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. Here, writers Jeff Borzello, Andrea Adelson and David Hale break down the Elite Eight in the South and Midwest Regions.
What surprises you most about the Sweet 16 results out of the South and Midwest Regions?
Jeff Borzello: I’m not totally shocked that Magic beat Kevin Durant, but the margin was eye-opening. Magic and Michigan State won a national championship, but Durant’s one season in college was spectacular on an individual level. He won the Wooden Award in 2007, becoming the first freshman to ever win that award, and swept the National Player of the Year awards that season. Magic didn’t win Player of the Year in either of his college seasons. Magic was a better playmaker and had a more well-rounded stat line, but Durant averaged 25.8 points and 11.1 rebounds as a freshman. Those are absurd numbers. Could you make the case for Magic? Sure. But by that wide a margin? I was surprised.
Andrea Adelson: I really thought Zion Williamson would have a shot here considering the way the voting went down in the bracket before he got to his matchup against Anthony. Let’s be real: He should never have gotten past Christian Laettner. The voting did prove to be close, and I am happy the voters remembered how terrific Anthony was in the NCAA tournament at Syracuse far more than what they see in the here and now: Williamson, the transcendent superstar on the rise, while Anthony is on his millionth (or is it billionth?) NBA team. Moving Anthony into the Elite Eight was the right call indeed.
David Hale: Any time you have genuine legends (Wilt, The Admiral) or modern-day superstars (Durant, Williamson), it’s a bit surprising when they take an L from the fans. Still, I’m not too surprised by these results. Who’s going to argue with Magic or Jordan? Anthony won a title. Curry is arguably the most successful underdog in tourney history. Perhaps the most surprising thing about these results is that it wasn’t a little tougher for the voters to decide, with only the 8-12 game proving to be super close in the end.
These two matchups are about two legends from the NBA’s halcyon era (Magic, MJ) against two of this generation’s stalwarts (Melo, Steph). Can you make a persuasive case for either of the younger guys over the all-time legends?
Borzello: Give me Melo over Magic. Both players won national championships, which has helped get them this far in the tournament despite neither winning the Wooden Award. Here’s why I give the edge to Anthony: He did it in one season. Magic went to two NCAA tournaments and wasn’t great in the first one. In the 1978 NCAA tournament, Magic averaged 11.0 points and shot 10-for-36 from the field. Melo had one chance and completely dominated the final three games of the NCAA tournament. His three stat lines in the Elite Eight, Final Four and national title game: 20 and 10, 33 and 14 and then a ridiculous 20-10-7 line to win it all. He was unguardable. Like I said above, I was surprised Magic dominated Durant by such a wide margin. Maybe the voting public will disagree again, but I would pick Melo over Magic.
Adelson: I grew up in the NBA’s halcyon era, and with no NBA team of my own to root for as a child, I became a huge Lakers fan because of Magic. I learned everything there was to know about him, and quite honestly his impact on college basketball goes beyond championships and NCAA tournament appearances because he proved big guys didn’t have to be pigeonholed into big-guy roles. I would make the case for Curry against virtually anybody not named Michael Jordan (or Magic Johnson for that matter). He had one of the most memorable NCAA tournament performances in recent memory, but winning a national title has to count for something in this poll, so it’s hard to justify his case based on that alone.
Hale: Put Curry up against anyone else and you might have a genuinely tough call. Indeed, recency bias might actually play in his favor. But against Jordan? Nah. It has been two decades since he played an NBA game and 40 years since he played a tournament game, but Jordan is every bit as relevant to kids today as he was back then. Indeed, Curry can’t even count on winning his home state of North Carolina, as Jordan has that covered too. In the other bracket, though, Anthony deserves serious consideration. No, he didn’t blossom into the NBA superstar that Johnson did, but his lone season at Syracuse was breathtaking, and his dominance in the tournament belongs on the short list of genuinely legendary performances. And as good as Magic was in winning a championship, the story is really more about the matchup with Larry Bird than simply about one player’s dominance. Of course, I went to Syracuse too, so I’m completely biased here. Melo gets my vote. Magic should probably get yours.
Prediction time: Who advances to the Final Four out of these two matchups, and who are you voting for?
Borzello: Given the previous voting habits, it’s likely going to be Magic vs. Jordan. Two of the greatest players in the history of the sport going head-to-head in the Final Four. But I would pick Melo and Jordan to advance. Curry’s run to the Elite Eight is probably fresher in everyone’s mind than the other three guys on this side of the bracket, but he’s not beating Jordan. And I detailed my case for Carmelo above — his combination of individual dominance and a national championship in his lone season has few peers in college basketball history.
Adelson: Even though recency bias has determined the winner in many of these matchups, I would be shocked if Magic and Michael fail to advance. They are my picks. Recency bias goes out of the window when it comes to them, and as great as Anthony was at Syracuse and Curry was in leading Davidson further than anyone could have imagined, it is hard to beat two players who were legends — in college and the NBA.
Hale: Magic vs. Michael. Leaving Curry and Anthony on the cutting room floor feels utterly impossible, but who’s arguing with advancing two of the greatest basketball players — maybe THE two greatest — to ever play? Nostalgia and a good underdog story make for compelling cases for Curry or Anthony, but neither of them will be on basketball’s Mount Rushmore. Magic and Michael belong.