Former College Basketball Greats Who Would Still Dominate in Today's Game
If we had a time machine that allowed us to go back and grab college basketball's greatest players right before their final year in school, which ones would actually still excel during the 2014-15 season?
Have you ever tried to search the Internet for lists of the "greatest college basketball players of all-time?" Type those exact words into a search engine, and one of the first things to show up is a list that Chuck Klosterman made for Grantland in 2011.
This is a travesty, because one of his first criteria was "The individual’s college career must be more meaningful than his pro career." As a result, all-time greats like Oscar Robertson, Elvin Hayes, Wilt Chamberlain and Wes Unseld didn't even make the list because they went on to have great NBA careers.
Bleacher Report's Doug Brodess made a pretty solid list in May 2013, but managed to completely forget about both Jerry Lucas and David Thompson.
Perhaps the best list out there comes from collegehoopedia.com. There's no time stamp for when it was published, but considering Luke Harangody is in the top 100 and Doug McDermott is not, we can assume it was compiled some time between the summer of 2010 and 2013.
Regardless of the moment at which it made its debut, it was from the top 25 players on that list we selected the 10 players who would most dominate today.
Unless otherwise noted, all data on the following slides is courtesy of SportsReference.com
On a list such as this one, there could be 100 honorable mentions and people would still complain about players ranked No. 101-105. But it wouldn't be right if we didn't explain why these three players missed the cut.
Bill Russell (1953-56, San Francisco)
Career averages: 20.7 PPG, 20.3 RPG, 55.0 FT%
Absolutely absurd career numbers, but players are so much bigger today than they were back then.
Joining Russell on the 1956 All-American first team was Tom Heinsohn from Holy Cross. Heinsohn averaged 27.4 points and 21.1 rebounds per game that year while standing 6'7", 218 pounds. Russell was 6'9" and 215 pounds.
Nowadays, they'd try to mold him into a small forward.
Also, that free-throw percentage was dreadful. Instead of Hack-a-Shaq, teams would be employing the Kill-a-Bill strategy.
Jerry West (1957-60, West Virginia)
Career averages: 24.8 PPG, 13.3 RPG
As is the case with Russell, I have to question whether "The Logo" would be big enough for today's game. I mean, aside from West, when is the last time a 6'2", 175-pound guy averaged 13.3 rebounds in his college career?
Playing with a three-point line would certainly help his scoring average, but West might be little more than a glorified Brady Heslip in a world where he would be the smallest player on he court.
Michael Jordan (1981-84, North Carolina)
Career averages: 17.7 PPG, 5.0 RPG
Though MJ would become the greatest NBA player of all-time, he was hardly the greatest college basketball player of all-time.
Put 1992 Jordan on the court against a bunch of college kids and he'll average 58 points per game. 1983 Jordan would be great, but he isn't winning 2015 AP Player of the Year.
10. Bill Walton, UCLA
Seasons played: 1971-74
Physical attributes: 6'11", 210 pounds
Averages: 20.3 PPG, 15.7 RPG, 65.1 FG%, 64.2 FT%
Bill Walton looked like a dehydrated string bean, but the flag pole with arms was one of the five most valuable college basketball players of all-time.
According to collegehoopedia.com's list of the top 100 players, Walton ranked top four in the nation in field-goal percentage in each of his three collegiate seasons. The first 73 games of his college career were also the final 73 games of UCLA's record 88-game winning streak.
Would his accolades in the 1970s translate to the 2010s, though?
I had Brice Johnson on the projected all-ACC first team last week and got a fair amount of backlash over the opinion that he's too small to be that dominant. Johnson, by the way, is listed at 210 pounds.
With players as big as they are today, Walton would be one decent hip check away from a season-ending injury.
For as long as he's healthy, though, he'd be an excellent source of points and rebounds.
9. Ralph Sampson, Virginia
Seasons played: 1979-83
Physical attributes: 7'4", 228 pounds
Averages: 16.9 PPG, 11.4 RPG, 3.5 BPG, 56.8 FG%, 65.7 FT%
When Ralph Sampson was on the court, everyone else looked like a toddler by comparison.
At a certain height, it doesn't even matter how athletically gifted you are.
A few years back, UNC-Asheville had an absolute mountain of a man by the name of Kenny George. He stood 7'7" and weighed 370 pounds. As a result, he averaged 25.1 points, 14.2 rebounds and 6.7 blocks per 40 minutes in his final season.
UC Irvine currently has a 7'6", 290-pound player by the name of Mamadou Ndiaye. As a freshman, he averaged 15.2 points, 11.8 rebounds and 5.8 blocks per 40 minutes.
The question for those big men has always been stamina. George played 19.8 minutes per game in his final season. Ndiaye averaged 21.0 last season. But Sampson played 30.8 minutes per game over the course of his four-year career.
What's curious is that he wasn't even more statistically dominant than he was. If you had a 7'4" three-time first team All-American on the court 75 percent of the time, wouldn't you make sure he was getting at least 25 field-goal attempts per game?
8. Jerry Lucas, Ohio State
Seasons played: 1959-62
Physical attributes: 6'8", 230 pounds
Averages: 24.3 PPG, 17.2 RPG, 62.4 FG%, 77.7 FT%
Like Bill Russell and Jerry West in the honorable mentions, I have my doubts over whether Jerry Lucas would be big enough to be anywhere near as effective as he was more than 50 years ago.
But I'll take my chances on a guy who shot better than 60 percent from the field and nearly 80 percent from the free-throw line.
For sake of comparison, Jared Sullinger (6'9", 265 pounds) averaged "just" 17.3 PPG and 9.7 RPG while shooting 53.0 percent from the field and 73.3 percent from the free-throw line during his two seasons with the Buckeyes—and he was a first-team All-American both years.
Maybe Lucas' numbers wouldn't hold up, or maybe he would be even more dominant than Tyler Hansbrough was from 2005-09.
Considering the Buckeyes went 78-6 during his three seasons and advanced to the national championship all three times, there's at least a pretty good argument to be made that he would put Hansbrough to shame.
7. Wilt Chamberlain, Kansas
Seasons played: 1956-58
Physical attributes: 7'1", 275 pounds
Averages: 29.9 PPG, 18.3 RPG, 47.0 FG%, 61.9 FT%
Wilt Chamberlain would still absolutely be a monster in the paint today, but the novelty of being over 7' tall wouldn't be quite what it was in the 1950s.
We still love our big men. Guys built like Jahlil Okafor and Andre Drummond will always find their way to the top of the recruiting rankings. However, coaches at least have something resembling a plan to stop them now—particularly the ones who only shoot 47 percent from the field.
Unlike before, there are college-aged bodies that are big enough to keep Chamberlain from simply getting to any and every spot on the court he so desires. Put Chamberlain on the court against 2014-15 Kentucky and he's just another giant in the paint.
If Wilt the Stilt was 50 pounds heavier—A.K.A. Shaq-sized—he would easily be ranked in the top five. As is, he'll have to settle for second-team All-American on this list.
6. David Thompson, North Carolina State
Seasons played: 1972-75
Physical attributes: 6'4", 195 pounds
Averages: 26.8 PPG, 8.1 RPG, 55.3 FG%, 76.3 FT%
When Michael Jordan asks you to be his presenter for the Hall of Fame enshrinement ceremony, you're probably pretty good at the basketballs.
Some skill sets simply transcend generations, and David Thompson's leaping ability would make him a legend in any era.
Imagine how many more points Thompson could have scored if A) he was allowed to dunk and B) there was a three-point line on the court. He might be the one guy on this list who would actually be more valuable today than he was 40 years ago.
5. Elvin Hayes, Houston
Seasons played: 1965-68
Physical attributes: 6'9", 235 pounds
Averages: 31.0 PPG, 17.2 RPG, 53.6 FG%, 59.0 FT%
How ridiculous was Elvin Hayes?
In his final season with Houston, Hayes averaged 36.8 PPG and 18.9 RPG.
Cut those numbers in half (18.4 PPG, 9.45 RPG) and there are still only five players in the country—Jerrelle Benimon, Shawn Long, Javon McCrea, Tyler Stone and Alan Williams—who reached those marks last year. Williams (21.3 PPG, 11.5 RPG) came the closest to matching Hayes' line and still would have needed another 15.5 PPG and 7.4 RPG to get there.
Translation: Williams was an entire Delon Wright away from putting up numbers akin to Hayes—and I have both Williams and Wright listed among the top four seniors for the upcoming season.
The only potential downside to his game is that he made fewer than three out of every five free throws for his career.
Then again, Hayes was built almost exactly like Montrezl Harrell, and he is expected to be one of the best players in the country this season despite shooting 46.4 percent from the free-throw line last year.
4. Pete Maravich, LSU
Seasons played: 1967-70
Physical attributes: 6'5", 200 pounds
Averages: 44.2 PPG, 6.5 RPG, 43.8 FG%, 77.5 FT%
Compared to Pistol Pete, Marshall Henderson was petrified to shoot the basketball.
Maravich averaged a mind-blowing 38.1 field-goal attempts per game over the course of his four-year career. Henderson only averaged 16.2 shots per game last year. Heck, Wyoming's entire roster averaged just 46.4 field-goal attempts per game in 2013-14.
So, yeah, Maravich is the all-time leading scorer in college basketball history, but he also attempted 1,091 more shots than Doug McDermott while playing in 62 fewer games.
You could argue he would have averaged more than 55 points per game if there was a three-point line when he played, but I would argue that no sane coach would allow him to be that much of a free spirit.
At the outset of the research, I thought for certain that Maravich would be No. 1 on the list. But I didn't realize he shot almost 10 full percentage points worse than both Larry Bird and Oscar Robertson.
3. Lew Alcindor, UCLA
Seasons played: 1966-69
Physical attributes: 7'2", 225 pounds
Averages: 26.4 PPG, 15.5 RPG, 63.9 FG%, 62.8 FT%
Lew Alcindor's college career was, without question, the greatest in history.
During his three seasons, the Bruins went 88-2 and won three national championships. He was named the Final Four's Most Outstanding Player in each of those three years.
Sports Illustrated published in March 1967 (before his first career tournament appearance even happened), "In its 29th tournament, the NCAA stands for No Chance Against Alcindor."
That aforementioned rule change that disallowed dunking from 1967-76? It was referred to as the "Lew Alcindor Rule," as it was enacted after his first season in an effort to keep him from breaking every scoring record for all of time. As a result, he developed his trademark sky hook.
But as we mentioned with every other big man on the list, he wouldn't be the same imposing presence today as he was back then. After all, we're talking about a guy who was a full 100 pounds lighter than Shaquille O'Neal.
Alcindor wasn't quite as rail thin as Bill Walton, but he would need to add some serious weight to avoid getting pushed around by 21st century power forwards and centers. Meanwhile, the top two guys on the list would undeniably excel today in the exact same form as they were decades ago.
2. Larry Bird, Indiana State
Seasons played: 1976-79
Physical attributes: 6'9", 220 pounds
Averages: 30.3 PPG, 13.3 RPG, 53.3 FG%, 82.2 FT%
One of the best and most clutch three-point shooters in NBA history, Larry Legend did all this damage before those arcs were ever painted on the court.
Bird shot better than 52.0 percent from the field in each of his three seasons while averaging 23.0 field-goal attempts per game.
(Why is he ahead of Pete Maravich, you ask? Bird averaged 1.32 points per field-goal attempt while Maravich's mark was just 1.16.)
Perhaps most incredible is that Bird did it all for a team that was pretty worthless right before he arrived and almost immediately after he left.
The Sycamores went 65-64 in the five years before Bird and put together a 57-80 record in the five years after his departure. But for Bird's three seasons, they were 81-13 and advanced to the only Sweet 16, Elite Eight, Final Four and national championship in school history.
Unlike other players on the list who had great college careers with strong teammates at schools that were already established powerhouses, Bird quite literally put Indiana State on the map.
If he could do that before the three-point line, just imagine what a 20-year-old Larry Bird could do at, say, Arizona in 2014-15.
1. Oscar Robertson, Cincinnati
Seasons played: 1957-60
Physical attributes: 6'5", 205 pounds
Averages: 33.8 PPG, 15.2 RPG, 7.1 APG, 53.5 FG%, 78.0 FT%
As it stands today, college basketball is tailor made for guards who can flirt with triple-doubles while getting to the free-throw line with regularity. It's because of the success of guys like Trey Burke, Marcus Smart and Shabazz Napier that we expect to see Delon Wright, Marcus Paige and Caris LeVert on All-American teams at the end of the year.
Long before whistles were as prevalent as they became last season, Oscar Robertson averaged 12.7 free-throw attempts per game. Nowadays—when you can't even breathe on a guy without it being a foul—he could probably earn 20 freebies per game.
In each of his three seasons in college, he averaged at least 32.6 points and 14.1 rebounds per game.
He's still the only player in NBA history to average a triple-double in a season, doing so in his second year out of college and darn near pulling it off in years one, three and four, as well.
You can have Larry Bird and the athlete formerly known as Lew Alcindor. If I'm playing a 2014-15 college basketball video game and I can only unlock one "historical character," I'm taking the Big O without a second thought.
Kerry Miller covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.