There's been a lot of traffic on some internet message boards lately asking the question, "who are the players you would pick to make up the best Kansas basketball team of the past 35 years?" The query went on to ask which players would be chosen as the first three off the bench, plus which coach--Larry Brown, Roy Williams or Bill Self?
For a Jayhawk fan, this is akin to asking a Kansas Citian, "what's your favorite barbecue?" There is no right answer, but certainly plenty of options and opinions.
Here are my answers, along with my rationale:
Point Guard - Sherron Collins. Collins battled with weight and injury throughout his career but, according to Bill Self, had the ability to impact a game more than anyone Self's ever coached. Collins hit, arguably, the second most important shot in KU history when his steal and three, against Memphis, pulled Kansas within four late in the game. His willing a team to victory meant key wins on the road against teams like Kansas State and Oklahoma, where Collins and Willie Warren went mano a mano. Collins gets the nod here over Jacque Vaughan.
Shooting Guard - Kirk Hinrich. Sure, Hinrich played a lot of PG in his career but he was primarily an off guard. He led the Jayhawks to two Final Fours and was truly a clutch player, showing an ability to make a key play down the stretch on offense or defense (remember his block on Jason Gardner of Arizona in the '03 Regional Final?) Hinrich is now in the NBA with the Washington Wizards. His jersey is retired at Kansas.
Small Forward - Paul Pierce. Pierce was arguably the most gifted offensive player in Kansas history. This All-American played three seasons in Lawrence before taking his talents to the Boston Celtics. The championship which eluded Pierce in college was won in Boston in 2008. Pierce's jersey is retired at KU.
Power Forward - Raef LaFrentz. LaFrentz was the quintessential power forward--he had great post moves with a soft touch around the basket, an ability to score away from the goal, was a strong rebounder and a tenacious dunker. LaFrentz is among those whose jersey is retired at Kansas.
Power Forward/Center - Danny Manning. Manning led Kansas to a national championship his senior year and was the best all-around player, ever, at KU. The greatest compliment Manning received was the consistent refrain that he made players around him better. Manning's jersey is retired at KU.
That starting five is pretty darn solid--all have played in the NBA and two have won national championships. Yet, there is a lot of Kansas talent since 1985 which had to be considered for this starting unit, thus making it just as hard to determine the three chosen as our substitutes. Here are the guys I've selected to come off the bench.
Substitute - Nick Collison. Collison was given a one-man standing ovation by Dick Vitale, was part of two Final Four teams, and almost single-handedly led his teams to wins in key matches against Texas (Lawrence, 2003) and Duke (regional action, also in 2003.) Collison joined his teammates Hinrich and Drew Gooden in having his jersey retired at KU.
Substitute - Brandon Rush. Rush was first-team All Big 12 in each of his three years at Kansas and, during that span, played on teams which won three conference championships, three post-season conference tournaments, went to an Elite Eight and won a national championship. He's now with the Indiana Pacers.
Substitute - Mario Chalmers. How can you leave a guy off of this team when he's made the biggest shot in Kansas basketball history? Any Kansas fan who followed Chalmers wasn't surprised that he was the one to make "the shot"--he consistently showed a flair for the dramatic during his career and is also among Kansas' all-time leaders in steals.
Who then do we pick to coach this unit--the only guy to win both an NCAA title as well as an NBA title, the disciple of Dean Smith who took KU to four Final Fours, or the current, beloved coach who is just three years removed from the Jayhawks' dramatic comeback national championship win over Memphis? I'm going with Self, the guy who is a master recruiter and motivator, liked by both media and alumni/fans, and a guy who can flat-out coach, as witnessed by his six straight Big 12 titles.
The above discussion didn't even mention guys like Drew Gooden, Wayne Simien, Cole Aldrich, Ron Kellogg, Rex Walters, Adonis Jordan, Mark Randall or Keith Langford. All of those guys were terrific players but I'd be hard-pressed to make a case for anyone other than this first eight as the best in recent Kansas history.