Each NCAA championship-winning Kentucky basketball team possessed something unique.
The 1948 team had a captain named Rollins, the 1949 team had a three-sport star named Bruno, the 1951 team had a Lou Tsioropoulos, the 1958 team had a roster with 12 players native to Kentucky that included Lincoln “Abe” Collinsworth, the 1978 team had a Goose, the 1996 team had a “Shimmying” Antoine Walker, the 1998 team had a “Mu” and a Tubby and the 2012 team had a Lamb in scientists’ clothing, a.k.a. a three goggles-sporting Doron Lamb.
All these teams had individual variances. Whether those variances were slight, like the differences between the 1948 and 1949 teams, or gigantic, like the differences between the 1948 and 2012 teams, the distinctive facets of each team were crucial to success. However, all of these teams possessed one clear, common characteristic.
Critics of modern-day college basketball may accuse the game of abandoning focus on the center position. Contrary to this credence, the center position is still crucial. Whether a team needs a blocked shot, an offensive rebound or just some old-fashioned intimidation in the paint, a team in search of an NCAA title almost always needs a quality center.
The Wildcats certainly needed one during each championship season, but out of all seven championship-winning Kentucky centers, who is the best in Kentucky basketball history?
Several massive centers in Kentucky basketball folklore are left off of this bracket. For all that Dan Issel, Sam Bowie, Melvin Turpin, Demarcus Cousins and others did, none of these men were the main centers on an NCAA championship-winning Wildcat team.
Kentucky Basketball Tournament of Champions: Center Position
The matchups in the bracket are paired according to opposite ends of the championship timeline.
2012 Champion Anthony Davis vs. ∞ Champion Bye
Statistics are based on center’s best season as a member of the Kentucky Wildcats.
Davis 2011-2012: 14.2 points, 10.4 rebounds, 4.7 blocks, 1.4 steals, 62.3 field goal percentage
Bye is an intriguing player in this tournament, because the player seems to find a way in many tournaments of all kinds. Joking aside, because Anthony Davis is the most recent championship-winning big man, and because Alex Groza had to ruin the continuity of this bracket by having the audacity to win two national titles, Davis receives the first-round bye.
Groza 1948-49: 20.5 points, 72.6 free throw percentage.
Mohammed 1997-98: 12 points, 7.2 rebounds, 1.9 blocks, 59.7 field goal percentage
Standing 6-foot-7, Alex “The Beak” Groza towered over his Wildcat teammates and was the first dominant Kentucky center. The Big Blue Nation, or BBN, was more like the BBS until Groza led the Adolph Rupp-coached 1947-48 team to glory.
Groza’s rebounds and blocks are not listed, because neither statistic was recorded in college basketball when Groza was a Wildcat. Despite the lack of statistical evidence, Groza was dominant enough to be named the Helms Foundation Basketball Player of the Year and the Most Outstanding Player in the NCAA Tournament in 1949. Groza was named MOP in 1949 because of what he did against Oklahoma A&M in the title game.
Groza scored 25 points. If this figure does not make you look away in disbelief, consider the final score. The Wildcats defeated the school presently known as Oklahoma State 46-36. Scoring 54 percent of the team’s points in the national championship game is sheer dominance. The nation knew Groza was terrifyingly talented and Groza solidified himself as the first great, champion Wildcat center.
Mohammed was never supposed to be in this discussion. During the 1995-96 season, former head coach Rick Pitino reinstituted the junior varsity team to Kentucky basketball. Mohammed was one of the players considered lacking the skills necessary to play for that championship team exclusively.
Mohammed improved exponentially after his time on the JV squad, enough to prove he was worthy of starting center for the 1998 champs. Because of his size at 6-foot-10 and defensive ability, Mohammed was exactly what the Wildcats needed in 1998.
Groza was an incredible player who anchored the first NCAA Champion Wildcat team. Mohammed was good enough to leave for the NBA after his junior year. If Groza and Mohammed switched teams, only one man could dominate in the center position.
Advancing center: Nazr Mohammed.
1951 champion Bill Spivey vs. 1996 champion Mark Pope
Spivey 1950-51: 19.2 points, 17. 2 rebounds, 39.9 field goal percentage
Bill “Grits” Spivey did not just dominate Kentucky’s opponents. Spivey dominated college basketball. He was the talk of college basketball during his time as a Wildcat, not only because he stood 7-foot-0 tall or because he was the first 7-footer in Kentucky basketball history. Spivey was also absurdly talented. Most of the exciting things about Spivey are the what-could-have-beens, including the idea of Spivey and Groza playing on the same team in 1949, if the NCAA had allowed first-year players to play.
A 39.9 field goal percentage probably appears like a below-average statistic, but Spivey’s field goal percentage was actually the highest on the team. Spivey was also a prolific rebounder and once pulled down 34 rebounds in a game against Xavier in 1951.
Like Groza, Spivey was named Player of the Year and MOP of the NCAA Tournament. Spivey conquered Kansas State in the championship game, scoring 22 points and grabbing 21 rebounds.
I know what you are thinking, Mark Pope rarely started on this team, what about Walter McCarty? McCarty was far from a center. Pitino started Antoine Walker and McCarty as “bigs,” because of the lack of game-ready centers on the roster. Pope was the only actual center on the 1996 championship team who received legitimate playing time. Pope was also a key player for Kentucky and exemplified the center position for the team almost exclusively and more clearly.
A transfer from Washington, Pope’s best season was his first as a Wildcat. Pope was a solid big man who defended the goal well and played reliably on offense. Pope could also step back behind the three-point line and shoot with accuracy. During the 1994-95 season, Pope shot 47.7 percent from three.
Pope usually played behind the power forward McCarty, but was a solid contributor for the championship squad. However, Spivey was a legendary player and told the truth when he explained that he wished the NBA had not banned him for fixing games while at Kentucky.
“George Mikan was near the end of his career and Wilt Chamberlain hadn’t started. I think I would have dominated the game like those two did,” Spivey said.
Spivey could have been unstoppable in the NBA in the 1950s and would have been a dominant 7-footer for the Wildcats in any decade.
Advancing center: Bill Spivey
1956-57 Beck: 9.4 points, 14 rebounds
1975-76 Phillips: 15.5 points, 9.8 rebounds, 54.2 field goal percentage
After watching game footage of Ed Beck, one thing is clear. Beck had an impeccable ability to be in the right place at the right time. Beck was a rebound magnet, dominating the boards for the Fiddlin’ Five Wildcats en route to the 1958 championship upset over Elgin Baylor’s Seattle.
Beck embodied the “Fiddlin’ Five” nickname. Rupp referred to the roster as a group of fiddlers because there were no All-Americans, or in Rupp’s metaphorical mind, violinists. Beck was all-out, all-the-time. Beck was a tremendous player and gave everything he had, even after the tragic death of his wife during his junior year at Kentucky.
Beck carried the Wildcats in the National Semi-final in 1958, scoring eight points in a 61-60 victory over Temple. He was named SEC Defensive Player of the Year in 1958 as well.
Beck was a magnificent player and if I ever create a “best Kentucky hustle players of all time tournament,” Beck may come out victorious. Beck overcame many obstacles at Kentucky, the least of which was being undersized for a center at 6-foot-7. After his time as a Wildcat, Beck turned down an offer to play professionally and went on to study at Asbury University, a theological seminary near Lexington, Ky., before spending the majority of his life as a preacher in Colorado.
Mike Phillips also had an excellent story for Kentucky. During his freshman year, Phillips was a member of an NCAA Runner-up squad. The next season, Phillips dominated in the tournament…the National Invitational Tournament. The Wildcats won the NIT, but the tournament was and is far from relevant.
Phillips carried the Wildcats in that season, averaging a near double-double. It was clear that winning the NIT was as embarrassing for the players as it was for the Big Blue faithful. Phillips helped lead the Wildcats back to glory, returning to the Elite Eight the following year and winning the title during his senior year.
The 6-foot-10 Phillips was a key contributor for the Wildcats during the championship season, starting 30 of 31 games at center. He was tenacious on the boards and gave maximum effort every game. Unfortunately for Phillips, he was often overshadowed by his classmate Jack “Goose” Givens and several other teammates. That overcast shadow turned into a total eclipse of the Mike Phillips during the title game, when Givens scored 41 points.
Beck was a great player and clearly a great person, but Phillips gets the edge in the “better player” department. Because of the determination and desire of both of these players, this was undoubtedly the most difficult matchup of the first round.
Advancing center: Phillips
2012 Champion Anthony Davis vs. 1998 Champion Nazr Mohammed
No matter how much Mohammed improved in three years at Kentucky, Davis was more impressive in his one season as a Wildcat. Davis put the team on his absurdly-large shoulders and won the national title in 2012.
Without Davis, Kentucky would have struggled to protect the rim, guard opposing big men, free up their own open three-point shooters, strike fear into the opposition and ultimately, win the national championship.
Mohammed was a wonderful piece in the 1998 championship puzzle. His unconventional game-winning layup against Vanderbilt in a regular season game that shattered the hopes of Commodore fans is one of the more exciting and fascinating plays in Kentucky history. But Davis, the next championship-winning Wildcat center on the timeline, deserves to advance in this matchup.
Advancing center: Davis
1951 Champion Bill Spivey vs. 1978 Champion Mike Phillips
Kentucky had scorers on the 1978 roster, from pure scorer Jack Givens to smooth jump-shooting Kyle Macy to forceful forward Rick Robey, the Wildcats did not need Phillips to score. Surprisingly, Kentucky also did not need Phillips to rebound during his senior year, as he finished fourth on the team in total boards. Phillips did what was asked, which was to guard opposing big men, score the ball occasionally and rebound offensively.
Phillips did all these things, but was never asked to do what Spivey elected to do.
Spivey was simply magnificent for the 1951 championship team. One of the travesties in statistical data is the absence of the blocked shot statistic in college basketball for what seemed like an eternity. “Grits” Spivey protected the rim like it was the last plate of grits in the world.
Phillips played in a more advanced era of collegiate centers, an era that was born out of the dominance of Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain. However, if not for multiple, alleged poor decisions, Bill Spivey could have been among those names.
Advancing center: Spivey
1951 Champion Bill Spivey vs. 2012 Champion Anthony Davis
Bill Grits vs. Anthony, The Brow
These are two centers who should never be forgotten by the Big Blue Nation. This is the matchup of Kentucky’s first over-powering, skyscraping, frightening, preposterously colossal center who could dominate at both ends of the court, against the most recent.
This tournament poses the question: who is the best championship-winning center in Kentucky basetball history?
If you are following this tournament with the belief that the winner must be a “pure center,” should Davis even be in the discussion? Davis is now a power forward in the NBA, and Spivey was THE center.
But Spivey was not Anthony Davis. Davis possesses rare talent and was able to dominate college basketball in 2012 in virtually the same way Spivey dominated in 1951. Spivey also squandered his opportunity to make his name unforgettable because of alleged involvement in point shaving, while Davis is already a household name.
Spivey could not trade places with Davis and accomplish what Davis accomplished. Spivey was tough, physically-dominating and could score the basketball, but did not have the jump shot, charisma or all-around game Davis possessed as a Wildcat.
The best championship-winning center in Kentucky basketball history is Anthony Davis.
The beauty of this tournament/discussion is that everyone involved is already a champion. As I mentioned before, several monumental centers in Kentucky basketball history were left out of this tournament. Dan Issel was spectacular, does not receive enough praise and is quietly, probably the best center in Wildcat history, but like the other excluded Kentucky centers, Issel was not THE center for a championship-winning team.
Three current Wildcats have the opportunity to place themselves in the discussion of best championship-winning centers. Sophomore Dakari Johnson, junior Willie Cauley-Stein and freshman Karl-Anthony Towns will battle for the starting center position this summer. However, like the rest of the legendary centers left out of this discussion, neither Johnson, Cauley-Stein or Towns possess a championship.
Could next season change that fact?
That question will be answered next April. For now, Wildcat fans can reminisce while simultaneously reminding themselves how blessed Kentucky basketball has been when it comes to the center position.
To read who could be the best Kentucky point guard of the last ten years, click here.
Special thanks to bigbluehistory.net for a devotion to the statistical history of Kentucky basketball.