The College Basketball Alphabet: The Best Player in History for Every Letter
One of the great things about sports arguments that start “Who was the all-time best…?” is that there are so many different ways to divide up the historical player pool. Here, we’re mixing some Sesame Street with our higher education to take a look at the ABCs of college basketball.
One letter fans don’t usually want to see associated with their teams is “L,” but here L brings us Duke icon Christian Laettner. His collection of Final Four appearances helps him edge out such luminaries as Jerry Lucas for the honor of being the best L-named player in the college game.
Herein, more on the Blue Devils’ legendary power forward, along with the top picks from A to Z throughout the history of the game. All players are grouped by the first letter of their surnames, with one necessary X-ception.
A: Lew Alcindor, UCLA
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Why he’s here: In three years at UCLA, Lew Alcindor totaled fewer games lost (two) than national titles won (three).
The future Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s dominance in the paint helped prompt an NCAA ban on dunking and made sure the Bruins of the late ‘60s are routinely ranked with the greatest teams in college history.
Key stats: 26.4 points and 15.5 rebounds per game for his career
Honorable mention: Mark Aguirre (DePaul), Steve Alford (Indiana), Carmelo Anthony (Syracuse)
B: Larry Bird, Indiana State
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Why he’s here: How many fans have only heard of Indiana State because Larry Bird went there?
Thousands of them were watching in 1979 when Bird’s Sycamores fell just short of a perfect season, losing to Magic Johnson and Michigan State in the national title game.
Key stats: 30.3 points, 13.3 rebounds and 4.6 assists per game for his career
Honorable mention: Rick Barry (Miami), Elgin Baylor (Seattle), Walter Berry (St. John’s), Bill Bradley (Princeton)
C: Wilt Chamberlain, Kansas
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Why he’s here: In just two years of varsity ball, Wilt Chamberlain left no doubt that he was in a class by himself among college centers.
As a freshman, he carried Kansas to the national title game, losing an epic three-OT contest to unbeaten North Carolina.
Key stats: 29.9 points and 18.3 rebounds per game for his career
Honorable mention: Calbert Cheaney (Indiana), Chris Corchiani (N.C. State), Bob Cousy (Holy Cross)
D: Tim Duncan, Wake Forest
Why he’s here: Tim Duncan’s NBA success has made him Exhibit A for staying in school all four years. From a defensive-specialist freshman, the former swimmer evolved into the consensus 1997 Player of the Year and the defining big man of his generation.
Key stats: 2,117 points and 1,570 rebounds for his career
Honorable mention: Adrian Dantley (Notre Dame), Sherman Douglas (Syracuse), Clyde Drexler (Houston)
E: Patrick Ewing, Georgetown
Why he’s here: In Patrick Ewing’s four-year career, Georgetown made it to the national title game three times, winning its only championship in 1984.
He defined the career of towering coach John Thompson Jr., wielding the combination of defensive intimidation and interior scoring punch that so many later Thompson protégés would boast.
Key stats: 2,184 points, 1,316 rebounds (school record) and 493 blocks (unofficial, also a school record) in his career
Honorable mention: Alex English (South Carolina), Julius Erving (UMass)
F: Phil Ford, North Carolina
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Why he’s here: Phil Ford came this close to giving Dean Smith his first national title, but his Tar Heels came up just short in the 1977 title game.
The guard who ran Smith’s Four Corners offense at its highest level, Ford still ranks in UNC’s top three in career scoring and assists.
Key stats: 18.6 points and 6.1 assists per game for his career; 2,290 points and 753 assists in all
Honorable mention: Kenneth Faried (Morehead State), Walt Frazier (Southern Illinois)
G: Tom Gola, La Salle
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Why he’s here: Nicknamed “Mr. All-Around,” the 6’6” Tom Gola could legitimately play all five positions back in the early 1950s. He spent most of his time in the frontcourt, though, while leading La Salle to its only national title.
Key stats: 2,466 points and an NCAA-record 2,201 rebounds in his career
Honorable mention: Hank Gathers (Loyola Marymount), Artis Gilmore (Jacksonville), Darrell Griffith (Louisville)
H: Elvin Hayes, Houston
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Why he’s here: One of the only big men ever to steal the spotlight from Lew Alcindor, Elvin Hayes outplayed the UCLA star to snap the Bruins’ 47-game winning streak in 1968.
Hayes’ 1967-68 Cougars lost only one game, falling to UCLA in a rematch in the Final Four.
Key stats: Averaged 31 points and 17.2 rebounds per game for his career
Honorable mention: Tyler Hansbrough (North Carolina), John Havlicek (Ohio State), Bobby Hurley (Duke)
I: Dan Issel, Kentucky
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Why he’s here: Even at tradition-rich Kentucky, there’s never been a big man who could touch Dan Issel. The sweet-shooting 6’9” center owns the school records for scoring and rebounding.
Key stats: 33.9 points and 13.2 rebounds per game as a senior; 2,138 points and 1,078 rebounds in his career
Honorable mention: Darrall Imhoff (California), Allen Iverson (Georgetown)
J: Magic Johnson, Michigan State
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Why he’s here: Magic Johnson led Michigan State to one of the most important national titles in history, turning the NCAA tournament into a TV showpiece with his rivalry with Larry Bird.
The sport is still waiting for another point guard who can do what Magic did with the basketball, especially at 6’8”.
Key stats: 17.1 points, 7.6 rebounds and 7.9 assists per game for his career
Honorable mention: Chris Jackson (later Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf; LSU), Larry Johnson (UNLV), Michael Jordan (North Carolina)
K: Bob Kurland, Oklahoma State
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Why he’s here: The first seven-footer to make it big at the college level, Bob Kurland was one of the only opponents who could outplay DePaul’s George Mikan.
With Kurland in the middle, Oklahoma State (then Oklahoma A&M) became the first team to win back-to-back national titles in 1945 and 1946.
Key stats: Official numbers are tough to come by from Kurland’s career, but he’s credited with being the first player to make the slam dunk a regular part of his offense and (along with Mikan) with forcing the implementation of a rule against defensive goaltending.
Honorable mention: Red Kerr (Illinois), Jason Kidd (California)
L: Christian Laettner, Duke
Why he’s here: One of the all-time great clutch players, Christian Laettner’s postseason heroics go far beyond his endlessly replayed shot against Kentucky. In four collegiate seasons, he made four Final Fours and won two national titles.
Key stats: 2,460 points and 1,149 rebounds in his career
Honorable mention: Bob Lanier (St. Bonaventure), Clyde Lovellette (Kansas), Jerry Lucas (Ohio State)
M: Pete Maravich, LSU
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Why he’s here: In only three seasons of varsity ball and without a three-point line, Pete Maravich set a national scoring record that no one has come within 400 points of.
Pistol Pete was one of the great highlight-reel ball-handlers and passers in history, too, an And1 mixtape before his time.
Key stats: 3,667 points, 44.2 points per game for his career (a record by a margin of 9.8 ppg).
Honorable mention: Danny Manning (Kansas), George Mikan (DePaul)
N: Jameer Nelson, St. Joseph’s
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Why he’s here: Even in his first collegiate season, Jameer Nelson still handed out 6.5 assists per game. As a senior, he swept the Wooden and Naismith Awards by leading St. Joe’s to the best season in school history, a 30-2 finish capped by a trip to the Elite Eight.
Key stats: 2,094 points and 713 assists in his career
Honorable mention: Joakim Noah (Florida), Ken Norman (Illinois)
O: Emeka Okafor, UConn
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Why he’s here: Emeka Okafor’s intimidating defense carried UConn to the 2004 national title. Those Huskies still stand as the second-best shot-blocking team in history, even if Okafor’s offense didn’t survive the jump to the NBA.
Key stats: 17.6 points and 11.5 rebounds per game as a junior; at least 4.0 blocks per game in all three collegiate seasons.
Honorable mention: Akeem Olajuwon (Houston), Shaquille O’Neal (LSU), Billy Owens (Syracuse)
P: Bob Pettit, LSU
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Why he’s here: An All-America selection each of his three seasons on varsity, Bob Pettit was an unstoppable force at power forward. He led LSU to the Elite Eight in 1953, a plateau the Tigers wouldn’t reach again until 1980.
Key stats: Averaged 31.4 points and 17.3 rebounds per game as a senior
Honorable mention: Gary Payton (Oregon State), Paul Pierce (Kansas)
Q: Chris Quinn, Notre Dame
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Why he’s here: The biggest fish in a very small pond, Chris Quinn was Notre Dame’s designated marksman.
He scored in double digits each of his three seasons as a starter, though he only really blossomed as a distributor in his final year in South Bend.
Key stats: 17.7 points and 6.4 assists per game as senior; 41.7 percent career three-point shooter
Honorable mention: Brian Quinnett (Washington State)
R: Bill Russell, San Francisco
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Why he’s here: In addition to being the best defensive center who ever played, Bill Russell was a consummate winner. His Dons set a record with a 60-game winning streak that spread across two national championship seasons.
Key stats: 20.7 points and 20.3 rebounds per game for his career
Honorable mention: J.J. Redick (Duke), Oscar Robertson (Cincinnati), David Robinson (Navy)
S: Ralph Sampson, Virginia
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Why he’s here: One of just two players to capture the Naismith Award three times, Ralph Sampson overwhelmed college foes with his 7’4” height. As a sophomore, he led Virginia to the 1981 Final Four before falling to James Worthy and North Carolina.
Key stats: 2,225 points and 1,511 rebounds in his career
Honorable mention: Paul Silas (Creighton), Lionel Simmons (La Salle)
T: David Thompson, N.C. State
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Why he’s here: David Thompson would have been one of the college game’s all-time great dunkers…if the shot hadn’t been outlawed for his entire career.
The high-flying swingman led the Wolfpack squad that ended UCLA’s incomparable streak of seven straight national titles in 1974.
Key stats: 26.8 points and 8.1 rebounds per game for his career
Honorable mention: Isiah Thomas (Indiana), Kurt Thomas (TCU), Rudy Tomjanovich (Michigan)
U: Wes Unseld, Louisville
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Why he’s here: Although he stood just 6’7”, Wes Unseld was one of the greatest defensive centers ever to play the game. His raw muscle made him a far more effective scorer in college than he ever was in a Hall of Fame pro career.
Key stats: 20.6 points and 18.9 rebounds per game for his career
Honorable mention: None
V: Keith Van Horn, Utah
Why he’s here: Keith Van Horn led Utah to its first Elite Eight in three decades, though he graduated before the Utes made the 1998 title game.
The slender forward was a respectable rebounder but a game-changing scorer, especially (at 6’10”) from the outside.
Key stats: 20.8 points and 8.8 rebounds per game for his career
Honorable mention: Dick and Tom Van Arsdale (Indiana), Kiki Vandeweghe (UCLA)
W: Bill Walton, UCLA
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Why he’s here: The engine that drove UCLA’s 88-game winning streak, Bill Walton was one of the most dominant players in college history.
He won a pair of national titles (both undefeated), including an iconic championship-game showing against Memphis in which he shot 21-for-22 in scoring 44 points.
Key stats: 20.3 points and 15.7 rebounds per game for his career
Honorable mention: Kermit Washington (American), Chris Webber (Michigan), Jerry West (West Virginia)
X: Xavier McDaniel, Wichita State
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Why he’s here: In the absence of any useful players with “X” surnames, the X-Man comes to the rescue.
Xavier McDaniel was the first player ever to lead the country in both scoring and rebounding in the same season, and the 6’8” forward averaged a double-double for his career.
Key stats: 27.2 points and 14.8 rebounds per game as a senior, 2,152 points and 1,359 boards in his career.
Honorable mention: None
Y: Michael Young, Houston
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Why he’s here: He didn’t pan out as a pro the way teammates Clyde Drexler and Akeem Olajuwon did, but Michael Young was a vital part of Houston’s three straight Final Four trips in the ‘80s.
His acrobatic finishes were a big part of the reason those Cougars earned their Phi Slama Jama nickname.
Key stats: 19.8 points and 6.2 rebounds per game as a senior; 2,043 career points
Honorable mention: George Yardley (Stanford), Nick Young (USC)
Z: Tyler Zeller, North Carolina
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Why he’s here: Cody Zeller may yet prove to be the better pro center, but older brother Tyler wins the collegiate competition by a hair.
The four-year Tar Heel finished his career as Harrison Barnes’ right-hand man in a lineup that landed four players in the NBA’s first 17 draft picks.
Key stats: 16.3 points, 9.6 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game as a senior
Honorable mention: Tony Zeno (Arizona State), Cody Zeller (Indiana), George Zidek (UCLA)