March 08, 2013

With the 2013 NCAA tournament just around the corner, college basketball scribes Jack McCallum and Alex Wolff engaged in a spirited e-mail debate of Seth Davis and Colin Becht's recent 75 greatest players list.

Jack McCallum: Alex, I guess it's predictable that two UCLA guys lead the pack. Nine national championships in 10 years between 1964 and 1973. My first question ... do they have their blue-chip centers in the right 1-2 order?

Alex Wolff: No question, that's the right order. Lew Alcindor edges Bill Walton, three titles to two -- and even Walton's 21-for-22 performance against Memphis State in the 1973 title game doesn't make up for Alcindor's extra championship. I'll throw a question back at you: Why is Walton ahead of No. 3, Bill Russell? Each had the same number of titles; Russell led USF to back-to-back crowns in 1955 and 1956.

McCallum: A legitimate point. I guess it could be UCLA-itis. But I would still keep The Redhead in there, if only for his seminal, close-to-perfection performance against Memphis State. It's interesting that centers go 1-2-3 in a game where the center position has become increasingly marginalized. Speaking of which ... does another center, Wilt Chamberlain, belong that high?

Wolff: In a word, no. Don't mean to get too far into the weeds on numbers here (even if that never stopped the Dipper when it came to female conquests), but he only played in one NCAA tournament, and didn't even shoot 50 percent from the field in Kansas' triple-OT loss to North Carolina in the 1957 title game. So much of the magic of the NCAAs rests on moments, or single-game performances that stick in the memory, and Chamberlain didn't really deliver on that score. I'd have loved to have seen a guy like Notre Dame's Austin Carr somewhere here. Dude went for 61, 52 and 45 during the 1970 NCAAs. And a year later averaged 41.7 for the tournament.

Carr and the Irish never got past the Elite Eight. But then our No. 4, Oscar Robertson, never won it all either. Cincy needed him to leave for the Bearcats to win in 1961 and 1962. So does he merit his place on this list?

McCallum: Awful good call on A-Carr. I remembered the 61 but not the other two. You have to put him on there. And as for Wilt ... he is remembered more for what he DIDN'T do in his title game against North Carolina, so he doesn't belong. The Big O was great in the tourney but should be much lower, at the spot now occupied by his great collegiate rival, Jerry West. And since we're wondering about placement ... Larry Bird ahead of Magic Johnson? Yeah, he was a one-man team in 1979 but ...

Wolff: Amen, Jack. Indiana State had a great run to get to the 1979 title game, and all props to Bird (and a shout out to Bob Heaton!) for getting there. But at the end of Bird's two previous seasons the Sycamores played in the NIT, for goodness sakes. And while Bird's 1979 NCAAs were splendid (27.2 points, 13.2 rebounds) and earn him a place somewhere on this list, Magic was the Final Four's MOP after a final that really wasn't close. So yes, Magic and Bird should swap places here.

Which brings us to Bill Bradley -- and here I'm ready to apply the "moments" test. His 16-point run to close out Princeton's Final Four consolation game defeat of Wichita State still delivers goosebumps. I mean, a hook with each hand? That's as throwback as, well, as a consolation game. But quarrel with me here, if you will: Bradley and the Tigers had one NCAA run, in 1965, and fell short of a title ... does that 58-point outburst justify his place?

McCallum: I think Dollar Bill to stay -- I hope we're not moving to a Top 20 here; we'll recalibrate at the end -- both on pure math and your Great Moments argument. But ... he does not belong ahead of Magic and another sweet college player who wasn't as great in the pros ... let's see... ah, Mr. Christian Laettner. Three Final Fours. Two championships and arguably the most famous shot in hoops history -- the turnaround against Kentucky. Let's decide right now how high to put the man ... and it has to be higher than ninth.

Wolff: Glad to hear you make the case for Laettner, pain though he was. (Even Coach K called him an a-hole.) Actually, he reached four Final Fours, and is the only player ever to start in four of 'em. But what makes Laettner so emblematic of who we're trying to I.D. with this list is that he did the micro (the moments!) along with the macro. Not just the shot against Kentucky; he beat UConn with a buzzer-beater in the East Regional two years before that. And you could even make the case that the Devils' Final Four semifinal upset of vaunted UNLV in '91, en route to the title, was a moment. If the Final Four is a stage, this guy was the hoops equivalent of the guy we both saw in London between covering Olympic events last summer -- Shakespearean grandmaster Mark Rylance. I say top 5 at least, and maybe even worthy of a spot right after the three big guys.

Which brings us to Jerry West. West Virginia never did win a title. How does Zeke make it on to this list? I have a hunch there's a case to be made ...

McCallum: All right, let's agree ... Alcindor, Walton, Russell (didn't talk much about him; he had 25 and 27 in the 1956 Final and led San Francisco to two straight) and Laettner at No. 4. We'll get back to the rest. As for Zeke of Cabin Creek ... he had 38 in the 59 semi against Louisville and he had 28 in the final, a one-point loss to a Cal team coached by Pete Newell. What you have to remember is how West rebounded in those days (OK, so did the Big O). He averaged 32 and 14.6 to lead the tournament in both scoring and rebounding and, despite the fact that the Mounties didn't win, he was named the tournament's Most Outstanding Player. (As was Bradley, by the way.) So let's at least keep him at 10.

We're coming close to nitty-gritty time. Wilt is off the list. Do we add Austin Carr ... or anyone else who might not come immediately to mind?

Wolff: Well-observed on the rebounding. Definitely helps make the case for O as well as West. I say we drop Wiltie entirely, and find a place, anywhere, for Austin Carr.

Much as we've quibbled over the list, that seems to be the only substituting we'd do. All the rest has to do with placement. We invert Bird and Magic. We vault Laettner. We respect Oscar and West and Bradley. And here's what we wind up with:

Alcindor Walton Russell Laettner Robertson Magic Bradley Bird West Carr

And that still leaves off guys like Hazzard or Goodrich, stars of those back-to-back UCLA titlists in 1964 and 1965. And a guy like Joakim Noah, who sprinkled a little repeat magic dust for Florida much more recently ...

McCallum: Have to move the Big O below Magic and West. And we can't have any more Bruins on there. Now we can call it a job complete ... content in the belief that we are geniuses. And somewhere ... Wilt Chamberlain is very, very angry with us.

Wolff: OK. Oscar below Magic and West. So:

Alcindor Walton Russell Laettner Magic West Robertson Bird Bradley Carr

But don't for a minute think that a celestial Wilt is giving us any thought, when there's even one woman in the sky to catch his eye.

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