The UConn men’s basketball program is one of the most prestigious college basketball teams in history. Despite winning three championships since 1999 under the helm of Jim Calhoun, the Huskies still do not get the same amount of respect as some other multiple championship winners. Each year the Huskies are overlooked despite having an abundance of talent and somehow find a way to win the biggest games.
No one predicted the current Huskies to be playing in the National Championship Game tonight for a chance to win their fourth title in school history. Kevin Ollie has done a hell of job of leading this group to the championship game after a year being banned from tournament play.
UConn has produced some major NBA talent throughout the years and we have had the chance to witness some epic runs by individual players, such as Richard Hamilton in ’99, Kemba Walker’s epic tournament run in 2011 and currently another one in Shabazz Napier. In honor of tonight’s championship game, I decided to list the top five players to leave their mark at Storrs. (Note: I am basing this off their college days, not their pro years).
Honorable Mention: Caron Butler, Rudy Gay, Cliff Robinson, Donyell Marshall, Chris Smith and Shabazz Napier
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5. Ben Gordon – (2001-2004)
The first time I heard of Ben Gordon was in 2004, playing March Madness the video game by EA Sports on my PlayStation 2. I remember it vividly because it was the first time I beat my oldest brother in a video game. I picked the Huskies, and due to licensing issues, player names cannot be in the game. Playing with #4 and the Huskies, he was the only person in the game that simply could not miss a shot. My brother then told me “That is Ben Gordon, the best player in college basketball.”
In reality, Ben Gordon was not the player that did not miss in the video game, but he was still close to that during his days at UConn. Paired with Emeka Okafor to make one of the best duos in recent memory in college basketball, Gordon was a star. He was one of the most dynamic scorers in college basketball, averaging 18.5 points a night during the team’s 2004 championship run and finished sixth on the UConn all-time scoring list with 1,795 points. That same year he put up a Big East Tournament record of 81 points until Kemba Walker broke the record in 2011.
4. Ray Allen – (1993-1996)
When Jim Calhoun took the reign as the Huskies coach in 1986, the team struggled for a couple years until the 1990 season. But it was not until he landed a sweet shooting guard from South Carolina by the name of Ray Allen in 1993 did he put the team back in the national spotlight. Pre-Jesus Shuttlesworth, Allen was a two-time All-American for the Huskies, won the Big East Player of the Year award in his final season and became the all-time three-point field goal leader in school history. He also finished third on the programs all-time scoring list. He led the Huskies to two Sweet Sixteens and an Elite Eight appearance before losing some heartbreakers to Florida, UCLA and Mississippi State, respectably.
The battles between Ray Allen and Allen Iverson for Big East reigns were epic. A.I. was the most exciting player to watch in the Big East at Georgetown and won First Team All-American honors during his sophomore season. During the Big East Championship game in 1996, Ray Allen completed one of the best shots in Big East history that won the Huskies the championship. Allen was guarded by A.I. at the top of the key and tried to dribble past him and jumped in mid-air to pass but changed his mind and shifted back to shoot for the game-winner. Both players would go on to have successful pro careers but before they jolted, they left a big imprint of the return of the Big East in dramatic fashion.
3. Kemba Walker – (2008-2011)
Kemba’s run in 2011 was unbelievable to watch. It was hard not to root for him during the season. His first season at UConn was successful after helping the team to the Final Four, but he was still behind A.J. Price in terms of being the general. It was not until his junior season when Kemba exploded and had the greatest season in school history, shattering records. He broke the UConn single-season points total and averaged 23.5 points a night. He battled Jimmer Fredette throughout the whole year for player of the year honors and somehow lost. The award should have at least been co-owned. More importantly, Kemba showed something that was much bigger than any statistical figure he could amount too. His leadership displayed throughout the season and tournament play with a group of young studs in Jeremy Lamb and Shabazz Napier was crucial to the team’s success.
Kemba led the Huskies to five straight wins in the Big East Tourney, a feat that had never been done. He also did it in dramatic fashion, scoring a record 130 points in the five games, as well as one of the most devastating ankle-breakers you will ever see on Gary McGhee.
His strong play continued throughout the NCAA tournament where he and the Huskies defeated Bucknell, Cincinnati, San Diego State, Arizona, Kentucky and Butler to win their third national title.
2. Richard Hamilton – (1996-1999)
Rip Hamilton will go down as one of the greatest Huskies after being a major reason for the team winning their first national championship in 1999. Rip was an elite scorer for the Huskies and finished second all-time in scoring, only finishing 109 points short of the record by another Huskies great, Chris Smith. He hit big shot after big shot and hit one of the most memorable shots in tourney history when he beat the Washington Huskies in 1998 in the Sweet Sixteen. He won the Big East Player of the Year twice and was the Most Outstanding Player after the Huskies beat Duke in the title game.
1. Emeka Okafor – (2001-2004)
The most decorated player in UConn history, Okafor’s accomplishments were outstanding. He is the only UConn player in history to capture National Player of the Year honors and his stats for his final season of 17.6 points, 11.5 rebounds and 4.1 blocks a game were the reason why scouts pondered the decision of taking him over Dwight Howard in the 2004 Draft. A Big East champion and winner of a Final Four Most Outstanding Player award while also embodying the truth spirit of a student-athlete with a 3.8 GPA, he arguably had the best season anyone can ask for in an individual. During the 2004 season, the Huskies were virtually unstoppable and had an incredible team full of contributors. They beat Georgia Tech in the title game for the second title in school history.
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