Changing the subject from a surprisingly contentious Florida coaching situation, we present the second in a six-part series of looks at the best five starters and reserve over the last 27 years (i.e from 1980).
Up next: Center.
[Ed. note: The timeline is intentional, as it is easier for both the writers and vast majority of the readers of this blog to focus on the post-1980 era, what I consider to be the 'modern era' of college hoops. This is not a comprehensive list, and thanks to Kentucky's grand history, many of the greatest players in UK lore will clearly be missed.]
(1) Sam Bowie, 1980-84 (Career UK #8 rebounds, #3 blocks, 1000-point club, 1984 Final Four, NBA 1st Rd. [#2 overall])
Perhaps none of Kentucky's greatest players is mis-remembered more than Sam Bowie. One of the nation's most heavily recruited players, Bowie -- a McDonald's and Parade All-American, Boo was one of the first of the 'mobile' big men to grace the college floor, plying his trade in the same vein as Ralph Sampson, another 7+ footer with nimble feet and agility. Bowie's graceful game was, however, overshadowed by his brittle feet, as the Pennsylvania native missed two full seasons with bone breaks. Illustrating Bowie's value, however, despite averaging only 10.5 points a game in his final season, Bowie was chosen second overall in the NBA draft. That he was chosen over Michael Jordan -- a fact as misunderstood as it was no-brainer at the time -- further shows that for Bowie, potential and limitless ability were the name of the game. For Sam Bowie, the question wasn't whether he was good enough -- he was twice second-team All-American -- but rather how good he could have been.
(2) Melvin Turpin, 1981-84 (#2 blocks, #15 points, #7 FG%, 1984 Final Four, NBA 1st Rd. [#6])
He's better remembered now for his post-Kentucky nickname than his at-Kentucky game, but Melvin "Big Dipper" Turpin was once a quiet giant thunder dunking and up-and-undering SEC teams to oblivion. A Lexington native, by way of a Fork Union Military School prep year, Turpin was first a great replacement for, then a compliment to, our #1 center, Sam Bowie. For all of Bowie's grace and agility, Turpin had power and bull-rush. For all of Bowie's passing and hands, Turpin had interior defensive presence. While All-American sophomore Bowie led the 1981 team in scoring and rebounding, the freshman Turpin took his lumps on the B-team. By the time the two were once again on the floor together, it was Turpin who led the way, averaging 15 points a game on the 1984 Final Four team. Drafted #6 overall, Turpin was expected to star as a force in the middle. But after a promising first two seasons (13.7 ppg, 7 reb his 2nd year), weight issues and health got the better of Mel, and turned him from a feared big man into a big joke. "Dinner Bell" Mel was not the same dominant offensive force he had been, and the fact that few remember the scoring prowess of Turpin is a shame.
(3) Nazr Mohammed, 1996-98 (1996 Final Four*, 1997 Final Four, 1998 Final Four, 1st Rd. NBA [#29])
Oh, what could have been. Many a Cats fan has wondered what the 1999 Wildcats might have produced on the court with another season out of the talented Nazr Mohammed. Few could blame the onetime project for seeking his fortunes in the NBA after a surprising and productive junior campaign (12 points, 7 boards). Mohammed may be the best example of Rick Pitino's eye for talent. Once well over 300 pounds and relegated to the JV squad, Mohammed worked to trim his body and refine his game. He emerged on the other side a sure-handed force in the paint, complete with an arsenal of up-and-under moves and head fakes worthy of NBA dollars. Mohammed's career numbers don't tell the tale of his worth to three Final Four teams (albeit only two he contributed much to), nor of the breadth of his talent. As a hypothetical, were Nazr to have basically repeated his junior season production in his senior year, he would have finished among the top 30 scorers, top 10 rebounders and top 3 in blocks. Add him to 1999's Elite Eight team and the sky is the limit. Anyone care to argue?
(4) Jamaal Magloire, 1997-2000 (#1 blocks, #13 rebounds, 1000-point club, 1997 Final Four, 1998 Final Four, NBA 1st Rd. [#19])
The greatest Canadian ever to play for the Blue and White, Jamaal Magloire transformed himself from a one-dimensional defensive specialist to an interior force, combining a brute strength and a nasty streak to become one of the best centers Kentucky -- a program with a long, storied history of skilled giants -- has ever had. Many people forget that, as much as anyone, it was Magloire's timely emergence that helped spark Kentucky to title game appearances in 1997 and 1998. The Toronto native's fearless defensive play was a hallmark, such that the long-limbed Magloire finished as the school's all-time leader in blocked shots. But the most impressive thing about Magloire was his transformation from a useful role player to the foundation of an NCAA team. From his junior to senior seasons, Magloire's points per game jumped from 6.7 to 13.3, and he flourished as the centerpiece of a young team in need of toughness and leadership. That his teammates were not as capable as they would be the year before and after can hardly be put on his shoulders. And besides, he still gave UK fans one of their favorite anti-Duke moments ...
(5) Randolph Morris, 2005-2007 (#10 blocks, #10 FG%, 1000-point club)
There is little chance that most Kentucky fans are in a forgiving enough mood to see Georgia native Randolph Morris on his merits alone. Even if you throw out the "missing fax" fiasco, the laundry list of his perceived injustices -- from declaring for the draft to leaving school for the NBA in April to a perception of lazy play -- taint unforgivingly Morris' legacy as a Wildcat. But for the sake of argument -- and isn't that always the case here? -- we'll focus on what Morris did while eligible and on the floor, for that is a body of work rich in skill, especially on the offensive end, where Big Randy could lay claim to being the best offensive center at UK in the last three decades. But it all took too long to develop, took too much forgiveness, took much too much patience to really appreciate. And that's a shame, because Morris' turnaround jumper was a beauty, and his rebounding (and here's a familar refrain, "when he was motivated") could be dominant. Sadly, fans saw this side of Morris too little, and far too late. by the time Morris put together the best game of his UK career (29 pts, 15 reb vs. MSU in SECT), the Cats were in freefall and hanging on for dearlife, and few could see the game as much more than Randolph auditioning for the pros. But Morris career numbers are remarkable in one way -- they came in a total of just 89 games, the least of anyone on this list.
(6) Reggie Hanson, 1988-91 (#12 blocks, 1000-point club)
If games were won solely on heart, then Reggie Hanson's winning percentage as a UK player would be through the roof. Listed at a generous 6'7" and 200 pounds, it was Hanson who drew the job of manning the paint for Pitino's first UK team, the Bombinos. While fans remember primarily the raining threes and gusty play of the players later dubbed "The Unforgettables," without Hanson's All-SEC play, there would have been no win over mighty LSU (11 pts, 12 reb, 6 ast) in 1990, nor an SEC regular season title (probation) the next year. Few will remember now that it was the quintessential scrappy Pitino-style overachiever, the homegrown Somerset native, Hanson that averaged more points and rebounds than Jamal Mashburn in 1991, and that kind of anonymous production is exactly why we slate Hanson in our top UK centers of the modern era.