Kentucky's all-time starting 5: So much history, so many choices
LEXINGTON — With a tradition that spans over 2,200 victories, eight NCAA titles, 50 SEC regular season championships, and 57 All-Americans, attempting to define the best of the best of Kentucky basketball is a singular challenge. The only program to win NCAA titles in five different decades has such an impressive history that even a best five players of each decade would yield talent to rival most the best players ever of any program in the history of college basketball.
But part of March Madness is sorting through the unsortable. So we’ve taken those 57 All-Americans and pared away 52 of them. The best of the best of the best program possibly in the history of the sport is a tall, tall honor. The five players chosen reach across multiple eras and coaches and encapsulate a small part of what makes Kentucky basketball the gold standard of the SEC and the nation.
Without further fanfare, the starting five on our all-time team of Kentucky legends:
Point guard: Ralph Beard (1945-49)
We see the wrinkled eyebrows of the millennials on this pick. And sure, John Wall did as much as anybody to bring the swagger back to basketball in Lexington. But it was Beard who helped build that tradition in the first place. He did everything that Wall did … but for four seasons in Lexington.
An unimposing 5-11 guard from Louisville, Beard came to Kentucky as a two-sport star — fast enough to run the point for Adolph Rupp’s fast breaking offense, and strong enough to star as a receiver for Bear Bryant’s football Wildcats. A shoulder injury on the gridiron confined Beard to basketball.
A three-time first-team consensus All-American, Beard was probably the fastest player of his era, and he ran the fast break faster than anybody in the sport. Even while playing in an incredibly low scoring era, Beard’s 1,517 points is still 15th in UK history. He also led UK to their first NIT and first two NCAA Tournament championships, and won an Olympic gold medal in London for good measure.
In two years in the NBA, he was All-NBA second team as a rookie and first team in his second (and final) year. Beard was found guilty of shaving points during his UK career, and was ultimately barred from the NBA. How good was he? Two things stand out: First, Beard owned future Celtics legend Bob Cousy in head-to-head match-ups. Second, in four years at UK, his Wildcat squads went 130-10.
Late in Beard’s life, a major college coach requested his presence to address his team. Beard happily complied, and before he turned things over to Beard, that coach, Bobby Knight, told his team that Beard “was the Michael Jordan of his day.” Good enough for us.
Shooting guard: Tony Delk (1992-96)
A three-time All-SEC pick, Delk is the kind of player who doesn’t exist in 2018. A three-year starter, a big-time scorer who was in no haste to head to the NBA, Delk was a complete player. Delk measures at just 6-1, but his long arms give him the wingspan (and defensive ability) of a much taller player.
Delk was a relatively unheralded member of Rick Pitino’s 1992 recruiting class. He played some, but took his smooth jump shot and turned himself into an indispensable part of some superb Kentucky squads.
Delk scored more than 550 points in each of his final three seasons of college, playing in two Final Fours and leading UK to the 1996 NCAA title. His 1,890 points are fifth in UK history, and his 283 career 3-pointers is a Wildcat record. Seven of those 3s came in the 1996 title game, when Delk’s 24 points led Kentucky to their first championship in 18 years.
Delk had a solid, if unspectacular ten year career in the NBA, although he never lost his scoring ability. In a game on January 2, 2001, he put up 53 points for the Phoenix Suns. Today, he’s a commentator on the SEC Network.
Small forward: Jamal Mashburn (1990-93)
Mashburn was probably more of a power forward type, but it was his combination of inside and outside skills which made him the player who brought Pitino’s Kentucky teams back to relevance. Big Blue Nation remembers the scrappy in-state kids, but the massive import from New York was a one-man wrecking crew.
How off the radar was Kentucky when new coach Pitino was recruiting Mashburn? Mashburn showed up in Lexington for his official visit wearing a Syracuse cap, which apparently did not make a positive impression on his future coach. But Mashburn, who had a reputation for being a bit soft, believed that Pitino would turn him into a future pro, and with his arrival in Lexington, the rebuilding of Kentucky basketball from probation leaped forward a couple years.
Mashburn was the do-it-all sort. He could handle the ball, rebound like a center, shoot like a guard, and as his career went, he gained a reputation as a big-game player. In his three seasons, Kentucky went from a group of scrappy underachievers to a Final Four team, as shown in the clip below, when Mashburn absolutely devastated Wake Forrest and NBA lottery pick Rodney Rogers in the NCAA Sweet 16.
Mashburn left after his junior season and was chosen fourth in the 1993 NBA Draft by Dallas. He had a solid NBA career, and has reinvented himself as a successful businessman and broadcaster after his basketball days. Mashburn’s 1,843 points are sixth in UK history, and his 760 rebounds are 18th. But more than the significance of numbers, Mashburn re-established the street cred of UK in the early 1990s.
Power forward: Dan Issel (1967-70)
Issel wasn’t glamorous, but the guy called “The Horse” always produced. Remembered as a deadly mid-range jump shooter and a scrappy rebounder, Issel was perhaps Rupp’s last great recruit. That said, Issel intended to go to Wisconsin and had even signed scholarship papers with the Badgers before Rupp and then-assistant coach Joe B. Hall changed his mind.
The 6-9 forward only went on to become UK’s career leading scorer (2,138 points) and rebounder (1,078 boards), despite playing in an era when freshmen were ineligible for varsity competition. Issel might be best remembered for his battles with LSU’s Pistol Pete Maravich. Maravich averaged 52 points per game against Kentucky in six matchups. As for Issel, he scored a “mere” 30.8 points per game, but the Wildcats also won all six games.
Issel went on to star in the ABA and NBA, and was even a successful head coach with the Denver Nuggets. How good was Issel? Twenty-eight times in the history of UK basketball, a player has scored 40 or more points in a game. Nine of those games came from Issel.
Center: Anthony Davis (2011-12)
He played one season in Lexington, and famously took the fourth most shots on his team in that one season. So why is Anthony Davis here? Because his combination of skills has never been seen before, probably not just in Lexington, but in college basketball.
Davis altered every possession on the defensive end, where his 186 blocked shots wasn’t just a UK record and SEC record, it’s the sixth most in a career at UK. His rebounding was excellent, as his 415 boards are the sixth most in a season in UK history. Offensively, he was quiet — scoring just over 14 points per game, but shooting 62 percent, and never failing to be unselfish. He won the Naismith Award in his amazing freshman season and led UK to its eight NCAA title in 2012.
Of course, in his post-Kentucky career, Davis became UK’s second top pick of the NBA Draft in three seasons. Since that time, aside from injuries, he’s rarely been contained. Davis is an NBA star who might be capping an MVP season at the time of writing. His lasting legacy may be as the proof that if a player can just cram three or four seasons of accomplishments into a single-season, Calipari’s one-and-done system works just fine.