Jamal Mashburn is considered by many to be the most important recruit of Rick Pitino's tenure at UK. After all, his signing was a signal to other top tier talent that it was okay to go to UK again. Pitino's inking of the the star forward out of New York City also opened up what would become a very lucrative pipeline of talent from the Big Apple to Lexington. It is certainly very difficult to put together a good argument against Mashburn being Pitino's most important recruit. But I feel the most PIVOTAL recruit Pitino ever signed was the 6-1, sharpest of shooters, out of Brownsville, Tennessee, double-zero; Tony Delk .
The McDonald's and Parade All-America turned out to be one of the great players to ever don the blue and white. His career accomplishments are matched by few, his numbers and honors speak for themselves: '96 SEC Player of the Year, 2-time All-SEC first team, '96 consensus All-America, NCAA Regional Most Outstanding Player, Final Four Most Outstanding Player. Delk is number five on UK's career scoring list, checking in with 1,890 points scored.
In his four year career Delk made 683 field-goals, which is good for fifth all-time in Kentucky history. He is also fifth all-time in career three-point field goal percentage at .3975 (he shot 44.3% his junior year) . He leads all UK players with 283 made three-point field goals, and is the current record-holder for most threes made in a game with nine (he was 9-12 versus TCU in January '96). Delk also holds the record for most consecutive games with a made three-pointer, at an astounding thirty-four games. One of the most impressive aspects of Delk's career is the fact that he lead UK in scoring for three straight years. Only two other Wildcats have ever accomplished such an impressive feat; Cotton Nash, and Jack Givens (two jerseys hanging in Rupp, by the way). The fact that Delk lead ANY team in scoring for three straight years is notable, but the teams he lead were loaded with future NBA talent. Among all the stars, he shone the brightest.
When one looks deeper into Tony Delk's career numbers an even more remarkable story is told; in Delk's final three years he played in thirty-two games versus a ranked opponent (AP). In those thirty-two games Delk averaged 17.9 points per game. He failed to score in double-digits a mere two games. Calling him steady would be an insult -- Delk was money in the most difficult games. In his senior year versus Louisville, Delk joined a very elite fraternity of 'Cats when he dropped thirty on UL. That fact alone, in many peoples minds, is enough to ensure Delk's double-zero hangs above Cawood's Court. But there is so much more. Marcia Clark would call it a "mountain of evidence".
One game in particular I remember was a horrifyingly ugly NCAA tournament loss to Marquette in Delk's sophomore year. Delk was 9-for-19 in that most disappointing of games, but the rest of the team only shot 26%. Which of course doomed the 'Cats to a second round loss. That game though, begat a trend of great NCAA Tournament performances by Delk; over the final three years of Delk's career, he played in twelve NCAA Tournament games. In those games he averaged 18.8 points per game. College coaches love to see those numbers, especially in an environment that puts a heavy emphasis on Tournament success. Many times the length of a teams Tournament stay determines the length of the coach's employment contract. Ergo, coach loves nothing more dearly than a clutch, big-game performer.
I used the word "pivotal" earlier in my piece in describing Delk's place in Rick Pitino's recruiting hierarchy. I chose that word because I feel without Tony Delk, UK doesn't win the '96 Championship. I know there were a lot of great players on that team. Players like Derek Anderson, Antoine Walker, Ron Mercer, Walter McCarty, and Anthony Epps. But in my view, one could replace any of those players with an average player, and UK still wins the Title. Replace Delk with an average shooting guard, and UK probably doesn't make it to the Final Four. Delk did so much, other than scoring, to help Kentucky dominate college basketball in '96. His mere presence on the floor opened up the middle for Walker and Pope, and even McCarty. All of the "bigs" on that team owe Delk an appreciative "thank-you". His deadly three-point shooting accuracy demanded full attention from the opponent on the defensive end, allowing the big 'Cats plenty of room to roam.
He was also "pivotal" in the sense that he is mostly responsible, from a players standpoint, for the 6th Championship banner which hangs in Rupp. Like others before him, he deserves the honor of having his 00 hanging from those very same rafters; all of the first five National Championship teams are represented in Rupp's rafters. All are represented by at least two players: The '48 and '49 teams are represented by Alex Groza, Ralph Beard, Kenny Rollins, "Wah Wah" Jones, and Cliff Barker. The '51 team has Bill Spivey, Frank Ramsey, Cliff Hagan, and Lou Tsioropoulos. The '58 Champions are represented by Vernon Hatten and Johnny Cox, and finally the '78 team is represented by Jack Givens, Rick Robey, and Kyle Macy.
It has been twelve seasons since that magical team ruled the hardwood. I think it is time to begin discussing jersey retirements. And one has to start the conversation with Tony Delk. For all of the reasons I have listed above, I think Delk is the most deserving, He was the best player on one of the best college teams in recent memory. There are many debatable viewpoints regarding Kentucky basketball, but one of them is not Delk's worthiness for receiving the highest honor a Kentucky basketball player can receive. Delk has done Kentuckians a great service by enabling UK to hang Championship banner number six, it is time for UK to return the favor by hoisting the double-zero of the "Brownsville Bomber".
Thanks for reading. and Go 'Cats!