Our team of CBS Sports college basketball writers was tasked with choosing our favorite stars from the past decade of college basketball for this week’s edition of the Dribble Handoff, and there are couple things that stand out from our selections.
Three of the four players chosen played four seasons of college basketball, and the other one played three seasons. Also, three of the four players chosen ended their college careers at the very beginning of the decade. The other one has been gone from the college game for several seasons, as well, and just wrapped up his fourth year in the NBA.
So our team of writers are either a bunch of nostalgic hacks pining for the good ol’ days, or something is changing in college basketball. Is it harder to grow attached to the game’s top stars in an era in which the most-visible players often stay for only a season before leaving for the professional ranks? If so, is that a problem for college basketball?
Perhaps we’ll tackle those issues another day. For now, here are our picks when asked “Who are our favorite college basketball stars of the decade?”
My favorite great player from the past decade is one who arguably did more for his school than any other player from the past decade. It’s Fred VanVleet.
I love the FVV story.
He was a lightly recruited point guard who played for his local grassroots team in Illinois before ultimately committing to Wichita State. When bigger programs came in late, VanVleet stayed loyal. As a freshman, he helped the Shockers make their first Final Four since 1965. Then, as a sophomore, he became the starting point guard and led Wichita State to a 35-0 start and No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. By the time his college career was done, VanVleet had played in four NCAA Tournaments and won two Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year awards. And it’s not unreasonable to suggest that if not for VanVleet’s impact on the Wichita State program, the Shockers might have never been invited to leave the MVC and join the American Athletic Conference. Put another way, VanVleet played a big role in Wichita State upgrading leagues. That’s a legacy that’ll last forever. And now he’s an accomplished NBA player — one who has already won an NBA title. He’s about to sign a contract worth more than $15 million a year despite going undrafted in 2016.
Was FVV as flashy as Kemba? No. Did he score like Jimmer? No. Did he dunk like Zion? No. But Fred VanVleet was an incredible college player who made a massive impact on his school. His story is a story that should serve as an inspiration for discounted prospects and players everywhere. — Gary Parrish
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Kemba Walker, UConn (2008-11)
There’s a lot of players to consider. My finalists were Doug McDermott, D’Angelo Russell, Frank Kaminsky, Buddy Hield, Carsen Edwards and Jalen Brunson.
But my pick is Kemba Walker. He’s become a symbol for singular college basketball superstar, at least in terms of being capable of carrying a team to a title. UConn won the 2011 national championship, and famously did so after going 14-0 in bracket play that season. The Huskies were a surprise winner in Maui that November. Then, by regular-season’s end, UConn fizzled. The Huskies went 4-7 in the final five weeks of the regular season and were a No. 9 seed in the Big East Tournament. Behind Walker’s doughty play — and his most famous shot of all, the Gary McGhee ankle-breaking stepback winner vs. Pitt in the Big East Quarterfinals — became the first team in NCAA history to win five straight conference tournament games.
Here was my view from press row when Walker went legend.
That 2010-11 season was my first one covering college basketball for CBSSports.com. The Huskies beat Louisville by three in the Big East Tournament final, and it was late. Really late. That’s back when the Big East title game started a little after 9 p.m. Walker had 19 that night and was obviously the Big East tourney MOP. He went to the dais, spoke there, then did side interviews in the bowels of MSG. That lasted 20 minutes — at least. I stood off to the side of the scrum, and after all the other writers had finished, Kemba was slumped against the wall, clearly exhausted, and I said something like, “Listen, you don’t need to do any more interviews, man.”
He wouldn’t have it. He waved me over and said something along the lines of, “Nah, one more, man. I’m tired, but I’m not that tired.”
That has stuck with me ever since. If he only knew then how much his life would truly change 23 days later. UConn went on to take the national title, beating Butler in maybe the ugliest championship game in the tournament’s history. Because most national player of the year awards are voted on prior to the start of the NCAA Tournament, and some even prior to the start of conference tournaments, Walker would go on to be a First Team All-American but did not win NPOY; that went to Fredette. But nearly a decade on, that season is Walker’s and UConn’s. You can make the case he’s the greatest player in the program’s history. — Matt Norlander
Jimmer Fredette, BYU (2007-11)
How many college basketball players have a song written about them during their college career? The list is a tiny one. But of course the real ones remember Jimmer was in that exclusive group. He was more than just a superstar scorer; being a fan of his was a movement. It was a vibe. It was JIMMERMANIA. To root for him was to root for wild no no no YES shots. It was rooting for pull-up 30-footers just because he could in an era where it wasn’t a universally acceptable shot. It was rooting for an extraterrestrial-like deity who could blow up for 40 points on any given night. Winning consensus national player of the year honors in 2011 barely does justice to how iconic he was as a player and how he helped change the college game. (Oh, and that song? It still slaps.) — Kyle Boone
Nolan Smith, Duke (2007-11)
Yes, really. Nolan Smith is my favorite player of the decade in college basketball because he represents an idealistic version of the sport that hardly exists anymore at the game’s blue blood programs. Smith didn’t start right away, heave up a bunch of inefficient shots as a freshman and then waltz his way into being an NBA Draft lottery pick (*cough, RJ Barrett, *cough). Instead, he was a simple role player off the bench as a freshman, then grew into a part-time starter as a sophomore. By his junior year, he was a full-time starter and one of the best players on a national championship team. As a senior in the 2010-11 season, Smith led the ACC in scoring and was named the league’s player of the year.
Ironically, his senior season was Kyrie Irving’s freshman season. Irving played in just 11 games for Duke but was drafted No. 1 overall anyway and helped usher in the one-and-done culture at Duke that took hold with guys like Jabari Parker, Justise Winslow and Jahlil Okafor in the seasons that followed. Players like Smith still come along occasionally and develop into stars over the course of three or four seasons, but they aren’t nearly as common at schools like Duke, Kentucky and North Carolina anymore. — David Cobb