By LARRY VAUGHT
If things had been just a bit different, this could easily have been the 50th anniversary of a 1970 national championship for Kentucky.
Mike Pratt was a senior on the 1969-70 team that many felt was the best in the nation — or would have been.
“It was my senior year and that was the only summer I stayed in Lexington to work (rather than go home to Dayton, Ohio). No cell phones then. I get a call about 11 at night from a guy in Shelbyville saying (teammate Mike) Casey had been in a wreck and was at the hospital,” Pratt said.
Casey came to UK the same year as Dan Issel, UK’s all-time leading scorer, and Pratt. They played on the freshman team together because freshmen were not eligible to play then. As sophomores, they had a chance to win a national title but lost to Ohio State in the 1968 NCAA Tournament.
“We let down and Ohio State beat us on a buzzer shot. I am not saying we would beaten Jabbar but if win (against Ohio State) we go to LA and we wanted to play that team,” Pratt said.
Jabbar was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar who won three straight national titles with UCLA.
Abdul-Jabbar graduated in 1969, so the path to a national title in 1970 looked a lot better for UK.
“We were lined up my senior year with all the right stuff due to the flow we had developed together. But then we lost Mike,” Pratt said.
Pratt’s recruiting class had 11 players — which also included Terry Mills, the father of former Wildcat Cameron Mills — was considered the best recruiting class ever at UK.
“Most of us came because we thought we could win a national title,” Pratt said.
That changed for the 1969-70 season when Casey severely broke his leg in that automobile accident and had to redshirt.
“It’s like a pie is never the same after that first piece of pie is gone. Casey was terrific. He was hard to replace,” Pratt said. “We got off to a great start against a good schedule.”
Kentucky won its first 15 games before losing at Vanderbilt Jan. 31. Coach Adolph Rupp’s team won its next 11 to get to the second round of the NCAA Tournament against Jacksonville — but it was not a smooth ride.
“Kent Hollenbeck, a talented sophomore, started breaking down with foot/ankle injuries,” Pratt said. “We rolled down to Mississippi State and (assistant coach) Joe B. (Hall) found a bunch of guys out after curfew. One of the guys, Bob McCowan, got kicked off the team. He could really guard and facilitate the offense. But he (Rupp) threw him off. Back then there were no second chances. So were down Casey, one of our best young players (Hollenbeck) and now a junior (McCowan) who was probably our second best defender.”
Still Pratt said the team was driven to get to the Final Four. Only 24 teams made the NCAA then and Kentucky had to win the SEC title to get into the NCAA.
“There were a lot of good teams in every league that did not get to the NCAA,” Pratt said.
Kentucky did and Pratt said both Terry Mills and Jim Dinwiddie were playing well in Casey’s spot. Kentucky was the No. 1 team going into postseason play and beat Notre Dame and All-American Austin Carr 109-99 in the first game to set up a match with Jacksonville and 7-footers Artis Gilmore and Pembrook Burrows.
“We had not seen anything like that size,” Pratt said. “Jacksonville beat Iowa on a tip-in to advance. There region had four of the nation’s top seven teams. It was unreal.”
The game with Jacksonville was one many long-time Kentucky fans needed a long time to get over. Jacksonville won 106-100 as Gilmore had 24 points and 20 rebounds for the winners and Rex Morgan had 28. Jacksonville hit 28 of 36 free throws compared to 20 of 24 for UK.
Issel had 28 points and 10 rebounds and Pratt had 14 points and 10 rebounds. Tom Parker scored 21 points, Terry Mills 18 and Kent Hollenbeck 10. Issel, Pratt, starter Larry Steele and Mills all fouled out.
Issel’s fifth foul came with 10 minutes to play when he was called for charging. Jacksonville guard Vaughn Wedeking got in Issel’s way and the UK center “just drilled him” according to Pratt.
“The ball was on one side of the floor and this little guard just steps in front of Dan. It was not even close to the play and the rule was changed next year to where you couldn’t do that,” Pratt said. “Then I fouled out, then Steele, then Terry.
“It was still a hell of a game. Our young guys played great but I remember sitting on the bench thinking this could be my last game at UK, and it was.”
Pratt said Rupp was “not a big depth guy” and normally let players stay in games with four fouls, especially his best player.
“He seldom had more than seven guys he played and usually he played the first five forever,” Pratt said. “He was not a coach that went to the bench quick or often.
“But that loss really was heartbreaking. We were not a big team but the one thing we could do was score the ball and we really passed the ball well. Coach Rupp really liked great passers and his offense was geared to passing and getting open shots. Scoring was seldom a big problem for us and that’s why it still hurts so much that we didn’t win the title that year. We had a team that could score on anybody.”