Unforgettable Pelphrey returns to Rupp

Former UK coach Rick Pitino proclaimed his feelings about John Pelphrey in one sentence in the summer of 1991, prior to Pelphrey’s senior season at UK.

“I wouldn’t trade John Pelphrey for any basketball player in the country,” Pitino told reporters.

Pelphrey is one of many enshrined in the pantheon of Kentucky basketball history, but tomorrow, Arkansas’ first year head coach will bring his Razorbacks to Lexington to play in the very arena where the legend of John Pelphrey was born.

“It will be different for me because I do have a lot of special memories of that place. It’s where I grew up, it’s where I always wanted to play,” Pelphrey said during the SEC coaches teleconference Thursday. “I’m sure there will be some things when I walk into the arena, I go down the hallways where I got ready to play games and practice. I’m sure there will be little things that slip back into my mind.”

Pelphrey was an “Unforgettable,” a group of four players who overcame the chills of probation to lead UK to the 1992 Elite Eight, in which the Cats lost to Duke in what is widely considered the greatest college basketball game ever played.

By 1992, Pelphrey was already a fan favorite. Along with Pitino, Deron Feldhaus, Richie Farmer and Sean Woods, the 6-foot-7 forward had begun to restore glory and excitement to a program in the after math of a cheating scandal.

But it was 1992 when the four seniors came within seconds of the Final Four that made “The Unforgettables” just that — an unforgettable chapter in UK history.

After a career at Paintsville High in Paintsville, Ky. that included more than 2,400 points, the former Mr. Basketball from the small town started 90 of his 114 career games at UK and scored 1,257 points. He ranks No. 29 on UK’s career scoring list.

Pelphrey said he has been asked for tickets to the game by friends and family in Paintsville, but he didn’t give them up without making sure they’d be cheering for the right team.

“I had to put dad through a series of questions too before I let him have a ticket,” Pelphrey said with a laugh.

Pelphrey played one season of pro basketball in France and Spain before moving onto coaching, which led him from assistant jobs at Oklahoma State, Marshall and Florida to his first head coaching job at South Alabama. At USA, Pelphrey was 80-67 and took the Panthers to the NCAA Tournament in 2007, their first appearance since 1998.

He returned to Rupp Arena as an opponent for the first time in 1997 but never found much success as an opponent there. The Gators were victorious at Rupp just one time during Pelphrey’s six seasons.

But tomorrow will be Pelphrey’s first chance as a head coach, and he’s almost sure to earn an emotional response from UK fans. Last season, when former UK player Travis Ford returned as the coach of Massachusetts, he received a standing ovation both before and after the game.

Pelphrey acknowledged that he has always been — and still is — a UK fan, and his playing days at UK may give him an advantage in dealing with the distractions his return to the Bluegrass will bring.

“Playing at Kentucky, there’s always some distractions. There’s always a lot of things going on there, you have to get used to it,” Pelphrey said. “If you can’t handle it, you can’t play there.

“I don’t have too much of a problem being able to focus in and handle some of those things that come our way.”