Ranking the top 10 UK players in the NBA during the John Calipari era at Kentucky
More from the series
Ten Years of Coach Cal
John Calipari’s first 10 years as head coach at the University of Kentucky were jam packed with memories. As Coach Cal embarks on his second decade under a newly signed “lifetime contract,” the Herald-Leader Sports staff voted on and ranked the biggest moments, best players, toughest losses, top recruits and more from the past 10 years and created this 12-part series.
Editor’s note: This is the sixth in a series of 12 stories ranking the most memorable moments, teams and players of John Calipari’s 10 years as University of Kentucky head coach. Rankings were compiled through voting conducted by members of the Herald-Leader Sports staff. Watch for a new story every day between today and July 27.
Long before Calipari arrived, Kentucky basketball became synonymous with star turns by Wildcats (Ralph Beard, Cliff Hagan, Dan Issel, Jamal Mashburn) and opponents (Bobby Joe Hill, Pete Maravich, David Robinson, Christian Laettner). The method to the March Madness is to have more players capable of memorable performances than the opponent.
As suggested by recruiting classes annually ranked among the best and Calipari’s track record of “coaching up” players, the past 10 years have shown no shortage of standout performances that continued to echo in the collective mind of the Big Blue Nation.
Ranking the best single-game individual performances of the Calipari era at Kentucky:
1. Malik Monk (Dec. 17, 2016). He took 28 shots. He made 18, the final one being a three-pointer in transition with 16.7 seconds left to give UK a 103-100 victory over North Carolina. That last shot involved disobeying Calipari. “Coach Cal told me to drive,” he said. “But I was hot. So, I didn’t.” Monk’s 47 points were more than all but four UK players have ever scored in a regular-season game.
2. Anthony Davis (March 31, 2012). By scoring 18 points, grabbing 14 rebounds and blocking five shots, Davis led UK to a 69-61 victory over archrival Louisville in the national semifinals. Surely, he also convinced any impossible-to-impress doubters to vote for him as National Player of the Year.
3. Anthony Davis (April 2, 2012). Davis showed it’s possible to dominate a game — even a national championship game — without hardly scoring a point. In the victory over Kansas in the 2012 NCAA Tournament finals, Davis made his only basket (in 10 shots) with 5:12 left. He finished with six points. Yet, Davis grabbed 16 rebounds, which gave him 30 in the Final Four (most since Hakeem Olajuwon had 40 in 1983). He also blocked six shots to increase his season total to 186, which was an NCAA record for a freshman.
4. De’Aaron Fox (March 24, 2017). Personal redemption came in the form of a career-high 39 points to lead UK to a Sweet 16 victory over UCLA. In the regular season, UCLA and its heralded freshman point guard, Lonzo Ball, won in Rupp Arena. Ball was a non-factor in the rematch, while Fox was the undisputed star of stars. “All I did at halftime was say, ‘Guys, are you watching this game?’” Calipari said afterward. “And they said, ‘yeah.’ I said, ‘OK, good. You know we are playing through De’Aaron Fox. The rest of you take a back seat and play off of him.’”
5. Karl-Anthony Towns (March 28, 2015). The most vivid memory from this game is the wide-eyed look of surprise and relief on the faces of Kentucky’s players as they walked off the court after a 68-66 victory over Notre Dame in the Elite Eight. The undefeated Cats, improving to 38-0, could thank Towns for winning a game in which Notre Dame outplayed UK for the first 30 minutes. But the Irish did not have an answer for Towns in the low post, and only tried one option: one defender and no double teams. Towns, who earlier that season had been coaxed into developing a low-post game, scored 25 points and got credit for four assists, both team highs.
6. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (Dec. 31, 2011). A Kentucky-Louisville game means high-level basketball and must-see sporting drama. But that wasn’t the case in the regular-season game of 2011-12. The teams combined for 52 fouls, 70 free-throw attempts and more than twice as many turnovers (35) as assists (16). Ugh. Kidd-Gilchrist’s performance was an oasis in a basketball desert. His 24 points and 19 rebounds were career highs and team highs. Plus, he did not turn the ball over while playing 39 minutes.
7. Nerlens Noel (Jan. 29, 2013). It’s not often while watching a college basketball game that the memory of Bill Russell comes to mind. It did on this night at Ole Miss. Noel blocked 12 shots. That remains a UK record, and tied for the third most ever blocked by any SEC player. Only 19 players in Division I history have ever blocked more shots in a game. Noel did not make a shot (and took only one). He made only two of eight free throws. Who cares? As Russell did in a Hall of Fame career, Noel on this night dominated as a defender.
8. DeMarcus Cousins (Feb. 16, 2010). After receiving racist taunts from Mississippi State fans, Cousins responded by scoring 19 points and grabbing 14 rebounds. Late in the game, he made a “call me” gesture to fans in Starkville. It was the 16th double-double for Cousins in a season in which he had 20.
9. Tyler Ulis (March 13, 2016). In an SEC Tournament finals pitting the two teams that tied for the regular-season championship, Ulis led Kentucky to an overtime victory over Texas A&M. He scored 30 points, got credit for five assists and made only one turnover while playing the entire 45 minutes.
10. De’Aaron Fox (Nov. 28, 2016). There had been only one triple-double in UK basketball history until Fox scored 14 points, grabbed 11 rebounds and got credit for 10 assists in a victory over Arizona State in the Bahamas. OK, Arizona State was not competitive (UK won 115-69). And the novice keeper of assists on a stats crew imported for the game gave one to Fox on a play in which a teammate took a dribble or two to free himself for a shot. Still, Fox showed the all-around skills that ultimately made him the fifth pick in the NBA Draft the following June.
▪ Other individual performances receiving votes included Kevin Knox at West Virginia in 2017-18 (34 points leading a come-from-behind victory); PJ Washington’s 28 points and 13 rebounds against Auburn in the 2019 Elite Eight (second game since returning from a foot injury); Julius Randle’s 27-point, 13-rebound coming-out party against Michigan State in the third game of the 2013-14 season; Tyler Ulis posting 18 points, six assists and no turnovers in 40 minutes against Duke (Nov. 17, 2015); and Ashton Hagans equaling a program record with eight steals against North Carolina this past season.
About this series
A vote by the Herald-Leader Sports staff has generated lists of the biggest shots, the top individual performances and the best players of the Calipari era, along with the toughest losses and the biggest disappointments. We also ranked each of Calipari’s 10 teams, re-visited some of his biggest recruiting hits and misses and recalled the most indelible Cal memories of the past decade.
We hope you’ll have as much fun tapping into your Big Blue memories as we did compiling these lists as you read them in the coming days on Kentucky.com and in the Herald-Leader.