A Brief History of Kentucky Basketball: The Winningest NCAA Division I Hoops Program

College basketball fans are well aware of the rich tradition of University of Kentucky basketball, from their seven national titles (second only to UCLA) to their becoming the first Division I basketball program to reach 2000 wins.

However, the Kentucky Wildcats and their fans have had to travel a long road with many ups and downs in the course of becoming one of the most prestigious programs in college basketball.

UK Basketball's Humble Beginnings

The first basketball season at the University of Kentucky (then Kentucky State College) began in 1903, with the program recording its first win on February 18, 1903, over the Lexington YMCA at the State College Gymnasium; this victory would be the only win of the program's three-game season.

Despite their future success, Kentucky would not have its first winning season until 1909. Three years later, the program would record its first undefeated season and earn the title of Southern Champions, the first of the program's many championships.

In 1921, the Kentucky basketball team made history by winning the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association (SIAA) Championship. While conference tournaments are the norm today, the SIAA tournament is believed to be the first college basketball tournament ever played. The 1920-21 season also saw UK's first All-American, Basil Hayden.

The Wildcats began playing in Alumni Gymnasium, which would be their home for the next twenty-six years, in 1924 after playing for fourteen years at the Buell Armory Gymnasium on campus.

Alumni Gymnasium still stands on the University of Kentucky campus and now houses recreation facilities and student services offices. Buell Armory and Barker Hall, which housed the State College Gymnasium, still stand as well; the joined buildings are now home to classrooms and ROTC facilities.

The Adolph Rupp Era

In 1930, Kentucky hired Adolph Rupp, who had played at Kansas under legends Phog Allen and James Naismith, as their new head basketball coach. Before Rupp's retirement in 1972, he would lead the program to national prominence, as Wildcat squads earned four NCAA Championships (1948, 1949, 1951, 1958), one NIT Championship (1946), 27 Southeastern Conference (SEC) regular season titles, and 13 Southeastern Conference regular season titles during Rupp's career.

Rupp's tenure also saw the opening of Memorial Coliseum, where the Wildcats played from 1950 until 1976 (the venue is still used for other University of Kentucky sporting events). The team racked up a 129 home-game winning streak at Memorial, a record that still stands in NCAA men's college basketball.

Rupp's coaching days at Kentucky were not always successful, however. The team's 1952-53 schedule was suspended after several players were implicated in a wide-ranging point-shaving scandal that nearly cost Rupp his career at Kentucky.

And in one of the biggest upsets in college basketball history, Texas Western, who fielded an all-Black starting five for the first time in NCAA history, defeated Rupp's top-ranked Wildcats in the finals of the 1966 NCAA Tournament.

Joe B. Hall and Continued Prominence

Kentucky's reputation as a national power continued into the Joe B. Hall era. In Hall's thirteen years at Kentucky, he led the Wildcats to another NIT Championship (1976) as well as its fifth NCAA Championship (1978). The Wildcats also won 8 SEC regular season titles and one tournament title under Hall.

Hall's tenure at Kentucky also saw the team move from Memorial Coliseum to Rupp Arena in downtown Lexington, which was at the time the premiere venue in college basketball. One year after the move to Rupp, Adolph Rupp died in Lexington in 1977.

Scandal and Redemption

Eddie Sutton assumed leadership of the Wildcats after Joe B. Hall retired in 1985. Sutton's tenure was short-lived, however, due to a losing record and a recruiting scandal that marred the 1988-89 season. Sutton and athletic director Cliff Hagan resigned and the NCAA placed Kentucky on probation for three seasons, with a post-season ban for two seasons.

Rick Pitino became the scandal-plagued Wildcats' new head coach and immediately began making history. In 1990, he named the first female assistant coach in NCAA men's college basketball history to his staff and in 1992, Kentucky returned to post-season play in the SEC and the NCAA tournaments, making the final four again in 1993. In 1996, Kentucky won their sixth national title. Pitino resigned in 1997 to lead the Boston Celtics after the Wilcats lost in the NCAA Championship game.

Tubby, Gillispie, and the Dawn of the Calipari Era

Tubby Smith, in his first year as coach of the Wildcats (1997-98) led the team to its seventh NCAA Championship. However, Smith's teams would fail to reach the NCAA Final Four again and he resigned in 2007 to take the head coaching position at the University of Minnesota.

Billy Gillispie assumed leadership of the Wildcats in 2007, but after his teams lost in the first round of the 2008 NCAA Tournament and in the sweet sixteen round of the NIT, Gillispie was fired.

On April 1, 2009, Kentucky announced that they had hired John Calipari, who had led the University of Massachusetts and the University of Memphis to Final Four appearances. After several lackluster seasons, the University of Kentucky Wildcats seem poised for a return to prominence on a national level, opening the 2009-10 season with an undefeated run and becoming the first team in NCAA Division I men's basketball to surpass 2000 wins with a victory over Drexel on December 21, 2009.

Although the program has seen some misfortune and setbacks, the University of Kentucky is without a doubt one of the most prestigious programs in college basketball. From their modest beginnings in a tiny gym, Kentucky Basketball has evolved over the years to become the very definition of college basketball for many coaches, players, and fans

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