JOE COX: Who Are Top 10 Players in John Calipari's Golden Era at Kentucky?
By Joe Cox
Dear loyal readers, you have earned this day. You’ve stuck it out from Harrow to Sam Malone, from Uncle Julius to Brandon Knight. And today, I’m finishing the Calipari Countdown. It’s the Top 10 players who have played for Cal at Kentucky — which is, coincidentally enough, the Top 10 UK players of the 2010s. In half a decade, there’s been a title, three Final Fours, and four great seasons. There was also 2013, but like the days of Gillispie, I’m just trying to forget that. Here are some guys I’m not forgetting.
10. Josh Harrellson, 2009-2011
There are people in the world who will tell you that John Calipari can’t coach. (Pat Forde was doing a great job of this in early March 2014, for instance.) He just lives off of recruiting better talent than everybody else. But for those people, I present the man, the myth, the king of jorts, Josh Harrellson.
Like almost everybody else that Billy Gillispie recruited, Josh Harrellson did not look like a UK basketball player. He was slow, not very athletic, and less than imposing. I wasn’t sure Jorts would stick in the Calipari era, and then, it looked like he’d play out his career stuck to the bench. Sure enough, in his junior year, Harrellson scored 1.3 points per game. But a funny thing happened on the way to obscurity. Enes Kanter was sidelined by the NCAA, and Calipari decided to use Jorts as a tool to show that yes, Virginia, he actually coaches basketball players.
Suddenly, Jorts had 14 points and 12 boards against Indiana. Then he put up 23 and 14 vs. Louisville. By the time the NCAA Tournament rolled around, this wasn’t the 12th man on the UK team. This guy was the heart and soul of the squad. So how did his NCAA Tournament go? 15 and 10 vs. Princeton, 15 and 8 vs. West Virginia, 17 and 10 in an amazing game against Jared Sullinger and Ohio State, and 12 and 8 vs. North Carolina. Jorts was All-SEC Tournament and All-NCAA Regional. He’s played a few years in the NBA. And nobody foresaw that. Except for Jorts and Coach Cal.
9. Aaron Harrison, 2013-14
What is the highest praise you can give a UK basketball player? Probably that they did something that is unequalled in UK history. 2,000-plus wins, eight NCAA titles, umpteen All-Americans all add up. UK fans have seen just about everything. But we hadn’t seen a guy go on a run of big baskets to equal Aaron Harrison.
There is no UK parallel. Not Issel, not Delk, not Mashburn, not Beard, nobody. The kid has, as the great Bill Rafferty likes to say, “onions.” We can talk about the 2014 team stepping up, playing together, etc. But the truth is that if Aaron hadn’t gone all Larry Bird in the closing minutes of games, it would’ve been a short March. Can’t wait to see what Aaron has left as an encore.
8. Terrence Jones, 2010-12
When I sat in Rupp Arena watching the pregame montage of four seasons of Cal in September 2013, the clip that put a lump in my throat was Terrence Jones. I thought to myself, “That guy is what the Calipari system is about.” Freshman year Terrence was incredibly talented, but incredibly enigmatic. He led the world in getting his shot blocked and once caused Calipari to nearly have a coronary at Mississippi State, when he visibly called Jones a “selfish @#*%&()(@#*$.” Sophomore Terrence got with the program. The numbers went down, but the ability to play within the team concept and be part of something bigger than himself soared. And that is what college basketball is about. Whether it’s one year or two years or four, seeing a player discover a new basketball identity is always a blast. Especially when it ends with a championship.
7. Darius Miller, 2008-12
See comment above. Nervous, tentative Darius disappeared sometime around 2011, and Big Game Darius showed up. His trey to quiet a U of L run in the 2012 Final Four was a big league shot. And it showcased the kind of player Darius grew into. He’d play some defense, pass the ball, get some rebounds, and then drain a big basket when you needed one. Plus, he’s a Kentucky boy, and that’s a tradition that’s older than the hills.
6. Julius Randle, 2013-14
I have such mixed feelings on Julius. As he showed in his second college game, he could take over the game to an extent that was absolutely breath-taking. But he sometimes bogged down in refusing to pass, and like Terrence Jones, somebody seems to have lopped off his right arm altogether. (going left, going left, going left) For the most part, he tried to grow up and provide solidity for a remarkably young team. It didn’t always work, but when it did (see March), the results were a lot of fun.
5. DeMarcus Cousins, 2009-10
DeMarcus not only is universally beloved by fans, but he has to deserve some kind of award for most improvement over the course of one season. DeMarcus went from a petulant, lazy, somewhat out of shape sloth to a post-up stud in like three months. And nobody seemed to enjoy the transformation more than he did. Who knows how DMC ends up—he could be great, he could be awful. But he could run for governor of Kentucky tomorrow. And you’d vote for him.
4. Patrick Patterson, 2008-10
People genuinely don’t remember how good P-Pat was. The work he performed as the veteran glue on Cal’s first team was huge. And in coming back to school, he worked on his outside shot and made himself a solid NBA player instead of a tweener. He got one good team at UK out of his three, but the guy wasn’t the No. 13 scorer and rebounder in UK history for nothing. Pat is probably the guy who will be Mr. Underrated for years to come. If you saw him play, you knew he’d do anything you needed to win a game. If not, you missed something special.
3. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, 2011-12
This was my darkhorse No. 1. If you’re keeping track, you know Davis and Wall are the two other guys left. But nobody, and I mean nobody, played the game harder than MKG. Much like Pat, he was just a glue guy, who made the plays that needed to be made. Unlike Pat, he’d dribble the ball down the heart of the defense and dunk on your head. In the 2013 Alumni Game, I loved watching MKG and Liggins just go at each other. It was a pick-up game with everybody else throwing down uncontested dunks and jacking up threes. And Liggins and MKG were playing each other like it was an NBA Playoff game. Why? Because that’s how these guys ball. If the two of them had been on the same team, that team would’ve won by 300 points. MKG is nothing but heart, and at times, he pushed that 2012 team on to the title by sheer strength of will.
2. John Wall, 2009-10
I really thought long and hard about Wall at No. 1. How good is John Wall? As good as anybody who ever played at UK. And good enough that at that 2013 Alumni Game, which was like a Who’s Who of the 2019 NBA All-Star Game, Wall was the guy everybody else (with the possible exceptions of MKG and Liggins, see above) deferred to. He was asked after the game in the press conference who was the best of Calipari’s point guards. No hesitation. “I am”. And he is (as long as Derrick Rose continues to play like he’s made of Styrofoam).
1. Anthony Davis, 2011-12
In the famous words of the great Rick Bragg, I’m not stupid. Davis also could be the best UK player ever. Seriously. Who was better? Issel? Please. AD would’ve swatted him all over the place. Givens? Ditto. Delk? Well, despite Tony’s 7’ long arms, AD would’ve posted him up again and again and again. If you had a time machine, Ralph Beard might be an interesting matchup. Or Cliff Hagan, who probably would’ve hacked Davis to death and then shot the hook on him. But I don’t know who could beat him.
AD was a game changer at both ends of the floor! Best shot blocker ever? Check. Fantastic finisher on lobs and misses? Check. Three point shooter? Sure. Good at the foul line? Of course. And a really decent, likeable young man as well. I talked to his parents once, and I’m pleased to say they were very nice, unassuming folks. And they raised a very nice, unassuming son, who just happened to grow a foot and turn into some sort of basketball wizard. If Anthony stays healthy, the sky is the limit for his career.
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Thanks for playing, and remember to tip your waitress. E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you want to tell my how crazy I am, or look me up at facebook.com/joe.cox.98/. I’ll be back soon with more fun stuff to discuss and debate. Until then, remember, we’ve got basketball coming soon! And football almost as soon! Cue “Most Wonderful Time of the Year.”
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.