On March 19, ESPN launched SportsCenter Special: College Basketball’s Greatest of All Time, a 64-player bracket celebrating the best men’s and women’s players ever.
ESPN writers and commentators will provide daily roundtables and predictions as the bracket advances through March 31. Below, writers John Gasaway, Heather Dinich and Joe Lunardi break down the Sweet 16 in the East and West regions.
(9) Shaquille O’Neal vs. (4) Anthony Davis — VOTE HERE
(6) Kemba Walker vs. (10) Dwyane Wade — VOTE HERE
(9) Allen Iverson vs. (13) Pete Maravich — VOTE HERE
(3) Larry Bird vs. (2) Bill Russell — VOTE HERE
Which of these eight names is the most surprising to see still standing in the Sweet 16, and why?
Gasaway: Not too many No. 13 seeds reach the Sweet 16, so I’ll say I’m most surprised that Maravich is still standing. He is, of course, the all-time leading scorer in college basketball history, and he is also a player who never appeared in an NCAA tournament game. I wasn’t sure how the voters might balance those two extremes, and I’ll be keenly interested in just how far Pistol Pete can go from here. A No. 13 seed in the Final Four? Could happen!
Dinich: I’m shocked like Gasaway that Maravich is still standing as well, but I’ll chalk that up to the fact I’m from Northeastern PA and grew up watching Iverson. Given everything Maravich accomplished, maybe the bigger question is why he’s a No. 13 seed. If the voters are truly clicking based on collegiate careers, Maravich should probably get the nod, but without an NCAA tournament appearance, it’s also easy to think Iverson should run away with it.
Lunardi: I’m a Philly guy and 76ers fan, but don’t think I would have voted Allen Iverson ahead of any other player in his quarter of the bracket (No. 1 Breanna Stewart, No. 8 Bobby Hurley or No. 16 Austin Carr). Well, maybe Austin Carr, although Iverson never scored more than 40 points in an NCAA tournament game and Carr did it FIVE times! Iverson was an electrifying player at every level, but not always an easy match for coaches or teammates. And, in this pairing, AI’s numbers — like pretty much every player in college basketball history — are dwarfed by Pistol Pete.
Some of the players above were undoubtedly helped by the name cachet they built during their NBA careers. But which of these players deserves more credit for their college career than your general basketball fan might be willing to provide?
Gasaway: Before he won 11 NBA titles, Bill Russell changed college basketball. San Francisco went 57-1 and won two national titles in Russell’s last two seasons. The NCAA widened the lane because of Russell. The NIT went from being more or less equal to the NCAA tournament to being an afterthought due in part to the Dons choosing to play in the latter instead of the former. Russell was a legend long before he was a gleam in Red Auerbach’s eye.
Dinich: I’ll go back to Maravich here at the No. 13 seed. The numbers he produced were jaw-dropping over his last three seasons at LSU, where he averaged 43.8, 44.2 and 44.5 points per game, respectively. During his senior year, he scored at least — at least! — 50 points in 10 of LSU’s 31 games. He was named College Player of the Year — an above-average player on an average team.
Lunardi: Kemba Walker was the centerpiece of the most unsung achievement in college basketball history. The 2010-11 Connecticut Huskies were a bubble team, .500 in a great Big East (11 bids), and losers in four of five games to close the regular season. Then Walker morphed into legend. The Huskies won an unthinkable 11 consecutive elimination games, capturing the Big East and NCAA tournament titles, and all Kemba did in that stretch was average 24.6 points in 38.3 indispensable minutes per game.
Which of the above four matchups do you expect to be closest, and what’s one fact you’d like to relay to voters that might help influence their vote?
Gasaway: Predicting the behavior of voters is far more difficult than forecasting the outcomes of college basketball games, but I’ll go out on a limb and say Shaq vs. AD could be close. Those are two household names going up against each other. If there’s one thing I would like the voters to understand, it is that Davis could have put up much bigger numbers on offense during his one season at Kentucky if that had been necessary. As it happens, however, the Wildcats were loaded, and UK won it all with Davis supplying timely offense and dominant defense.
Dinich: How in the world do you choose between Larry Bird and Bill Russell? Well, start with remembering the importance of defense. Russell averaged 20.7 points and 20.3 rebounds in his three-year varsity career at the University of San Francisco. It was his stellar defensive play that caught the attention of the Boston Celtics. The rest is history. Literally.
Lunardi: Allen Iverson vs. Pete Maravich will be new school vs. old school, but they aren’t in the same class. Pistol Pete was his own school: 44.2 PPG, 3,667 total points in only 83 games, no shot clock, no 3-pointer. But here’s my one fact: Of the top 10 scorers in NCAA history, Maravich had the most assists (5.1 per game).