodes, preaching a willingness to play whatever role the team needed, never gripe about playing time and learn from his more seasoned teammates. The addition of Mercer and fellow recruit Wayne Turner completed Kentucky’s 1995-96 roster, which was built around senior All-America candidates Tony Delk and Walter McCarty, junior Derek Anderson and sophomore Antoine Walker.
Mercer’s attitude was just what Pitino needed for this, his best chance to win a national championship. Always an ace recruiter and at the time arguably the best cultivator of professional-grade basketball talent in the college game, Pitino had assembled a team for the ages, one whose dominance would be matched only by its remarkable cohesion, especially on the defensive end. The Wildcats would work with a rotation of about 10 players, most nearly interchangeable in their ability to shoot, run and press their opponent and in their unmistakable talent.
“I’ve never had 10 players so close in ability,” Pitino said at the time.
The result of all that ability was an onslaught of skill and length that observers and pundits touted before the season as among the best ever assembled at a college program. There appeared to be no flaws. The Cats had shooters and big men and length and coaching. How fascinating, then, when just two weeks into Kentucky’s season this supposedly unbeatable basketball machine in blue would go down in defeat at the hands of a Massachusetts squad in many ways Kentucky’s mirror opposite: slow where UK was fast, frontcourt heavy where UK was not, reliant on a short rotation where Kentucky featured depth. It was an unlikely rivalry that would continue the entire season to college hoops fans’ delight.