Top 10 NCAA tourney players ever: Wait, who?

Posted: March 6, 2013 by shawnfury in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , , , , ,

In honor of the 75th year of the NCAA basketball tournament, Sports Illustrated put together a list of the top 75 players in tourney history. It’s important to note that this is just tourney history, has nothing to do with the regular season. So you won’t see Pistol Pete anywhere on the list since Louisiana State never made it to the tournament.

The Top 10:
1. Lew Alcindor
2. Bill Walton
3. Bill Russell
4. Oscar Robertston
5. Larry Bird
6. Wilt Chamberlain
7. Bill Bradley
8. Magic Johnson
9. Christian Laettner
10. Jerry West

So we have some issues.

In the discussions I’ve seen, the biggest complaint is the placement of Larry Bird and Christian Laettner. Bird’s way too high, Laettner’s too low. Bird only made the tournament once with Indiana State, and while that 1979 tourney became the most famous in college basketball history — thanks to the final game against Magic and their subsequent NBA careers — he still only played in five games and didn’t win a title. Laettner made it to three finals and a semifinal and capped off his Duke career with back-to-back championships, making the Blue Devils the first repeat champions since Walton’s UCLA teams. He hit a buzzer-beater to defeat Connecticut in the 1990 Elite Eight and drilled the legendary game-winner against Kentucky two years later. Maybe SI has joined the rest of the country in tiring of Duke, but Laettner’s tourney resume is difficult to match. In fact, you could probably make a case that only three guys — three legendary big guys named Alcindor, Walton and Russell — have better tourney credentials.

Should a title be required for entry into the top 10? If so, Oscar, Wilt, Bradley and West will also see themselves out.

Jerry Lucas seems like an odd omission from the top 10. He’s number 14 on the list, but led Ohio State to three title games, one championship and recorded a 30-30 game. Patrick Ewing’s Georgetown teams dominated college basketball in the mid-80s, although the upset loss against Villanova kept the T-shirt wearing center from cementing his spot in the top 10.

Danny Manning singlehandedly won the title for Kansas over a heavily favored Oklahoma team in 1988 and could easily rise above his number 17 ranking.

And as painful as it is to admit, I would be willing to listen to arguments that Magic doesn’t deserve the Top 10, even with his championship. Again, I think the aura of the ’79 title game has more of an impact than Magic’s actual numbers from his two tourneys.

There are older-generation players who obviously didn’t benefit from the tourney craze that developed in the ’80s and beyond. We didn’t see them star on television and their accomplishments didn’t appear in any “One Shining Moment” montage so it’s difficult to appreciate their careers. Someone like Kentucky’s Alex Groza, who led the Wildcats to back-to-back titles. But is there a morals clause for the list? Two years into his NBA career Groza was implicated in a point shaving scandal from his days with the Wildcats. The scandal ended his professional career, but was actually for an NIT game, so it’s probably okay to keep him on a list of all-time NCAA tourney players.

A look at the entire 75-player list shows how the college game has changed the past 20 years. The highest-ranking player from the past decade is Tyler Hansbrough at No. 25. Mateen Cleaves — star of the 2000 Michigan State title team — is No. 36. Otherwise it’s controlled from guys in the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s and early ’90s. No one’s going to dominate the tourney for four years anymore because if they do it for one year chances are they’ll be gone to the NBA before they can do it a second time. Last year’s Kentucky star Anthony Davis comes in at 54, although when it comes to one and done guys I’d put Carmelo Anthony (57) higher.

Obviously these lists are meant to spark arguments more than anything else while offering a chance to reflect on the country’s favorite March activity. Still, when a similar list appears on the 100th anniversary of the tournament, some important edits will hopefully be in place. And that will mean bad news for Mr. Bird.

  1. The Cutter says:

    I felt like SI showed their age with this one. Obviously, the older players were going to stay in school longerand therefore have more opportunities to have great moments. But still, the most recent Top 10 player graduated in 1992. And even he was ranked WAY too low.

  2. Todd Reitzel says:

    I was very surprised to see Bird and Magic rated above Laettner in this NCAA Tourney list. Whatever you think about Laettner’s attitude and his NBA career, you are right on the money with Laettner’s qualifications to be #4 on this list.

    BTW, What do we mean by “tiring of Duke”? Coach K? Overexposure on ESPN? Perceived ethnic or socioeconomic characteristics? I never tire of excellence when it is achieved by Duke teams or any other teams. You have to give props to achievements that lead to championships, whether its the 2012 Kentucky one-and-done team or any other championship team.

  3. This might be the most objective thing Fury has ever written. Advocating for Christian Laettner to be higher in the top 10 couldn’t have been easy for him. Laettner is the only player to appear in four Final Fours. As Sean noted he was integral in a couple of the greatest crucial moments in tourney history. The shot against Connecticut gets forgotten but was the bridge from Coach K’s initial wave of 80s success to finally winning a title in 91. Because they repeated in ’92 people tend to forget Duke was a heavy underdog in ’91 against UNLV. The guy deserves credit for being the best player on a team that took down a team that buzz sawed them the previous year.

    One argument against Walton and Alcindor was less teams qualified for the tourney. It wasn’t until 1985 that 64 teams qualified and the 6 games was needed to win the title. Though you could argue that by having less teams each game that was played featured better teams.

  4. shawnfury says:

    Todd, “Tiring” meaning the backlash that’s come up against Duke the past 10-15 years, which I think can probably be blamed completely on Dick Vitale’s screaming. They were pretty beloved when Coach K was making his first trips to the Final Four in the ’80s but it started turning at some point. Still, Dan still loves them. So does my dad.

    Hey, I even debated with someone whether Hurley deserved to be higher, so I’m all about the Dukies with this list.

    The smaller tournament did make it a completely different world, although the flip side is suffer a few losses in conference play and you wouldn’t even make the tournament. That almost happened to Walton and UCLA in ’74. I just think UCLA’s overwhelming dominance puts them up at the top without much debate, especially with the way they individually dominated in the biggest games.

    • Neil R says:

      Totally agree with you. Laettner too low and not enough UCLA guys since their history is so rich. Wooden always mentioned Gail Goodrich as one of the best players he’s coached. Should he rank up there? If you use championships as a measuring point, then would you need to list one of the Florida players from their back-to-back titles a few years back. I don’t feel any one of them would be deserving of even the top 100.

  5. Jerry says:

    I am surprised that there are no Carolina players in the top 10. One in particular (Jordan). But considering that in the mid 70s great teams like the one Maryland had that never made the tourney a lot of great players never made the show. Also surprised that no Louisville players are in the top 10.

  6. shawnfury says:

    Neil, Remember our boss Doug W’s favorite player was Gail Goodrich? I always thought that was a unique guy to have as a favorite player.

    I’m surprised Jordan didn’t make it because, well, SI is something of a fan of his (see: the recent issue dedicated to his 50th birthday). But his putrid performance against Indiana in his final tourney game in ’84 made it impossible for him to sneak on there, fortunately.

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