Because the current NCAA tournament is going so well, I would argue that this is the best time to look back at the conferences during the last year that the conferences are as we know them. The ACC was first followed by the Big East. Next up: The Big Ten.
Once again, before we get going, here are the rules for this little thought experiment.
Rule 1: Because of the different nature of how the sports are structured in early entry, 1-year players do not count for this list unless they are put together a truly historical season.
Rule 2: For all conferences, we are doing this as they were at the start of this season. So Missouri is still in the Big 12, Syracuse is still in the Big East, and so on and so forth.
Rule 3: College and pro performance are measured equally. So you have to have played in the NBA and done at least reasonably well.
Let’s get this started.
Illinois: For the Illini, they have always been proud to be a national school that can also cherry pick the best local talent from Chicago. They did ti with Nick Anderson, who was a schoolboy legend from Chicago and with Kendall Gill and Johnny “Red” Kerr. But the guy who did the most for the Illini isn’t from Chicago. Heck, he isn’t even from the Midwest. But nonetheless, he did some impressive things. He went to the Final Four his junior year. He was a 2-time All Big Ten first-teamer. Some people think he’s the best point guard in the world today. But whether or not that is true, here is the truth. Deron Williams is the greatest basketball player to ever play for Illinois.
Indiana: When you think of Indiana basketball, you think of this.
Fundamentally sound, dead-eye shooters, and the sort of kids who play dogged in-your-shirt defense. But when yo think of Indiana, you also ought to think of some pretty good NBA stars. Whether it be the human turnover George McGinnis, the Van Arsdale twins, or even HOF center Walt Bellamy, the Hoosiers have had a good run putting pros in the league. But the best of them is, perhaps, the best pure point guard ever. That’s right. He’s that good. The master and ringleader of one of the league’s most underrated dynasties, this player was also an all-American, a national champion, and the consensus most outstanding player of the final four. Isiah Thomas is the greatest Hoosier ever.
Iowa: The Hawkeyes have always been a wrestling power. No matter what they do in other sports, no matter how much success they have, they will always be thought of as a wrestling program.
(Author’s Note: This is where normally I would have put Connie Hawkins on, and kept it moving. But the trouble is that Connie was implicated in a point-shaving scandal. Whether it’s true or it’s not, the fact remains is that he was implicated and kicked out of school, and as such, his college career is incomplete. I would love to include Connie in this, and probably would if not for this. But I can’t break my own rules, no matter how much sense it might make.)
The Hawkeyes brought us player and coach Don Nelson, and noted NBA troublemaker Ricky Davis. But the best Hawkeye is also one of the coolest. He brought the championship to the former Seattle Supersonics, and was one of the original dead-eye long distance shooters. Freddie Brown is the all-time greatest Hawkeye.
Michigan: the Wolverines are a football school, right? We covered this. But the truth is that they are as much a basketball school as a football school. Truthfully, they’re just an athletic school. But with all due respect to Cazzie Russell or Glen Rice, one member of the TSF family (you know who you are) is going to be happy with this decision. He was, perhaps, the first of the new breed of NBA 4-men we now see striding throughout the league. The shame of it? Because his prime bottle necked almost perfectly with the Shaq\Kobe Lakers and the Duncan Spurs, we never got to see him have the dominant playoff run that a man of his talents deserved. Chris Webber is the all-time greatest Wolverine.
Michigan State: In our Big East piece we discussed the concept of one-bid teams. This is one of those examples. With all due respect to Jason Richardson or Steve Smith, the greatest Spartan of all time is so clear it hurts to bring up anyone. Magic Johnson, maybe the greatest Laker ever, is also the greatest all-time Spartan.
Minnesota: While Iowa has always been a wrestling power, the Golden Gophers have also always been a hockey power. But despite that, Minnesota has produced more than a few high-level basketball players. Sweet Lou Hudson was one. Mychal Thompson was another. But clearly, the best Golden Gopher is also one of the most fearsome NBA players of the 1980’s. If you were a fan of the Pistons, Sixers, Hawks, or even the Lakers, this player was one of the main reasons you didn’t win more championships, or in the case of the Hawks, any. He was never the focus of media attention that some of his teammates were. In a certain way, that made it worse. The greatest Golden Gopher of all-time is Kevin McHale.
Nebraska: And now we get to the first of our 2 barren basketball deserts. Admittedly, Nebraska isn’t as bad as you think it is. Mikki Moore played here. So did Eric Piatkowski and Stu Lantz. Great players? No. But serviceable NBA players, rotational guys on a good team or starters on a bad one. But the best Cornhusker was better than that. He actually ended up being a starter on a team that won a championship. Sure, his defining post-season moment was being the guy who tried (and failed) to keep Allen Iverson from turning into a fireball during the 2001 NBA Finals. But hey, he still won a ring and contributed to it. Tyronn Lue is the all-time greatest Nebraska Cornhusker.
Northwestern: And here, now, is the one where I’m not going to waste any florid language. Evan Eschmeyer is the all-time greatest hoop-playing Wildcat.
(Author’s Note: I literally could not find any videos of Evan Eschmeyer. Just take my word for this one, OK?)
Ohio State: And now, we get back to the business of hoops programs. To be clear, the school from Ohio has produced some really good hoops players. Jim Jackson was one. HOF Jerry Lucas was another. But clearly the best player who ever played for the school from Ohio is also one of the greatest Celtics ever, and until Larry Bird and then later Paul Pierce, was the all-time leading scorer for that storied franchise. He was also, for quite a while, the template for what a small forward should look like with perpetual motion, an underrated outside shot, and an underrated pure scorer. John Havlicek is the greatest Buckeye.
Penn State: The Nittany Lions are a football program. Unlike Ohio State, there isn’t any doubt about this. And so, Calvin Booth makes this list. And yet, the greatest Nittany Lion had a nice long career. He was never a star, but rather one of those workmanlike guys every good team needs. In the spirit of Paul Mokeski, this player stayed in the league for over a decade. Frank Brickowski is the all-time greatest Nittany Lion.
Purdue: The Boilermakers have always been one of the workmanlike programs of the Big 10. They’ve been Indiana’s annoying little brother for the entirety of their basketball existence. And it’s in that where we find their great players. Brad Miller, a tough guy center, is one. Brian Cardinal, a workmanlike fit-in guy, is another. But the greatest Boilermaker is nothing like those 2 at all. The greatest boilermaker of all time is slick, and smooth, and was, for a time, the best small forward in the NBA. He won a championship near the end of his career with the Spurs, and was part of the Milwaukee Bucks teams that should have gotten farther than they did. Glenn Robinson is the all-time greatest Boilermaker.
Wisconsin: Let’s get it out of the way right now. Bo Ryan’s basketball is boring. It is. He might not be out there with the desire to entertain and run like the Showtime Lakers, but what he does works. That much is certain. Devin Harris is proof of this. But the best proof of what Wisconsin can do as a basketball power is from a guy who wasn’t there during the Bo Ryan era. He was the first really big star to go to Wisconsin, and it’s fitting that he made another basketball outpost his home. And he was crucial in making that one into a power, just as he did Wisconsin. Michael Finley is the all-time greatest Badger.
Thank you for reading and listening. I hope you enjoy this as much as I enjoyed curating it.