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Thursday, January 17, 2013

A Little Sunshine: Most Improved Players in UK History

   I'm still working on shaking off the negativity regarding the struggles of this current squad. so I thought I'd mention the most improved players in UK history (actually, just since I began watching in the mid-seventies). Let's keep this in mind while our freshmen are playing like, well, freshmen. In chronological order, I give you:

  Melvin Turpin, 1981-84. 
    The Dipper went from a timid beanpole to a consistent--and occasionally explosive--scorer with perhaps the sweetest shot in the paint of any UK big man. The combination of his soft touch and Sam Bowie's long interior presence in 1984 help Joe B. Hall to his third and last final four. To top it off, Melvin worked himself into the #6 pick in the 1984 NBA draft. Rest in peace, big fella.

  Roger Harden, 1983-96.

    I was in Purdue's Mackey Arena watching Joe B. Hall's last team lose a December road game to the Boilers, with a junior Roger Harden (who had played little behind Dirk Minniefield and then Dicky Beal), a McDonald's AA and former Mr. Indiana, looking like a big recruiting miss. I believe he even briefly left the team after that game before coming to his senses. A coaching change (Sutton for Hall) brought a dramatic resurgence for the point guard his senior year, as he piloted the Cats to 32-4 record hit several clutch shots, and scored more points than his previous three years combined.

   The Unforgettables, 1988-92

   These guys--Richie Farmer, Deron Feldhaus, John Pelphrey, and Sean Woods--will always be grouped together, and why not? A largely forgettable group of recruits embodied the driven and transformative Rick Pitino, the brash young coach who forever altered their hoops destiny. Beloved in defeat, imagine how they'd be revered had one unnamed chest-stomper not hit a shot for the ages.

   Cameron Mills, 1995-98

   The son of former UK player Terry Mills, Cameron turned down a scholarship from Georgia to be a walk on Rick Pitino's talent-laden squads of the mid 90s. His shooting ability was never in question, but his lack of athleticism was a huge defensive liability. Or as Pitino famously said, "`When I see him on offense, I smile all the time. When I see him on defense, I want to commit suicide." After scoring 16 varsity points total his first two years (not including the points he rang up with Michael Yang on the short-lived JV squad), he scored 349 his junior and senior years, including gargantuan threes against both Duke and Utah on the 98 team's surprising title run. 

    Nazr Mohammed, 1996-1998

     We'd seen Pitino take a flyer on an unheralded recruit before--hello, Carlos Toomer--so no one though much about the coach's project from Chicago, a relatively obscure and formerly rotund seven footer. Seldom used on the 1996 team, a squad so deep in talent the coach created a JV squad, he became the key interior force on teams that would lose in OT in the 1997 final game and win it all in 1998. Fifteen years later, he's still a productive player in the NBA.

     Scott Padgett, 1996-1999 

    Unlike Mills (see above), Padgett was a scholarship recruit out of Louisville's St. X, but I'm not sure how many UK fans imagined he'd become an impact player. After only playing in 14 games as a freshman (with 28 points total), he emerged after a year in academic exile to be a major contributor on teams that successively advanced to the final two, won the title, and the final eight. Most memorable was the cathartic triple from the top of the key late in Kentucky's dramatic comeback win over Duke, followed by a primal scream for the ages (see photo). He topped off his remarkable emergence with a first round selection in the 1999 NBA draft.

     Marquis Estill, 1999-2003

  Estill was famously recruited after Tubby saw highlights of his Madison Central team on the news one night, and was prototypical of the better Smith "diamond in the rough" recruiting finds. A big man with a bad knees but soft hands, great footwork, and an impressive wingspan, Estill became a valuable paint presence for two underachieving teams and one that was a Keith Bogans ankle (and a Dwayne Wade triple-double) away from making a serious title run.

      Erik Daniels, 2000-04

   Another below-the-radar Tubby find, I wondered aloud (as I'm sure other Cat fans did) when UK signed a player that his hometown Cincinnati Bearcats didn't even recruit. But Erik (or as Tubby said it, "Urrik") was a pleasant surprise with his old-school craftiness and will to win that could overcome his, to be kind, non-textbook jumper. In my book one of the most entertaining players to ever wear the blue.

    Josh Harrellson, 2009-11

   A transfer from Southwestern Illinois Junior College, Harrellson  would  be forever labeled "Jorts" for his poor fashion choice on a recruiting trip at Keeneland. But after enduring the ignominies of the Billy Clyde era, Harrellson survived new Coach Calipari's housecleaning but became lost in the shuffle on the uber-talented Wall/Cousins/Bledsoe 2010 squad. But after Turksih big man Enes Kanter was ruled ineligible for the 2011 season, Harrellson finally responded to Coach Cal's pleas to get serious about his game. His emergence will go down as perhaps the greatest in-season improvement for any player in UK history, highlighted by his dominance of Louisville in their brand new Yum! Center and his vicious roundball throw off the chest of Ohio State star Jared Sullinger in the regional semifinals.
As my daughter put it so famously in the Louisville win, "How'd Harrellson get so randomly good?"

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