So instead of doing a recap of the non-existent news from this weekend, I decided to embark on a bit of a project. Specifically, I made the decision to rank the 50 Greatest Players of the Pitino/Smith/Clyde Eras in order of their UK greatness. The reasoning for this was simple: (a) I like lists; (b) there have been 20 seasons since probation; (c) this time period doesnt have the problem of comparing generations when basketball wasnt similar. The last problem is one that plagues these types of lists usually, as comparing a guy who played in the 50s with a guy who plays now is virtually impossible. However for this 20 year period, the game was fairly similar….three point line exists, number of games played in a year is generally the same and style of play, while varying, hasnt been ridiculously different.
At the outset, we need a few caveats as to what we mean by the Top 50 list. This list seeks to rank the players based on three criteria:
(1) Individual Greatness (measured both in stats and ability)
(2) Team Success
(3) Impact on the Program
This list ONLY TAKES INTO ACCOUNT WHAT HAPPENED AT UK, the players pro careers have no impact. For our purposes, this means that their ability ended the day they left campus. This hurts some players (like Rondo) and helps others (like Fitch). In addition, this criteria does harm guys who left early. Players who stayed four years had a greater impact on the stat sheet, had more chances to help the team succeed and generally had a bigger impact on the program. But if the ability was high, leaving early didnt ruin the ranking, as seen by the fact that four of the top 10 left early.
In order to compile this list, I took the first crack at it and used the guidance of Mike Pratt, Dave Baker and Duncan Cavanah, all of whom were greatly helpful in discussing the rankings. Pratt of course played and broadcasted for the Cats, Baker has been in the media in the area during the entire time and Duncan has more arcane UK basketball and football knowledge than should be allowed. Pratt was very helpful in reminding me that we would look at ALL CATEGORIES, not just scoring (so defense, rebounding and passing matters). Often where players were close, Pratt’s thoughts on those categories led to a shuffling of order.
Below is the list, put into some groups…the number in parenthesis indicates where their place on the scoring list for the last 20 years. Without further ado:
1. Jamal Mashburn (3) — The consensus number one players by all who participated in the conversations. One might argue he is the most important player at UK in modern history. Its easy to forget how great he was, but along with Issel and Walker, the best to put on the uniform.
2. Tony Delk (2) — We started getting differing opinions beginning here. Most agree that numbers 2-6 are very similar and a case can be made for them in varying orders. Delk goes second because he is #2 on the scoring list for this time and was the best scorer on the best team in UK history.
3. Keith Bogans (1) — The most underrated player in UK history, mostly because of his struggles his Junior year. But the facts are in Keith’s favor. The leading scorer in UK history during this period. The best player on the best REGULAR season SEC team since the SEC Tournament restarted in the early 80s. Plus, as Pratt pointed out to me, a very good defender who made others better…not just a scorer. Bogans fits in well here.
4. Tayshaun Prince (4) — Another great four year player. Last UK player to be named SEC Player of the Year. Tay put up a boatload of points and was unfortunate to have his Senior year be the Team Turmoil year. He and Bogans have almost identical careers, but Keith’s last team was great and Tay’s was not. Thus he goes here…but just barely.
5. Ron Mercer (22) — The first of the “what do we do about guys who left early” group. Only 22nd in scoring, but he only played for two years. His two seasons saw two national championship games and one can argue that his performance after Derek Anderson go hurt in 1997 was as good as anything seen at UK during this era. He is also the last player to be a consensus First Team All American at UK. A guy who rose on this list as the conversations went on.
6. Antoine Walker (35) — Another two year guy that initially I had a bit higher. But, he scored fewer points in his career than Mercer, wasnt a very good defender and never led his team in scoring. Still, when at his best, Antoine might have been better than anyone, including Mashburn, offensively. But when considering all-around game, he ends up here.
GREAT UK CAREERS
7. Wayne Turner (14): From number 7-17, you can make a case that the guys are interchangeable, but we have to try to list them somehow. I put Turner here, because all he did was win. Until Shane Battier came along, he was the winningest player in NCAA history. He could score, play defense, pass and abuse Wojo. Turner was the one guy that both Pratt and Baker raved about off the court as well as on. He takes the top of this tough part.
8. Chuck Hayes (12): Hayes is very tough to rank, until you remember what he was like. There was no tougher rebounder, defender, or gritty player than Hayes. He got the most out of his body in every game, at every time. And oh yeah, he wont a great deal as well, starting on two teams that were the #1 overall seeds in the NCAA Tournament and another that was a Sparks foul call from a Final Four.
9. Derek Anderson (41): At first glance this seems too low…but probably it is just right. Derek really only played at UK for a year and a half and is in the 40s in scoring during this time. But he did play on two teams that went to the title game and was likely a First Team All American before his injury in 97. If talent was the only factor, he is higher. But longevity and impact puts him here.
10. Gerald Fitch (6): If you dont look deep, you underrate Gerald. He is sixth all time in scoring for this time…and he actually wasnt even a good offensive player coming out of high school. Before he became a go-to scorer, he was a top rebounder and he could always defend. He was the best player on the 2004 team that was a #1 overall seed and had he hit that UAB shot, he would be higher on the list. He missed it, but he is still a top 10 player (for now).
11. Patrick Patterson (21): Patrick is hard to judge because he is still playing. When he is finished, he will be much higher. But he was an injury away from breaking the Freshman scoring record at UK. While he probably wont stay four years, if he did and kept at the current pace, he would finish second on the all time scoring list at UK. Add to that his rebouding, defense and leadership, and he is as good as it gets. He will be higher after next year and will go down as an all-time great.
12. John Pelphrey (8): Pelphrey is a guy that ranks all over the place on people’s lists depending on which criteria they favor. Talent-wise, he doesnt justify this spot. However impact on the program might put him higher. He is 8th all time in scoring in this period and was the best part of the most important group of kids to play in this time. A great career and he got every ounce out of his talent.
13. Scott Padgett (9): In terms of big shots and clutch play, Scott did it as well as anyone. No player at UK improved more from his arrival on campus until his departure. He played during a great era 97-99 and was a key figure on all three teams. His shot against Duke is legendary, but he hit big shots in big games throughout. Now part of the UK staff and the last “great” career on the list.
GREAT, WITH AN EXCEPTION:
14. Jaamal Magloire (19): Now you get into guys that really lead to debate. Magloire is one of the more underrated players to play at UK during this time. He was SEC Player of the Year his Senior season, and a key contributor to a national title in 98. He also holds the career blocks record and is second on this list in career rebounds. He ranks this high because as Pratt said, “he was a beast who could do it all and never gave anything but total effort.” And he was my internet namesake.
15. Jodie Meeks (10): Jodie is tough because he is tenth in scoring during this time period, even though he really only played two full years. He will live in UK lore with three of the six highest scoring games in school history. When hot, there was none better. But his defense wasnt great and the team his Junior year did not reach the NCAA Tournament. Jodie is tough to rank, but this feels about right.
16. Joe Crawford (5): If you want to start a debate, ask people where to put Joe Crawford. He is actually fifth in scoring during this time. Plus, he willed his team to the NCAA Tournament and with Ramel, basically took the 08 team on his back. But he had an up and down relationship with two coaches and at times, didnt seem to give full effort. He is probably underappreciated, but never had that moment to point to, where you could say he reached all-time great status.
17. Rhodrick Rhodes (13): A case can be made that Rhodes could be quite a bit higher. People forget how good he was at times during the 94 and 95 season and unfortunately for Rhodrick, his lasting impression is in the SEC against Arkansas. Had he come back for his Senior year, he probably finishes top 12 all time in scoring and there were times he was spectacular. But his career ended badly and he never quite hit the greatness we expected.
18. Jeff Sheppard (18): You look at this and you want to put Jeff Sheppard higher. But the numbers show that he really doesnt deserve it. In fact until the tournament in 1998, his career was a bit of a disappointment. He is 18th in scoring during this time frame, but that is behind Reggie Hanson and Randolph Morris…and offense was Jeff’s best skill. Still his leadership and clutch play during the 98 Tournament requires him being in this group and a Top 20 great.
19. Ramel Bradley (7): Ramel is a tough one to rank because he engenders such diverse thoughts. But put it this way…he is 7th all time in scoring during this time period, and hit more big shots in close games than probably anyone on this list. If the Cats needed a big bucket, especially his last two years, Ramel got it. Add to that his leadership and defense (we wont talk about his passing), and he deserves the last spot in this group.
VERY GOOD UK CAREERS:
20. Nazr Mohammed (32): No player went through a greater metamorphosis during his time at UK than Nazr. He was fat when he arrived and spent his first year on the JV team. But in 98, he was arguably the most consistent player on the team, giving offense, rebounding and blocked shots on a team that won a title. Had he returned for his last year, he moves up to the next group. But this is his spot for now.
21. Kelenna Azubuike (24): Azubuike dunked harder than any person on this list and was on the breakout to be a star at UK had he not left a year early. But while here, he was a bit player on a great team (03), a good player on a very good team (04) and a great player on a good team (05). Azubuike could rebound, defend and score in bunches and had he returned, the 2006 team would have been much better.
22. Rajon Rondo (43): Rondo is without question, almost impossible to place. From a talent perspective, he may be top 6. While at UK however, he never seemed to completely fit in and often left fans wanting more. The talent he had however showcased flashes of brilliance, and his performances against UL were legendary. But in the end Rondo is a disappointment to be this low, as his skills should make him much higher.
23. Anthony Epps (29): The exact opposite of Rondo. If we were just talking talent, he would be much lower. But Epps did all that one could do to just win baby. He passed, he rebounded and he shot when necessary, hitting a big three in the Arizona title game in 97. Everything Epps did was solid and while he may have been the benefactor of being on a good team, he took advantage of it, and for that he deserves credit.
24. Walter McCarty (26): Here is a little secret…McCarty was not as good as you remembered. He scored fewer points in his career than Richie Farmer and Jared Prickett. However, he was on a great team and had a good career at UK, famously hitting the big shot in Baton Rouge on the miracle comeback. The crooner now coaches at UL and while that hurts, it doesnt mean we can forget when “Waltah was at the Altah” in Lexington.
25. Deron Feldhaus (11): Deron is a guy whose numbers could justify a ranking that is higher. Feldhaus gave total effort while wearing the Big Blue and was a good player on the legendary Unforgettables. He was the beneficiary of a lot of high scoring games early in the Pitino years because they had no other players, but was a big figure in the 92 season as well.
26. Randolph Morris (17): If we were going on talent alone, Morris would be much higher. If we were choosing on effort alone, he might be at the bottom. Randolph never seemed to be trying and was immensely frustrating. But at times, he was also unstoppable, and his run at the end of the 07 season was as good play offensively as a Cat big man had during the era. Effort matters though, and Randolph ends up here.
27. Erik Daniels (20): There may be no player that was more fun to watch on a daily basis than E-Diddy. He always had fun on the court and created the best set of interior passing with Chuck Hayes that was seen in the area. He learned to shoot a bit from outside and his long arms allowed him to be a serviceable rebounder. His teams were all good and he always contributed…and the shot against Mississippi State was great.
28. Marquis Estill (27): Its easy to forget that for about a year and a half, Estill was a really good big man for UK. Playing on the best Tubby teams, Estill wasnt especially quick, but could hit a jumper, developed good low post moves and became the best big man with his back to the basket. He also left school too early, as he could have petitioned for another year. However he played well enough during the time to leave his mark.
29. Travis Ford (25): If Ford’s career stopped after the 93 season, he might be a top 20 player. But after Mashburn left, Ford’s weaknesses showed and his 94 campaign was disappointing. Still at his best, Travis was a great point guard, shooting threes and passing on a dime. His defense was suspect and caused problems when Dale Brown left, but he still had some great games while in Lexington.
30. Cliff Hawkins (30): Cliff was another difficult person to rank. On the one hand, his last two seasons saw him as the point guard on two teams that were the #1 overall seeds in the NCAA Tournament. But he rarely played his first two years (thanks to “asthma”) and he really wasnt a great shooter. However he hit a couple of big shots in his career and made some great plays.
SOLID FOUR YEAR GUYS
31: Reggie Hanson (15): These next two guys are classic “how do you look at them” players. Hanson played four years at UK, mostly on the teams from the Dark Ages. He is 15th in scoring on this list, but a lot of those were desperation “someone has to score” type buckets. Hanson hustled and rebounded like no other and gave of himself on the court as much as any player. He is at the top of this group and came very close to going into the group ahead.
32. Derrick Miller (16): A guy whose numbers are better than his ranking, Miller was the original “Pitino Bombino.” He could shoot from anywhere, and he would, providing most of the points on Pitino’s first team. Derrick really didnt play much defense or rebound, but he didnt really need to. He would just shoot and hope it went in, so he could shoot again. A fun player to watch.
33. Sean Woods (36): When I read this list to one of the folks above, they initially thought Woods was too low. But then when you look at the numbers, it is tough to move him ahead of any of the guys above. He basically played three years, and gave a lot of assists. He however wasnt a great shooter and his scoring occasionally was non-existent. But he hit the shot against Duke that was almost legendary…if only.
34. Jared Prickett (23): If there was ever a player on this list that looked like he could be much higher early in his career, it was Prickett. As a Freshman, he looked like a potential Top 10 player, showing signs of brilliance that seemed to justify Pitino’s ridiculous comparison to Bird. But he got worse every year and was only a bit contributor at the end. He could have been much more.
35. Patrick Sparks (40): I wanted the Patrick Sparks of Western Kentucky…running around, quicker than you thought, making crazy layups and passes. We got that sometimes, but mostly we had the country Sparks, bit of a gut, kind of slow, but could shoot lights out. When hot, maybe the best shooter of the era…but he wasnt hot enough. Still his free throws against Louisville and his shot against Michigan State are all-timers and his attitude was 100% badass.
36. Heshimu Evans: (37) Every team needs a Heshimu Evans. While he and Patrick werent technically “four year guys”, they played like them, and were around enough to feel part of UK lore. Evans was actually quite productive in his two years, scoring more points than Sparks, and providing a huge spark defensively on two great teams in 98 and 99. Built like a rock, Evans was a key ingredient on a national championship team.
37. Richie Farmer (28): Richie is tough to rank because we all love him. He is a Kentucky legend and one of the most beloved people in the state. While at UK, he had very good moments, but was never a great player. His shooting was solid, but he was a liability on other parts of the floor. Still, he is part of the most beloved team ever and is himself a hero….and he is from the 13th Region. Cant beat it.
38. Allen Edwards (31): I often wonder if Allen Edwards may be one of the most forgotten players ever at UK. Part of the reason is that Allen was always Allen…solid, but not exceptional. He was a good shooter, solid defender and good passer. But he was never great in any category. Still he won two national titles and was a big player on the 97 and 98 teams. He is one of the 20 winningest players in NCAA history…not too bad.
39. Jeff Brassow (34): A classic “what might have been” type guy. He got injured in his career, had to sit out a great deal of time and never got on the track he wanted at UK. But he was always a good shooter, played consistently when healthy, and was a solid player on good teams. Plus, if you ever see me, get me to tell you the “Its Brassow Time” story….it is excellent.
40. Jules Camara (33): Probably the most disappointing player on the list if you just look from a hype perspective. There was time where Jules was top 10 player in the country in high school, but his time at UK was mostly spent shooting ten footers, not getting rebounds and walking. Still he was on some good teams and had his moments.
41. Saul Smith (38): Certainly maligned more than any other player on this list, Saul’s career had its ups and downs. He really wasnt a UK caliber player when he arrived, but did show improvement every season and by his Senior year was a decent SEC point guard. He still fouled on a three pointer every game, which killed me.
42. Cameron Mills (49): Everyone will see this list and think Cameron should be higher, but really he shouldnt. He had a great tournament run in 1997 and hit a couple of big shots in the 1998 affair. But generally speaking, he only played sparingly, didnt rebound or play defense and only one player on this team had fewer points. But he hit some HUGE shots for UK history, so he makes the Top 50.
43. Bobby Perry (42): Actually ranked below his total points. Bobby played sparingly early but was a starter all of his last two season. Actually is in the top 10 on this list for PPG in the NCAA Tournament, and hit some big shots in his day. Also a KSR contributor, and can hit a golf ball farther than anyone you have ever seen.
44. Mark Pope (48): He did very little from a production standpoint at UK, but then again he really didnt have to. He was part of the 95 and 96 teams, and usually played 15 minutes or so, getting rebounds and finding scorers. He was Pac 10 player of the year at Washington, but wasnt really an offensive threat at UK. Pope was robably the smartest guy to play at UK during this time.
45. Dale Brown (45): Brown is unfortunately a player that is virtually forgotten in UK fan land, but he should not be. One of the three best defenders on this list, Brown was the original defensive stopper in the early Pitino years. I still contend that if he doesnt get hurt, the Cats beat Michigan in 1993 in the Final Four. Plus he had a smooth box top.
46. Rodney Dent (50): Another forgotten UK player of lore, Dent really only played at UK for a year and a half, and is last on this list in scoring. But during his Senior year, he was playing extremely well until he tore up his knee, effectively ending the 94 season for the Cats. The team’s struggles showed his importance and illustrated what an impact he could have had if healthy.
47. Gimel Martinez (39): Another much-maligned, often unfairly, player from the early Pitino days. He was adept at getting fouls, breaking his nose and hitting three pointers…an odd combination indeed. Gimel was part of the Mashburn recruiting class and played a great deal on the 92-94 teams. He is also a cult legend and among my five favorites to play during this time.
48. Micheal Bradley (48): I hate Michael Bradley…a lot. But for a year at UK, he was pretty good, playing well for the Cats during his Sophomore campaign. If you dont have a games played requirement, Bradley actually leads UK in field goal percentage all time. But his playing time at UK was limited and he did his real work at Villanova after he left. So thus he ends up here.
49. Andre Riddick (44): Riddick could block shots with the best of them. But when it came to his offensive game….Riddick could block shots with the best of them. He is second all time in blocks and famously choked Rasheed Wallace in the Final Eight in 1995. My favorite part of his career was how high he would lift his legs up when he dunked…which is why he finds himself as low as 49.
50. Perry Stevenson (46): It was actually tough to find a 50th place person. We will go with Perry, since he is ahead of the other contenders in total points. Stevenson has one year remaining at UK and his wit, shuffling feet and dunk against UNLV make him a KSR favorite. I hope he sees some time this season.
So there you go, thats the list. Feel free to argue, debate and make your own. It is a fun, but difficult, exercise. But what it does make clear to me is that even in these 20 years, the Cats have provided memories galore.