This is the fifth installment in a series of posts examining the most dominant players in college basketball since the 1989-90 season. We're getting very close to the Top 5, which will be expanded to 7. I know I usually wait a few more days between posts, but, with the Sweet 16 starting on Thursday, I just couldn't help myself.
Category 9: Complete Players
I couldn’t put these guys in the scorers or defenders categories, because they were excellent on both ends of the floor (with the exception of Van Horn, but we'll get to that later). This category includes players that were incredible talents with a knack for making those around them better. These guys had great all-around games, but they were willing to defer to their teammates (sometimes too often). In some cases, they played on teams with so much talent that they didn’t have to dominate. Still, they stood out, and some earned serious consideration for the Top 5.
Calbert Cheaney (Indiana): Four-time IU team MVP, three-time All-American, and 1993 national player of the year (Wooden and Naismith). Who knows how high Calbert could have been ranked if he hadn't been constrained by the robotic offense of Bobby Knight? Tremendous jump shooter, he somehow found ways to fill it up in the Hoosier system. A team leader and excellent defender, I believe his development was ultimately stunted by Knight’s coaching.
Nick Collison (Kansas): One of the most underrated college players within my viewing lifetime, and that’s saying something because it’s not like he wasn’t in the spotlight during his career as a Jayhawk. A fierce competitor and rugged interior defender, Collison knew how to fill up a stat sheet. As a senior, he averaged 18 ppg and 10 rpg, but stats never told the whole story for one of the hardest workers I've ever had the pleasure to watch. After Drew Gooden left Lawrence for the NBA, I thought Collison would have difficulty scoring. To the contrary, his game improved, as he became adept at scoring and passing out of double teams like few players I can remember. Ran the floor at a pace that belied his skin color. An effective outside shooter and one of the best rebounders within my viewing lifetime. While his shoulder injuries haven’t helped, I'm shocked he hasn’t been more of a force in the NBA.
Tony Delk (Kentucky): Received serious consideration for the Top 5. While some might argue that Delk was overrated because of his incredibly talented supporting cast at UK, I would actually argue that Delk was underrated for that very reason. A lethal long-range shooter, Delk could score in a variety of ways. The consummate team player, I can only imagine what this guy’s numbers would have been like if he was even the slightest bit selfish. An incredible competitor, Delk hustled as if he was just a role player struggling for minutes. For as a good as Delk was on the offensive end of the floor, he was perhaps just as strong on the defensive end. Quick, deceptively strong, and insanely long-armed, I would come very close to calling him a shutdown defender. The heart and soul of the ’96 Wildcats. I’m still convinced that he got screwed in the NBA. Off the charts basketball IQ (but not in the same way that Joe Crawford has an off the charts basketball IQ).
Christian Laettner (Duke): As is the case with Delk, it’s hard to assess Laettner’s level of dominance in light of the strength of his supporting cast. An excellent college scorer, Laettner had pretty good range for his size and had a strong post-up game. A fiery competitor and team leader, it was Laettner’s intangibles, despite his impressive numbers, that made him special. Also a very good rebounder and underrated defender. While Laettner did garner Top 5 consideration, it was an absolute joke that he was on the 1992 Dream Team. That spot should have gone to Isiah Thomas or Dominique Wilkins. If they were determined to put a collegian on the roster, the spot should have been reserved for Shaq.
Ed O’Bannon (UCLA): Admittedly, one of the weaker defenders in this group, but still a good defender. Great rebounder for his size and underrated passer. Tremendous team leader. O’Bannon had a knack for filling up stat sheets without really needing the ball in his hands at all times. In his senior season, became something of a point forward and really shined. Averaged 16 ppg and 7 rpg as a sophomore, 18 ppg and 8 rpg as a junior, and 20 ppg and 8 rpg as a senior. I know the Bruins had a lot of talent on that 1995 team, but O’Bannon the Elder was the main reason UCLA was able to keep the Razorbacks from repeating.
Keith Van Horn (Utah): OK, I admit that maybe Van Horn is in the wrong category, but hear me out. Maybe it was because of the lack of talent in the conference he played in, but Van Horn was more than just a scorer in college. An excellent rebounder and great passer for a big man, he was the leader of a Utah team that made it to the 1998 national championship game. While his NBA career would be marked by a disgusting inability to play defense and a disgusting ability to be disgusting, Van Horn wasn’t quite so bad on defense in college. Having Andre Miller at the point definitely didn’t hurt his numbers. Averaged 18 ppg as a freshman and over 20 for the rest of his career at Utah. During his time with the Utes, they never received below a 4 seed in the NCAA tournament, and they reached the Sweet 16, the Elite 8, and the championsip game during Van Horn's last 3 seasons. Yes, I do realize that the Kentucky Wildcats were responsible for the Utes' exits during these 3 seasons.
Category 10: Breakthrough Performers
There is no doubt that these 5 players put together impressive careers. Each of these players probably could have fit into another category. However, their final seasons were absolutely incredible. They went from being excellent role players with the tools to play at the next level to nearly unstoppable college performers.
Caron Butler (Connecticut): Could have fit into the Early Departures category just as easily. However, Butler’s second season at UCONN deserves special attention. While his first season as a Huskie was nice (15.3 ppg and 7.6 rpg), it was his sophomore season that put Butler on the map (20.3 ppg and 7.5 rpg). Put simply, he was unstoppable. After just one season, Butler had developed an NBA-ready game to go with his NBA-ready body. Underrated shooter, great slasher, good passer, and hard-nosed defender, it was hard to pick out a weakness in his game. Despite all of these strengths, Butler’s greatest asset may have been his willingness to be a team player. One of the strangest things about Butler’s career at UCONN was that he was seemingly underexposed and underrated, two things it’s hard to be as a Huskie. I would argue that, during his sophomore season, Butler was one of the most intimidating players college basketball has witnessed over the course of the last 20 years.
Austin Croshere (Providence): Croshere had an excellent career as a Friar, but his senior season was pretty incredible. He posted up, scored from the outside, hit the open man, averaged 7.5 rebounds per contest, and played reasonably good defense. The ultimate team leader, Croshere willed the Friars to the 1997 Elite 8. Extremely hard to defend, as he was too big for wings and had too much range for post players to cover. I admit that this might be the biggest reach of all the players I have discussed in these posts, but consider the fact that Croshere averaged more points as a senior (17.9 ppg) than Grant Hill did during his senior season (17.4 ppg).
Josh Howard (Wake Forest): The 2003 ACC player of the year put together an excellent career at Wake, but his senior season was his coming out party. One of the most versatile players that I can remember. Played in the post when needed and was excellent on the wing. Found ways to score and played smothering defense (probably could have been in the defenders category). An incredible team leader, Howard’s senior season, which saw him average 19.5 ppg (up from 13.9), was a revelation that was somehow missed by NBA scouts, as he fell to the bottom of the first round in the draft.
Paul Pierce (Kansas): I almost put Pierce in the Complete Players category, but he didn’t truly blossom until his junior year. During his freshman and sophomore seasons, Pierce was more of an athlete that happened to play basketball (although this is probably something of an overstatement). By his junior season, however, he had developed more than hints of the offensive repertoire that would serve him well as a Celtic. Not quite the shooter he would become as professional, Pierce got to the bucket with a solid post-up game, a slasher’s mentality, and excellent ballhandling skills for a player of his size. A bull on the boards and a lockdown defender, Pierce could defend the 1-4 spots. It’s hard to single him out from a Jayhawks squad that included Jacque Vaughn, Raef LaFrentz, and Scot Pollard, but Pierce’s all-around game demanded just that.
Brandon Roy (Washington): One of the most sophisticated offensive games I’ve ever witnessed in a college player. An underrated athlete, Roy was nearly unguardable as a Huskie. Unlike a number of players with preternatural scoring abilities, Roy was an excellent passer and always seemed to be looking to get others involved. I would have put him in the scorers category, but his leadership, ability to make those around him better, and strong defensive play moved him to a category that took into account his all-around game. Roy’s scoring averaged jumped from 12.8 as a junior to 20.2 as a senior.
Who did I miss? By the way, a friend of mine (C-Burns) was wearing a Rebecca Lobo New York Liberty jersey/T-shirt to class the other day. It was awesome. I asked him whatever happened to Rebecca Lobo, and he told me that she got "impregnated by a giraffe." Does anyone know if there is any truth to this? (By the way, I'm now worried that any serious responses I may have received regarding these categories will be lost and replaced by numerous Rebecca Lobo-giraffe jokes. Please don't let this happen. If you feel you must make a giraffe joke, put it at the end of your suggestions. That being said, I realize I've brought whatever happens on myself.)