College basketball’s ‘greatest of all time’ bracket: Final Four breakdown

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 John Gasaway, Myron Medcalf and Joe Lunardi break down the Final Four.

Final Four

Matchup 1

(9 West) Shaquille O’Neal vs. (3 East) Larry Bird — VOTE HERE

Matchup 2

(3 South) Magic Johnson vs. (2 Midwest) Michael Jordan — VOTE HERE

Which of these four names are you most surprised to see at the ‘Final Four’ stage, and why?

John Gasaway: No offense to Shaq, but Magic and Jordan won national titles and Bird led an undefeated team all the way to the championship game. Shaq was an exceptionally dominant college performer who went on to have one of the best NBA careers in the league’s history, but it’s also true that his LSU teams never made it as far as the Sweet 16. The No. 9 seed is, to me, the biggest surprise still standing.

Myron Medcalf: It has to be Shaq, who somehow advanced past Lew Alcindor, the greatest collegiate player of all time. I’m glad Shaq got the recognition from modern voters after a stellar career at LSU. But nobody advances past the man later known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. C’mon. He was a great player, but he doesn’t fit with Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, who all made their respective college teams national title contenders.

Joe Lunardi: I can’t disagree with my colleagues on this one. Christian Laettner, who bowed out several rounds ago, beat Shaq head-to-head for college Player of the Year. Laettner also got the nod for the original Dream Team ahead of Shaq. Love everything about O’Neal, but he was never at this level as a collegian.

Completely putting aside NBA career, which of these players do you consider the best college player, and which of these players do you consider to be the most important to the history of college hoops?

Gasaway: Jordan’s my pick as the best college player. People remember him as a freshman who made the game-winning shot in the title game against Georgetown and who, before that, was the third option on offense behind James Worthy and Sam Perkins. True, but he played two more seasons, made 54% of his shots while averaging 20 points and picked up first-team All-American honors both years. That said, I think Magic was the most important player. His versatility presaged much of what we see today, and the 1979 title game is still the most watched American basketball event in history. (Fine, give Bird half the credit there.)

Medcalf: It has been widely reported that Bob Knight told Portland Trail Blazers general manager Stu Inman to select Michael Jordan in the 1984 draft. Inman told Knight that he needed a center, to which Knight replied, “Play Michael Jordan at center.” In the company of legends, Jordan has always stood out, and I don’t think that’s any different here. He’s the best. But Larry Bird is the most important player. You don’t get the 1979 title game without the underdog from Indiana State, which crashed a national championship that had been previously occupied by powerhouse programs such as UCLA, Indiana and North Carolina. The NCAA tournament’s diversity is its greatest gift, and the tournament expanded from 40 to 64 teams over the six-year span that followed that matchup.

Lunardi: Jordan is often considered the best player at every level, and therefore it would be easy to argue he is also the most important to the college game. But the answer to the second question is a tie between Bird and Magic. Their magnetic showdown in 1979 elevated college basketball to unprecedented heights and launched a rivalry that would save professional basketball. That’s pretty good work by any player, singular or plural.

Prediction time: Who advances to the championship round out of these two matchups, and who are you voting for?

Gasaway: It’s going to be Bird vs. Jordan. Two legends at both the college and pro levels going head to head. The fact that they played at more or less the same moment is interesting, surely. More recent players apparently don’t feel quite as legendary just yet, while greats from the more distant past are, it seems, having trouble making their voices heard all these decades later. So be it, a Bird-Jordan collision would be colossal.

Medcalf: I think it has to be Bird vs. Jordan. They were both amazing players whose numbers still carry weight in the analytics era. Both finished with true shooting percentages — which include free throw rates — of 58% in their careers. I’ll vote for Bird and Jordan, too. I think Bird probably advances past Shaq in a more lopsided vote than the Magic-MJ vote. It’s easy to get into the “he couldn’t do that in today’s game” argument about anyone who played more than 30 years ago. But Bird and Jordan had tools that would have made them effective stars in 2020 and beyond.

Lunardi: Bird-Magic might be more poetic, but the voters will have gotten it right in this scenario if Bird-Jordan is the bracket’s final pairing. We’re in an awkward place because the public did not advance any of the No. 1 seeds, in particular Lew Alcindor, the consensus top college player of all time. But in the matchup we have, I’m voting for Jordan. Think about it: If Bird would vote for Jordan (which he would), how can we say otherwise? Jordan Rules.

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