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Wednesday, September 4, 2013
Take Two: Rick Pitino's top 10 players

By Eamonn Brennan

Editor's Note: Three legendary college basketball coaches -- Jerry Tarkanian, Rick Pitino and Guy Lewis -- take center stage this weekend as the trio is inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass. We'll be devoting a day to each as we examine what made them HOF-worthy. Here is Tuesday's tribute to Tarkanian.

Rick Pitino's march through college basketball history has been unusual in more ways than one.

Jamal Mashburn and Rick Pitino
Jamal Mashburn was not only one of Rick Pitino's best players, he anchored one of the most important teams in Kentucky basketball.
Unlike many of his Hall of Fame peers, who find their Valhalla and stay there until they retire, Pitino has been atypically restless. In 1983, he left Boston University, his first head-coaching gig, to be an assistant with the New York Knicks. In 1987, after just two years at Providence, he went back to Madison Square Garden as the head coach. In 1997, after a massively successful tenure at Kentucky -- a last-stop summit most coaches spend their entire lives fighting to scale -- Pitino left for the NBA again, this time to take over the Boston Celtics. His constant search for the next challenge has in some ways obscured the accomplishment; imagine how many career wins the guy would have if he'd been coaching college games uninterrupted since 1978. Imagine if he'd never left Kentucky. Yeah. Yikes.

The other unusual aspect to Pitino's legacy is that his best teams have always been ensemble casts. This is not to say Pitino hasn't coached some great players. He certainly has. But unlike, say, Jerry Tarkanian, whose best players we ranked Tuesday -- or Dean Smith, or Mike Krzyzewski, or John Wooden, or even Bob Knight, who had at least one individual talent (Isiah Thomas) as good as any in college hoops history -- Pitino's brightest stars have always existed less as centerpieces to be built around than cogs in variously terrifying machines.

This is impressive in and of itself, but how do you parse guys whose careers feel interdependent and inseparable? How do you distinguish between the best of those dominant mid-90s groups? Does anyone from the 2012-13 title team belong? Are Kentucky and Louisville fans going to argue about this list?

After no small amount of statistical research and mental haggling, I know the answer to exactly one of those questions. But hey, let's give this thing a shot anyway, shall we? My colleague Myron Medcalf took a stab at it as well. How did we do?

1. Jamal Mashburn, Kentucky: On Tuesday, I wrote that Tarkanian's No. 1 player, Larry Johnson, was a lock at the top before my fingers even hit the keyboard. Pitino's No. 1 is not nearly as certain. Still, while Mashburn didn't win a national title like his successors on this list, he was as gifted and productive an individual talent as Pitino ever coached at the college level -- averaging 18.8 points, 7.8 rebounds, 2.2 assists and 1.6 steals while shooting 37.6 percent from 3 and 51.6 percent from the field in his three seasons at Kentucky. In 1992-93 -- one year after Kentucky's destined-to-be-replayed-forever loss to Christian Laettner and the Duke Blue Devils -- Mashburn averaged 21 points on 15.5 shots (and 8.4 rebounds) per game, and was rewarded with a First-Team All-American honor and the fourth overall pick in the NBA draft. He might not have been the world-devouring monster that Johnson was, at least relative to the rest of Pitino's talent, but I think he deserves the top nod.

2. Tony Delk, Kentucky: And, having said all that, I would have absolutely no problem if you chose to rank Delk No. 1 instead, as Myron did. Delk's statistics (14.2 points, 3.5 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.6 steals) during his four-year UK career don't look as impressive as Mashburn's three-year run, but that's less a product of Delk's ability than the immensely balanced group of future pros he led to the national title in 1996. He might well have been the best player on that 1996 team; he was certainly its most important, an undisputed team leader that got a large group of future pros to coalesce around Pitino's desire to unleash all that talent in a concerted, balanced, full-court-pressing behemoth. Delk's defense (also something that doesn't show up much in old box scores) was truly fearsome, and his best performances came at the best times.

In that memorable 1995-96 season, he was the SEC Player of the Year, First Team All-American and the NCAA tournament's Most Outstanding Player, and his seven 3s in UK's 76-67 national title win over Syracuse ranks near the top of any of list of best all-time individual performances by a Wildcat. Given the program we're talking about, the team he played for and, frankly, the other 1996 first team All-Americans (which, get this: Allen Iverson, Kerry Kittles, Marcus Camby, Ray Allen), Delk's legacy in Lexington is deservedly sealed.

3. Antoine Walker, Kentucky: Given Walker's future as a swaggering, shimmying, well-paid 3-point chuck, it's hard to grasp the fact that he shot just .188 percent from 3 in 1995-96 -- and attempted a mere 48 3-pointers in the first place. Even crazier? Despite that lowly figure, Walker finished the 1995-96 season with averages of 15.2 points and 8.4 rebounds per. Even crazier? Delk averaged 17.8, Walter McCarty averaged 11.3, Derek Anderson averaged 9.4, Ron Mercer averaged 8.0, Mark Pope averaged 7.6, Anthony Epps averaged 6.7 … I mean, has there ever been a deeper, more balanced national title team? The mind boggles, and now we're digressing again, and anyway: If Delk was the stoic senior leader, Walker (then a sophomore) was the young hotshot. Both were equally important to Pitino's first national title run.

4. Ron Mercer, Kentucky: This is where things start to get a little bit hilarious with the mid-90s Wildcats: Ron Mercer a guy who would put up 18.1/5.3/2.4/1.7 averages as a First Team All-American in 1996-97 and go on to have a totally respectable, lengthy and profitable NBA career, was UK's fifth banana as a freshman in 1995-96. That's, like, borderline unfair. Mercer's excellence after the national title season helps elevate him in this list, and frankly only adds to the mystique involved with that 34-2 national title run.

Rick Pitino
Billy Donovan averaged 15.1 points as a junior and 20.6 as a senior, when he led Providence to Rick Pitino's first Final Four.
5. Billy Donovan, Providence: Before Madison Square Garden and the "Untouchables" and Larry Bird-is-not-walking-through-that-door, Rick Pitino was a rising, upstart young coach at Providence, where he inherited a program that went 11-20 one year before his arrival. Two years later, Pitino had them in the Final Four. How did that happen?

Donovan, who, like Providence's program in general, went from a non-entity before Pitino to a star under him. Some good timing helped: Donovan's senior year, 1986-87, was college basketball's first year with a 3-point line, which he exploited to the tune of 40.9 percent. The once-pudgy benchwarmer finished his magical senior season with crazy numbers -- 20.6 points, 7.1 assists, 3.0 rebounds, and 2.4 steals per game -- as well as an unlikely run to the Final Four, a fantastic nickname ("Billy the Kid") and a rest-is-history future in basketball waiting for him. Not bad for a couple years' work, eh?

6. Derek Anderson, Kentucky: The 6-foot-5 guard's supporting role in 1995-96 might have been enough to get him on this list in the first place, but his breakout follow-up was cut short when an injury ending his season after just 19 games. And even so, Anderson made his mark, shooting 40.4 from 3 and 81.1 percent from the free throw line and averaging 17.7 points, 4.1 rebounds, 3.5 assists, and 1.9 steals. His overall Kentucky legacy could have been something even greater, but maybe it's even more impressive that he was able to accomplish so much in just a season and a half.

7. Sean Woods, Kentucky: Younger fans might know Woods best from his unfortunate handling of one of his Morehead State players last November, or maybe for the criticism he took for his (prophetic-in-retrospect) blasting of the 2012-13 Wildcats' "sense of entitlement." But before all that, Woods was (and is) a Kentucky legend, part of the "Unforgettables" group that played through three years of Eddie Sutton-era sanctions, resurrected UK basketball in the process. His retired No. 11 hangs from the Rupp Arena rafters for good reason: In just 91 games, Woods handed out 482 assists -- fifth all-time at Kentucky, and the highest per-game average (5.3) of any Wildcat ever. Woods was nearly a March Madness legend, too. His 10-foot floater with 2.1 seconds left in overtime against Duke in the 1992 Elite Eight should have sealed the Unforgettables' Final Four bid. Instead, Laettner made The Shot, and Woods' magnificent performance became a historical footnote. Even so, it's impossible to understate just how important Woods' career was.

8. Russ Smith, Louisville: What if I told you that the best and most important offensive player on a national title team -- one who posted a 108.9 offensive rating on 32.0 usage (11th-highest in the country), assisted on 21.1 percent of his possessions and drew 6.7 fouls per 40 minutes -- was also arguably the best defender in the country? What if I told you that this two-sided excellence caused a reliable advanced statistical formula to rank him as the best player in the country by a significant margin? What if I then told you that same player -- again, arguably the best offensive and defensive player for the team that won its last 16 games, the Big East regular-season and tournament titles, and the national championship -- wasn't even a second-team All-American?

The point is, understanding Smith's career is all about perspective. If the only time you saw Smith was his disastrous five-OT performance at Notre Dame and/or his not-much-better Final Four, you probably agreed with the voters who left him off their final All-American tallies. If you have watched Smith more intently, though, you've seen an occasionally frustrating but often brilliant player blossom into one of the nation's best. By the way: In the past two seasons, Smith has helped Louisville win two Big East tournament titles, gone to two Final Fours, and won the aforementioned national title -- and he still has one more season to add to his legacy. No joke: By the time 2013-14 is over, he could crack the top five of this list. Maybe higher. Frankly, I'm not sure he shouldn't be higher already.

9. Wayne Turner, Kentucky: Another of those relatively unsung 1990s UK guys that were nonetheless really, really good (word to Anthony Epps, Jamaal Magloire and Travis Ford), Turner played in a then-record 151 total collegiate games for the Wildcats and finished his career with 494 career assists (fourth-most in school history) and 238 steals (No. 1 at UK all-time). Turner only played two seasons for Pitino before the Celtics came a'calling, but he was a major reason Pitino's then-revolutionary all-hands-on-deck full court pressure worked in the first place.

10. Francisco Garcia, Louisville: Another classic Pitino player rounds out this list, and while I like that symbolic consistency, Garcia wouldn't be here were he not a very good collegiate player in his own right. As a sophomore at Louisville in 2003-04, Garcia averaged 16.4 points, 4.5 rebounds, 4.7 assists, 1.9 steals and 1.4 blocks; as a junior (his final season), he posted 15.7, 4.2, 3.9, 1.7, and 1.5, leading the Cardinals to their first Final Four in 17 years, which made Pitino the first coach to take three different programs to the Final Four. Like most of the players above, Garcia wasn't an obvious can't-miss pro prospect (though he has carved out a perfectly respectable NBA career), but rather a versatile, rangy, defensive-minded wing who did just about everything his coach asked of him when he took the floor.

If there's a unifying theme to this list -- beyond "the 1995-96 Kentucky Wildcats were awesome at basketball," that is -- it's that. Pitino's best players didn't always have elite pro pedigree. They didn't always wow you with one unstoppable skill. But they were almost always perfect for their coach and his system -- a testament to his ability to build cohesive, dominant basketball teams from a wide swath of unlikely parts.

In sum: Rick Pitino is really good at coaching basketball. You know, in case that wasn't already clear.