What we really needed for our “NCAA Jam” project was a 96-team field.
No! That was a joke! No one in basketball needs a 96-team field for anything, ever.
Especially not March Madness, in case we were not making ourselves clear.
But yeah, it would have been nice to have a little more room in our Jam field, which places the history of college basketball into the format of the classic “NBA Jam” video game featuring elite players in 2-on-2 matchups. We had to leave out some of the greatest figures in the history of the sport, from those who met the standard qualification (program must have won an NCAA championship) to those who did not (sorry, Tigers, just one more free throw, you know?)
MORE: The NCAA Jam tournament | Breaking down the field
These are some of the best programs for which there was no room – and, let’s be honest, there’s a good chance these any one duos could have won the whole thing.
Players: Oscar Robertson and Kenyon Martin
Robertson was so great the United States Basketball Writers named their player of the year award after him. He was averaged 33.8 points for his career, along with 15.2 rebounds and assists averages of 6.9 and 7.3 in his final two seasons. He is one of the most complete players who ever lived, combining his extraordinary strength with elite skill and a surpassing knowledge of the game. He was a part of three Final Four teams at Cincinnati, although he had completed his career just before the Bearcats won consecutive titles in 1961 and 1962.
Martin might have added a third title to UC’s collection had he not broken his leg in the first game of the Conference USA tournament with the Bearcats owning a 28-2 record and the No. 1 ranking in the polls. He was the unanimous national player of the year even though he was unable to appear in the NCAA Tournament, where the Bearcats lost in the second round.
With Martin blocking everything on D and Robertson in complete command of the offense, Cincinnati would have been among the favorites to win the Jam title.
Players: Penny Hardaway and Derrick Rose
It was Rose who was at the line inside the final 10 seconds of the 2008 NCAA championship game in San Antonio, with one free throw left to give the Tigers a multi-possession lead. He missed, though, and Kansas rushed the ball upcourt and … well, surely you know the rest. Rose’s performance in that tournament, though, was among the most dominant of the expanded bracket era. He completely controlled most of the Tigers’ games, and those that were not complete blowouts (imagine dusting Kevin Love and Russell Westbrook and Darren Collison and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute by 15) were rescued by Rose’s heroics.
Hardaway never played in the Final Four, but in his first season of eligibility, 1992, he carried the Tigers to the Elite Eight with averages of 17.6 points and 5.5 assists. He also executed, in 1993, the greatest single play I’ve seen covering college basketball.
In a home Great Midwest Conference game against Marquette, Tigers guard Billy Smith was fouled and awarded free throws. Hardaway lined up on the right side of the lane, with a Marquette big man to his right. Smith’s miss fell off to the right and was gathered by that Golden Eagles player, but Hardaway cut behind him and knocked the ball up the lane, where it bounced among a sea of players from the two teams. Hardaway chased it and wound up with ball in his lap, facing the opposite goal with his legs stretched out before him. Without hesitating, or looking, Hardaway picked up the ball and fired a pass over his left shoulder directly to Smith, who was alone under the goal and scored a layup.
Good luck against that guy.
Players: Pete Maravich and Shaquille O’Neal
Yes, I know Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, aka Chris Jackson, played for the Tigers. Bob Petit, too. There may be no team that hasn’t won an NCAA title that’s produced better individual players.
But imagine Pistol out there with all that space on the floor, even the best players trying to stay in front of him and finding themselves guarding air after he executed one of his magical maneuvers. Of all the great ballhandlers in the game’s history, nobody’s ever been better with the basketball. And he shot with unlimited range. His scoring numbers remain the standard for NCAA basketball, and those who knew his game best might tell you Maravich was a better passer than shooter.
Pair that with one of the game’s most powerful forces in Shaquille O’Neal, and, well, good luck to ya. Shaq averaged 14 rebounds and 5 blocks per game in his three-year career in Baton Rouge, and averaged north of 24 points his sophomore and junior seasons. He wasn’t quite the monster he was in the NBA physically, but he had some speed to go with his super strength.
Defending these two at once would be quite the challenge.
Players: Tim Duncan and Chris Paul
Although his promise was obvious from the start of his career, it took Duncan awhile to grow into the dominance that made him such a force in his junior and senior seasons. He carried the Demon Deacons to the Elite Eight as a junior, and they might have made it all the way to the Final Four had they not been drawn to the same region as the 1996 Kentucky Wildcats, the greatest team of the NCAA’s expanded bracket era. Duncan averaged 19.1 points and 12.3 rebounds that season, and then improved to 20.8 points and 14.7 rebounds upon returning as a senior.
Duncan is considered the most sound big man in the sport’s history, leading some to name him (only half-joking) the Big Fundamental. UCLA’s Bill Walton has a case to argue about that distinction, but there aren’t many others getting into that debate.
Chris Paul’s next-level competitiveness was evident during his two-season career with the Deacs, whom he led to a 48-16 record and one Sweet 16 appearance. His ability to change direction in tight spaces has established the standard for NBA guards. At Wake, he averaged 15.3 and 6.6 assists as a sophomore and was named a consensus first-team All-American.
Players: Chris Mullin and Malik Sealy
When I still was covering high school basketball in the mid-1980s and a Big East team like the Red Storm came to Pittsburgh, I’ll admit to deciding that might be a good night to request a press credential to do a feature for our paper’s weekly zoned editions on someone like reserve forward Matt Miklasevich, a local product from Franklin Regional High.
What would you do to see Chris Mullin play in person?
Mullin was a wondrous player, rarely leaving the ground to put on his show but displaying astonishing vision as a passer and touch as a shooter. Mullin averaged 19.8 points in the years before the 3-point shot was a thing. He led St. John’s to the Final Four in his final college season and won his third Big East player of the year award (sharing it, for the second time, with Georgetown’s Patrick Ewing) as well as the Oscar Robertson Trophy for national player of the year.
Sealy arrived several years later and was a smooth, dynamic forward and consummate team player. He shot just under 50 percent from the floor because he almost never attempted a shot he wasn’t likely to convert, and he twice averaged better than 20 points. He drove the 1991 Red Storm to the NCAA Elite Eight, the path there including a monumental upset of No. 1 seed Ohio State, who won the Big Ten and entered with a 27-3 record.
Players: Jerry Lucas and Jim Jackson
Even though his career with the Buckeyes and the Cincinnati Royals and New York Knicks led Lucas to enshrinement in the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame, and even though he won an NBA ring and NCAA title, it feels like Lucas’ career is vastly underrated. With all he accomplished, including averages of 26.3 points and 16.4 rebounds on the Buckeyes’ 1960 title team, one still can find the occasional item on Twitter mocking him.
Lawrence Funderburke>>Jerry Lucas
— Sal (@MetamuSal) February 12, 2023
Jackson had to beat out some magnificent players to get the second spot on the team, including John Havlicek (a better pro, to be sure, but not as great in Columbus) and Greg Oden, who might have delivered the greatest championship-game performance from any recent runner-up. I’ll acknowledge a bias here – Jackson was my partner for five years on Big Ten Network, and an absolutely delightful human – but he doesn’t need my help. His three-year career averages of 19.2 points, 5.9 rebounds and 4 assists demonstrate him to be a complete college player. His junior-year team had their hearts broken by Michigan’s Fab Five in the Elite Eight, with Jackson hitting for 20 points but no one among the Buckeyes, not even Funderburke, capable of stopping Chris Webber.
Players: Austin Carr and Adrian Dantley
In an era when about the only college basketball on television was the syndicated Notre Dame package produced by and distributed by TVS, those two players led me to fall hopelessly in love with the sport. So of course they’re going to be included here.
Carr still holds the March Madness single-game scoring record, 61 points in a victory over Ohio U. in the first round of the 1970 tournament. When Bobcats coach was asked the best way to stop Carr, his suggestion was simple: “Deflate the ball.” Carr ended that tournament with an average of 52.7 points, then came back the next year and rung up 41.7. In his seven career tournament games, he averaged 41.2 points, still a record more than 50 years later. In addition to the record game against OU, he twice poured in 52 (against Kentucky and TCU).
Dantley joined the Irish in 1973, two years after Carr’s final season. He was nothing like his predecessor, most often using his strength and skill – and his powerful lower body – to rack up points in the low post. Dantley averaged 30.4 points as a sophomore in 1974-75, then shot 58.8 percent as a junior and posted 28.6 points a game.