Considering everyone is in a March Madness tizzy right now I figured I'd take something I know about - the Phoenix Suns - and relate it to something that's currently on the public conscious - the NCAA tournament.
Those of you familiar with my work may remember last season when I looked at how the 2009-2010 Phoenix Suns roster fared in their NCAA tournament days. If you haven't read that, you should.
To take a different angle on the subject of the NCAA tournament and the Suns I wanted to look at the players who played in Phoenix which performed the best when the college lights were the brightest.
Basically what we're looking at here are the players who enjoyed the single best NCAA tournaments - not looking for a body of work here, just 1 year - and then went on to play for the Phoenix Suns. If you need me to get more specific on the criteria, here it is:
- Must have played in the NCAA tournament
- Must have actually made a run in the NCAA tournament - Steve Nash getting to the 2nd round isn't that impressive.
- Must have actually played well in the NCAA tournament. Steve Kerr hits all the other criteria but he went 2/13 in the Final 4 - ouch. Jason Richardson was a role player on Michigan State's title team and then struggled with subsequent Final 4 teams.
- Must have played for the Suns. Carmelo Anthony was amazing in the NCAA tournament, didn't play for the Suns.
It's that easy. On to the guys who just missed the cut.
- Pat Riley (Kentucky, 1966 National Title Game) - Before he was a champion NBA coach, Riley was a star for the Adolph Rupp's Kentucky Wildcats that fell in the 1966 National Title Game to Don Haskins' famed Texas Western team. For that tournament Riley averaged 24 points a game on 47.6% shooting. As far as Riley's Suns career, he played his final season as a bench warmer for the 1976 Suns team that reached the NBA Finals.
- Walter Davis (North Carolina, 1977 National Title Game) - The Man with the Velvet Touch helped lead North Carolina to the National Title game despite having pins in the index finger of his shooting hand that caused him to miss Carolina's opening game. Davis was limited in the Heels second round contest but he adjusted to average 20 points a game in the final 3 North Carolina contests. You know how good he was for the Suns
- Rick Robey (Kentucky, 1978 National Champions) - Robey was the "prize" on the end of one of the worst trades in Suns history (the Suns dealt Dennis Johnson to get him) but in his college days he was a slick performing big man. Robey had a uninspiring tournament but in Kentucky's championship game win over Duke he threw up a 20/11 (on 8/11 shooting).
- Mike Sanders (UCLA, 1980 National Title Game) - Sanders averaged 14.8 and 10 for the 8th seed Bruins on their run to the National Title game. He went on to average double figures in three different seasons for the Suns before being dealt to Cleveland with Larry Nance in the Kevin Johnson deal.
- Armen Gilliam (UNLV, 1987 Final 4) - These are the tournament runs that get people picked really high in the draft. Gilliam averaged 26.6 points and 10.4 rebounds a game to lead the Runnin' Rebels on their charge to the Final 4. Despite 32 points in the Final 4, UNLV couldn't get past eventual champion Indiana. Gilliam went on to be picked 2nd by the Suns in the 1987 draft over future stars like Scottie Pippen, Kevin Johnson, and Reggie Miller.
- Rumeal Robinson (Michigan, 1989 National Champions) - Most people just assume Robinson hit 2 clutch free throws with no time on the clock to beat Seton Hall and that was it. But although he gets points subtracted for not being Michigan's best player - that was Glen Rice - Robinson averaged 16.7 points and 9.3 assists per game during the title run. If you forgot about Robinson's Suns career there is a reason - he spent just 12 games with the team in 1996-97.
- Grant Hill (Duke, 1994 National Title Game) - Though Grant was a vital piece of Duke's 1991 and 1992 National Championship teams, he wasn't quite as important as Christian Laettner or Bobby Hurley. By the time they were gone, Hill managed to get a team that consisted of basically himself and Cherokee Parks all the way to the 1994 title game before falling to Arkansas. In the tournament Hill averaged an incredibly well rounded 17.7 points, 8.3 rebounds, and 5.3 assists per game.
- Hakim Warrick (Syracuse, 2003 National Champions) - In sync with his NBA career, Warrick had an inconsistent tournament. He scored 18 points in the first game of the Final 4 and just 6 in the title game but he swatted away Michael Lee's corner three pointer that could have given Kansas a tie. Syracuse legend.
(t5) John Wallace - 1996 National Title Game, Syracuse Orangemen (4 Seed, West region)
Maybe I'm overrating the contributions of Wallace in the 1996 NCAA Tournament because of my own positive memories of it - but I don't think I am. Wallace was the star player on a team that included studs like Lazarus Sims, and...well that covers it. I guess they had Donovan McNabb sitting on the bench in his spare time away from the football team.
In his 6 tournament games, Wallace poured in 21.8 points per game and 8 rebounds while shooting 48%. Great numbers for a guy carrying a team beyond their means. In the championship game Syracuse was clearly overmatched from a talent perspective by Kentucky but Wallace did everything he possibly could to keep his team in the game. Wallace went for 29/11 in the game but it was not enough - nor was it his most famous moment from the tournament.
In overtime of a Sweet 16 matchup against Georgia, Wallace stuck a three pointer with 2.8 seconds remaining to give the ‘Cuse a win.
In what's an obvious theme, Wallace parlayed his tournament greatness into a first round selection by the New York Knicks. Some were hesitant he could ever develop into a reliable NBA talent since he was a bit undersized for a power forward and slow for a small forward. Unfortunately for the Syracuse star, that prognosis was spot-on.
Wallace was primarily a bench player in his 7 seasons in the NBA, the 6th of which was a 46 game stop in Phoenix. For some reason the Suns decided to deal Cliff Robinson to get Wallace and for their trouble they got a guy who averaged 5 points a game in 46 games. He was so good in fact that after the season he went to play in Greece - the mark of any true star.
(t5) Jerry Chambers - 1966 Final 4, Utah Utes (West region)
Here's a guy you've almost certainly never heard of. In a year in which Kentucky was a powerhouse and Texas Western changed basketball history forever, the best player in the tournament was a forward from Utah named Jerry Chambers.
As Utah's only real threat, Chambers went absolutely nuts from a box score filling perspective. In his 4 tournament games, Chambers averaged 35.8 points and 14 rebounds per game. Numbers nobody would kick out of bed. Utah would go on to lose in the Final 4 to eventual champion Texas Western, but it's hard to fault Chambers who went for 38/17.
Utah would go on to place fourth in the tournament but despite 2 Final Four losses (they played a third place game back then) - Chambers was named the Most Outstanding Player of the tournament.
Chambers came to Phoenix in 1969 via a trade from the Sixers and joined up with the squad in time to play a role in the first playoff team in Suns history.
He spent just one season with Phoenix and managed to average 8.3 points per game in just 14.4 minutes of action. Rebounding was not a strong suit of Chambers as he posted under 3 a game from the forward position. No he is not related to Tom Chambers.
(4) Tony Delk - 1996 National Champions, Kentucky Wildcats (1 seed, Midwest region)
When Rick Pitino finally broke through as an NCAA champion after multiple Final 4 berths it wasn't Jamal Mashburn who helped get the job done. It also wasn't fellow 1996 Kentucky Wildcats like Antoine Walker, Derek Anderson, Ron Mercer or Walter McCarty that were the best player on Pitino's championship team - that was reserved for Tony Delk.
Delk was an All-American during the 1996 season but stepped his game up to another level in the tournament. On his way to being named the tournaments Most Oustanding Player, Delk averaged 18.8 points per game and shot a ridiculous 46.2% from three point range. But Delk really separated himself in the National Title game when he led the Wildcats in scoring with 24 points - including 7/12 from three point range.
Delk didn't enter the NBA with high expectations but he still managed to carve out a 10 year career for himself as a gunner. He spent a season and a half with the Suns from 2000 until 2002 and enjoyed the best stretch of his career. During the 2000-2001 season, Delk averaged a career high 12.3 points a game which was probably reflective of the shooting flexibility he was afforded.
The absolute apex of Delk's Suns career and his career at large happened on January 2, 2001 when he exploded for 53 points in an overtime win over the Kings. He hit 20/27 field goal attempts and goes down in history as one of the most obscure 50 point scorers to ever play in the NBA.
When the Suns opted to trade Delk and Rodney Rogers in 2002 they were able to acquire future All-Star Joe Johnson in the process. Not a bad return.
(3) Ed Pinckney - 1985 National Champions, Villanova Wildcats (8 seed, Southeast region)
Pinckney isn't going to jump off the page statistically but he was the best player on quite possibly the most shocking NCAA champion in tournament history. Despite going just 19-10 during the regular season and being barely over .500 in their own conference, Villanova got hot at the right time and pulled a series of upsets on the way to the national championship.
The Wildcats got by star power like Roy Tarpley (top seeded Michigan), Len Bias (Maryland), Brad Daugherty (North Carolina), and Patrick Ewing (Georgetown) and earned their way to a ring. Villanova's clock killing, high percentage shot style certainly wasn't going to win them any aesthetic accolades but it worked.
In the 6 tournament games, Pinckney averaged 14.5 points and 8 rebounds per game and did it on 58.5% shooting. The 14 and a half points seems quite a bit more impressive when you take into account the team scored only 55 points a game during the tourney. In addition to his offense, Pinckney was also the anchor of the Wildcat defense that managed to reduce powerful offenses to 50 point a game squads. He was named the Tournament's Most Outstanding Player.
All those good feelings from college must have resonated with the Suns who picked Easy Ed with the 10th pick in 1985 as the supposed power forward of the future. Pinckney wasn't bad with the Suns by any means, peaking at 10.5 points and 7.3 rebounds a game in his second year but the idea that he played the same position and was picked 3 spots prior to Hall of Famer Karl Malone has to stick with Suns fans.
Phoenix did a decent job salvaging the potential Pinckney still held when they traded him to Sacramento along with a second round pick (which turned out to be the legendary Fennis Dembo) in exchange for the prolific scoring Eddie Johnson. Pinckney remained a solid reserve NBA player for 12 years.
(2) Gail Goodrich - 1965 National Champions, UCLA Bruins (West region)
Before Kareem Abdul-Jabbar showed up in Westwood, it was the Gail Goodrich show. Though the Bruins weren't the title favorite in 1965, Goodrich took UCLA on back and carried his team to the title.
For the tournament's 4 games, Goodrich averaged 35 points a game on 55.6% shooting. The capper on the whole thing was when Goodrich poured in 42 points on 12/22 shooting to lead the Bruins to a win over top ranked Michigan in the National championship game.
Despite his gaudy statistics, Goodrich was lost the title of Most Oustanding Player to Princeton's Bill Bradley. Damn Ivy leaguers always taking all the good athletic awards.
Goodrich spent his first three years in the NBA with the Lakers before the Suns plucked him in the 1968 expansion draft. A complementary player with Los Angeles - Goodrich was the leading scorer for the 16-66 expansion Suns. Playing 40 minutes a game, Goodrich averaged 23.8 points a game but did so on 41.1% shooting - bad shooting, bad team.
The shooting improved in Goodrich's second year with the Suns (45.4%) and he again scored over 20 points a game. Yet this time the Suns had added Connie Hawkins to the fold and with Goodrich and Dick Van Arsdale in the backcourt, the Suns made the first playoff appearance of their franchise history.
Maybe the Suns thought they had a few too many 20 point scorers because they dealt Goodrich back to the Lakers in the offseason for big man Mel Counts. Trading small for big has always been in vogue for the Suns but the trade was awful. Counts accomplished little for Phoenix while Goodrich went on to enjoy a Hall of Fame NBA career.
(1) Danny Manning - 1988 National Champions, Kansas Jayhawks (6 seed, Midwest Region)
Tournament Heroics -
As hard as this is to write for me - a Kansas State graduate - Danny Manning's 1988 NCAA Tournament was one for the ages. Manning took a pedestrian Kansas Jayhawks team into the NCAA Tournament and effectively dragged them to the championship.
For the tournament, Manning averaged 27.2 points and 9.3 rebounds on 55% shooting. Those are video game numbers. In case you were worried that he posted all those numbers in the early part of the tournament, Manning went for 31 and 18 in the title clinching game over Stacey King and Oklahoma.
To the surprise of nobody - Manning was the Most Outstanding Player of the Tournament. The fact that the team was dubbed ‘Danny and the Miracles' should tell you something.
Suns Career -
By the time Manning showed up in Phoenix he was a 28 year old forward who had a pair of All-Star appearances under his belt but also a torn ACL on his resume from his rookie season. Manning took a 1 year, $1 million dollar contract - an enormous pay cut - to sign with the title contending Suns in 1994-95 and in 46 games he averaged 17.9 points a game and 6 rebounds. That's when disaster struck.
Manning tore his ACL again in February and missed the remainder of the season and the playoffs. While nobody would have confused Manning for a Hakeem Olajuwon stopper - he certainly would have given the Suns another potent weapon in their fight for the title. Phoenix was 36-10 at the time of Manning's injury and went just 23-13 the rest of the way.
He returned toward the tail end of the next season - rewarded with a 6 year, $37 million dollar contract - but wasn't quite the same player. The 6'10 big man played 3 more nearly full seasons with Phoenix - including the full 50 in the 1998-99 lockout year - existing as roughly a 13.5 point, 6 rebound guy before being dealt in the 1999 offseason in the Penny Hardaway deal.