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By Lindsay Travis
This series counts down the greatest UK basketball teams of all time. No. 1 will be revealed in the Kernel’s basketball season preview edition on Nov. 7. Here is No. 9: the 1965-66 Cats known as “Rupp Runts.”
In the fall of 1965, expectations of Kentucky basketball were gloomy. People were predicting a losing season for head coach Adolph Rupp, which would be his first. They were believed to be too small to compete, with no starter taller than 6-foot-5.
“Rupp’s Runts” were primarily Louie Dampier, Pat Riley, Larry Conley, Tommy Kron, and Thad Jaracz .At this point in basketball history, recruiting began to change. Other teams around the country were getting bigger and UK was having a more difficult time lasting in the NCAA tournament.
In 1965, teams had big centers and forwards. They had depth and range. UK did not. The fear was Rupp had lost his touch. People were saying it was time for him to retire and move on.
“Coach Rupp saw some things that nobody else could see. They were preparing some surprises,” said Dan Omler, former student manager and roommate of Pat Riley.
Rupp was a solid man-to-man defense kind of coach. Everyone in the country knew what defense Kentucky was going to run. Now they could handle it using their bigger players.
“Coach Rupp and coach Lancaster started tinkering with how they could combine the best of both man-to-man and the zone without actually going to a zone,” Omlor said.
What they created was the first matchup zone. It was something that nobody had ever seen before. They operated out of a 1-3-1 zone, but changed the way the players moved out of it.
“Traditionally you start the offense from the guard position. What Kentucky did was put Conley on a wing and used him as a play-making forward. No one had ever done that. It befuddled teams all year. Part of what accounted for the success of that team was they just turned the game upside down strategically,” Omlor said.
The Cats started off the 1965 season winning their first 23 games. They began unranked, but climbed to No. 2 just 10 games into the season. On Feb. 12, 1966, the Cats became the top team in the nation, a title they maintained until the championship game.
There was more to the success than what people could see, and most of it went unaccredited.
Before the season started, Kron and Conley made a decision to sacrifice their own statistics. “Very few people realize that in the machinery of that team you had some gifted athletes who were sacrificing themselves to make sure Louie got all those good shots and that Pat got the ball inside,” Omlor said.
Another big piece of the puzzle was Thad Jaracz. “People were saying that Kentucky was going to be a doughnut team – they were going to have tremendous guys on the periphery and nobody in the middle. But they didn’t realize that Thad was going to be that guy in the middle. He was the hub of that offense. People will never know how valuable he was,” Omlor said.
The team that season had a grandfatherly reverence for Rupp. They played above their heads because of that emotional edge.
“It was more than just a sum of the parts. It was a sum of the parts plus a spark going off and rising up,” Omlor said.
The national semifinals were against Duke. The top two teams in the nation were battling for a spot in the championship. “It took every ounce of strength,’ Omlor said. “They didn’t have anything left. They rose to the occasion to beat Duke. But they left everything they had on the floor.”
Dave “Big Daddy” Lattin and the Texas Western Miners would go on to win the championship, 72-65.
Riley, Dampier, and Jaracz were named All-Americans.
Riley went on to be an eight-time NBA Champion (as a player, coach and executive), three-time NBA Coach of the Year, and is now the President of the Miami Heat.
Dampier would go on to win an ABA championship with the Kentucky Colonels and would be a seven-time ABA All-Star.
“Rupp’s Runts” exceeded all expectations that year and gave UK basketball fans a season they’ll never forget.