Comparing champions to one another in any sport is difficult. Is Federer better than Sampras, or better yet, Laver? Would the 96 Bulls beat the Lakers of the 1980s? What about the Celtics of the 1960s? Styles, athleticism, and circumstances make these debates nearly impossible. So why do we do it? Because comparisons like this are fun; the idea of inter-generational competition tickles the imagination by allowing the greats of the game to transcend time.
Kentucky’s victory in the national championship game on one week ago led to talk of the state of college basketball. Is Coach John Calipari’s usage of “one-and-done” players ok? To purists, no. To fans, maybe. To Kentucky fans, and I dare say more and more renowned programs (even if they will not admit it), yes. Kentucky’s victory asks us again to question the wisdom of the NBA’s rule, which David Stern felt free to wax about as early as the morning after Kentucky’s win.
But this column is not about that rule. Instead, it asks another question: which college basketball national champion post-2000 is the best? I chose 2000 as the starting point because it marks the relative peak of high school players jumping to the NBA. Garnett came in the mid-1990s, Kobe a little later, and T-Mac after that. Post-2000 college basketball was riddled by the early entries of Lebron and others and the “one-and-done” rule came into effect in 2005 with the onset of the age limit. Players like Derrick Rose, Tyreke Evans, John Wall, Anthony Davis (sense a trend?), and scores of other college freshmen were affected. Seeing as the rule came into effect dead smack in the middle of the decade, what would comparing the NCAA champions before and after the rule show? Are the teams following 2005 definitively better because they had “supposed NBA players?” And if so, are they better because of the “one-and-done” rule? Finally, which team was the best?
Let’s start by briefly describing each champion:
2000: Michigan State (26-7). Key Players-Mateen Cleaves. Charlie Bell. Morris Peterson. Jason Richardson (freshman).
2001: Duke (35-4). Key Players-Carlos Boozer. Jay Williams. Shane Battier. Mike Dunleavy, Jr. Chris Duhon (freshman)
2002: Maryland (32-4). Key Players-Steve Blake. Juan Dixon. Chris Wilcox. Lonny Baxter.
2003: Syracuse (30-5). Key Players-Gerry McNamara (freshman). Carmelo Anthony (freshman). Hakim Warrick.
2004: UConn (33-6). Key Players-Ben Gordon. Emeka Okafor. Charlie Villanueva (freshman). Josh Boone (freshman). Rashad Anderson.
2005: UNC (33-4). Key Players-Raymond Felton. Rashad McCants. Sean May. Marvin Williams (freshman). Jawad Williams.
2006: Florida (33-6). Key Players-Corey Brewer. Taurean Green. Al Horford. Joakim Noah. Lee Humphrey.
2007: Florida (35-5). Key Players-Corey Brewer. Taurean Green. Al Horford. Joakim Noah. Lee Humphrey. Marreese Speights (freshman).
2008: Kansas (37-3). Key Players-Mario Chalmers. Brandon Rush. Russell Robinson. Darrell Arthur. Sherron Collins.
2009: UNC (34-4). Key Players-Ty Lawson. Wayne Ellington. Tyler Hansbrough. Danny Green. Deon Thompson. Ed Davis (freshman).
2010: Duke (35-5). Key Players-Jon Scheyer. Nolan Smith. Kyle Singler. Brian Zoubek.
2011: UConn (32-9). Key Players-Kemba Walker. Jeremy Lamb. Alex Oriakhi. Charles Okwandu.
2012: Kentucky (38-2). Key Players-Terrence Jones. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (freshman). Anthony Davis (freshman). Doron Lamb. Marquis Teague (freshman). Darius Miller.
This post focuses on ranking these twelve teams in order to create a bracket. Then I’ll go matchup by matchup to determine who I think would win. Finally, I’ll judge whether it seems the “one and done” rule made any difference.
Based on the above records, key players, and the inherently subjective “sight-test” that all basketball prognosticators (including the selection committee), I’ve ranked the teams as follows for “seeding purposes.”
1. Kentucky 2012: This team dominated throughout its title run. Absent a Christian Watford buzzer shot and a mental lapse in the SEC tournament, this team may have been undefeated, despite relying almost entirely on freshmen.
2. Duke 2001: There aren’t too many teams in college basketball history with as many decorated, bona-fide college stars on its roster. Jay Williams was an incredible college player and his backup was Duhon. Dunleavy, Battier, and Boozer make one of the better front lines in college history.
3. Florida 2007: This team reminded me of the 2004 Pistons. You never wanted to play them when the season was on the line. Ask Greg Oden how hard Noah and Horford made scoring in the paint; ask Randy Foye whether he saw a tougher defender than Corey Brewer on the perimeter.
4. UNC 2009: These Tarheels were almost as dominant as this year’s Kentucky team. Ty Lawson ran Roy Williams’ offense to its best and Hansbrough owned the lane. This team could flat out score.
5. UNC 2005: Roy Williams’ first championship for Chapel Hill came with an experienced squad led by Felton, McCants, and May. They could guard teams too, exemplified by their destruction of a one-loss Illinois team that seemed to have destiny on its side.
6. UConn 2004: Okafor was as good a defender as they come and Rashad Anderson hit dagger shots all tournament. Ben Gordon was arguably the best guard in the tournament.
7. Syracuse 2003: Gerry McNamara, Carmelo Anthony, Hakeem Warrick = young, hungry, and too inexperienced to get nervous. Carmelo’s calm, cool, and collected late-game heroics only foreshadowed countless airings of his infamous “last shot” commercial.
8. Kansas 2008: This three-loss team absolutely crushed UNC 2008 (which went on to win the title in 2009) in the Final Four. It also saved college basketball from facing the reality of a Memphis national champion whose wins would ultimately be vacated.
9. Maryland 2002: Gary Williams’ best team had balance. Baxter was a force in the post and Blake and Dixon led a compelling backcourt attack. Dixon was absolutely lethal coming off of screens.
10. Duke 2010: This Duke team is probably the program’s weakest national champion and probably benefited from a fortuitous draw. A team that lost to Villanova by 20 in the Sweet 16 a year earlier won the championship against destiny-driven Butler.
11. Michigan State 2000: Tom Izzo’s national champion had balance resembling Maryland in 2002. The names on the roster were very good college players.
12. UConn 2011: It is probably fair to say that a lot of college basketball analysts are still shocked that this team won the championship. Kemba Walker was absolutely sensational, but we saw this year what this team looked like without its top player. I find it hard to believe that there isn’t a player on one of the other eleven teams here that could have stopped Mr. Walker.
These rankings create a bracket like this:
1. Kentucky 2012
8. Kansas 2008 v. 9. Maryland 2002
4. UNC 2009
5. UNC 2005 v. 12. UConn 2011
2. Duke 2001
7. Syracuse 2003 v. 10. Duke 2010
3. Florida 2007
6. UConn 2004 v. 11. Michigan State 2000
Next I’ll determine the first and second round winners to get to the Final Four of the New Millennium.