Kentucky Basketball: Remembering Rodrick Rhodes and the Genesis of a Championship

When Rodrick Rhodes was playing his best, his defense was almost as suffocating as fellow New Jerseyan Michael Kidd-Gilchrist's is today.

Joshua Lars Weill, whom most of you remember as JL Blue from back in the early days of A Sea of Blue, was the founding owner of this community before passing it on to my care circa April of 2007. Josh has an article up at Rush the Court entitled Past Imperfect: Rodrick Rhodes — Untouchable Cats’ Unwanted Man. It is a look back at Pitino's first top 5 nationally ranked recruit, and looks at the circumstances surrounding his transfer to Southern Cal and the advent of the 1996 national championship team.

Despite his erratic play, Rhodes was always a favorite of mine. When Rod was focused and concentrated on getting to the rim and defending his man, there was simply no better player in the nation, he was very nearly as good as fellow New Jerseyan Michael Kidd-Gilchrist in his ability to shut down an opponent's offense. He was lightning quick for his size, athletic as all get-out, and had a first step nonpareil. He wasn't a great finisher at the rim, but he would often get there so fast he didn't need to be.

Unfortunately, where MKG embraces his role as a defender and slasher, Rhodes wanted to be more of a perimeter player and shoot threes. For whatever reason, consistent perimeter shooting simply wasn't among the many gifts granted him by the Almighty, but Rhodes refused to recognize that fact. Instead, he played like a guy who made 45% from three, and never met a jumpshot he didn't like.

Then came the North Carolina Elite Eight game in 1995, and things began to go sideways:

Finally, following a series of disappointing showings in his junior season, including a miserable game in UK’s Elite Eight loss to North Carolina, Pitino had had enough. After the enigmatic junior forward opted to enter his name into the NBA Draft pool, Pitino moved on.

I encourage you to check out Josh's article and get the rest of this story. Also, you may want to check out Jon Scott's discussion of this matter, which comes from a slightly different perspective.

The departure of Rhodes and the matriculation of Ron Mercer, Pitino's first national #1 recruit, created the dynamic for the mighty 1996 team that stood astride the world of college basketball in 1995-96, bowing only once that year to John Calipari's Marcus Camby-led UMass team early in the season. In hindsight, it is very interesting to think what could have happened if Rhodes had stayed, but I cannot imagine Pitino passing on Mercer -- he would have just found someone to accept a walk-on year like he has done several times at Louisville.

I can only imagine if Rhodes were among the cream of the crop this year -- would Calipari be after him? Back in those days, "one-and-done" was hardly ever done, but in today's environment, Rhodes surely would have been seen as that type of player, and at least the sort of player that Calipari likes to recruit.

But Rhodes' brother's influence on him came to be widely viewed as a major part of the problem. At Kentucky, Calipari has been able to step over players with meddlesome families, but let's be honest, it wasn't always so -- Derrick Rose will attest to that.

So after you get done with the required reading above, riddle me this: Do you think Calipari would have recruited Rhodes if he were #1 or #2 this year?

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