A quick little thing here before we get started: I enjoy concepts like these because they're an opportunity to dive into decades of history, and that's always fun, but at the same time I kind of hate them because at some point you're going to have to think some comparatively negative things about some great players. Like, when was the last time you found yourself thinking Acie Earl's college career wasn't good enough? Right. So rest assured everyone mentioned in this post is great, and we're splitting hairs on greatness because of the format. Blame the Big Ten Network, not us.
Also, as long as we're complaining, the Iowa athletic department should put up more highlights of its historical great players on YouTube or what have you. It's not like they don't have the footage.
Anyway, let's get to the topic at hand. The Big Ten Network has been rolling out the all-time starting fives for every team in the conference, and here's the BTN's Jess Settles talking with the BTN's Rick Pizzo about the BTN's All-Time Iowa Starting Five:
THE POINT GOD: Ronnie Lester
If Ronnie Lester's not the greatest basketball player to ever suit up for the Hawkeyes, he's on a short, short list. Lester's the only two-time first-team All-American in UI basketball history, men's or women's. He left Iowa City as the Hawkeyes' all-time leading scorer with 1,675, and he's still seventh on that list despite playing only 99 games in his career. None of the six players above Lester on the career list averaged more than his 16.9 ppg. Lester's also fifth on Iowa's list of career assists, and he's third in career assists per game.
As Settles notes in the video, Magic Johnson once called Lester the best point guard he ever played against in college, and that's not unwarranted praise. Lester was the ultimate shot-creator, able to push tempo and get open for midrange jumpers at will, which he knocked down at rates modern coaches would kill to have out of their guards today. If you're too young to remember Lester, ask one of your parents, or someone else who watched him play; Ronnie Lester was so, so good.
Lester led Iowa to its last Final Four in 1980 before his troublesome knee (which cost him a significant portion of the season) gave out midway through the first half. In fact, that 1980 team never lost a game when Lester was healthy, but was barely .500 without him. One can't help but wonder what 21st-century orthopedic medicine could have done for him, but that's a hypothetical a whole lot of players from his era play out in their heads to this day.
THE ALSO POINT GUARD: B.J. Armstrong
Hey, Iowa's current basketball team starts two point guards, and I don't see anybody complaining. Well, nobody was complaining a couple weeks ago, anyway. Moreover, you can't put together a list of Iowa's best five players ever and only include one PG.
B.J. Armstrong makes the fan-generated list, and you can't really blame the pick. Armstrong was the pace-setter for Iowa's magical 1987 team, which spent several weeks ranked No. 1 and came within one disastrous half of making the Final Four. Like Lester, Armstrong was a baby-faced assassin, shooting nearly 40% from deep in his career and logging a ludicrous 18.6/5.4 line as a senior in 1989. He's perhaps the best two-way point guard Iowa has ever had, and the program isn't short on candidates.
If there's a knock on Armstrong, it's that he was never a first-team All-Big Ten player, and he never achieved All-American status. This is what we were talking about at the top, why these lists aren't always fun, because Armstrong was an awesome Hawkeye, and it was truly special watching him contribute to three title-winning teams with the early '90s Chicago Bulls. If he was good enough to start in the backcourt with Michael Jordan (and make an All-Star team!), you can at least understand why so many fans would name him to Iowa's all-time starting five, no? Yes, there might be a better candidate, but we'll get to that in a second.
THE WING MAN: Roy Marble
This isn't just a sympathy vote for the dearly departed Marble, who is gone far too soon after cancer stole him from the world. We are still talking about the most prolific scorer in Iowa basketball history, a transcendent figure on the court who was playing above the rim in the mid-'80s, long before you could expect that from a perimeter player at the college level. Marble's jumper was smooth, he could work the interior, and he was an underrated defender and passer.
We've shared our memories of the elder Marble here, and it's an awful shame he passed so soon, right as his son's professional career was taking off. His inclusion on this list is a worthy honor of his Hawkeye legacy.
THE PROTO-CURRY: Fred Brown
It's long after his Iowa career ended, but we can't not use this video.
Downtown Freddie Brown was a force of nature for some of Iowa's best basketball teams ever, and despite his slight stature at 6'3" and 182 pounds, he's probably the most capable shooter in Hawkeye history, and on a short list for the Big Ten. Pace doesn't work unless you've got guys who can produce in a hurry, and Brown was absolutely lethal with his mid-range jumper—it was no accident that he poured in 27.6 points per game as a senior before being picked sixth overall by the Sonics in the 1971 Draft.
Maybe we're considering NBA careers, and maybe not, but it's absolutely worth noting that in an era where the three-pointer was still being introduced to the game and was basically a risky alternative to trying to generate an open two-pointer, Brown flourished as a distance shooter and was the NBA's very first season leader in three-point percentage once they added the line. Here he is incinerating the Lakers defense in a Western Conference Finals matchup over a decade after he left Iowa; between the H-O-R-S-E annihilation above and this WCF video, pay close attention to how many of these shots don't even touch the rim on their way in. He was a Splash Brother long before Golden State's were even born. Splash Uncle? I don't know, we'll work on it.
THE BIG MAN: Don Nelson
Nelson made his biggest impact as one of the all-time great NBA coaches, and looking at him in the last 20 years you wouldn't peg him as a former elite college basketball player. But at Iowa, he was an outright behemoth in the paint, averaging a double-double in each of his three eligible seasons with the Hawkeyes and leading the team in scoring in his last two seasons.
Nelson would have been tailor-made for an offensive tackle under Kirk Ferentz today, but in the late '50s he was able to throw his wide body around the paint with reckless abandon and clean up the glass and get to the free throw line at will—he's second in program history with over 9.5 trips to the line per game. He finished with career averages of 21.2 points per game and 10.9 boards, and he was a deserving recipient of two second-team All-American nods, a feat only two Hawkeyes have managed in the ensuing half-century.
Those are the five players the BTN named via fan vote. But we all know a real basketball roster doesn't stop at the fifth player, and there are most certainly more players worth noting—and we can start with the one guy who most deserved to be in that first class.
THE SNUB: Andre Woolridge
In the video above, Settles mentions his teammate as a player that might have been unfairly left off the list, and we agree completely. Perhaps Dre got dinged for spending his first year at Nebraska. Perhaps his lack of a sustained NBA career hurts him. Perhaps, as one Friend of the Pants noted, he's off the list because he never made an Elite Eight, unlike the other point guards on the BTN team. That's nonsense; Andre Woolridge is easily, easily, one of the best Hawkeye men's basketball players of the last half-century.
Woolridge is the only two-time first-team All-Big Ten player for the Hawkeyes since Lester; Armstrong didn't earn the distinction once. Woolridge was the first player to ever lead the Big Ten in scoring and assists as a senior; Armstrong never led the conference in either category. If it hadn't been for Clem Haskins' academic impropriety keeping that season's Big Ten POY Bobby Jackson eligible, Woolridge would have been an easy pick for that honor, Iowa would have likely won the Big Ten, and the program's trajectory would have been substantially different. So now that we have the information about Minnesota that record-keepers didn't back then, why does Woolridge still feel like something of an afterthought among the Iowa all-time greats? If another team had to cheat brazenly to keep Woolridge and Iowa out of the highest honors, doesn't that, y'know, matter?
THE BIG GUNS: Sam Williams and John Johnson
Johnson is #50 in front. Photo is via the 2008 Iowa Men's Basketball Media Guide (PDF).
Like Brown, Williams and Johnson only played two seasons in a Hawkeye uniform, so they don't have the gigantic career numbers or the long-term historical legacy that most of the other players on this list have. But we're talking about two of Iowa's best offensive players ever, as Brown and Johnson are Iowa's all-time leaders in points per game at 24.0 and 23.9, respectively. Johnson led the "Six-Pack" to Iowa's only perfect Big Ten season ever with a 27.9-ppg season, the single best in Hawkeye history. Additionally, Brown was an insanely prolific rebounder for a player his size (6'3") and one of the engines of Miller's high-octane offense as it was first kicking into high gear in the years prior. Any list of the Hawkeye greats without these two on it is either too small or just plain incomplete.
Johnson's 1970 season might be the single best in Hawkeye history, as he set Iowa's top two scoring performances in history with 49- and 46-point performances. He averaged over 10 rebounds a game in both of his seasons as a Hawkeyes, and he even logged 23 rebounds twice during the 1968-69 season, and no Hawkeye has topped that mark since (Greg Brunner and Kevin Kunnert did manage to match it, if you're keeping track). Johnson and Brown reunited with the Supersonics in the late '70s, and the two helped lead Seattle to its only NBA Championship in 1979.
There are five players in Iowa men's basketball history with multiple All-American nods. Two (Herb Wilkinson and Dick Ives) started their careers during WWII, when college sports were weird and 60 points would win you nearly every game. The aforementioned Lester and Nelson are two more. And the last—the only one of the famed Ralph Miller era, in fact—was Sam Williams, an absolute monster of a scorer who picked up a Big Ten MVP trophy while throwing in over 25 points and 10 rebounds per game in 1968. Nobody in a Hawkeye uniform has won the designation since, as much as Woolridge deserved it.
THE DEFENSIVE STOPPER: Acie Earl
Oh right, him. Iowa's leading career shot blocker (by a wide margin), third-leading career scorer and No. 7 career rebounder probably belongs on this list somewhere, even though we can't really find someone he deserves to knock out of the BTN's starting lineup. Still, we're talking about a guy with three seasons with at least a second-team All-Big Ten nod, and almost certainly the first guy you think of in the group of "Iowa's best big men ever."
Last, it's unrelated to the topic at hand, but we have some extra appreciation for Earl for sticking around Iowa to this day, coaching boys' and girls' youth teams and starring in locally-produced sci-fi adventure films. This is how you cement your legacy as an Iowa legend, people. Acie then. Acie now. Acie forever.
THE GARBAGE MAN: Aaron White
Whitey was never a "make sure he touches the ball on every possession" kind of player, even as he racked up massive stats and worked tirelessly to foul out every post player unlucky enough to draw him. He was, however unexpectedly, a transition monster on both sides of the ball, and capable of defending every single position on the floor. It's a testament to his work ethic that he went from a 2-star prospect with a light offer sheet to an honest-to-god NBA draft pick, and he'll be making a handsome living in Europe for years to come. And isn't that the kind of guy that a great team has coming off the bench, to just completely wreck shop for a few minutes at a time before the opposition has to call a timeout to try to stop the avalanche from falling?
And unlike a, say, Jeff Moe (no offense to the fan favorite Mr. Moe), White's overall production still lands him among the all-time greats of Iowa City; he's the second-leading career scorer in Hawkeye history and the third-leading rebounder, though he had an Iowa-record 140 games to get to those marks. But schedule bloat or no, White still made over 100 more free throws (!!!!) than any other Hawkeye in history, and he'd have been a worthy contributor (and probably a starter) on virtually every team Iowa has put on the floor.
THE GUY AT THE END OF THE BENCH IN THE SUIT: Connie Hawkins
If we accept the notion that "ineligible guy who's insanely good at basketball" is also a potential bench role on a team, then Connie Hawkins is the landslide pick here. Hawkins was a playground legend in Brooklyn back when that really meant something, but he never played a game for the Hawkeyes, thanks to the confluence of the freshman ineligibility rule and a still-bizarre point-shaving scandal to which he was at best tangentially connected. Hawkins was blackballed from college ball and the NBA before a lengthy legal battle got him into the pro ranks, and he was one of the sport's best players of the 1970s.
"Hawk" has every right to be bitter about the years of NBA play he lost, but Iowa fans can (and should) also feel cheated out of one of best potential careers the program would have ever seen.
THE SPIRIT: Chris Street
Ronnie Lester may be the greatest Hawkeye in program history, but you really can't tell the story of the program without mentioning (or maybe even starting with) Street, a tragic case study in both the ideal of an Iowa athlete and unrealized potential. It's safe to assume you know his story by now, and if you're old enough you undoubtedly remember where you were when you heard the news of the crash that took his life.
Street was well on his way to earning inclusion among these greats before the tragic accident; he still holds the Iowa freshman block record and the sophomore rebound record. He had already amassed 17 career double-doubles (by way of comparison, White had only 16 in his four full seasons) and was averaging 14.5 points and 9.5 rebounds per game in his junior year before that awful night. His record of 34 straight free throws still stands in Iowa City. He embodied virtually every positive quality a coach could want in a player, and he'll never, ever be forgotten in this city or the state.
We'd love to place him somewhere in that playing rotation above, but his career will remain forever incomplete, and his legacy will be one of both joy and unimaginable loss. It's impossible to divorce the two. And as cruel as his death was, it affords us the opportunity to immortalize him, and Iowa has done exactly that with the Chris Street Award. His is the spirit that runs through the best players to put on the Iowa jersey, year after year.
THE ONE-MAN MOUNT RUSHMORE: Ricky Davis
We didn't want to end on a bummer like that, and we also don't want the editorial inconsistency of ignoring our greatest hero, so rest assured: Ricky Davis will always, always have a place on any all-Iowa-history basketball team. Al. ways.
Do you like the BTN's list? Do you like ours? Are you wondering where Murray Weir and Chuck Darling are, or are you more concerned with Bruce King and Greg Stokes? Or, for that matter, Roy Devyn Marble and Reggie Evans? Let's hear it. And above all else, Go Iowa Awesome.