JOE COX: Countdown of Coach Cal's Top 42 Players At Kentucky Begins
By Joe Cox
It’s summertime, and the livin’ is easy. Hello friends, I’m definitely not Al Pernell, and I’m not selling sausage. I’m Joe Cox. I hailed from the metropolis of Jenkins, Kentucky, and spent my formative years in the meteor crater that is Middlesboro. I’d say I grew up reading Jamie Vaught’s columns, but I don’t want to make him feel old. (But I did.) In any case, getting to write alongside one of my sportswriting heroes is an absolute privilege, and I hope it will be as fun for you guys to read as it will be for me to write!
Anyway, I live in western Kentucky now and practice law. I periodically get to write books. My first one, with my college buddy Ryan Clark, was 100 Things Wildcats Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die. That was followed with March 2014’s Fightin’ Words: Kentucky vs. Louisville, and coming soon will be Voice of the Wildcats: Claude Sullivan and the Rise of Modern Sportscasting. Check them out and help buy dinner for me, the Mrs., and my two little Kentuckians at home.
As the 100 Things book should make you guess, I love to rank things. So I wanted to break in with a ranking that will give you a chance to tell me how wrong I am, and to show you all how big of a UK hoops nerd I am. I thought back on the 2010s—almost halfway over, folks. As we prepare for what may well be a historic 2014-15 campaign. I have ranked the 42 players who have played basketball for UK in the 2010s....from first to worst. I judged guys just on their UK career — so I don’t care if a player isn’t a good pro or is a great pro, but stunk at UK. I’m talking Kentucky basketball. I didn’t cut guys down for being “one-and-dones.” If you win a title in one year and go pro, hard for me to say you should’ve done more. I am considering not only what guys did, but what they COULD have done, or SHOULD have done, or were expected to do. And plenty of these guys are active players and could (and probably will) move up or down in the remainder of their careers. Interestingly, these are all Cal’s players since he started in the 2009-10 season, I ended up ranking Cal’s Cats.
I’m going to crack on a few guys, but one thing I know. The biggest scrub who ever played was 10,000 times better as a ballplayer than I was/am. I respect the Wildcat tradition, and EVERYBODY who is a part of it. That said, some were better parts than others. I’m shooting straight and taking no prisoners. There are 42 players who have logged time with UK during the 2010 decade. The No. 31-42 players on the Cal Countdown are:
42. Ryan Harrow, 2012-13
Surprised? You shouldn’t be. We can argue that one of the walk-ons was perhaps the most disappointing among the UK backcourtmen in these golden Calipari years. Calipari has had five point guards in five seasons. NONE of them — except Harrow — had the opportunity to have a full year to watch and practice and see game film, and pick up Cal’s system in a pressure-free environment. There is absolutely NO reason that Marquis Teague should’ve adjusted better than Ryan Harrow did.
And he almost sank the whole freaking ship. Don’t get me wrong. There were a lot of things wrong with that 2012-13 UK team. Everything about Harrow screams that he just wasn’t the guy to run the show at UK. And it does it so loudly that I can almost, almost assume that Calipari and staff dropped the ball here, and that Harrow was so unsuited for this that he shouldn’t have been recruited.
But then I watch him running wild for Georgia State in 2013-14. In the Sun Belt Conference title game, with the season on the line, Harrow was a freaking stud, scoring 37 points and outplaying Elfrid Payton, who went on to be an NBA Draft lottery pick. So forget that. I’m just mad. Harrow should’ve been the next great Calipari point guard. He did apparently have some difficult family situations going on at home and things, unfortunately, didn't work out for him at UK.
41. Stacey Poole, 2010-11
At least you heard of Harrow. Poole, who was part of Calipari’s first “full” UK recruiting class (meaning guys he had a full year to recruit and who had the chance to see John Wall blow up the world as a Wildcat), is almost anonymous. His dad was an All-SEC caliber player for Florida when I was a kid, and Jr. was a pretty highly-regarded wing player. He was ranked No. 33 in the Rivals 150 for 2010, for instance. (For perspective, Dion Waiters from Syracuse was No. 29, Kendall Marshall from North Carolina was No. 32, and Keith Appling from Michigan State was No. 38.) He was described as an explosive athlete. In his one year at UK, he played 45 minutes and scored four points. He transferred away from being part of the 2012 NCAA title team. Come on, ask Twany Beckham, there are worse ways to spend a year than not playing and celebrating a title! Instead, Poole went on to Georgia Tech. He has averaged 2.7 points per game there and won exactly zero championships. Way to leave being part of one of the best teams ever, bro. Smooth.
40. Darnell Dodson, 2009-10
This guy could’ve been so great. That 2009-10 team had it all—Alpha dog point guard, check (Wall), stud man-child center, check (Cousins), wily old veteran post player, check (Patterson), explosive second guard who could go off at a moment’s notice, check (Bledsoe). What they didn’t have was a shooter. That was supposed to be Dodson.
Instead, he was on-again, off-again. He didn’t play defense, he didn’t hustle, and he apparently wasn’t too much of a solid citizen in his one year at UK. Dodson led the team in three pointers made (50), but also was a 36% shooter overall, and averaged just under six points per game. He played one minute in the Sweet 16 game, and then shot 2-for-9 from three as part of the dismal Elite Eight loss to West Virginia. Calipari didn’t welcome him back after some off-court distractions. Dodson ended up at Southern Miss, where he had a reasonably good year, and then got arrested on burglary charges. That’s how you end up as a Calipari draft pick—but with the Fort Wayne Mad Antz, instead of an NBA team. Dodson did that, and at last notice, he was playing in Argentina. You’d need a centerfold to find a bigger disappointment than this guy.
39. Daniel Orton, 2009-10
Kind of like Dodson, Orton was a guy who could’ve been a big help, but had some major attitude issues. Calipari would probably rank him 42nd, based on his standing as the apparent sole one-and-doner who just quit going to class. I’ll always remember him as the guy who had a teammate trying to help him up off the floor, and he looked up at the guy holding out his hand who said, “Get up," and he replied, “I can’t, (expletive deleted).”
38. Twany Beckham, 2010-12
Twany was supposed to help as a legitimate reserve guard from Mississippi State, but between health issues and UK’s abundance of talent, he never really did. Scored two points in two seasons, but was apparently a good guy, and has one more national championship ring than I do.
37. Brian Long, 2012-present
A 5’9” guy who is living the dream. Has a title ring.
36. Eloy Vargas, 2010-12
On a bigger scale than Twany Beckham, Eloy was a transfer (juco via Florida) who was supposed to be a real contributor. He was a little bit more of a factor than Twany—he scored 85 points in two seasons, provided some depth in the post, and played in two Final Fours. You could do worse.
35. Tod Lanter, 2012-present
Tod didn’t get in a game last season and hasn’t scored a point, but I put him over some guys who are more talented because he earned his way to the team. Tod began as a practice player, who impressed the staff so much that he became part of the team. Maybe I’m just a sucker for these Rudy-type stories, but the guy who was expected to be a student and becomes a player has to get some love.
34. E.J. Floreal, 2014-present
Track coach’s son, crazy good athlete. He’s shooting 100% in his UK career (yes, 1-for-1) and dunked on Julius Randle in a Blue/White game. I respect that resume.
33. Dominique Hawkins, 2014-present
In the same way that I give Lanter credit for earning his way on to the squad, I have to give Hawkins credit for the same thing. Guy came out of nowhere and played so well that he forced Calipari to recruit him. When he got to campus, he had no business getting clock on last year’s team, but he became a reliable perimeter defender and a hustler. There are probably much bigger days ahead for this young man!
32. Derek Willis, 2014-present
This is one that hopefully will look ridiculous one day. At the present, Willis is kind of an unknown quality. He played 39 minutes in 2013-14, and showed a general willingness (and ability) to shoot the ball. He could turn into a much better version of…
31. Kyle Wiltjer, 2011-13
He could’ve been so good. With 535 points in two seasons, Wiltjer was more than halfway to being a member of the 1,000 point club. But he was a disappointing player. Softer than Charmin, amazingly uninterested in defense, Kyle was of no real use to anyone if his shot wasn’t falling. In his last game at UK, the loss to Robert Morris, he had two points and three fouls. That’s it. He wasn’t a bad player, and made a real contribution to the 2012 title team, but the following year and his ensuing transfer will always leave a bitter taste in my mouth.
Next time around, I’ll count us down to No. 21. Believe me, the names on this list get impressive in a hurry. So what do you think? Am I crazy? Right on? A little of both? Did I actually rank three walk-ons ahead of a first-round draft pick? (Yes—and there are more walk-ons on up the chart). Give me a shout at email@example.com. Make me laugh or raise a good point and I’ll address it in the next post. Back soon with more of the Cal Countdown.
Joe Cox has lived in Kentucky all of his life. He has supported the Wildcats from Letcher and Bell counties up to Jefferson County and down to western Kentucky, where he lives with his wife and their two children. Cox practices law in Bowling Green, and has co-authored two books, "100 Things Wildcats Fans Should Know and Do Before They Die" and “Fightin' Words: Kentucky vs. Louisville,” with Ryan Clark. His forthcoming third book is "Voice of the Wildcats: Claude Sullivan and the Rise of Modern Sportscasting,” written with Alan Sullivan, which will be published in September.