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Remembering better basketball times — Big Wes, Junior, and Dr. Dunkenstein

We complete our trip down NCAA basketball memory lane by selecting the very best players in Louisville history. Of this year’s Final Four, Louisville is the only team that has won more than one championship. They claimed the title in 1980 and 1986.

They might have also have won it in 1975. In the semifinals, the Cardinals led mighty UCLA (in coach John Wooden’s last season) and just needed to hit free throws to ice the game. At the line, if my memory is correct, was a reserve who hadn’t missed a free throw all year. But he missed the big one, UCLA tied the game on a last second shot, and won it in overtime.

Had Louisville prevailed, they would have met the University of Kentucky in the final. The two teams had never played because Kentucky refused to schedule the Cardinals. My money would have been on Louisville to beat the Wildcats, as UCLA did.

A bit later, during the 1980s, the two legendary programs finally met for the first time. Louisville won.

Here are my all-time selections:

First team
Jim Price (1970-72)

He gets my nod at the point guard spot for being indisputably the best player on a Final Four team. I don’t believe any other Louisville point guard can make that claim. Price averaged 21 points for the 1972 team that gave Louisville its first trip to the Final Four under legendary coach Denny Crum. He earned all-American honors that season.

Darrell Griffith (1977-80)

In 1980, Dr. Dunkenstein wasn’t just the most electrifying player in college basketball, he was the best. That year he claimed national player of the year honors — the only Cardinal to have done so. And Griffith led his team to the national championship. He averaged 22.9 points per game on .553 shooting, that season.

Junior Bridgeman (1973-75)

He was two-time conference player of the year and an All-American in 1975, the year Louisville lost that national semifinal in overtime to UCLA. In the round of 16 game that year, Bridgeman torched Rutgers. After the game, in a reference to the Cardinals’ athletic forwards and swingmen (Bridgeman, Allen Murphy, and Wesley Cox), the Rutgers coach confessed that although Bridgeman had just scored 40 points, he still didn’t know which player was Bridgeman. Could a coach get away with such a politically incorrect admission against interest these days?

Bridgeman went on to have a fine NBA career mostly with the Milwaukee Bucks, who retired his number.

Wes Unseld (1966-68)

To get an idea of how good Unseld in college, consider that, fresh out of Louisville, he was the NBA’s most valuable player as a rookie. As a senior, Unseld averaged 23 points per game, with a .613 field goal percentage, and led Louisville to a number 2 ranking in both wire service polls. During his three year career, he averaged 20.6 points and 18.9 rebounds. I’ve never seen a better rebouonder than Unseld before all of his knee surgeries. Big Wes is the only Cardinal player in the basketball Hall of Fame.

Pervis Ellison (1986-89)

If we go by the raw numbers, Charlie Tyra, not Ellison, belongs on the first team alongside Unseld. But Ellison’s game wasn’t about numbers; it was about winning. And, as a freshman, “Never Nervous Pervis” led Louisville to the national title in 1986, becoming the first freshman since 1944 to be named the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four. Ellison is Louisville’s all-time leader in blocked shots. And his .557 career field goal percentage compares favorable with Tyra’s, even taking into account the difference in eras.

Second team

DeJuan Wheat (1994-97)

He’s number 2 on the Cardinals’ all-time scoring list and number 4 in assists. Am outstanding three-point shooter, Wheat made third team All-American (NABC) his senior year.

LaBradford Smith (1988-91)

He’s Louisville’s career leader in assists, second in steals, and seventh in points. Smith flopped as a pro with Washington, though. His NBA highlight may have been a strong showing against Michael Jordan, after which Smith said “nice game, Mike.” As I recall, there was hell to pay the next time Washington faced Chicago.

Derek Smith (1979-82)

He starred as a sophomore on the 1980 national championship team. The next year, Smith was conference player of the year. He’s sixth on the all-time Cardinal point list. Smith had a fine pro career. He died young while (as I recall) participating on a cruise for fans of the Wasington Wizards, for whom he was an assistant coach. Smith’s son Nolan excelled on Duke’s most recent national championship team.

Rodney McCray (1980-83)

McCray was a starter on the 1980 championship team as a freshman. As a senior, he was conference player of the year. McCray is one of only four Louisville players to surpass both 1,000 career points and rebounds. His brother Scooter is also a Louisville great.

Charlie Tyra (1954-57)

He’s still Louisville’s all-time leading rebounder, and was a two-time All American. Tyra led Louisville to the NIT championship in 1956, back when that crown meant a lot. He was also tournament MVP that year.

Third team

Phil Bond (1974-77)

Bond was the brilliant playmaker on the 1975 Final Four team. He’s third on the school’s all-time assist list.

Milt Wagner (1982-86)

Coming out of Camden, New Jersey, Wagner was probably the most heavily recruited high school player of his year. He came pretty close to living up to the hype. A three-time all conference pick, Wagner is 5th on the all-time school scoring list and 8th in assists.

Butch Beard (1967-69)

Beard averaged 19 points per game over his college career and is one of only two Cardinals to have averaged more than 20 points twice (Tyra is the other). So you can make a case that he should be higher up this list. As a journeyman pro, Beard played on the Golden State team that swept the Washington Bullets (led by Wes Unseld) to win the 1975 NBA championship. But I forgive him.

Billy Thompson (1983-86)

Like Milt Wagner, Thompson was from Camden, New Jersey and like Wagner he was a massive recruit. Thompson was only so-so in his first two years at Louisville, but excelled as a junior and senior. On the 1986 championship team he average 14.9 points, while his Camden buddy Wagner averaged 14.8.

Cliff Rozier (1993-94)

A transfer from the University of North Carolina, Rozier played only two years for Louisville. As a senior, he averaged 18.1 points and 11.1 rebounds per game.

For honorable mention, I’ll single out two recent players — point guard Reece Gaines and versatile forward Terrence Williams — and old-timer John Turner (1959-61), who averaged 16.9 points and 10.6 rebounds per game for his career.

Current guards Russ Smith and Peyton Siva will rate very strong consideration for any future list, especially if Louisville wins the title, as many expect.

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