Because it has happened so rarely in recent years, one tends to forget the excitement that consumes small Kentucky communities when a local player earns a basketball scholarship from the UK Wildcats.
On Thursday, Pendelton County star Dontaie Allen became the first in-state prospect to receive and accept a scholarship offer from UK in five years.
In Pendleton County, population of some 15,000, local residents rode a wave of pride.
Keaton Belcher, the current Pendleton County head coach, was a star forward in 2005 when the P.C. Wildcats won their most recent 10th Region title and earned a trip to Rupp Arena for the Sweet Sixteen.
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“The excitement here (now) is very, very similar to what it was like in 2005,” Belcher said Friday. “The biggest thing, people are feeling proud to be from Pendleton County.”
When the offensively-skilled Allen, a 6-foot-6 swingman, signs with Kentucky and Coach John Calipari in November, he will be the first homegrown player to do so since Madison Central’s Dominique Hawkins and Bullitt East’s Derek Willis in the class of 2013.
Allen — who has scored 20 points or more in 80 of his 105 high school games so far — will be only the 13th in-state prospect to play for UK as a recruited scholarship men’s hoops player in the 21st century.
In the 2000s, the track record of the few in-state products to get a chance to play for the University of Kentucky has been uneven.
Louisville product Rajon Rondo is the most talented homegrown player to play for UK this century. In two years (2004-06), the future NBA star amassed 654 career points while averaging 9.6 points, 4.5 rebounds, 4.2 assists and 2.3 steals.
The in-state product who has achieved the most at UK so far in the 2000s is ex-Mason County star Darius Miller.
The 6-7 Miller is the only homegrown 1,000-point scorer at Kentucky in the 21st Century (1,248 career points). He also started on a Final Four team (2011) and, as the sixth man, was a key cog on an NCAA title squad (2012).
Early this century, Madison Central product Marquis Estill (936 career points) was the starting center for Tubby Smith’s 2002-03 Cats that won 26 games in a row. Estill averaged 9.4 points and 4.7 rebounds over his UK career (2000-03).
After transferring from Western Kentucky, Muhlenberg North’s Patrick Sparks (714 career points) averaged 10.3 points and 3.4 assists for his two-year UK career (2004-06).
In the Calipari era, Willis (555 career points) emerged as a regular during his junior year (2015-16) and was the starting power forward on an Elite Eight team as a senior (2016-17).
Hawkins (293 career points) was the backcourt defensive stopper off the bench as a true freshman for UK’s 2014 Final Four squad.
As a junior, the 6-foot Hawkins was the hero of Kentucky’s victory over archrival Louisville. In 2016-17, the senior guard made the All-SEC Tournament Team as the Cats’ sixth man.
Alas, the other six in-state products this century who came to UK as recruited, scholarship players all scored fewer than 260 career points — and five of them finished below 150 while at Kentucky.
While the commonwealth has not consistently produced “UK level” talent in recent decades at the rate it did in the past, it is also true that UK has not always done the best job evaluating talent in its home state.
Tubby Smith passed on Sweet Sixteen folk hero Chris Lofton in 2004; the Mason County star scored his 2,131 career college points for Tennessee.
Gillispie was tardy entering the recruiting fray for Shelvin Mack in 2008; the Bryan Station standout scored his 1,527 career points while leading Butler to back-to-back trips to the NCAA finals in 2010 and ‘11.
In the fall of 2016, Kentucky’s tepid approach to the recruitment of Taveion Hollingsworth drove the Paul Laurence Dunbar guard to Western Kentucky. Last season, the 6-2 Hollingsworth set a new WKU freshman scoring record (506 points) and averaged 13.7 points in seven games against power five conference foes.
This year, Allen all but forced UK to recruit him with a stellar run on the AAU circuit. When Allen began AAU play, he held scholarship offers from Eastern Kentucky, Northern Kentucky, Illinois State, IUPUI, Morehead State and Winthrop.
After “blowing up” as a national recruit this summer, Allen earned offers from Louisville, Florida, Purdue, Virginia Tech, Xavier and West Virginia, among others.
On Wednesday, he got the offer from the school he has rooted for since childhood.
The following day, he sent pride coursing through his hometown by saying yes to Kentucky.
“In Pendleton County, we feel like it isn’t just Dontaie going to UK,” Belcher said. “We feel like a little piece of all of us is going with him.”
Mark Story: (859) 231-3230; Twitter: @markcstory