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, Jeff Borzello and Andrea Adelson break down the round of 32 in the South and Midwest regions.
Round of 32
(1) Christian Laettner vs. (9) Zion Williamson — VOTE HERE
(5) Carmelo Anthony vs. (13) Trae Young — VOTE HERE
(6) Chris Mullin vs. (3) Magic Johnson — VOTE HERE
(2) Patrick Ewing vs. (7) Kevin Durant — VOTE HERE
(1) Bill Walton vs. (8) Wilt Chamberlain — VOTE HERE
(4) David Thompson vs. (12) Stephen Curry — VOTE HERE
(11) David Robinson vs. (14) Chris Webber — VOTE HERE
(2) Michael Jordan vs. (10) Tim Duncan — VOTE HERE
What was your biggest surprise from this side of the bracket in the first round?
Myron Medcalf: I don’t see a metric that supports Steph Curry advancing past Maya Moore. Curry had a brilliant collegiate career and played his way into the first round after averaging 25.3 PPG during his three years at Davidson. It was clear he had the ability to produce for the best teams in the country. But Moore actually did that. She played with two first-team All-Americans (Tina Charles, Renee Montgomery) and still stood out. She’s a two-time Wooden Award winner. She ended her career as a top-five scorer in women’s basketball history. Curry made a lot of shots at Davidson but not as many as Moore, who shot 52.5% from the field compared to Curry’s 46.7% mark. She won two national titles, played in four national title games and finished with a 150-4 record. C’mon. Moore was Kobe in college.
I get that most folks are voting based on overall achievements (Moore wins that competition too), but the gap — 63.4% for Curry and 36.6% for Moore — doesn’t make sense. Moore is one of the greatest players of all time. And she made a bigger impact at the collegiate level.
Jeff Borzello: In my breakdown of the Midwest region, I pegged Steph Curry as my upset pick and Chris Webber as my underappreciated player, so I won’t say I’m surprised by either one of those players advancing. I am surprised, however, by two things that will also be addressed in the next section. Christian Laettner, one of the greatest college basketball players of all time, barely made it past 16-seed Jimmer Fredette, and Zion Williamson beat Danny Manning fairly handily. Jimmer had a great couple of seasons and was must-watch TV for pretty much every college basketball and sports fan, but Laettner won two national championships and won the Final Four Most Outstanding Player award in 1991. Fredette won three NCAA tournament games in four years. Meanwhile, Zion was a never-before-seen player who had one of the most dominant single seasons we’ve seen and was arguably the favorite going up against Manning, but I expected it to be closer. Manning had one of the great tournament runs when he carried Kansas to the 1988 national championship and was a three-time All-American.
Andrea Adelson: I am beyond disappointed that not one women’s basketball player made it past the first round, considering the world-class players that voters had to choose from on this side of the bracket. If I had to pick one as the biggest surprise, then it is Chris Webber over Cheryl Miller. Perhaps recency bias played a role here too, but if anybody looked at their careers on their merits alone, they would understand Miller tops Webber in virtually every category that counts: She won more national championships (two), had a higher career scoring average and broke down barriers for women’s players everywhere. Also, Webber’s two Final Four appearances were later vacated — that should have counted for something.
There’s going to be some Duke-on-Duke crime in the round of 32, with the Laettner vs. Zion matchup taking center stage. How would you, personally, go about comparing a guy who had a brilliant four-year collegiate career vs. a transcendent, dominant one-and-done? Who has your vote?
Medcalf: My guess is Zion Williamson will win this vote and win by a significant margin, in part because his college performance is so fresh but also because there is an army or Laettner haters in their 30s, 40s and 50s who still want to see him lose. Did you see some of the comments after CBS showed the Duke-Kentucky game that featured The Shot? It’s as if it happened yesterday for them. They’ll vote against them. Meanwhile, Williamson is one of the most popular collegiate players we’ve ever seen.
If it’s about overall achievements, then I’ll pick Laettner every time. He wasn’t just great. He was a legend. But if it’s about “Who would you want on your team?” then give me Williamson. Yes, he played for a year. But you could make the case that he had one of the most dominant (75% mark inside the arc) efforts we’ve ever witnessed. My guess is Mike Krzyzewski would have picked Williamson too. After Williamson’s first game last season, Coach K said, “I’ve never had anyone like him.” Give me Williamson in the upset here.
Borzello: Given the way the voting in the first round went, I wouldn’t be shocked to see the 1-seed Laettner go down. But personally, I would lean Laettner. Yes, Zion would have the better highlight reel and his single-season numbers were tremendous — but Laettner’s body of work across four years has few peers. Four Final Fours, two national championships, one Final Four Most Outstanding Player and a National Player of the Year (with those two awards coming in different seasons, for what it’s worth), and he was a two-time All-American. He played in 23 NCAA tournament games; he won 21 NCAA tournament games. Those are numbers that will likely never be reached again. While Zion will have better dunks, Laettner has his fair share of iconic moments: the shot to beat Kentucky in the 1992 East Regional final (and a 31-point performance in which he never missed a shot) and the shot to beat UConn in the 1990 East Regional final. Eighteen points and 10 rebounds to beat Kansas in the 1991 final and 19 points and seven rebounds to beat Michigan in the 1992 title game. Laettner just has more on his résumé.
Adelson: If we are comparing Laettner and Williamson on talent alone, then Williamson is the easy winner. But if we’re talking about all-time NCAA tournament performer, then Laettner is the easy winner. Yes, we all know how many people despised him during his Duke career (after all, there is an ESPN doc called “I Hate Christian Laettner”), but close your eyes and think about the most iconic NCAA tournament moment in your mind. Chances are, it’s Laettner with his buzzer-beater against Kentucky. He won two national championships and still holds the NCAA tournament records for total points. Obviously he played longer than Williamson, but it’s hard to argue with just how dominant Laettner was come tournament time.
Apart from Laettner vs. Zion, what’s the second-round matchup from this side of the bracket that you find the most intriguing, and why?
Medcalf: I’m definitely interested in the Wilt Chamberlain-Bill Walton matchup. Chamberlain did ridiculous things at Kansas. He averaged 29.9 PPG and 18.3 RPG during his two seasons with the Jayhawks and he would have led the nation in blocks if the stat had been recorded when he played. He was the 1957 NCAA tournament’s Most Outstanding Player even though Kansas lost to North Carolina that year. But if you tweeted right now that Walton was the greatest college basketball player of all time, who could strongly disagree with that claim? It’s like Walton and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and then everyone else. Chamberlain was a one-of-a-kind talent. But Walton was the anchor of a UCLA squad that’s perhaps the greatest team we’ve seen at that level.
Borzello: Man, there are some interesting ones. Melo vs. Trae Young should be fun, but give me Mullin vs. Magic. Given Magic’s winning margin in round one, I’m not sure it’ll be close, but it should be. Mullin was named to All-American teams three years in a row, he won the Wooden Award in 1985 and was the Big East Player of the Year three straight years. St. John’s also went to the Final Four in 1985. Magic won the national championship in 1979, with his Michigan State Spartans beating Larry Bird and Indiana State — but he didn’t have the individual college accolades of Mullin.
Adelson: David Thompson vs. Stephen Curry. Given the voting patterns in the first round, I wonder whether Curry will get the nod based on his NBA career and his current relevance. A younger generation of basketball fans outside North Carolina might not even remember Thompson. But they absolutely should. Thompson, whom some regard as the greatest player in ACC history, averaged 26.8 points in his career, and helped NC State upset UCLA in the 1974 NCAA tournament en route to the national title. He was voted voted Most Outstanding Player.