By Joe Cox
The Calipari Countdown rolls on. …. We’re up to the Top 20 UK basketball ballers of the Coach Cal era, which just happens to be the 2010s. In my previous column, the last ranking (No. 21 to 30) got some good feedback. Mostly, we marveled at the days gone by of the Billy Gillispie era. Thanks to the marvel of YouTube, we could all remember the day when an SEC Tournament loss was sealed because Gillispie didn’t know the rules, and told Perry Stevenson to goaltend an opponent’s free throw. Basically, we all remembered how stupefying those two years with Billy G. were. And we moved on. Phil was sad that “May Day” never caught on as Sam Malone’s nickname, and my friend Charlie was pleased to see his distant cousin Tod Lanter sneaking into the Top 30. I’d have given him a couple more spots up had I known of their familial relationship.
But the days of walk-ons and bench players are past as Cal’s Top 20 are filled with the guys who either have played, or in my opinion will play, in the NBA. So they’re all good. Again, a note — the current guys are ranked on what they HAVE done, not what I think they will do. That said, we’re off…
20. Andrew Harrison, 2013-present
It was a tough year for Andrew, in many ways. I was a bit disappointed in just how slow the Harrison brothers were. Calipari’s offense needs a slasher, and for parts of the year, Andrew was a step slow and a little tentative in filling that role. That said, “the tweak” meant that at the end of the year, Andrew looked much smoother. There’s little reason to suspect that he won’t have a great second year, especially with Tyler Ulis coming in and be that speed and pesky-ness point guard, setting up defenses for Andrew’s muscle and shooting ability.
19. DeAndre Liggins, 2009-2011
Speaking of Billy Gillispie, remember this guy? Gillispie brought Liggins in to be his point guard, but proceeded to struggle with coaching DeAndre, instead handing the spot to Michael Porter, which is like Napoleon Dynamite being given the role of Homecoming King. As for DeAndre, he never ceased to play with anything less than 100% intensity and effort. He became a defensive stopper, and a deceptively good offensive player — a guy who could slash or hit a big three. He could’ve used another year, but he came a long way under Coach Cal, and he got some NBA time to prove it.
18. Alex Poythress, 2012-present
If I was ranking him based on his freshman year, his rank might be lower even though stats would be better. There was some Rod Rhodes in Alex’s giddy-up, which is to say he could have 20 points one night and two the next. But down the stretch of the 2014 tournament, the opposite kind of player showed up. Alex might score six points, but they’d be six crucial points he’d get in the last four minutes of the game. He’d get big rebounds or blocked shots, basically shoot about 75 percent and play with a savage intensity around the rim. Now, all of this said, I think Alex 3.0 will be the best of the bunch. Here’s an upset projection — I think Alex will be the leading scorer on this year’s UK team. He’s primed for a good year shooting and slashing. He’ll combine the late-game warrior of 2013 with the all-world skills guy who put up 20 on Duke in his second UK game. He’ll be a Top 10 guy next year. He’ll graduate early and be a steal in the back end of the first round of the 2015 NBA Draft.
An aside about Alex — a local kid, who happens to be a huge UK fan, who had suffered a big tragedy in his personal life was approached by Alex, who is from just a few miles down the road. Alex talked with him on the Internet and told him in the next game, when he scored, he would make a specific gesture for his young friend. I knew about all of this as I watched the game. Alex threw down a dunk, and I looked for the gesture and didn’t see it. But the next day I saw a photo of Alex after the dunk. With one hand, held low toward his knee, he was making the gesture he had promised. Just sayin.’
17. Willie Cauley-Stein, 2012-present
Such a fun player to watch. Willie’s game is deeply limited in many ways, but at the same time, watching him learn to play basketball at a high level is fascinating. The sky really is the limit for WCS, who, if he can stay healthy, will become the top shot-blocker in UK history. Willie has the potential to be in the top 10, and his return to college was a major surprise.
16. Marquis Teague, 2011-12
It wasn’t always pretty for Teague, but a point guard who wins a championship is like a quarterback who wins a Super Bowl. Even if he isn’t the main force, his name is forever linked to the championship. Teague was unconventional as a UK lead guard, compared to guys like John Wall and Brandon Knight. But he learned his role as the season went along, and was indispensible by March.
15. James Young, 2013-14
A hard guy to rank, because he was an incredibly lazy passer, and could fall asleep as a defender on occasion. But James was a fun guy to watch offensively. He could pop threes or drive and throw down vicious slams. In the NCAA title game, when the rest of the ‘Cats were running on fumes, James Young had a fine game. He’ll be an exciting pro.
14. Doron Lamb, 2010-12
One of the best three-point shooters in UK history, Doron’s “three goggles” are the defining image of his career. The pure shooter is a rarity in college basketball, and nobody’s shot was smoother than Lamb’s. Absolutely no way the 2012 title happens without his clutch outside shooting.
13. Eric Bledsoe, 2009-10
He came in with a promise to “get s—t right” and he delivered. Often lost in John Wall’s shadow, on a merely normal team, Bledsoe would’ve been all-conference, if not All-American. Could slash, shoot, and defend, and he’s parlaying these skills into making himself a very rich man today.
12. Nerlens Noel, 2012-13
Nerlens is a tough call. He was a great player, and his skill set probably would’ve fit him into the Top 10. But at the same time, he played 2/3 of a season, and when he was hurt; his team limped home painfully into the NIT. I can’t really justify putting him above the other guys on this list. If there’s a pick-up game, he’s probably not lasting until the 12th pick. But again, I’m honoring what guys did, not what they would’ve done, or what they’ll do in the NBA.
11. Brandon Knight, 2010-11
I know, I thought he’d be in the Top 10 as well. But rating Brandon is a lot like rating Andrew Harrison or James Young. He had a good, but somewhat disappointing freshman regular season, but down the stretch run in March, he suddenly turned All-American. I’m not forgetting how good this guy was, and on a lesser program or a lesser run, he’d be solidly Top 5. But it was one year, it ended in the Final Four, and the regular season was kind of underwhelming. For those reasons, he’s at No. 11.
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Only the best of the best are left. Who’s No. 1? You can do the process of elimination and figure out who is in the Top 10… So tell me why I’m wrong. Or right. Reach me via e-mail at Jrcox004@gmail.com or find me on Facebook and we’ll talk.
Joe Cox has lived in Kentucky all of his life. He has supported the Wildcats from Letcher and Bell County 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 third book, “Voice of the Wildcats: Claude Sullivan and the Rise of Modern Sportscasting,” written with Alan Sullivan, which will be published in September.