There are no sweeter words in college hoops than "national championship."
Coach Rick Pitino knows. He sweated seven seasons in the Bluegrass State to bring another national title to the University of Kentucky. And in 1996, he accomplished his goal. But he is not finished.
Eighteen years had passed since an NCAA championship plaque had been added to the UK trophy case. But the gap between additions to that case hopes to be shortened considerably.
The word du jour is "Repeat."
Most recently the Chicago Bulls and Houston Rockets accomplished the feat in basketball. The Dallas Cowboys did it in football. Add baseball's Atlanta Braves to the two-straight list. But while professional teams experience a different turnover rate, repeating at the college level is a much tougher task, because of graduation and early departures to the NBA.
"We understand, like UCLA last year, that we've lost a lot," Pitino said. "We've lost our three leading rebounders. And we've lost four NBA draft picks. That in itself is an obstacle that's very difficult to overcome. But that's what we're setting our sights on doing."
One thing that's not missing from the Wildcats camp is the drive to win a second title, an achievement that hasn't been accomplished at UK in back-to-back seasons since the Fabulous Five in 1948 and '49.
"As a matter of fact, you get more hungry," Pitino said. "It's like when you go to a great restaurant. What happens is you want to get back to that great restaurant again because it was such a wonderful experience. Well, once you experience the Final Four and the national championship, you'd like to do everything you can to get back because it's such a weekend filled with excitement and great pride."
The 1996-97 Wildcats return an experienced outside game with a mix of old and new inside. Heading the roster are two returning starters from the championship squad and two reserves who each started at least eight games last season. Also returning is one Wildcat who started 42 games in three previous seasons before missing most of last year with an injured knee.
"People may say, 'Well, they've got a lot coming back,'" Pitino said. "And yes, we have a lot back, no question about it. But we don't have our three leading rebounders, our three leading scorers and our three most experienced ballplayers. And they cannot be replaced. We've got to find a way to overcome those obstacles by outworking our opponents."
While the cream of the crop has departed, the remainder has great potential. The Wildcats were arguably the deepest team in college basketball last season — the bench averaged 31.4 points, 13.9 rebounds and 8.6 assists per game. Ten players averaged at least 9.3 minutes per game and no one averaged more than 27 minutes per outing. So the
Derek Anderson is the team's top returning scorer and rebounder.