The stars are aligning for an outstanding 2022-23 season for Kentucky’s two major sports, men’s basketball and football. Expectations are high as each program returns elite star power.
Oscar Tshiebwe is the first reigning National Player of the Year to return for another college basketball season since Tyler Hansbrough. On the gridiron, the best quarterback to ever play for Mark Stoops will be under center as Will Levis tries to validate NFL Draft first round hype following a 10-win season.
Tshiebwe and Levis are arguably the best one-two punch to ever play for the Kentucky basketball and football teams in the same season. Who else is in that conversation?
1950-51: Bill Spivey and Babe Parilli
Bill Spivey was a larger than life figure during his time in Lexington. Adolph Rupp’s first seven-footer, as a high schooler he famously had to cut open the toes of his shoes to make his feet fit. Spivey averaged 19.2 points and 17.2 rebounds per game to lead the Cats to their third National Championship in four years.
Rupp’s Cats were crowned a few months after arguably the greatest win in Kentucky football history. Bear Bryant’s squad snapped Oklahoma’s 31-game winning streak in the Sugar Bowl with Consensus All-American and SEC Player of the Year Babe Parilli at quarterback. The Kentucky Babe set every UK passing record during his career and finished fourth in the Heisman Trophy voting following the 1950 season.
1977-78: Jack Givens and Art Still
Few Kentucky basketball players had a more legendary career than Jack Givens. The Goose was a Lexington Bryan Station product that starred as soon as he stepped foot on campus. The lengthy lefty capped off his career with 41 points in a National Championship victory over Duke in the St. Louis Checkerdome. Dan Issel and Kenny Walker are the only two players in UK history to score more points than Givens.
Prior to the National Championship on the hardwood, Fran Curci’s Cats were undefeated in SEC play on the gridiron. The 1977 football team finished 10-1 (6-0 in the SEC) but was ineligible to compete in a bowl or claim a share of the SEC title. The Cats suffocated opponents, thanks to College Football Hall of Famer Art Still. Opponents tried to run away from the All-American, but it didn’t work. Still set the single-season record with 22 tackles for loss.
1997-98: Tim Couch and Jeff Sheppard
Tim Couch did things never seen before in the SEC. The Leslie County sensation exploded onto the college football scene when Hal Mumme implemented his Air Raid offense. The quarterback threw for 3,884 yards and 37 touchdowns. Wins did not follow right away, but his record-breaking 1998 season earned him a seat at the Heisman Trophy ceremony and put the Cats in the Outback Bowl.
Kentucky’s basketball on turf was exciting, but not as exhilarating as the Comeback Cats’ run to the National Title in Tubby Smith’s first season. High-flying Jeff Sheppard led UK in scoring with 13.7 points per game to earn Final Four Most Outstanding Player honors.
2002: Tayshaun Prince and Jared Lorenzen
Before the term “unicorn” was thrown around to describe an athlete with a unique combination of athleticism and skill, Kentucky had two of them on campus at the same time. Conventional wisdom said Tayshaun Prince needed to gain 30 pounds and learn how to bruise inside. The opposite could be said about the Hefty Lefty. They did it their own way and were spectacular.
Prince was a 6-foot-9 lengthy lefty that could stroke it from long-range and deny opponents at the rim. A consensus All-American in 2001, he saved one of his best for last, netting 41 points in the second round of the 2002 NCAA Tournament vs. Tulsa. Meanwhile on the gridiron, Lorenzen was breaking Couch’s records in the most unconventional way possible. He ran around and over dudes, then dropped bombs over opponents. With the help of Derek Abney, Lorenzen had 24 touchdowns and a career-low five interceptions in 2002, leading the Cats to a 7-5 finish. Unfortunately, probation prevented Kentucky from playing in the postseason.
2009-10: John Wall and Randall Cobb
Speaking strictly from star-power and celebrity, there has never been a greater one-two punch on Kentucky’s campus at the same time than Cobb and Wall. It’s personified perfectly in one weekend. On Oct. 16, 2009, the BBN changed forever when the John Wall Dance debuted at Big Blue Madness. Less than 24 hours later, Randall Cobb ran in the go-ahead score with three minutes to play to win at Auburn 21-14, the Wildcats’ first victory over the Tigers since 1966. I rest my case.
2016-17: Benny Snell and De’Aaron Fox
Outstanding football and basketball season rarely link up at the same time. Benny Snell’s star was just starting to burn during his true freshman season, but he started with a bang, tying the school record with four touchdowns in his debut. He surpassed the 1,000-yard threshold and rushed for a touchdown in the upset over Lamar Jackson’s Louisville team that put Kentucky in a bowl game for the first time in six seasons.
John Calipari’s 2017 basketball team did not have one clear star. Bam Adebayo dominated the paint while Malik Monk lit up the Las Vegas scoreboard. Of the big three, De’Aaron Fox’s big smile and charismatic personality made him a fan favorite. His legacy was cemented in stone when he baptized Lonzo Ball, scoring 39 points in a Sweet 16 win over UCLA.