Who is the best player under 5-9 to play at Kentucky?

Tyler Ulis (Vicky Graff Photo)

By KEITH PEEL, Contributing Writer

I don’t know about you but I respect people that overcome physical limitations that might otherwise keep them from achieving their dreams.

It’s easy to see that players like Anthony Davis, Karl Anthony-Towns or Demarcus Cousins should be relatively successful in a sport like basketball because being significantly taller than your opponent can be very beneficial on offense and defense. That doesn’t mean if those players achieve greatness that is wasn’t done through hard work, it just means that if you are 5-8 instead of 6-11 it becomes decidedly more difficult to achieve that same greatness.

That’s why I decided to write an article about my favorite smaller players at UK. Now I’m not talking players that stood 6-2, but players that were 5-9 or shorter. Those guys achieved tremendous success just to be able to suit up for a program like UK but several went on to become key components of some of UK’s better teams.

Let’s go back in time to the early 1980’s. UK recruited a star player from Covington Holmes to play for the Wildcats. Dickie Beal was a 5-9 guard that played for UK from 1980 to 1984. He was a blur bringing the ball up the floor. Always moving at top speed he invariably was able to find Sam Bowie or Kenny Walker for an inside shot or hit Melvin Turpin on one of his patented curls to the top of the key for an open jump shot. Beal was an assist first player from the time the ball was tipped until the final horn. In fact he still holds the single game assist record for an NCAA Tournament game with 14 against BYU in 1984. He was always fun to watch and was always a winner.

He led his Covington Holmes High School team to a 33-3 record his senior year and led the Wildcats to a 1984 Final Four berth his senior year at UK. He still sits at No. 17 on the All-Time Career Assist list at UK. Beal always played like a guy that didn’t care about his size or his opponent’s size, he only cared about winning.

That brings me to another player at UK that seemed to use his lack of size as a motivator to win games. I’m talking about the pride of Madisonville — Travis Ford. Ford came to UK in 1990 after spending a year playing for Missouri. Ford was another player that seemed to play with a chip on his shoulder due to his size – or lack of. Ford achieved his success through hard work and knowledge of the game and not because of exceptional athletic ability and foot speed. He was never the quickest player on the floor, he never jumped the highest or was the most physical but he was an excellent floor general that could hit the outside shot when he was open — 42 percent from 3-point range — and was deadly from the free throw line – 89 percent.

But where he really excelled was as an assist leader on the floor. Ford is still No. 9 on the All-Time Career Assist list and is fourth for having the most single season assists only behind Tyler Ulis, John Wall and Roger Harden. That’s pretty good company to be in  as a point guard. And like Dickie Beal, Ford led his team to the Final Four in 1993 and lost in the semifinals to Michigan’s Fab Five 81-78 in overtime.

Last but not least, let’s talk about the greatest small player to ever put on the blue and white for the Wildcats. That would be Chicago’s own Tyler Ulis. Ulis was Mr. Everything at UK. He is still listed as the single season assist leader for Kentucky and is 10th on the career list having only played two seasons. But in those two seasons he accomplished so much. He was named a consensus First Team All-American, the shortest player to achieve that distinction since 1958, and was also named the Bob Cousy Point Guard of the Year winner. Ulis also was the SEC Player of the Year and the SEC Defensive Player of the Year. The only other player in SEC history to receive both awards in the same year was Anthony Davis.

He was a backup point guard on the UK team that finished 38-1 and made the Final Four in 2015. He was the starting point guard on the 2015-2016 and led UK to an SEC Tournament Championship by averaging 24 points and five assists per game over the three-day event. He scored 30 points against 17th ranked Texas A&M in the SEC championship game and was named the MVP of the tourney.

So even though these three players played in different eras of basketball with different coaches and different types of teammates they all had a couple of things in common. All three were excellent floor generals — a coach on the floor, if you will — and they all cared about team success more than individual accomplishments. Size didn’t hold them back and it showed in that all three played on Final Four teams during their careers. Those are huge accomplishments for players that were stretching the measuring tape to get to 5’9” while playing in a world of giants.

That’s why I have a little extra respect for these players. They had to overcome preconceived ideas about their game at every level of basketball. It would have been easy to quit, to throw in the towel and admit that at 5-9 it’s too hard to succeed in a land of giants.

But instead they turned it into a positive. They didn’t complain or make excuses or quit. They just laced ‘em up and went hard on every play, in every game. And you can’t ask for more than that.

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