Power Ranking the Most Outstanding Players from NCAA Tournaments in the 1990s
If, in October 2012, you told the average college basketball fan that Louisville was going to win the national championship, most would have thought it a valid pick. Most except Kentucky's Big Blue Nation, of course, but that's another story.
Even if the Cardinals were considered a safe pick, though, one could have made some cash putting down a bet on Luke Hancock to win Final Four Most Outstanding Player.
After all, the 2012-13 Cardinals boasted household names like Peyton Siva, Gorgui Dieng or Russ Smith. How many expected the transfer from George Mason to produce enough to win an award recently given to greats like Anthony Davis, Kemba Walker or Kyle Singler?
Hancock may not go on to a productive NBA career, and there's no shame in that. After all, the 1990s didn't turn out a bumper crop of NBA stars among its MOP winners, either.
What the '90s did have among its tournament heroes was a collection of clutch players who proved their leadership abilities long before the spotlight was on them. Some of them are icons of the college game and some never really approached their tournament magic again.
Either way, all earned the right to call themselves champions.
Final Four statistics from Sports-Reference.com box scores.
10. Jeff Sheppard, Kentucky (1998)
Final Four Figures: 21.5 PPG, 5.0 RPG, 3.5 APG, 2.0 SPG, 55.2 FG%, 77.8 FT%
If we're ranking the most unlikely Final Four MOPs of the '90s, Jeff Sheppard would reside in the penthouse. He spent three years as a reserve averaging fewer than six points per game.
That made him a perfect symbol for the 1998 Wildcats, the crew that new coach Tubby Smith inherited from the departed Rick Pitino. There was much less star power on that team than on Pitino's 1996 champions. What the '98 team had was a knack for digging itself some holes and escaping at the last moment. Again, Sheppard was the perfect leader for such a crew.
Against Duke in the Elite Eight, the Cats fell behind by 17 before rallying. Sheppard poured in a pair of threes in the final three minutes of regulation to help erase a 10-point semifinal deficit to Stanford. Finally, the 'Cats overcame a 10-point halftime deficit against Utah in the championship game, taking their first lead with seven minutes to go on a Sheppard steal and dunk.
Sheppard's 27 points against Stanford were a career high, outdueling the 26 from Cardinal guard Arthur Lee. In the final, he put up 16 despite being unable to make a single three-pointer.
Sheppard had scored nine points in the 1996 Final Four, helping to win his first championship. The second one allowed him to step out of the wings and be a leading man for a moment.
9. Bobby Hurley, Duke (1992)
Final Four Figures: 17.5 PPG, 5.5 APG, 80.0 FT%
If a player's going to tie his career high in scoring, the national semifinal is as good a time as any. Bobby Hurley dropped in 26 points against Indiana, and it appeared that the Blue Devils would need every one of them early on.
The Jersey-bred floor general put home six three-pointers in the game, with four coming in the first half to keep IU from running away. The hot shooting was essential with Christian Laettner being held to only eight points.
Two nights later, the veteran Devils faced the brash Fab Five of Michigan. The Wolverines kept it close in a December battle in Ann Arbor, but had no such luck in the title game.
It was Hurley's turn to struggle with his shot, making only three of 12 from the field. His seven assists, however, showed some of his value in keeping Duke's offense humming. He set up Laettner for multiple tone-setting baskets early in the second half, then kept his cool and played with four fouls for the final seven minutes of the game. It was then that Duke buried Michigan with a 23-6 finishing run.
Hurley's numbers don't leap off the page, but for those who watched those two games in '92, his steady command of the offense did leap off the screen.
8. Tony Delk, Kentucky (1996)
Final Four Figures: 22.0 PPG, 4.5 RPG
The 1995-96 Kentucky team was called "The Untouchables," but its final coronation as national champions was almost "Unwatchable."
It had been 33 years since any national champion had shot worse than the Wildcats' 38.4 percent in an NCAA final. Kentucky and Syracuse combined for 36 fouls and 39 turnovers. To top it off, rain was leaking in from the Continental Airlines Arena roof, meaning that Kentucky guard Tony Delk wasn't the only one making splashes that night.
Delk drained seven of his 12 three-point attempts in the title game, totaling 24 points and seven rebounds on the night. The rest of UK's cast of future pros shot a combined five of 15 from deep.
All of Delk's efforts were needed to counteract the Herculean work of Syracuse forward John Wallace, who put up 29 and 10 in an effort to carry the Orangemen to a title himself.
Delk's shooting had already been pivotal in the semifinal, as he scored 20 points to hold UMass—and future UK coach John Calipari—at arm's length for an 81-74 win.
Surprisingly, Delk was the lone All-American on that 1996 team, and he played like it when the games carried the most weight.
7. Miles Simon, Arizona (1997)
Final Four Figures: 27.0 PPG, 4.0 RPG, 3.0 APG, 77.3 FT%
Miles Simon was one of the only players that Arizona could truly rely on to sink a free throw. Simon's 75 percent shooting led a team that made only 65 percent from the line in the 1996-97 season.
In the 1997 national title game, Simon put down a deposit and leased the foul line for the evening, sinking 14-of-17 charity tosses in an 84-79 overtime win over defending national champion Kentucky. Simon's 30 points in the final topped his 24 from the semifinal victory over North Carolina and gave the western Wildcats an unprecedented three wins over No. 1 seeds in the same tournament.
Some games are said to be "never in doubt," but Arizona-Kentucky was one that was never out of doubt. It wasn't until 13.8 seconds remained in overtime that either team held a lead bigger than six points.
That semifinal win against the Tar Heels was an ugly one that would have been better served as a two-on-two pickup game. Aside from Simon and Mike Bibby, the rest of UA's roster shot a combined 20.7 percent from the floor. Other than Vince Carter and Antawn Jamison, UNC made only 19 percent of its shots.
Neither of Arizona's victories in Indianapolis that April were pretty. The final result, though, was as sweet as it got.
6. Corliss Williamson, Arkansas (1994)
Final Four Figures: 26.0 PPG, 10.5 RPG, 4.0 APG, 50.0 FG%, 71.4 FT%
Arkansas star Corliss Williamson was cut from similar cloth to ex-UNLV workhorse Larry Johnson. Of course, while Johnson was making money and earning a nickname as "Grandmama," Williamson was simply cultivating his image as "Big Nasty."
Williamson lived up to the nickname in the Hogs' two Final Four games, even if Scotty Thurman's title-game dagger ended up the primary story. Williamson pounded Arizona for a double-double in the semifinals, carding 29 points, 13 rebounds and adding five assists for good measure.
Despite all of Arkansas' other low-post weapons, including 6'11" freshman Darnell Robinson and 260-pound stretch 4 Dwight Stewart, Big Nasty was left alone in the lane with plenty of room to operate. As Stewart told Sports Illustrated, the offense's motto was "Keep it wide and let him go."
Another solid game in the final (23 points, eight boards) earned Williamson the MOP trophy, even though he didn't figure in the pivotal play. He did, however, help spearhead the 21-6 run that erased a 10-point Duke lead early in the second half.
5. Donald Williams, North Carolina (1993)
Final Four Figures: 25.0 PPG, 65.2 FG%, 71.4 3pt%
It's a cliche to say that a shooter "can't miss." Obviously, Donald Williams missed a few in leading North Carolina to the 1993 national championship.
But not many.
Williams posted matching great games in the Final Four, notching 25 points and making five of seven from long range in both. His 10 triples broke a two-game record shared by Indiana's Steve Alford and UNLV's Anderson Hunt. No other Tar Heel made a three-point basket in either matchup.
Just as important as the quantity of points was when Williams got them. In UNC's semifinal win over Kansas, he scored seven in the final three minutes.
Similarly, Williams scored 12 of his 25 in the final eight minutes of the national title game. Four came on free throws that salted the championship away after Chris Webber called his infamous phantom timeout.
Williams, like Anderson Hunt, never made it to the NBA. He played a lengthy overseas career in 10 different countries.
4. Anderson Hunt, UNLV (1990)
Final Four Figures: 24.5 PPG, 4.5 APG, 61.3 FG%
Anderson Hunt and backcourt mate Greg Anthony could play interchangeable roles, but Hunt was usually the shooter. Hunt is still UNLV's all-time leader in three-pointers made, and none of his 283 bombs were any bigger than the nine he dropped in the Rebels' Final Four wins over Georgia Tech and Duke.
Hunt was unstoppable in the historic championship game against Duke. Vegas' 30-point margin is a record that still stands, and the Blue Devils had no answer for the sophomore gunner from Detroit. Hunt hit 12 of 16 from the floor, including four threes, for a game-high 29 points.
Offensively, Hunt helped blow the game open with 12 points and two assists in an 18-0 second-half run. The Rebels took full control with that spurt, which took less than three minutes to complete. Hunt also neutralized Duke playmaker Bobby Hurley, forcing him into five turnovers and keeping him scoreless from the field.
Hunt was the only starter from that championship team to never play in the NBA.
3. Christian Laettner, Duke (1991)
Final Four Figures: 23 PPG, 8.5 RPG, 54.5 FG%, 91.3 FT%
College basketball has few more polarizing figures than Duke's Christian Laettner. Before he was every other fanbase's favorite arrogant villain, he and his Blue Devil teammates were actually plucky underdogs standing in the way of UNLV's undefeated juggernaut.
Duke's 79-77 toppling of the defending national champions cemented its place among college basketball's elite. Laettner's 28 points were only part of his role in the victory, as his offensive versatility helped drag UNLV bigs Larry Johnson and George Ackles away from the basket and clear the lane for other Devils to penetrate.
The final against Kansas was almost an anticlimax. Unflappable as usual, Laettner drained all 12 of his free-throw attempts to cement an 18-point, 10-rebound double-double. He also had a hand in Jayhawk star Alonzo Jamison's 1-of-10 shooting night and the foul trouble that plagued both Jamison and center Mark Randall.
Having lost their minds in celebration following the UNLV win, the Blue Devils were a workmanlike bunch in taking out KU. With the prior year's demon exorcised, taking the title was simply the final step to finishing the job.
2. Ed O'Bannon, UCLA (1995)
Final Four Figures: 22.5 PPG, 12.5 RPG, 76.9 FT%
Just when it seemed Arkansas was destined for a repeat as national champions, along came Ed O'Bannon to out-nasty even Big Nasty himself.
UCLA's senior All-American crushed Corliss Williamson in their head-to-head title-game duel, outscoring him 30-12 and out-rebounding him 17-4. It was a great way to go out, especially for a player who had once been told that a torn ACL would prevent him from even walking properly.
Point guard Tyus Edney, whose crazed dash to beat Missouri ensured UCLA would even reach the Sweet 16, would likely have won the MOP award if not for a wrist injury suffered in the semifinal against Oklahoma State.
O'Bannon had had a nice 15-point, eight-rebound effort against the Cowboys, but it was up to him to shoulder the load with Edney mostly a spectator in the title game. According to Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson, "He did everything but sell popcorn."
The player with an ACL donated by a dead man left a legacy that's still alive in Westwood as the school seeks the right recipe to capture its 12th national title.
1. Richard Hamilton, UConn (1999)
Final Four Figures: 25.5 PPG, 6.0 RPG, 51.3 FG%
According to Sports Illustrated, Duke had only trailed for 111 minutes in the entire 1998-99 season as it stormed into the Final Four. The trip was the fifth of the decade for the Blue Devils, cementing their status as the preeminent program of the '90s.
The title game, though, belonged to the two-time All-American star of a program making its first Final Four appearance after a litany of near-misses.
Richard "Rip" Hamilton dropped 27 points and pulled seven rebounds as the Connecticut Huskies' lead dog, pulling his team to a 77-74 victory over the indomitable Devils. On a team that didn't have many other options, Hamilton and point guard Khalid El-Amin combined for 26 of UConn's last 40 points, including the final 11.
In the semifinal victory over Ohio State, Hamilton nearly outscored the talented Buckeye backcourt of Scoonie Penn and Michael Redd by himself. Penn and Redd combined for 26 compared to Hamilton's 24, but the OSU duo needed 31 shots to get their points. A Hamilton jumper gave the Huskies a six-point lead with 100 seconds left, and they would never relinquish it.
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