The Top 50 College Basketball Players Ever: A Riposte

In these dark days devoid of NBA diversions, it should come as no surprise that Chuck Klosterman’s compelling and ambitious new treatise, a ranking of the top 50 college basketball players of all time, would prove so damned diverting.

Its allure caught me unawares, frankly, as I’ve developed a strong ambivalence toward college basketball in recent years. How else to view an ever-lengthening regular season that, with each passing day, degenerates more brazenly into a massive, tawdry exercise in hypocrisy and broadcast-content provision? Ninety-five percent of Division I games are an ultimately meaningless exhibition/cash grab leading up to an admittedly thrilling denouement, the NCAA Tournament, which can obscure, for one month each spring, just how ridiculous it is that these basketball “programs” are attached to, and wield such extraordinary fiscal and emotional power over universities and their attendant communities. I won’t even get into the fact that all this money is being generated — for colleges, media and corporate advertisers — on the backs, jerseys and computer-generated likenesses of unpaid laborers.

Over time I’ve come to prefer the NBA to college basketball — for the same reasons Abraham Lincoln once threatened, rhetorically, to abandon his native country for Moscow. Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid, Lincoln wrote to his friend Joshua Speed, in 1855. As a nation, we began by declaring that “all men are created equal.” We now practically read it, “all men are created equal except negroes.” When the Know-nothings get control, it will read, “all men are created equal except negroes and foreigners and Catholics.” When it comes to this, I shall prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty — to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.

My attentions have emigrated to the NBA but there was a time in my life, from 1976 through the turn of the millennium, when I was hardcore in the college basketball camp. Nothing so captured my sporting imagination. As a middle-schooler, my friends and I devised a betting scheme that pre-dated brackets: 32 teams in a brown paper bag, pull one for buck, if your team makes the Final Four you’re in the money. We followed teams from the old Yankee Conference and Eastern 8. I recall being devastated when Rhode Island lost by a point in the 1978 NCAA Tournament — to Duke, which would go all the way to the Final (that URI team, led by Sly Williams, was very, very good — Elite 8 good).

The Big East took shape in 1979, when I was in high school, transforming (through the power of media exposure) players well known to us — Craig Shelton, Roosevelt Bowie, Corny Thompson, even Dan Calandrillo — from nice ballplayers into gods. In college I subscribed to something called Eastern Basketball magazine, written largely by a guy named Dick Weiss, whose life as it appeared to me — covering college hoops 24/7 for junkies like myself — only strengthened my resolve to be a sportswriter.

Perhaps this is why Klosterman’s recent story struck such a nerve. It made me think back to a time when I cared more, when the mendacity of it all wasn’t so striking, when perhaps the game wasn’t so shabby, or when I was naïve enough to believe it so. Chalk another one up to the palliative powers of nostalgia.

 

KLOSTERMAN’S LIST is preceded by several qualifiers, the rules of engagement as it were. The Jimmy Dean rule applies (Talent is the main criterion, but it helps to have died young). Most controversial and central is the idea that any player whose NBA stardom proved more “meaningful” than his college exploits is not eligible. Fair enough. If all were eligible, the Top 50 would too closely mimic the NBA’s Top 50 of all-time (issued in 1999), and what would be the point of that?

Any ranking of this sort, regardless of qualifiers, naturally leads to a heavy dose of interpretation. Still, in several cases it seems clear to me that Klosterman missed the mark.

Further, the composition of any such list also fairly well cries out for dissent, and so, in the Classical Greek tradition of thesis-antithesis-synthesis (or was it Hegelian? Kantian?), and having received from Chuck the first volley, we offer here the latter two stages.

Of the 50 players Klosterman included in his Top 50, I take issue with these six:

49. David Rivers (Notre Dame, 1984-1988)
46. Daren Queenan (Lehigh, 1984-1988)
42. Michael Graham (Georgetown, 1983-1984)
41. Fennis Dembo (Wyoming, 1984-1988)
26. Dereck Whittenburg (North Carolina State, 1980-1983)
19. Jerome Lane (Pittsburgh, 1985-1988)

That’s not many. Klosterman’s Top 50 is solid and inventive, accented with several quirky choices that he well defends and I’m on board with most of them. At nos. 17 and 16 he taps Johnny Neumann (Ole Miss, 1972-1973) and Frank Selvy (Furman, 1951-1954), two of only three guys who ever averaged 40 ppg for an entire season. I’m down with this, as I’m okay with Freeman Williams (Portland State, 1974-1978), at no. 13, and the incomparable Alfredrick Hughes (Loyola University, 1981-1985), who twice led the nation in scoring and made the list at no. 50.

Let’s remember that Klosterman’s is a piece of journalistic commentary, and who wouldn’t include a guy who, as a junior, took 655 shots and finished the season with just 17 assists? Maybe if only to point out that, “Somewhere in Chicago, Alfredrick is taking an ill-advised shot right now.” Talented gunners sans conscience are part of what make basketball-watching, on any level, gratifying and fun.

However, the history of college hoops is long, storied and vast. Gunners have their place, but so do lock-down defenders and all-court guards — especially the guards, because winning college hoops has always been about guard play.

The six fellows I cite above are, in my view, each significantly overshadowed by at least a dozen more deserving candidates. Klosterman himself hedges his bets. Here’s his own list of those who could have but did not make the cut: Raymond Lewis, Mark Macon, Pearl Washington, Bob Kurland, Keith Lee, Kenny Walker, George Gregory, Anderson Hunt, Charles Jones, Bobby Hurley, Richie Farmer, Popeye Jones, Alphonso Ford, Kevin Bradshaw, Stephen Thompson, Tito Horford, Derrick Coleman, Steve Kerr, Jimmy Black, Kent Benson, Moses Scurry, Lancaster Gordon, Ken Norman, Gary McClain, and Pervis Ellison.

My friend Jammin’ and I made our own list, without referring to Klosterman’s near misses, and, somewhat remarkably, there was little crossover. Only one, in fact: Ellison, who led Louisville to a National Championship in 1986 (as a freshman), participated in three more solid tournament runs, played against top-flight competition all year/every year (unlike Dembo and Queenan), was a first team All-American as a senior, went no. 1 in the NBA draft, and met Klosterman’s qualifier by never doing much as a pro. His All-World nickname, “Never Nervous”, was also coined in college.

Our dissenting views, detailed below, are entirely based on Klosterman’s own criteria. While everyone loves a scorer, even a gunner, it also seemed reasonable to Jammin’ and me that stupendous regular-season numbers should be trumped by consistently great numbers that are burnished by demonstrated virtuosity during the NCAA Tournament, where the pressure and opposing talent levels are highest.

There are exceptions, of course. Dereck Whittenburg won a title and we’re proposing his removal… Conversely, Pete Maravich never played in an NCAA tournament; hell, LSU was barely .500 his four years in Baton Rouge — but he was the third guy to average 40 ppg for a season, and The Pistol did it all three years he was eligible to play varsity ball. With no 3-point line. He stays.

Queenan, while he posted monster numbers, played in two NCAA games and The Engineers (I’m pretty sure they were still the Engineers and not the Mountain Hawks way back then) got thumped both times. Do you remember him going off in either first-round loss for 30 and 20? Neither do I. Sad fact is, college basketball history is littered with 6’4” athletes who weren’t recruited to major schools and spent four years ripping up the likes of Rider, Lafayette, Bucknell and Hofstra 2-3 times each year. If Stephen Thompson or Tony Bruin or Lester Rowe had played at Lehigh, they’d have posted similar numbers. They wouldn’t necessarily, as Klosterman noted, gain Belgium citizenship and enjoy stellar pro careers in Europe, but that only argues against Queenan — his career was clearly more meaningful to Belgian professional basketball than it was to the American collegiate scene.

ENOUGH CONTEXT. See here six replacement picks for those I’m proposing we jettison, above.

1) Ronnie Lester (Iowa, 1977-1980): When I first read Klosterman’s Top 50, this guy jumped out at me as a major omission. Not even included in the near misses — a travesty because Lester was one of the great guards in NCAA and Big 10 history. College basketball is all about guard play, and Lute Olson, who coached Lester’s Final Four team, in 1980, maintained throughout his long career (including a title at Arizona where he amassed incredible talent) that Lester was the best player he ever coached. Ronnie was All-America as a junior, first team All-Big 10 his junior and senior years, back when the Big 10 of Indiana, Michigan, Iowa, Minnesota and Michigan State was college basketball’s premier conference. A knee injury cost Lester half his senior season and ultimately pro stardom; he returned for the tournament run, was brilliant, but re-injured it in the national semifinal… Magic Johnson maintains Lester was the toughest Big 10 opponent he ever faced.
2) Darrell Griffith (Louisville, 1977-1980): A contemporary of Lester’s, Dr. Dunkenstein led the Cardinals to their first National Championship, in 1980, earning Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four in the bargain, First Team All-American honors (according to the AP), and the Wooden Award as the nation’s best college basketball player. Hardly a one-year wonder, he left college as Louisville’s all-time leading scorer (2,333 points). But this doesn’t at all touch on the excitement his game exuded. Didn’t get in the paint like Jordan or David Thompson, but he was a jump-shooter with better range (crazy range) and the era’s premier dunkmeister. NBA career was good, but nowhere near as meaningful as his time at Louisville.
3) Mark Aguirre (DePaul, 1978-81): Averaged 24.5 points over three seasons with the Blue Demons; 1981 Sporting News College Player of the Year; USBWA College Player of the Year and James Naismith Award winner — for 1980; two-time first-team All-American. Not many guys are that dominant or feted in two separate seasons, but it was as a freshman in 1978–1979, when he averaged 24 ppg and led DePaul to the Final Four, that Aguirre captured everyone’s fancy and was arguably at his collegiate best. Pudgy and no more than 6’5”, he arrived with a complete and completely unique inside-outside game. He left after his junior year, grew increasingly petulant, and eventually won two NBA titles as a Piston on the downside of his career. A three-time NBA all-star, but again, I’d argue a more meaningful (and likeable) player at the college level.
4) Larry Micheaux (Houston 1979-1983): Did everything Michael Graham did with equal menace for three solid years, not one. Did it better and did more, in fact, all of it with an unnervingly impassive expression and a more evocative nickname: “Mr. Mean”. Micheaux did everything, all the dirty work, for one of the great teams in NCAA history (three Final Fours); averaged 13 points and 8 boards during that run, shooting between 55-60 percent from the field. He even led two of those Houston teams in blocked shots — no small feat when playing next to Hakeem (though it could be argued the Dream creates more block opportunities for teammates). If Graham is on the list for putting up a single year of 9 and 4, I’ll take Micheaux in his place.
5) Ernie DiGregorio (Providence, 1970-73): Tried without success to dig up his college stats. But if talent, panache and the unique nature of one’s game count (and Klosterman says they do), then Ernie D belongs on this list. Hard to imagine that a 5’10” white guy would pioneer the fast-break at the college level, but he did — with an array of sick passing skills, sure ball-handling and other-worldly court awareness. Led PC to the Final Four in 1973, when he was a consensus All-America and Lapchick Award winner as the nation’s outstanding senior. He was the NCAA East Regional MVP that year, and made NCAA Final Four All-Tournament team despite the Friars going out in the semis.
6) Jon Lucas (Maryland, 1971-74): Hey, if Len Bias belongs on the list (no. 7) without having won anything, or even coming close, Lucas does, too. Death didn’t moot his NBA career, but drug abuse did. In terms of the James Dean Rule, that’s gotta count for something. Besides, Lucas was an extraordinary talent whose college career was, to say the least, eventful. Three times an All-American (twice a first-teamer), he was also an All-American tennis player. Two of his Maryland teams (with Len Elmore and Tom McMillan) can be counted among the best never to play in the NCAA tournament — back then you had to win the ACC to gain entry, and they couldn’t beat David Thompson’s NC State. The rules changed his junior year and they went to the Elite 8. As a senior, Maryland somehow went 22-6 in the ACC and, again, didn’t make the field of 32. A superb assist man and lock-down defender, he nevertheless managed to average 18 ppg and 6+ assists over his four years in College Park. Dereck Whittenburg averaged 11.3 points and 1.8 assists over his four years in Raleigh, and the iconic moment for which he is best known? An air ball.

THERE ARE SEVERAL more Honorable Mentions I’d still take over Klosterman’s Questionable Six:

• Calvin Murphy (Niagara, 1968-1970) — Three-time All-American… Totally unstoppable as a collegiate scorer… 5’9” guys have been known to achieve in the college game (Bobby Hurley), but they rarely score 2,548 points in 77 games (33.1 ppg)… 1963 national champion in baton twirling.
• Phil Hubbard (Michigan, 1975-1979) and James Bailey (Rutgers, 1975-1979) — These guys go together, in my mind, because they simultaneously led separate teams to Final Fours as undersized, freshman centers then went on to log superb four-year careers in the late 1970s. Indeed, that freshman year, Rutgers went 31-0 before losing to Hubbard’s Wolverines in the national semifinal. I’ll take either one over Jerome Lane, who did nothing but board and bust a backboard or two.
• Stephan Curry (Davidson, 2005-2008) — Jury’s still out on whether his NBA career will prove more meaningful, but this guy was electric in college, personally brilliant and clutch, while carrying a sub-standard team deep into a couple NCAA tournaments. David Rivers couldn’t carry his jock.
• Marvin Barnes — People forget what an absolute stud this guy was in college. If you need a punk on the list, at least include one with major talent and a predilection for pimp lids and fur collars.
• Gordon Hayward (Butler, 2008-2010) — Dembo had one great NCAA tournament. Hayward had two, and was the most complete player, as a freshman and sophomore, on two teams that came achingly close to winning two national championship games. Then he went pro, accomplishing more in two collegiate seasons  than most fail to do in four.

And then there’s the curious case of Patrick Ewing. Klosterman is silent on the subject, reserving his most blatant bit of hedge-betting for the inclusion of Lew Alcindor, at no. 1, arguing quite rightly that no college basketball player has ever been so dominant. But that was “Lew Alcindor”. It was “Kareem Abdul-Jabbar” who logged the meaningful professional career. A contrivance to be sure, circumventing the “can’t have been a more meaningful pro” qualifier, but canny. We’re obliged to indulge the author here because, well… because he got this ball rolling.

Ewing is another matter. I’m a Boston guy; I went to see this phenom play at Cambridge Rindge & Latin. Despite the fact that he played his entire pro career for the rival Knicks, I wanted him to be a great pro. But it’s hard to view Ewing’s NBA achievements as anything but underwhelming. No titles, two Finals appearances, and through it all, in some pretty remarkable ways, his game never fully developed. Yes, he was 11 times an all-star but just once was he named All-NBA first team. Klosterman barred Elvin Hayes from the college list, despite a spectacular and iconic stint at the University of Houston, because his pro career was just too long and formidable. Hard not to put Ewing in the same category, but just as hard to argue he wasn’t a more influential, charismatic, “meaningful” college player: three NCAA Championship games in four years; one title and two excruciating near misses that were no fault of his; laid down the footsteps to D.C. for other big men to follow (Motumbo, Mourning); and, lest we forget, while at Georgetown, Ewing pioneered the habit of wearing a short sleeved t-shirt underneath his sleeveless jersey: a fashion trend that persists to this day.

Ewing was, of course, named one of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History. That struck me as a stretch at the time, and now I know why: wrong Top 50.

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