As University of Kentucky Head Men’s Basketball Coach John Calipari continues to bring in top ranked recruiting class after top ranked recruiting class and is doing everything he can to keep the Rupp Arena banner makers in business, lots of folks within the Big Blue Nation have debated which men’s basketball team was the best or most talented team in Kentucky’s storied history. For some, it’s equal to deciding which one of your kids is your favorite and to others, it’s obvious: their favorite team is the the best. Maybe it’s because I’m getting older and I’m sliding into the “get off my lawn” phase of my life, but I humbly submit that the 1995-96 team was the best ever.
Tony Delk. Antoine Walker. Walter McCarty. Derek Anderson. Ron Mercer. Anthony Epps. The names on that squad roll off the tongue. It was said that the best team in the country that year was Kentucky’s first team and the second team was #2. But this team was so deep that the third string guys ended up being pretty darn good. The talent pool was so deep for the 95-96 Wildcats that head coach Rick Pitino decided to implement something that hadn’t been in place at UK since the 1975-76 season: a Junior Varsity team.
Varsity team players Cameron Mills, Nazr Mohammed, Oliver Simmons and Jason Lathrem headlined a team that finished 9-4. Playing against teams like Lees College, Cincinnati State and Oak Hill Academy, the Varsity teamers were afforded loads of playing time and extra practice under the watchful eyes of assistant coaches Delray Brooks and Winston Bennett. Recently, Cameron Mills recalled his JV days by saying that while the Varsity players weren’t exactly thrilled by playing on the JV squad, they collectively decided to use the opportunity to work on their skills and make the most of the opportunity to play. Mills led the JV squad by averaging 23.7 points per game, while Mohammed averaged 23.1 points and 11.5 rebounds per game.
More than just the numbers, it’s the fact that Cameron Mills used that experience to settle into being a Wildcat and when his time came during the 97-98 season, he was ready to hit “The Shot Heard Around the Bluegrass” against Duke in the NCAA Regional Final and propel the Cats to the 1998 NCAA Title. After helping the Cats to a National Runner Up finish in 1997 and the 1998 championship, Nazr Mohammed entered the NBA Draft and is still playing in the league. And none other than Indiana Pacers head coach Frank Vogel also played for the JV team, averaging 6.5 points per game.
While the top 9-10 players on the 95-96 team get all the headlines (and deservedly so), there may not be another third team unit college basketball history with more talent, winning pedigree and basketball smarts than the Kentucky JV team that year. It’s been nearly 20 years since that last JV team at the University of Kentucky and it’s probably fitting for a group of guys that have gone on to do bigger and better things on and off the court that it stay that way. The JV team didn’t get all the accolades as the Varsity squad, but they deserve a special place in the annals of Kentucky Basketball history.
Special thanks to bigbluehistory.net