After a night when three one-loss teams won with relative easy, and Michigan State got exposed at Wisconsin, I thought I'd use today for a little mini-ode to my favorite college basketball players of all time. You'll find that I have a certain aesthetic: small, quick guards with explosiveness and prodigious shooting ability. Which is funny, because it's basically the opposite of how I or anyone in my family plays. We're all tall and slower (bragging moment: my brother is third in his conference in scoring as a junior, and my younger brother starts for the varsity as a freshman...and in case you're curious, I was nowhere near as good.) We'll start at #5:
5) Lawrence Moten, Syracuse
My dad went to grad school at Syracuse, and I grew up rooting for the Orange (along with Duke, to a lesser degree). Lawrence Moten was the first premier Syracuse player in my life as a fan, and one of my early idols. My dad worked in the athletic program, and he had some connections, so in February 1994 he took me down to watch them play Kentucky (then ranked #4) at the Carrier Dome. This trip produced three memorable incidents.
1) I got to meet Qadry Ismail, "The Missile," a standout receiver for Syracuse (and younger brother of Rocket Ismail). He was in the NFL at that point, a year out of school, but back on campus for the game. My dad knew someone, we were introduced, and I spoke with him for a few minutes. He's still probably the nicest athlete I've ever met (there haven't been many). He actually asked me questions and smiled and joked with me, and managed to put me at ease despite the fact that I was incredibly nervous. I was on cloud nine after that encounter, believe you me.
2) Once inside the Dome, we were allowed to go inside the locker rooms before the game. Immediately upon entering, I saw a group of Kentucky players approaching. They were probably the first really huge black guys I'd ever seen, and I was star-struck. I looked at the tallest, my mouth agape, and said "are you Jamal Mashburn?" This was embarrassing for a few reasons, but primarily because Mashburn had graduated a year before, and was in the NBA. The players laughed at me.
3) I told my dad's friend that Moten was my favorite player, and we rounded a bend in the locker room and went into a smaller room with a training table. Moten was sitting down, his trademark white socks pulled up to his knees, ankles being taped by a trainer. As always, his face had a quiet cast. He nodded to me, said hello, and agreed to sign whatever I offered. He was polite; not necessarily engaging, but he gave of his time, which is significant enough since he was minutes away from a huge game against one of the best teams in the country.
Moten scored 18, and the Cuse upset Kentucky that night. He went on to set the Big East scoring record with 1,405 points (still stands) while averaging 19.3 ppg for his career. He never made it past the sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament.
4) Bobby Hurley, Duke
As a 9-10 year-old kid, Hurley was possibly the first athlete to really speak to me. He was short, scrappy, clutch, and fun. I don't have any memories of the 1990 season, when Duke made it to the final game and lost to UNLV, so maybe I was too young (only 7) to be really involved. But starting in '91, and peaking in '92 with Laettner's famous shot against Kentucky, I was a Duke fan. And Hurley was my hero.
His stats don't need any embellishment. He won two titles, made three Final Fours, and is the all-time NCAA assist leader (1,076). He won the Final Four MVP award in '92. The tough-nut kid from Jersey City was in a horrible, life-threatening car accident during his rookie season in the NBA, missed a year, and never really experienced the same success on the professional level even after his comeback.
When I went to Duke, I heard Coach K speak in the East Campus cafeteria during my freshman year. He talked about Hurley a little, and the most interesting thing I heard was that he and Laettner were basically mortal enemies while at Duke. Hurley's earthy demeanor conflicted with Laettner's swept-back arrogance, and it was all they could do to function as teammates. During games, when Hurley raced out receive an inbounds after an opposing team's basket, Laettner would piss him off by dropping the ball a foot in front of the baseline, making Hurley come all the way back and nullifying the fast break.
This story made me like Hurley more. Because, let's face it, Laettner was great but also kind of a douche. The fact that Hurley didn't like him sort of confirms that he's a good guy, at least for me.
Fun sorta-unrelated story: later in that Q-and-A with Coach K, he talked about the Kentucky game. According to him, he started designing the play for Laettner in the last timeout. When he was almost finished, Laettner looked right at Grant Hill, said "just get me the fucking ball," and walked out to the court.
3) Gerry McNamara, Syracuse
The two main legends of Gerry McNamara are as follows:
1) He was lights out in the first half of the championship game in '03 against Kansas. He hit 6 3-pointers in the first 20 minutes, and Syracuse scored 53 points. It gave them an 11-point halftime lead against a superior team, and they barely held on. This was the greatest moment in the history of Syracuse basketball, and McNamara led the charge. A freshman at the time, his bold, hot shooting set the tone, and let everyone know that Syracuse would not be outclassed or intimidated by the Jayhawks. Carmelo was the best player on that team, but Gerry was the sparkplug.
2) The Big East Tournament, 2006. McNamara, now a senior, led a team that had no hope of making the NCAA tournament unless they won the Big East tourney outright, which seemed impossible. Things began on Wednesday, when Cuse, the 9th seed, beat Cincinnati with McNamara's 3 in the final second of play. The ESPN recap to that game begins as follows: "Gerry McNamara has made plenty of big shots for Syracuse. This one might have topped them all." On Thursday, they took on UConn, the tourney's #1 seed and one of the top 5 teams in the country. The first line from that recap: "Gerry McNamara waited one day to one-up himself." Another three in the last second, another buzzer beating win. Next came Georgetown on Friday. Take it away, ESPN: "Gerry McNamara stood near the Syracuse bench, exhausted and aching while his teammates mobbed him and the crowd chanted his name." This time, he hit a go-ahead 3 in the final minute, assisted on the winning basket, and forced a turnover with 1 second left. The championship came next, and Cuse took on another surprise contender, 6-seeded Pittsburgh. One last time, ESPN? "Gerry McNamara was a big part of Syracuse's national championship as a freshman in 2003. Four years later, the guard was the runaway MVP in the Orange's surprising Big East tournament title run." 65-61, and an automatic berth.
It was probably the greatest, most improbable run I've ever seen, especially in a conference tournament. And it was a one-man show, too. McNamara was electric, and always up for the big moment. They lost in the first round the next week to Texas A&M, but it was almost irrelevant. They'd gone where they weren't supposed to go, and that was enough.
2) Jay (Jason) Williams, Duke
Quite simply the greatest player I've ever seen in person. Jason, as he was known at the time, had every gift you can imagine. And he had them all to extremes; shooting, quickness, leaping ability, handle, etc. Any time this guy stepped on the court, Cameron lit up. The same could be said for other gyms, too. Nobody could resist the allure of what many (including Jay Bilas, recently) consider the greatest college basketball player of all time. He was a one-man press breaker, a scoring machine, a fearless driver who charged into lanes and came away with unthinkable scores. The best example of Jason's unparalleled explosive abilities came in the "Miracle Minute" against Maryland. The video below isn't the best quality, but it's well worth watching. Please especially note Drew Nicholas' cocky look when he's at the line.
It may be called the "Miracle Minute," but it's worth noting that Williams practically erased the deficit all by himself in 20 seconds. They showed a replay of that game in K-Ville before the home game against Maryland the next year (another Duke win). You can watch the OT session of that game here. It's worth watching because you'll never hear a home crowd so angry and upset, even when their team makes a basket and the game is close. Also, it's evidence of what a huge stiff Mike Dunleavy was. Man, he was the worst.
He was so good that rumors sprang up about his personal rituals. Apparently, some said, he took a shot of vodka to calm his nerves before each game. His career culminated in 2001 with the national title. His honors include Freshman of the Year in '00, NABC Player of the Year in '01, and the Wooden and Naismith Player of the Year awards in '02.
And like any great hero, he had a flaw; foul shooting. One of the most clutch players in Duke history developed a mental block at the line, and in some ways it cost us a second title. Against Indiana in the Sweet 16, Coach K's blunders and the hot Hoosier shooting led to a 4-point deficit on the final possession. I can only imagine two players who could possibly, against all odds, draw a foul while hitting a 3 in that situation, and Jason Williams was one. He did the unthinkable, and suddenly the cinderella story looked ready to burst. But he missed the foul shot, and one of the best Duke teams in history went down before their time.
1) Khalid El-Amin, UConn
Just kidding! Man, he sucked.
For real, though:
1) Stephen Curry, Davidson
If Jason Williams was a firebrand, a stud, a wunderkind, then Curry is just plain mystic. He was a magician, an eerily calm, elfin sage. I've never had more fun watching basketball than when Davidson made their run in '08. He did more with less than any player in history. Nothing more needs be said.