Orlando “Tubby” Smith, the first black head coach ever of Kentucky basketball, did what no other Kentucky head coach could. Not Adolph Rupp, not Smith's predecessor Rick Pitino, or, for that matter, anyone in between.
Smith won a national championship in his first season with the Wildcats. It is ironic but fitting that Smith would accomplish this at Kentucky, the school that was seen by many as the seat of racism in college basketball for years. Fortunately, Smith's hiring closed the book on that perception and his national championship made him an instant insider in Lexington.
It would be the second national title in three years for Kentucky, a team that made a living out of big late game comebacks in this year's NCAA tourney. The Comeback 'Cats erased a double-digit deficit for the third straight game to beat a cohesive Utah squad and their coach, fan favorite Rick Majerus, 78-69, for the national title. Senior guard Jeff Sheppard, who voluntarily redshirted during the 1996-97 season because his minutes would suffer playing behind Derek Anderson, was named the tournament's Most Outstanding Player. His clutch outside shooting and defense sparked the Wildcat title run against the bigger, stronger Utes.
Kentucky almost didn't make it to the title game at all. They overtook Stanford in the second-half of their national semifinal thanks to a career high 27 points from Sheppard and held on in overtime for an 85-85 win.
Another first year coach trying to make a name for himself after replacing a high-profile coach was North Carolina's Bill Guthridge. The longtime assistant to Dean Smith had, without a doubt, the toughest act to follow in college basketball history. The cupboard that Smith, the all-time NCAA leader in wins, left stocked full of talent with his abrupt retirement last fall made things easier for “Coach Gut.” With National Player of the Year Antawn Jamison, magnificent two-guard Vince Carter and Shammond Williams running the point, the Tarheels advanced to the Final Four before losing to Utah by six in the national semifinals.
Despite the continued defections of big name players to the NBA, college basketball survives, mostly because of the intensity and drama of the NCAA tournament. Cinderellas Rhode Island, Richmond and Valparaiso each got their “shining moments” with some improbable early-round victories.