UPDATE 11/9: I asked readers for names they thought I missed, and wrote a follow-up piece.
I originally set out to rank the Top 25 players of all time. A few have done this, most notably the Enquirer and Bleacher Report. I wanted to do a brand new version, but I wanted it to be special. I literally sat down and made up a statistical formula to quantify how impactful a player was on the program. It accounted — in a weighted format — for raw stats like points, rebounds, assists, blocks, and steals. It also awarded points for categories like reaching the Final Four, playing on a team with a .750 win percentage, winning a conference championship, being named an All-American, etc.
Eventually I gave up. I got pretty close to something I was happy with, but it became an issue to compare past players like Jack Twyman — who has almost no assist stats on record, much less blocks and steals — to modern players like Lance Stephenson. The formula also seemed to wind up loving big men a little too much. Guys like Danny Fortson, Jason Maxiell, and even Gary Clark registered higher than they reasonably should.
Most importantly, it was far too time-consuming. I made a formula, would test it on the same 5–6 guys, and go back and make tweaks. I then re-ran the formula and tweaked it again. Rinse, repeat. I sunk hours and hours into the stupid thing before realizing that even if I did manage to perfect my equation, I was still going to have to apply it to 75 players before being comfortable with a Top 25 ranking.
I went back to the drawing board and decided to do a subjective Top 25 ranking with a twist. Most Bearcat fans only really care about players from the Huggins era and onward. That’s all I’m gonna focus on. At the end of the day, it’s hard to compare Ron Bonham to Pat Cummings to Roger McLendon to Dwight Jones. Also, at the end of the day, nobody truly cares about my take on those guys to begin with. Let’s focus on players from the Shoemaker Center Era, shall we?
Some things to note: 1) Number of seasons plays a factor. I think it’s safe to say that Lance Stephenson is a better basketball player than Dion Dixon, but Lance played one year and Dion played four, so you’ll see that play a role in the rankings. It’s also the reason many of Mick’s four-year guys end up beating Huggy’s “better” one- and two-year players. 2) There’s going to be some recency bias. I fully expect someone to angrily inform me that Ruben Patterson should be Top 10 on this list because of how he played in a random non-conference game in ’97 or something. 3) This should go without saying, but this is still just my opinion. I tried to be as diplomatic as possible, but there are a huge amount of my own biases mixed in here. 4) I’m sorry to the guys I snubbed. There are more than a handful of players I really liked that don’t appear on this list. We’re all spoiled.
26. Lance Stephenson
Did I extend this list to an awkward 26 just so I could include this guy? Yes I did. Sue me. Lance ultimately loses weight in these rankings because he only played a season for the Bearcats. While he did win Big East Rookie of the Year, his season came during the Mick Cronin rebuilding era. Stephenson’s 12.3 points and 5.4 rebounds per game were unable to help the ‘Cats finish better than 19–16 that year. Other accomplishments include being drafted in 2010, posing with a million dollars in cash, and having a brother named Lantz.
25. DerMarr Johnson
Many thought Johnson would hop straight to the NBA, but he eventually decided to join Kenny Satterfield for a season in Clifton first. He averaged 12.6 points and 3.4 rebounds, forming a kind of Big Three with Kenyon Martin and Pete Mickeal. He was drafted #6 in the 2000 NBA Draft, but his career was altered by a car accident and he was never able to realize his full potential, although he did play seven NBA seasons. Johnson now serves as an assistant on Mick Cronin’s staff.
24. Ruben Patterson
Another two-year guy, Patterson came in on the heels of the ’96 Elite Eight team and played wing on a couple conference champion squads in the late ’90s. He transferred in from Independence CC and eventually parlayed his time in Clifton into being the top pick in the second round of the 1998 NBA Draft. He averaged about 15 points and six rebounds per game in those two years, but perhaps his most notable moment came during his senior year. Hours after learning of his mother’s unexpected death, he elected to play in Cincinnati’s game against UAB and unloaded a career-best 32 points to go with seven rebounds in a blowout win. Also, in the process of writing this, I learned that cool photos exist of him covering Kobe and Pippen.
23. Kenny Satterfield
When talking about best freshman in program history, I don’t think Satterfield gets enough credit. The 1999–00 team was stacked with guys like Kenyon Martin, Pete Mickeal, DerMarr Johnson, and Steve Logan. Satterfield was the engine that made everything run. As a freshman, he led Conference USA in total assists by thirty. The point guard from the Bronx left for the NBA after his sophomore season, leaving behind Caupain-esque averages of 12 points, four rebounds, and five assists per game over his two-year career.
22. Pete Mickeal
Mickeal is a pretty overlooked player. Based on Win Shares, he was the best player on the dominant 1999–00 team not named Kenyon Martin. The only reason he isn’t higher on this list is because he played just two seasons in Clifton after transferring from Indian Hills CC in the middle of his college career. Mickeal was a scoring wing, averaging about 14, 7, and 2 over 65 games in Cincinnati. He was an AP All-American Honorable Mention as a senior.
21. Field Williams
Williams is one of the most prolific three-point shooters in Cincinnati history. He’s one of three players (Sean Kilpatrick and Marcus Sikes) to make every three-point attempt in a game on five or more attempts. His eight three-pointers against Coppin State in 2003 are third-best in program history. He shot a career 40% from behind the arc. He shot nearly 44% on 206 attempts in 2003–04, which is probably the best outside shooting season in Bearcat history. He’s the best Cincinnati sharpshooter not named LaZelle Durden.
20. Justin Jackson
Justin Jackson is one of my all-time favorite Bearcats. He struggled early in his career, but served as sixth man during his sophomore year on the 2011–12 Sweet Sixteen team. After floundering as a junior, he exploded his senior season, playing Sean Kilpatrick’s sidekick on a team that spent time in the Top 10. That year, he finally gave in to Mick Cronin’s wishes and accepted his role as an interior player. It paid off as he averaged 11 points, seven rebounds, and nearly three blocks per game. He fell just one block short of joining Kenyon Martin and Eric Hicks as the only Bearcats to record 100 blocks in a season. He was named the AAC’s first Defensive Player of the Year, the first Bearcat to be named conference DPOY since Immanuel McElroy in 2002. #JustinJacksonMeanFace forever.
19. Dion Dixon
Dion Dixon may not have been the best shooter (kind of a detriment to a point guard) or the best passer (ditto) but he had pogo sticks for legs and was the purveyor of my favorite Bearcat play in my time as a fan. Despite his weaknesses, he was a horse. He played a heap of games (#3 in program history) and he came into his own in time to help push the Bearcats to the NCAA Tournament at the end of his junior year and beat #2 Syracuse in the Big East Tournament and reach the Sweet Sixteen as a senior.
18. James White
Flight White is a great nickname for a great player. He gets a tiny deduction in these rankings because his first season occurred at Florida. However, it ended with Cincinnati in the Big East and with White scoring 16 points per game on 49% shooting from the field. Like Patterson before him, he was taken with the top pick in the second round of the NBA Draft and wound up having a nice professional career, even competing in the dunk contest at the ripe age of 30 because he could do stuff like this.
17. Melvin Levett
In a very crowded field, Melvin Levett may be the coolest player in the modern Bearcat era. It takes a certain level of swagger to rock chains and dunk over golf carts or complete arguably the most impressive in-game dunk I’ve ever seen. Consider the game-winning dunk in the 1998 Great Alaska Shootout and you could argue that, despite not being among the very best players, Levett is among Cincinnati’s most iconic. I mean, his nickname is literally “The Helicopter.”
16. Damon Flint
Flint’s versatility was ahead of his time. He was a 6'5" guard with arms like a spider and could both play and defend three positions. He was never a fantastic shooter, averaging a hair under 30% from beyond the arc during his career, but he could defend like hell. In that sense, he’s the ultimate Bearcat. JaQuon Parker is one of my favorites to wear the red and black, and Flint is similar in some ways. The highlight of his career came as a junior when he piloted Danny Fortson and the Bearcats to an Elite Eight with 19.3 points per game to open the tournament.
15. Herb Jones
Herb Jones played just two years in Clifton after transferring from a JUCO. However, he was able to join the 1,000-point club in those two seasons, reaching the #37 spot on the scoring list in half the time of most of his peers. For reference, he fell about 20 points shy of Melvin Levett (#17 on this list) in half as many seasons. 17.1 points, 7.4 rebounds, and 1.9 assists are serious numbers. Perhaps most importantly, he was part of the group that motored to the 1992 Final Four.
14. Cashmere Wright
Cashmere Wright tore his ACL in the first practice of his college career and still scored 1,317 points while playing the second most games in Cincinnati history, recording the fourth-most assists, and setting the all-time steals record. That’s the kind of player Cashmere was. He could shoot, he didn’t turn the ball over, and he was as gutty as they come.
13. LaZelle Durden
This guy could score like hell, especially from outside. Here’s a historical distinction: To the best of my knowledge, Durden has the highest single-game point total since Oscar with his 45-point outburst against Wyoming in 1994. He’s the only Bearcat to make 100 three-pointers in a single season, and he did it twice. He’s one of only four players in the post-’89 era to score 600 points in a season. He had eight or more three-pointers in a game six times, while thenext closest player has three. He accomplished all that he did at Cincinnati despite only playing three seasons, one of which was in a reserve role. He’d be ranked a little bit higher if he hadn’t arrived a year after the Final Four run and left a year before the Elite Eight run.
12. Leonard Stokes
Leonard Stokes once scored 39 points in a double-overtime NCAA Tournament game against UCLA and cried when his team lost. That’s the kind of guy he was. He finished #21 in program history in points while recording nearly 500 boards and 200 assists. He played a key role on the underrated (often-forgotten?) 2002 team that went 31–4 with legendary scorer Steve Logan and top-flight defenders Jason Maxiell and Immanuel McElroy. He also receives bonus points because I own a Leonard Stokes jersey.
11. Nick Van Exel
While conventional wisdom would indicate Van Exel is one of the best 2–3 players since 1989, he only played two seasons in Clifton. He’s most remembered for the Final Four run at the end of his first year with the Bearcats, but I think some people forget he made an Elite Eight run the next season — his final in red and black. He scored nearly 1,000 points in Cincinnati before embarking on a 14-year NBA career that has since transitioned into the coaching realm.
10. Eric Hicks
Eric Hicks was the last horse of the Huggins era. His final season in Clifton was the 2005–06 campaign, the Andy Kennedy-coached team that opened the Big East period. When Hicks left, Cronin came in and the team took years to recoup. For that reason, I think he wound up being a largely symbolic figure in UC history. He’s in the 1,200-point club, the 800-rebound club, and is second in Bearcat history in blocks behind Kenyon Martin. He’s one in a long line of fantastic defensive big men that have rolled through Clifton.
9. Darnell Burton
Is Darnell Burton the most underrated player in Bearcat history? I never hear him talked about, yet here he is. His 1,584 career points place him at #12 on the all-time list, ahead of every post-’89 player but Kilpatrick, Logan, Vaughn, and Fortson. He’s one of just three players to make 300 career field goals (Kilpatrick and Vaughn) and ranks third on the all-time steals list. As a senior, he teamed up with Danny Fortson, Ruben Patterson, and Damon Flint to ignite an Elite Eight run. Maybe he’s forgotten because he was never a regular starter. Maybe it’s because he never earned many accolades outside of Sixth Man awards. Maybe it’s because he went undrafted and never had a professional career. Regardless, it’s hard to ignore his numbers.
8. Troy Caupain
I hope people realize how great Troy Caupain was. He was a Big East-type player that was recruited to play in the Big East but didn’t make it to Cincinnati in time to play a single game in the conference. When the Big East became the AAC, Cronin frantically changed his philosophy to something decidedly un-Caupain. For that reason, I think it’s remarkable he accomplished so much. He scored more than 1,300 points and tallied more than 1,000 combined rebounds and assists, which is pretty rare territory for a point guard. He slumped for much of his senior year while leading a team that was cut from a different cloth, but make no mistake: Troy’s ability to quarterback things without turning the ball over was a huge factor in recording 30 wins his senior season. His ability to do a bit of everything from the point guard position while minimizing mistakes and closing tight games makes him an easy choice for the Top 10.
7. Yancy Gates
I think Yancy Gates gets a knock on his legacy because he entered Clifton as a local kid that was a Top 30 recruit at a time UC desperately needed an injection of talent into the program. He never won conference player of the year or earned an All-American spot and he wasn’t drafted. However, his career is still surprisingly impressive. He averaged double-figure scoring all four years in Clifton and is the only Bearcat to lead the team in rebounding for four seasons. Hell, he’s #15 on the all-time scoring list. While he’s most remembered nationally for his role in the Xavier brawl, he bounced back and hit the peak of his career at the right time that March, propelling the Bearcats to the Big East Championship Game and the Sweet Sixteen.
6. Jason Maxiell
I think Jason Maxiell is another underrated guy. He seems to be regarded as more of a run-of-the-mill NBA alum than what he really was: One of the best Bearcats of the modern era. He played on the fantastic 2001–02 team as a freshman and was named to the Conference USA All-Freshman Team. He’s #13 on the all-time scoring list, the highest of any modern big man not named Fortson. He’s Top 10 in program history in rebounding, third in blocked shots, and joined the 500-point club by scoring 506 in his senior season, good for a 15.3 average. Nobody talks about the fact that he’s the most recent Bearcat to be selected in the first round of the NBA Draft (Detroit Pistons, 26th pick, 2005). Perhaps more impressive than anything is that his toughness and defensive ability allowed him to play for a full decade as an NBA big man despite being just 6'7".
5. Deonta Vaughn
Vaughn is a beloved figure in UC hoops history because he joined UC at their lowest moment since ’89 and delivered for four seasons with none of the glory. The #5 player on this list is the only multi-year player to never play in the NCAA Tournament, and he came to UC realizing that would probably be the case. Vaughn sits at #4 in Cincinnati history in scoring and #1 in games started (although an injury free senior season from Gary Clark will easily surpass his mark). He’s tied for #1 in three pointers made (with Kilpatrick), #2 in minutes played, and #2 in assists. His presence on those terrible teams at the outset of the Big East era was essential to UC’s basketball future.
4. Steve Logan
Logan is at the top of many college hoop junkies’ lists for a few reasons: 1) He was on some good/iconic teams — both the 1999–00 K-Mart team and the 2001–02 31-win team. 2) He was good. He fell just shy of 2,000 career points and currently sits behind only Oscar Robertson and Sean Kilpatrick on the all-time list. 3) He never played in the NBA. Like Patterson and White before him, he was taken with the top pick in the second round. However, a contract dispute killed his NBA chances and he never played a minute in the league. He was a two-time conference player of the year and a First Team All-American as a senior. As one of a few First Team All-Americans to never play an NBA game, Steve Logan is college basketball junkie heaven. He’s also the winningest player in program history.
3. Danny Fortson
Fortson sits Top 5 in scoring in program history, just four points behind Deonta Vaughn, despite playing just three seasons in Clifton. His 18.8 career storing average is easily the best of the modern era. He’s 3rd in field goal percentage (best of the modern era) and second in free throws (best of the modern era). He slips a bit in these rankings because he skipped his senior year. Had he stayed, he finishes with 2,500 or more points, #3 in career rebounds, and we’re talking about the best non-Oscar Bearcat ever. Forston was absolutely dominant in red and black, and he’d easily be at the top of this list with another season.
2. Sean Kilpatrick
Kilpatrick is the best player of the Cronin era. His 2,145 career points are #2 on the all-time list and he sits near the top in countless other categories like minutes played, career victories, field goals made, three pointers made, and steals. He was named First Team All-American, but an injury sustained during his senior season prevented him from being drafted. He still managed to weasel his way into the NBA, and he earned himself a multi-year contract with the Brooklyn Nets.
1. Kenyon Martin
It’s hard to argue against the only guy since 1960 to have his jersey retired. He was the Conference Player of the Year, National Player of the Year, and #1 overall draft pick. In a program marked by stellar defenders, Martin is probably the best, sitting at #1 in blocked shots with a margin of nearly 40 ahead of second place Eric Hicks. The Bearcats were arguably national championship favorites in 2000 before K-Mart broke his leg in the Conference USA Tournament, so the final chapter of his Clifton career will forever remain unwritten.