Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Most Under Rated Orangemen

Thousands of athletes have passed before our eyes, generation after generation. Many get their accolades, while others fall into that undesirable category of ‘underrated’. Syracuse basketball has its share of underrated players.

Why are some players underrated? I think many factors come into play.

Time diminishes a player’s value. As time passes, the number of fans who saw the player perform decrease, while the number of fans who never saw them play increases. And for most people, seeing is believing. Fans are more willing to believe what they have seen for themselves, rather than the words of someone else. As such, the more current players are valued higher and those from the past are underrated.

Players’ performance in the NBA. Fans will often justify or change their opinion of a college player on how they perform at the next level. If a player struggles in the NBA, it suggests that perhaps the player was not as good as was thought at the college level. If the player doesn’t even make the NBA, it’s a greater curse on the player.

There are four problems with retroactively evaluating a college player based on his professional experience. First, the college game is different than the professional game, in many different ways. Second, a player could have circumstances such as health or even simple nagging injuries that detract from their professional career. Third, a player’s motivation or desire to play at the professional level may not be as strong as it was in college; call it the ‘fat paycheck’ syndrome. In college a player was striving to get the payday, while in the NBA, he has achieved it. And fourth, many players continue to improve year after year, and the player they are in the NBA is a much more skilled player than the one they were in college. However, other players never improve beyond how well they played in college. None of these should detract from how good they were in college; yet they often do.

Performance of his Team: Players who play on great teams get far more credit than players who play on average or bad teams. There is some justification in this logic, since a player does account for 1/5th of a team. However, it’s not universally applicable. Basketball is a team game, and a player cannot be held accountable for the performance of his teammates. A great player can elevate the play of some players around him, but not all of them.

Great Teammates: A player who is on a team with another great player or several other very good players may tend to get underrated. This is only natural. If the world’s second greatest basketball player (whomever that may be) played on the same team as the world’s greatest basketball player, the first player would look less impressive. Furthermore, there is a limit to how much scoring can actually be done in a game, how many rebounds can be pulled down. The more great players, the less each of those great players can accumulate. If you have four great players on a team, they may all average around 15 points a game; it’s really not possible for them all to get 20 ppg.

Overshadowed by Replacements: A great player who is replaced by another great player, is going to tend to be underrated. The newer player will be fresher, more relevant, and will tend to quickly overshadow the first player. A player’s reputation is enhanced if a few years go by, and fans have time to rehash the memories of that player in their mind. If a player is immediately replaced by another, that period of adulation is non-existent.

Playing From A Different Era: The rules of the game change, the style of play changes, and the type of players changes. In the first 25 years of college ball there was a designated free throw shooter, who took all the free throws. This player would often account for 80% of the team’s scoring. Until the early 1930s, there was a focus on getting the ball to one player to do the majority of the scoring. Guards literally guarded opposing players, and rarely took a shot. There was a jump ball after every made basket until 1938, thus keeping scoring down and eliminating a lot of fast breaks. From the 1940s until the mid 60a scoring was consistently increasing. Late in the 80s the three point shot was introduced, allowing perimeter scorers to become significantly more productive. Defense became the motto of college basketball in the 90s, and scoring has been down the past two decades. Yet, if you don’t know the changes in the game, you cannot really understand what it meant to a 15 point per game (ppg) scorer in the 1920s versus the 1950s versus the 1980s versus today. Players from lower scoring eras are typically underrated, those from high scoring are overrated.

Substance vs Style: Players who are flashy, give a good quote, play big in national games, get the recognition and are more memorable. Those players who play solid game after game with a workmanlike attitude tend to get ignored.

Failure to Hit Milestones: Players who score 1,000 points, or score 20 points a game in a season, or have 10 rebounds a game are remembered. But if you score 980 points, you fail to make the ‘list’ and those tend to get ignored.

I’ll give you my opinion of who I think the most underrated Orangemen of all time have been. It is a dangerous list to try to compile, because it makes an assumption that I think a guy is being underrated by other fans, and that is tough to quantify. However, based on conversations with Orange fans, chats on message boards, and Syracuse articles, I’m willing to take a shot at putting together that list.

So who are the 10 most underrated basketball players in Syracuse history?

First, let me give you my honorable mention: John Wallace. Huh? Now most fans would easily have Wallace in their top 10, so why is he underrated? I think he earns a mention in this category because when I did the poll in May on the greatest Syracuse basketball players of all time he came in 8th. Wallace was a four year starter at Syracuse, carried the 1995-96 team on his back to the brink of a National Championship, averaging 22.2 ppg, and 8.7 rebounds. Wallace shot 42% from three point range that season (best on the team), and also had 2.4 assists a game, and shot 76% from the charity stripe. He had the complete game at the college level. I think a guy like that could be considered by some to be the best ever, and should be in the top 5, so when he’s showing in the bottom half of the top 10, I’d say that’s underrated.

Rafael Addison: Raf had a sweet 16 foot jumper, nice overall shooting touch and was a clutch player in the mid 80’s. He was a decent rebounder and ball handler, and was comfortable in many areas of the court. One reason Raf tends to get underrated because he moved to shooting guard his senior season and hurt his leg at the mid point. While he didn’t miss any games, it did hamper him and reduced his scoring ability. As it was his missed by 7 points in being the player to break Dave Bing’s scoring record. I imagine if he had scored 8 more, he would be for more memorable today. Addison also suffers because he played with the dynamic Pearl for three seasons, and was the season after Raf graduated, Derrick Coleman came on to campus.

Jim Brown: Brown is well known for his football and lacrosse exploits, but his ability in basketball is greatly underrated. Brown averaged 38 ppg in high school basketball. As a sophomore at Syracuse, he scored 15.0 ppg, second only to Vinnie Cohen’s 15.8. As a junior Brown dropped to 11.3 ppg. He was a ferocious rebounder, a strong slasher to the hoop. Brown stopped playing basketball after his junior season because of problems with coach Marc Guley. Brown’s notoriety at football and lacrosse overshadowed his basketball results, and the Syracuse basketball program was low profile at the time.

Bill Smith: How many 6’11” centers, averaging 20.7 ppg and 12.9 rebounds per game, fail to make the top 10 of their schools list of best players? Bill Smith is one. Smith shot nearly 60% from the floor for his career, averaged a double / double all three seasons. His senior season Smith scored 22.7 ppg with 14.5 rebounds. As a sophomore he would score 41 points in a game, and as a senior he would score a Syracuse record 47 points against Lafayette, a record that still stands. Syracuse basketball received little local press during his first couple of seasons, which hampers his rating. A disappointing NBA career (30 games) and a very routine name (how much more common can you be than Bill Smith) also play to the lack of notoriety.

Preston Shumpert: Shumpert blossomed into a star his junior season, with terrific three point shooting and an incredible shooting range. He would be on the All Big East first team his last two seasons. He scored 30+ points seven times in his career. His eye injury in the 2001 Big East Tournament against Providence, cost the Orangemen dearly in the next game, a one point loss to Pittsburgh. Shumpert’s legacy is tarnished by the complete collapse of the Syracuse team. The Orangemen were 14-2 in January, ranked #7 in the country behind the outstanding play of Shumpert. Unfortunately, personnel issues with DeShaun Williams (whom from all accounts was the instigator) cause the team to fall apart and go 4-9 down the stretch, missing the NCAA tournament. I think the lingering image of that season’s collapse hangs over Shumpert and keeps him away from any discussions on great Syracuse players. His failure to make it to the NBA also counts.

Leo Rautins: Leo is now getting attention because of his son Andy’s involvement with the team, and because Rautins Sr is now the head coach of the Canadian National Team. However, people forget how good Leo was at Syracuse. A transfer from Minnesota, Rautins played three seasons for Syracuse during the toughest era of the Big East (The Ewing / Mullin / Pickney days). Rautins was an amazing passer, playing the ‘point forward’ position for the Orangemen. He was a solid rebounder and a terrific scorer. He was the first player to have a triple double in the Big East, and the only player to do it twice. Rautins’ legacy is hurt by many factors. He played alongside two terrific scorers in Tony Bruin and Erich Santifer, so Leo’s scoring was reduced. Syracuse struggled to win the big games in an extremely tough conference dominated by big men, at a time when the Orange did not have a big center. Rautins had to play in the shadows of Big East players such as Patrick Ewing, Eddie Pinkney, Chris Mullin and Bill Whittington. Rautins also injured his knee at Syracuse. He was drafted in the first round of the NBA draft by the Philadelphia 76’ers, but was always hampered by his knee injury and he would last only two seasons.

Eddie Goldberg: Who? I must admit that when I first started studying the history of Syracuse basketball (now many years ago), I had never heard of Ed Goldberg. Goldberg was a terrific scoring guard for Syracuse from 1958 to 1960, averaging 16.3 ppg. In a freshman game, he set the Archbold Gym scoring record with 44 points against Cornell. He was a good perimeter shooter and a solid free throw shooter. Unfortunately, Goldberg was also injury prone and would miss playing time each season due to injury. He also played at a time when football was unquestionably #1 at Syracuse (and in the nation, in 1959), and the basketball team was struggling slightly above .500. That doesn’t help with gaining much attention. Goldberg finished his career with 943 points, failing to hit the magical thousand points that would have garnered him familiarity.

Rudy Hackett: Hackett was a terrific three year player at Syracuse, scoring 1496 points and averaging 17.2, and had 990 career rebounds with an 11.4 average. Syracuse would go 24-5, 19-7, and 23-9 in his three seasons with 3 NCAA bids, the first time SU would go to the tourney 3 years in a row. In 1975, Hackett averaged 22.2 ppg and 12.7 rebounds in leading the Orange (along with Jimmy Lee) to a miracle run at Syracuse’s first Final Four bid. Hackett was a great rebounder, a gifted runner who could quickly get to the hoop. Hackett would have two undistinguished years in the NBA before starring over in Italy for several seasons. Hackett’s recognition is reduced because of the arrival of the Bouie N’ Louie team shortly after he left. Though the improbable run through the NCAA should have left a stronger impact on his memory, I think the excellence of Jimmy Lee in that tournament (Lee hit the clutch shots and was the tournament’s leading scorer) overshadowed Hackett’s outstanding play.

Marty Byrnes: Byrnes is the forgotten man at Syracuse. He was a natural leader and the team captain both his junior and senior seasons. Byrnes was one of those players who wasn’t outstanding in any one area; he was just good in many of them. He could score with a nice left handed shot, he could rebound, and he was recognized as being the clutch player on the team. Byrnes would be drafted in the first round of the 1978 NBA draft (18th overall pick), and would play four seasons averaging 5.7 ppg, primarily as a reserve. He is, as of today, the only Syracuse player to win a NBA championship, in 1980 with the Lakers. I think Byrnes recognition suffers from may factors. He always had talented and/or flashier teammates around him (Dale Shackleford, Jimmy Williams, Louis Orr, and Roosevelt Bouie). The Bouie & Louis Show came on board when Byrnes was a junior, so he shared the limelight his two biggest seasons. Byrnes wasn’t flashy, and he didn’t have any aspect of his game that made him overly memorable.

Roosevelt Bouie: Bouie is greatly unknown by many younger fans (other than being part of Bouie & Louie), and there are misconceptions on why he wasn’t in the NBA. Bouie was an outstanding defender in college, and a big man (6’11”) who could run the court. He was teamed with Louis Orr for all four seasons, where Syracuse had the amazing record of 100-18. He would score 1,560 points in his career, and average 8.4 rebounds. Impressive numbers by themselves, but more impressive when you consider that he had to share points with guys like Orr, Byrnes, and Danny Schayes. Bouie made 59% of his career field goals and blocked 327 shots. His talent kept Danny Schayes off the court for three seasons. Bouie was the 34th pick of the 1980 draft, taken by the Dallas Mavericks. Contract negotiations didn’t go well, so Bouie went to Italy instead. He found he loved playing over there, he loved the lifestyle, and Italy loved him. So Bouie played there for thirteen seasons, never contemplating coming back to the NBA. Today, some fans figure he couldn’t make the NBA, but the reality is he never gave it a try.

Vinnie Cohen: Cohen would have to go down as the most underrated player in Syracuse history. Many fans have no idea who he is. Cohen led Syracuse to its first NCAA tournament bid in 1957, averaging 24.2 points a game. He was the first Syracuse player to average 20+ a game in a season, and his average is still the third best ever. He was an explosive leaper who could drive to the hoop, handle the ball well, and rebound strong, despite the fact he was only 6’1”. He would score 1337 points in his career, averaging 19.7, and took Syracuse to the Elite 8 in 1957. Cohen ignored the NBA and instead earned a law degree from Syracuse, and became prominent Washington lawyer. Cohen lacks recognition because he played over 50 years ago, and he has no NBA resume, from which people draw the wrong conclusion.

There are players from the first half of the 20th century that could also use recognition, guys like Vic Hanson, Joe Schwarzer, Wilbur Crisp, Lew Castle, Lew Hayman, Ev Katz, Edgar Sonderman, Wilmeth Sidat-Singh, and others. I'm not going to say these gentlemen were underrated; in many ways, they are totally unknown, and choosing one of them as being more underrated then the rest would be impossible; for that reason I've excluded players from those eras. They were outstanding players with outstanding contributions and records on and off the court.


MariusJanulisForThree said...

Fantastic piece.

StratGeo said...

If you are going to go far enough back to have Cohen and Brown, you need to put in Jon Cincebox, arguably the greatest rebounder in school history.

BTW, I have an uncle who played for Cornell against the SU freshman squad. He says that when Brown went up for a rebound, bodies just flew out of the way.

Kevin said...

Very good list. I'd add Erich
Santifer to the list. A great
player, and way overlooked. Four
year starter, could do everything.
Played with Rautins and they did
suffer from having Hawkins as their
center against Ewing, Pinckney, and

I missed the list of the best
players, so if he's on that list, I
guess others feel the same way.