Editor’s Note – This is a long overdue response to Natty throwing down the thunder and asking for me to publicly declare my love for Jamal Mashburn and his flawless, sinewy frame (that’s Mashburn’s frame, not Natty’s). Stay tuned for Natty’s manifesto. It will be a triumph for all people who enjoy thinking about topics that other people never think about.
Jamal Mashburn is simply one of the most underrated college basketball players I’ve ever seen. Shaq and Jay Williams are the two most dominant players I can remember at the college level, but Mashburn is completely slighted and deserves being mentioned in the same category.
Mashburn was the prototypical “new” forward, he really was a player who changed the way the game was played. Mash could bring the ball up the court, knock down threes, and use his 240 pound frame to pull down double figure rebounds on any given night. A guy like Mashburn would have normally been relegated to the role of garbage man, making a living off put backs, and set plays in the half-court. Pitino turned Mashburn into an all-out force that was a threat in every facet of the game. Thanks to the changes in the game, guys built with a 6’8” 240 lb. frame have flourished on the perimeter (not saying the obsession with bigs on the perimeter is always a good thing, but before point forwards like Mashburn came into vogue, LeBron would have been an extremely athletic 4).
Stats don’t capture everything, but Mashburn boasts a few numbers that stand out. During his last two years, he averaged 21.3 and 21.0 points per game. Over the last 30 years, only one UK player has averaged more points than that in any given season (Kenny Walker’s 22.9 in 1985). Since Mashburn left after his junior season, Ron Mercer’s sophomore season in 1997 is Mashburn’s closest competition (18.1 ppg). UK had a run of 3-5 years in which it was the most dominant college basketball program in the country. It was producing NBA players faster than my devoutly Catholic Aunt Elizabeth could make children (14 babies in 22 years…bravo Aunt Elizabeth). Nobody can argue that there was a player that brought what Mashburn did. He was the only guy in Wildcat Lodge with his own parking space, but he didn’t use it for a car. He parked a gigantic fire-breathing dragon there. Compare UK to the other elite programs. UNC has enjoyed more star power over the last fifteen years than UK (Stackhouse, Wallace, Carter, Jamison, etc.). Duke enjoyed a bevy of first round picks (Brand, Laettner, Hill, Maggette), as has Kansas over the same span (Pierce, LaFrentz, Manning). UK has been right on par with those other schools in wins, tournament wins, and draft picks, but the conversation for best UK player in that span starts and ends with Mashburn.
In Mashburn’s last two seasons, UK made heartbreaking exits in the tournament against the Duke juggernaut and Michigan’s Fab Five. Both of these losses required overtime and in each overtime, we saw Mashburn foul out. It really is no exaggeration to say that the only way to beat UK in the tournament those two seasons was to keep playing until Mashburn fouled out. There is no way that UK competes against Duke in 1992 without Mashburn. Only one other UK player on that roster even got a sniff from the NBA (Sean Woods went undrafted, but the Pistons gave him a tryout). His work in 1993 gets undercut because everyone thinks back to UK’s outstanding recruiting class. You have to remember that McCarty was ineligible his freshman season, and Tony Delk didn’t move ahead of Junior Braddy to become the second 2-guard on the depth chart until a week before the SEC tournament. During that tournament run, everyone assumed that Rodrick Rhodes and Jared Prickett would be noteworthy NBA players down the road…turns out it was just them benefiting from more of Mashburn’s giant sexy game.
A lot of people have suggested Patrick Patterson would be the most important recruit for UK since Rex Chapman. I’ve already made out with most of those people’s girlfriends to teach them a lesson. King Rex was outstanding, and you can’t take anything away from him, but Mashburn took UK from “Kentucky Shame” to the Final Four. He set the stage for annual runs at the championship, and no sane person could expect Patterson to come in and lift UK the way Mashburn did. There have been a few players in the last fifteen years that have really lifted programs like Mashburn. Marcus Camby comes to mind (sorry Lou Roe, but I don’t think UMass becomes a national player without Camby). Donyell Marshall really gave UConn the national credibility they needed, and Lawrence Funderburke changed Ohio State basketball forever. There have only been a handful of players over the last fifteen years that have left an indelible mark on the game, and Mashburn deserves mentioning in this category. Corliss Williamson is probably the closest equivalent, having restored Arkansas from mediocrity to contender status. Mashburn just did what he did without a goofy "Nasty Streak" haircut, ridiculously long shorts, and that asshole Cory Beck. Now that my Jamal Mashburn slurpfest is coming to a close, I’d like to remind each and every one of you to stop by Toyota on Nicholasville in Lexington for MONSTER savings!!