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 Myron Medcalf, Mechelle Voepel and David Hale break down the East region.
(1) Breanna Stewart vs. (16) Austin Carr — VOTE HERE
(2) Bill Russell vs. (15) Doug McDermott — VOTE HERE
(3) Larry Bird vs. (14) Dawn Staley — VOTE HERE
(4) Ralph Sampson vs. (13) Pete Maravich — VOTE HERE
(5) Len Bias vs. (12) Shane Battier — VOTE HERE
(6) Sheryl Swoopes vs. (11) JJ Redick — VOTE HERE
(7) Grant Hill vs. (10) Rebecca Lobo — VOTE HERE
(8) Bobby Hurley vs. (9) Allen Iverson –– VOTE HERE
Who’s a player not enough people will appreciate in the East bracket, but should?
Myron Medcalf: I grew up thinking Sheryl Swoopes was a supernatural force and I still feel that way. She averaged 28.1 PPG as a senior at Texas Tech, which she led to the national title in the 1992-93 season, before averaging double figures for the 1996 national team and winning the first of her three gold medals (1996, 2000, 2004) in Atlanta. And if she would have stopped there, she would have already been one of the greatest basketball players of all time. Instead, she became one of the key players in the WNBA, where she won three MVPs and four titles with a Houston Comets team that might be the greatest non-Olympics team ever assembled (she played with Cynthia Cooper and Tina Thompson). Many know Swoopes is a great player, but she’s legitimately on the shortlist of the greatest basketball players, male or female, of all time.
Mechelle Voepel: Dawn Staley is more known now as a coach, understandably so because she built South Carolina into a national championship program with a very engaged fan base. Many fans — especially anyone under 40 — may recall only her ABL, WNBA and USA Basketball playing days, if that. I worked in Virginia during her junior and senior seasons at UVA and was fortunate enough to watch her in person many times. She was a program-changing force for the Cavaliers from 1988-92: a point guard with exceptional vision who also could score at a high level. She averaged 16.3 points and 5.6 assists for her career, and one of the underrated parts of her game was rebounding. At just 5-foot-6, she averaged 5.9 boards. She’s also the only most outstanding player of a Women’s Final Four from a team that lost the final (1991, in overtime to Tennessee).
David Hale: It’s not that Grant Hill is underrated. Indeed, he’s still a household name thanks to his TV work. But do people who didn’t live through it really appreciate exactly how good a player Hill was at Duke? Even his most famous moment — the unguarded inbounds pass to Christian Laettner against Kentucky in 1991 — is overshadowed by Laettner’s turnaround jumper to win the game. Hill played on two title teams, but Laettner and Bobby Hurley got the bulk of the glory. It’s unimaginable today that a player with his talent would stick around four years in college, but that’s what Hill did at Duke, finishing his career with a comprehensive résumé that included 1,924 points, 769 rebounds, 461 assists, 218 steals and 133 blocks. And for a moment, Hill had Michael Jordan comparisons at the next level, but injuries marred his NBA career and, in turn, likely impacted how he’s remembered as one of college basketball’s best ever.
What’s the most memorable collegiate performance from a player on this list that you want to tell the world about?
Medcalf: Bill Russell is widely recognized as one of the greatest basketball players in the history of the sport, but the bulk of that praise is attached to the 11 NBA titles he won with the Boston Celtics. But he was unstoppable as he led San Francisco to back-to-back national titles in 1955 and 1956. In the 1956 national title game against Iowa, he recorded 26 points, 27 rebounds and, unofficially, 20 blocks. Russell would have set records for career blocks, but blocks weren’t an official stat when he played. Still, he demonstrated his brilliance in that win over Iowa, his team’s 55th consecutive victory.
Voepel: Swoopes’ 47-point tour-de-force in the 1993 NCAA final — which remains the championship-game scoring record — is the greatest individual performance in women’s college basketball that I’ve seen in person. She was 16-of-24 from the field and 11-of-11 from the line, and Texas Tech needed all of that to win 84-82 over an Ohio State team that also had a future Hall of Famer, Katie Smith. That capped an amazing postseason for the senior Swoopes, who averaged 31 PPG in three Southwest Conference tournament games (including 53 in the final vs. Texas) and 35.4 PPG in five NCAA tournament games (that was the last year the field was 48 teams, so Tech had a first-round bye). Swoopes had averaged 28.1 points in the regular season.
Hale: It certainly wasn’t Rebecca Lobo’s best game, but the 1995 national championship win over Tennessee was nevertheless historic. It’s tough to convince people now that, at the time, UConn wasn’t quite the juggernaut it is today. This was the Huskies’ first title — one that capped an undefeated season — but it didn’t come easily. Lobo was in early foul trouble — three whistles in the first few minutes of the game — and had just six points midway through the second half as Tennessee led. But a quick scoring barrage with Lobo buckets on four straight possessions changed the tenor of the game and eventually gave Geno Auriemma his first national title.
Give us one upset you expect to see in the first round, and why?
Medcalf: I expect Allen Iverson, a 9-seed, to win a substantial share of the votes in his matchup against Bobby Hurley, an 8-seed. And I get it. He’s AI. He a Hall of Famer who averaged 25 PPG as a sophomore with the Hoyas, but it’s not that simple. Prior to a life-altering car accident, Hurley was set to become the next great NBA guard from Duke after averaging 17 PPG and 8.2 APG the year after the back-to-back national titles in 1991 and 1992. Hurley was a bad man. I’m not saying he deserves to advance past Iverson, but he was a star, too.
Voepel: I agree wholeheartedly with David on Pete Maravich (see below) … but I’ll go a different direction and pick No. 12 Shane Battier over No. 5 Len Bias. Battier had a storybook senior season at Duke in which he was national player of the year and won an NCAA title in 2001. Then he went on to a 14-season NBA career and he won two championships. A two-time ACC player of the year, Bias by his senior season in 1986 was drawing comparisons to Jordan and looked to be the next great player for the Celtics, who drafted him No. 2. But, of course, his cocaine-related death two days after the draft, and the subsequent investigation and resignations at Maryland, overshadow the memory of how talented Bias was and the NBA potential he had.
Hale: Pistol Pete is a 13 seed? Come on! The guy averaged 44 points per game in his career in an era before the 3-point shot and was a three-time consensus All-American. Yes, yes, Ralph Sampson is an all-timer, too, and he’s rightfully tabbed as the favorite here. But in a bracket with some pretty heavy odds in favor of the lower seed, Maravich might be the guy best poised to make a case for pulling the upset. And, it’s probably worth noting that Sampson’s two most famous college games were upset losses — to Chaminade in 1982 and NC State in the 1983 NCAA tournament.