The University of Kentucky has a long, rich tradition of producing outstanding point guards. From Ralph Beard who led UK to back-to-back National Championships in the 1948 and 1949, to Frank Ramsey who lead the 'Cats to the 1951 Title. Adrian Smith led the 1958 Fiddlin' Five to a National Title, and in 1966 Larry Conley led the Runts to the Championship game.
A litany of achievers, I think we all agree. Kentucky, while not adorned with the title of Point Guard University, has certainly regaled UK fans with very talented points over the last sixty years. In the last thirty years though, UK has propagated a string of very high achieving points. This "string" of tremendous point play has been broken from time to time, but never for more than a couple of years, though. Today, we sit in year three awaiting the return of the next great UK point guard.
To encapsulate my point, take a look at the point guards UK has put on the floor over the last thirty years:
Kyle Macy captured a National Title for Joe B. Hall in 1978. Macy is now considered by many to be the prototype University of Kentucky point guard. Considering the number of celebrated point guards UK has produced over the last sixty years or so, that is an honor of the highest magnitude.
I also happen to agree. Macy in 1978 was nothing short of spectacular; in 32 games Macy handed out 178 assists to only 68 turnovers. He averaged 12.5 points per game, shot 53.6% from the field, and 89.1% from the free throw line. For a point guard, life doesn't get much better.
Next in line is Dirk Minniefield. Minniefield leads UK in total career assists with 646, and had a terrific career in Lexington. Minniefield's combined stats from his junior and senior years look like this; 369 assists and 196 turnovers in 61 games played. He shot 52.4% from the field FOR HIS CAREER, and made 77.3% of his free throws. Dirk's junior year ('81-'82) he served up 188 assists to only 87 turnovers.
Arriving to UK in Minniefield's senior year was one Roger Harden. Harden in 1986, produced one of the best single seasons any point guard has ever had for the Blue and White; he played in 32 games and dished 232 assists to a mere 86 turnovers. He shot 52.4% from the field, and 84% from the free throw line. Outstanding, in my humble opinion.
The '86 team encountered the unfortunate circumstance of having to beat a good LSU team four times, the last game coming in the NCAA Elite 8. Sadly, very sadly, it was not to be. Dale Brown finally learned how to beat the 'Cats. If UK would have won that game I feel that Harden would be much more appreciated by the UK fan base. He would be remembered with more fondness and more often, than he is currently. For a point guard, he had a season to remember.
After Harden graduated in '86 and until '92, UK had a string of good point guards. Ed Davender, Sean Sutton, and Sean Woods were all solid, if unspectacular as far as their respective stats. As an Unforgettable senior in '92 Woods shot 48% from the field and dished 167 assists to 90 turnovers. Good, but not great numbers.
Then arrives Travis Ford. Ford in his junior put together a sensational season, by anyones standard; Travis passed his way to 166 assists to 91 turnovers. He shot 52.7% from the field and 52.9% from the three-point line ( he took 191) . He was deadeye from the free throw line at 88.1%. He was great, he was the Madisonville Marksman.
Out of the county known as Marion came a young man no one, and I mean no one, thought would come anywhere near the accomplishments he achieved. Anthony Epps is #2 all-time in career assists at UK (544). Epps' great UK career was topped off by his '96-'97 senior year with another of the greatest single years in UK history for a point guard; Epps handed out 193 assists to only 62 turnovers. That's three assists short of a 3-1 ratio. Wow. Epps is not remembered as a great shooter, but he made 40% of his threes.
Epps was consistently terrific. He is another point who is undervalued by UK fans, especially when considering he played in two straight Championship games.
The "Turner Burner" followed Epps as the lead UK guard. One of my favorite players of all time at Kentucky. Wayne Turner was a winner, plain and simple. His stats aren't mesmerizing, though. His best year was his junior year. In the '97-'98 campaign Turner had 173 assists to 93 turnovers, and he shot 37% from the three-point line.
Not great numbers, but pretty darn good. More important than his stats, Turner had that quality that one looks for in a point; the ability to win ballgames, and Turner won a lot of ballgames. He always made the big shot, or made the precision pass that had to be made in order to win. It is probably indescribable, that which makes one a winner, but he was just that.
After Turner came Cliff Hawkins. Hawkins, much like Turner did not produce eye-popping stats, but he did a solid job running the ball team. Hawkins' best year was his senior year in '03-'04. He handed out 166 assists to 95 turnovers, and shot 33.7% from the three-point line. His free throw percentage was respectable at 71%, and he had 74 steals. From the field he shot only 42.3%, which is what keeps him from being considered a great point.
I liked Hawkins' energy, and defensively he was tremendous. His elbow-out shooting motion causes coaches everywhere to turn away from the TV ... quickly, but he was a real asset to his team.
Rajon Rondo brings to a conclusion our list. Rondo's sophomore year he was dynamic and dynamite. 167 assists to only 79 turnovers. He also had 69 steals, (84 the year before) and shot 48.2% from the field. Unfortunately, I think there was a team chemistry problem that I feel adversely affected his season. As we are seeing now in Boston, he is capable of playing at a very high level.
In my view, the absolute best points to play at UK in the last thirty-years are Macy, Minniefield, Harden, Ford, and Epps. These five players have a common thread running through them:
- The point guard "mentality"-- Court savy, court awareness, there are many descriptives used to describe knowing what's going to happen before it does. Great point guards are like great chess players. They see several "moves" ahead.
- Think shoot second-- All of those guys can score, and score in a variety of ways. But they all looked for the easier shot. They all delivered a catchable ball to the man that was in position to score. They all knew how to take advantage of mismatches in order to gain an easier attempt.
- Magnificent ballhandling-- I nearly threw my shoe threw the television screen many time at Travis Ford dribbling behind his back and through his legs, while being TIGHTLY guarded. He was a magician with the ball, but he scared the heck out of me. Ford wasn't the only one dazzling with the ball, all of those guys were terrific ballhandlers.
- Defensively selfless-- The point sets the defensive tone most of the time. Being aggressive and executing the coach's defensive game-plan to perfection, many times compels the less defensive-minded among them to perform to a higher standard (think Ramel Bradley and Joe Crawford).
- Offensively capable-- Being able to score when needed is vitally important to being a great point guard. All five of the players on my list could score. All were clutch, and all won games with shots.
- Penetration-- Being able to penetrate the defense is, in most offenses, of the utmost importance. "Drive and dish" is a staple of nearly every offensive set a team can run. The desire to pull defenders away from shooters is as trusted a philosophy as exists in college basketball. If the point isn't capable of executing this maneuver, then he isn't a "true" point guard, in my opinion.
- The ability to hit free throws-- Being the primary ball-handler carries with it huge responsibilities. One of the biggest is being able to hit free throws at a very high percentage. Also, being able to shake the nerves and nail the game clinching shot is vital to winning championships (see Memphis).
Kentucky over the last few years has not had a player who demonstrates, with a great degree of consistency, the requisite qualities one needs to be considered a great point guard.
That statement is not meant as a knock on Ramel Bradley, or anyone else. Bradley was a shooting-guard playing the point. He did a fabulous job of growing into the position. The future though, holds questions. What are the answers?
Jasper may fit the bill, so to speak. But he was injured all of last year, so predicting what he may do next year is a very difficult proposition (assuming, of course, he returns).
DeAndre Liggins. Is he the guy? I certanly wish I knew. From most reports I have read, including Tru's dynamite breakdown of the Derby City Classic, I gather Liggins will be a definite asset to this team. At 6'6", if he performs as a "true" point, then Billy Gillispie may have something special on his hands.
Fact of Life: Teams do not win championships without great point guard play. I am very hopeful and optimistic that Gillispie and his staff will very soon be displaying a point with championship potential. Whether it be Liggins or Jasper, I don't know, but I'll be rooting for them both to pick up the mantle of Beard, Conley, and Macy. Banners are waiting to be hung.
Thanks for reading.