As part of the 2017 OhVarsity! Hoops Hoopla, I wrote a list of the 26 best players of the Fifth Third Arena era. I expected this to be slightly contentious. Surprisingly, I didn’t get much disagreement until I specifically asked for it. As it turns out, a lot of you had something to say about players that were left off the list. I’m back to write about the players you want mentioned as well as provide a little bit of context about why I didn’t feel the qualified for the original 26.
This is probably the most mentioned guy. I get it. Bobbitt was a great defender in a program that values great defenders. He was also a huge driving force on his teams in a limited role. (I love these kinds of guys. See my JaQuon Parker piece.) In 2003–04, Bobbitt started just one game but finished second in win shares that year behind Jason Maxiell. That’s impressive.
However, Bobbitt only played two years and started just one career game. He was a stellar sixth man, but it’s hard to rank a guy who played a career 1,085 minutes. Sean Kilpatrick beat that number in each of his final three seasons. I tried to make my list about body of work and impact rather than my judgement of a player’s talent, so Bobbitt got left off.
I have a soft spot for Bobby because every single photo that exists of him makes him look like the biggest maniac of all time. He may have been a big guy, but he managed to hit 31 consecutive free throws, setting a UC record that Steve Logan eventually edged out. Brannen is a classic Bearcat, both in mentality and career arc. His role in Clifton steadily increased each year before he blew up as a senior in 1997–98. He averaged 14 points and eight rebounds in his final season.
(Side note: I wish I were old enough to follow that 1997–98 team, because that one seems underrated from a personnel standpoint. Sophomore K Mart with Brannen, Levett, Baker, Patterson, and Fletcher.)
Brannen was left off the list simply because there were too many players ahead of him. I started this process by spitballing names in a rough order before fine tuning. Brannen was on the original 25 but slowly got pushed off as the process went along. In the end, I think he was hurt by having the career path of Justin Jackson but with fewer rebounds and far fewer blocks. Brannen would be on the Top 40.
Ryan Fletcher was a white dude without Bobby Brannen’s white dude swag. (Notice Brannen the bleached hair and the barbed wire tattoo.) If I met someone and they said, “My neighbor used to play for the Bearcats” I would immediately say: “Ryan Fletcher?”
Because of an injury as a sophomore, Fletcher was around for five seasons, meaning he got to see some of the best basketball of the modern era. He career practically stretched two eras, playing alongside Art Long as a freshman and Leonard Stokes as a senior. He was a big man who could stretch the floor a little bit in an era where that wasn’t common. He shot 15-for-41 from outside as a senior, good for a respectable 37%. In the end, Fletcher played on a lot of fantastic teams but was never a core player on those teams. His career peaked at 2.5 win shares, exactly where Coreontae DeBerry’s did.
Nick transferred into Clifton from Kansas State and started about two thirds of his games as a Bearcat. He formed a platoon at guard as a senior, sharing starting time with Jihad Muhammad and Armein Kirkland. Of the three, Williams was the best shooter and arguably the best defender. He didn’t crack my Top 26 because he played just two seasons in red and black and filled a semi-starter role.
Gregor is an unusual figure in Bearcat history. He was a starter on the 1996 Elite Eight team but played fewer than 20 minutes per game that year while Darnell Burton (Top 10 on my list) didn’t start any games yet averaged 26 minutes a night. Fortson was the team’s leading scorer by a wide margin, yet played fewer than 28 minutes per night. That team had some weird rotations. They worked, however, and Gregor is a huge reason why. Every good team has a glue guy, and the ’96 team had Gregor. Unfortunately Gregor’s limited role makes it hard for him to crack a list that rewards a large body of work.
Yes, the football player. He appeared in 34 games for the Bearcats. He played 11 games under Andy Kennedy and then 23 games under Mick Cronin the following year. Most notably, Barwin put future #1 overall pick Greg Oden in a bottle for a few minutes when the Bearcats played the Buckeyes in 2006. Was Barwin an important figure in the transition from Huggins to Cronin? Absolutely. Is he one of the best players in the Fifth Third Arena era? Of course not. But you already knew that.
In my mind, Bishop is forever linked with Larry Davis (the player, not the assistant coach). That has nothing to do with this list, however. I just thought I’d mention it.
Bishop’s class was important because it was the one that took Cronin’s team from rebuilding to rebuilt. When he arrived on campus in 2007, Cronin was coming off his first season in Clifton, an 11–19 campaign. When Bishop left as a senior, it was after having won an NCAA Tournament game. That’s a big deal. Bishop averaged just 8.4 points as a senior, good for fifth on the team. However, his 3.5 rebound average was the best of anyone not named Yancy Gates and he was also second on the team in both steals and blocks. He was kind of like the 2011 version of Keith Gregor, I guess.
McElroy was a defender. He won Conference USA Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2002, and effort that wouldn’t be matched by a Bearcat until Justin Jackson did it in 2014 and Gary Clark did it in 2016. He played an important role on the 2001–02 team that racked up 31 wins. That year, he was third in scoring, second in assists, and provided defensive pop to a team that had plenty of it to go around.
That being said, McElroy didn’t have an outside game on the offensive end and played just two seasons as a Bearcat, so he wasn’t able to crack the list.
Kirkland was kind of in the Jacob Evans mold as a 6’8” wing who spent time playing as an off-ball guard. Kirkland would’ve had a very good chance to make the list had it not been for a knee injury towards the beginning of his senior season under Andy Kennedy. He improved each year prior to the injury and finished with nearly 750 career points, despite inefficient shooting numbers.
A healthy senior year would’ve had him flirting with the 1,000-point club, a distinction that probably would’ve gotten him onto the list ahead of some one- and two-year guys. Regardless, he’s still a Top 40 player of the modern era.
Wingfield arrived in Clifton on the heels of Nick Van Exel and played just one season in red and black, averaging 16 points, nine rebounds, and two assists in fewer than 29 minutes per game. He served as LaZelle Durden’s sidekick that year and broke Oscar Robertson’s record for points in a debut when he dropped 30 in his first collegiate game at The Shoe. He declared for the NBA Draft, becoming the first freshman to do so since Mark Olberding jumped early to the ABA in the ’70s. He was drafted by the Sonics but ended up spending most of his 114-game NBA career in Portland.
You know what? I’ll take the loss on this one. The list punishes players with short careers in Clifton, but if Lance Stephenson can make it, Wingfield should have. He belongs in Lance’s spot.