Delk sees comparisons between UK, '96 champs

If anyone should know what it’s like going into a season on a team with as much talent as the Kentucky Wildcats possess now, it’s Tony Delk.

The former UK All-American was part of the 1996 national championship squad which featured arguably the deepest roster in college basketball history. Nine members of that team went on to play in the NBA, including Delk, who was the Final Four Most Outstanding Player for his clutch performances against UMass and Syracuse.

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Delk, now part of the SEC Network’s broadcast team in town for UK’s season opener Friday against Grand Canyon, says he can see many parallels between the 1996 team and the 2015 squad.

“There will be a lot of comparisons made,” Delk said. “But the most important thing for this team is to stay focused and don’t worry about trying to be like another team at Kentucky. Just be the best 2014-2015 team you can possibly be and don’t worry about trying to live up to what anyone else has done.”

That’s not always easy when you play at Kentucky. Eight banners hover above your head at Rupp Arena as a constant reminder of the greatness that has preceded you. The bar is set high, and fans are already debating whether the Cats can match iconic UK teams like 1996 or 2012. Some have even dared to ponder whether this squad can make a run at being the first undefeated NCAA champion since Indiana in 1976.

In some cases, pressure can become as dangerous as any opponent on the schedule.

“One thing that I think will help them is they were very close last year,” said Delk, who noted that bitter finales in 1994 (Marquette) and 1995 (North Carolina) helped lift the 1996 squad to new heights. “… So we had that disappointment, kind of like last year’s team had coming up short against UConn, and we added some really good people through recruiting like Ron Mercer and Derek Anderson, so that gave us mix of players that we needed. And we knew it. The pressure was competing every day in practice.

“We competed so hard at practice that it made the games easy. And Coach P (Pitino) made it clear that your job was on the line every day in practice. We had fun when we got to the games because we had put the work in at practice.”

Delk said he’s interested to see how Calipari manages his “Blue Platoons” concept as the season progresses. He noted that, in some ways, his 1996 UK squad had platoons of its own.

“We had nine or 10 guys play because of the system and the pressure that we used,” Delk said. “It forced you to play as hard as you could play at a high level, so you needed somebody to come in there and give you a break. You were ready to come out of the game because you had played so hard, and the next guy was ready to come in and do the same. In a sense, that’s what coach Calipari could have with these platoons, only they’ll be coming in five at a time. What you want is that those five guys will be able to go as hard as possible for the four or five minutes that they’re out there, and they’ll need five new guys to come in for them.”

There is debate throughout the basketball community over whether it will work.

“(The depth) is a luxury that he’s never really had at Kentucky,” Delk said. “It will be interesting to see how he handles it if a guy gets in foul trouble or you have an injury or something unforeseen.”

Count Delk among those who believe it will be successful.

“I think it’s going to work because he’s got experienced guys back on the team who have seen what can happen if they buy into what he’s telling them,” Delk said. “If they were all freshmen again or freshman-dominated like last year, I’m not as sure that it would work. But with these guys, I think it will. Older guys understand that sacrifice for the team pays off.

“You have to make sacrifices to be a champion. Everyone on this team has been the best player on his previous team, if not his state, in the past. You have to sacrifice and be willing to do the dirty work that maybe you aren’t used to. You may have to take less shots, play less minutes… The only goal is cutting down that net at the end of the season.”

Kentucky’s journey begins Friday with an 8 p.m. ET tipoff at Rupp Arena. Delk will be on hand, along with the SEC Network’s Dave Neal on play-by-play and former Lexington Tates Creek and Western Kentucky University standout Darrin Horn on color analysis.

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