With the recent news that Georgia men’s basketball has received its first commitment from a 5-star prospect in its history, 6-foot-4 guard Anthony “Ant Man” Edwards from right down the road in Atlanta, it appears coach Tom Crean has gotten a sparkplug to send a much-needed jolt through his program.
By all accounts, Edwards has all the earmarks of being college basketball’s next high-profile one-and-doner. He was the MVP of the Under Armor Circuit after shooting nearly 40 percent from 3-point range last season, he reclassified—meaning he skipped his junior year of high school—to move into the class of 2019 where 247Sports ranks him the second-best player in the country, and many are already projecting him as a top pick in the 2020 NBA Draft.
While reading about what might be to come for Crean and UGA, my mind drifted back to what one time was for the Bulldogs, a time when legendary coach Hugh Durham pulled a rabbit named Dominique Wilkins from his hat and the carpet right out from under a lot of coaches, including North Carolina’s legendary Dean Smith.
Wilkins was a 6’8” whirling dervish of a player who, through his exploits in Athens and later the NBA, earned the nickname “The Human Highlight Film.” Any fans of Southeastern Conference (SEC) basketball in the early 1980s knew who Wilkins was and loved watching him play—even if he was destroying their team in the process.
He was the innovator of many of the high-flying exploits now commonplace across the basketball world. In those days and to the present, when many fans think dunk, they think Dominique. And he was supposed to go to North Carolina. Or North Carolina State. Or Kentucky. Or anywhere but Georgia.
But Durham got him, and his signing on the dotted line in 1979 laid the pavement for the most successful team in UGA history, the 1983 squad that made it all the way to the Final Four only to be ousted by a prettier Cinderella, North Carolina State. Wilkins wasn’t on that team, however, having left after his junior season to become the No. 3 overall pick in the 1982 NBA Draft by the Utah Jazz, who quickly traded him to the Atlanta Hawks where he had a hall of fame career.
To be honest, Georgia’s record during Dominique days wasn’t that great. The Bulldogs went 52-37 over his three years, were subpar (26-28) in the SEC and earned only two National Invitational Tournament invites. But there is no doubt the Big D was the prospect, and eventually the player, who put Georgia basketball on the map.
Over the decades there have been a handful of high-profile recruits who have gone on to define a program and forever be synonymous with it. In doing so, they have also shaped the course of SEC basketball history. What follows is a listing—excluding Kentucky which is a whole conversation in itself—in reverse order of the six other signings that have had the greatest impact on making the SEC hoops world what it is today.
6. ENNIS AND BOBBY LEE
Many less knowledgeable Alabama fans might consider Collin Sexton as the highest-impact signee Alabama has ever had and, in terms of recruiting hype, that might be the case. But in terms of setting the actual course of a program, you have to go back almost 40 years to point guard Ennis Whatley and center Bobby Lee Hurt.
The magician Whatley, from Birmingham, and the 6-foot-9 Hurt, from Huntsville, were recruits that schools across the country wanted—Hurt’s final choices came down to the Tide and the University of Hawaii—and in his first season as Bama’s head coach, Wimp Sanderson got them.
Whatley left after just two years to try his luck as an early NBA entrant, and though Hurt was a workhorse over four seasons, averaging 13.7 points per game and 8 rebounds per game for his career, he’s not the first one who comes to mind when any list of Bama basketball greats is compiled.
But they were impactful because they solidified the choice as Sanderson to succeed C.M. Newton as the Tide coach, which resulted in the program’s most successful era in its hoops history over the next 12 seasons. It also signaled that Alabama was no longer just a football school and other high-ranking talent, including Buck Johnson, James “Hollywood” Robinson and others, took notice and followed in fairly rapid succession.
5. CORLISS WILLIAMSON
The Arkansas Razorbacks joined the SEC in 1991, and coach Nolan Richardson brought with him an entirely new brand of basketball, his self-described “40 Minutes of Hell.”
One year later, the 6’7” 245-pound Williamson joined the program as the bell cow of a string of recruiting successes Richardson had that would ultimately lead to a national championship in 1993-94 and a return to the NCAA Tourney title game in 1994-95.
At the center of it was Williamson, who did whatever was needed to put the Razorbacks on his broad back and carry them to victory. A tough rebound in the lane? Williamson muscled it away. A tough shot with the clock winding down? Williamson would spin down the baseline and bank it in. An “encouraging” word for a dragging teammate? Williamson did that, too.
If truth be told, no one will probably ever be more the face of Arkansas basketball than the flamboyant, forceful Richardson was on the sideline. But on the court, no doubt Williamson was the ultimate Razorback.
4. CHRIS AND SHAQ
At first glance, the natural instinct here might be to say “Pistol” Pete Maravich, but since he came with his father Press Maravich when he became LSU’s head coach in 1966, we’re not going to count him as a “recruit.”
Having seen them both play in purple-and-gold live and in person, it’s also a somewhat difficult to choose between Jackson (later Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf) and Shaquille O’Neal. But since we’d be hard-pressed to say anyone has a higher profile than the 7’1” O’Neal, we’ll go with him in this instance.
For four years, from 1988-89 to 1991-92, LSU had a stranglehold on SEC Player of the Year honors, with Rauf winning two and O’Neal winning two. Rauf was another who moved on after two seasons while O’Neal was there three years. O’Neal played 90 career games and averaged 21.6 ppg and 13.5 rpg. In 64 career games, Rauf averaged 29 ppg, and that says it all about him.
Amazingly, in that four-year span, Dale Brown’s Tigers were 84-41 (58 percent) overall, 48-22 in the SEC and never advanced past the second round of March Madness. But man were they fun to watch.
3. CHARLES BARKLEY
The distinction should be made that Barkley was NOT a headline-making hot prospect. In fact, it is said that one of the schools he was considering coming out of Leeds (Alabama) High School was nearby Gadsden State Junior College. But Auburn and Sonny Smith swooped in and a legend was born.
For his three-year career on The Plains, Barkley averaged just 14.1 ppg and 9.6 rpg, but his charm, charisma and electric personality have made him the Tiger of Tigers many times over since then. He could play, too, earning SEC Player of the Year honors in 1983-84 after averaging 15.1 ppg and 9.5 rpg.
Auburn was another team that didn’t set the basketball world ablaze during their prospect’s time there, going 49-38 overall and 27-27 in Barkley’s three years. But he did lead the Tigers to their first-ever NCAA Tourney appearance, a first-round loss to Richmond in 1983-84, and he influenced many of the players that contributed to a Sweet 16 run in 1984-85.
Chris Morris and Chuck Person came along later to help him, but like Wilkins at UGA, Barkley almost single-handedly painted the canvas of his school’s program as much as any player on this list.
2. AL HORFORD, COREY BREWER, JOAKIM NOAH
Billy Donovan’s 2004 recruiting class was nothing short of spectacular, and that was proven out when the group headlined by Horford, Brewer and Noah won consecutive NCAA titles in their three years in Gainesville.
Think it’s a stretch to rate the Gators’ this high? If so, consider that since 1939 when the NCAA began contesting its men’s basketball national championship, Kentucky has won eight, Florida two, Arkansas one—and that’s it. You read that right, Other than Kentucky, the other 13 SEC schools have a combined three national champions, and Florida has two of those. So yeah, this groups ranks high on this list.
Here’s another test to prove the point? As quickly as you can, name one current Gator player…and…the defense rests.
- ERNIE AND BERNIE
When the Vols’ Ray Mears went after two inner city New York hotshots in the mid 1970s, it’s doubtful that Bernard King or Ernie Grunfeld had ever heard the words “Rocky Top” in the same sentence much less the bluegrass song that UT fans sing ad nauseum now. But by the time they left, they were as much a part of Tennessee basketball lore as that song and white warm-up pants with candy orange stripes.
Mears and assistant Stu Aberdeen got Grunfeld out of Forest Hills High School in Queens in 1974 and King out of Fort Hamilton High School in Brooklyn the next. Soon the “Ernie and Bernie Show” debuted, and what a run it was.
A strong case can be made that King is the best player in SEC history after he averaged 26.5 ppg and 13.5 rpg in 76 games over three seasons. King earned two outright SEC Player of the Year selections in 1974-75 and 1975-76 and shared the honor with Grunfeld in 1976-77. As a scorer, Grunfeld was right there with him, averaging 22.3 ppg (with 6.6 rpg) in 101 career games.
Some might note that the dynamic duo didn’t lead the Vols to great postseason success, earning two National Commissioners Invitational Tournament and two NCAA Tourney bids in their four years and losing in the first round of all four. But there is no denying the mark they made on Tennessee and the entire SEC as a whole.
One of the most significant marks perhaps were that it showed during what were still somewhat turbulent times in the U.S. that basketball players from every corner were welcome and could succeed below the Mason-Dixon line. Also, it put SEC basketball on the map as a national presence, one whose schools could go to any city in the country and recruit any of its best players, and that’s paying big dividends to this day.
So there you have it. Your list may be different, and if so, we have a starting point for a spirited debate. In my mind, though, there’s one thing most certainly not up for debate. Anthony Edwards may be a superstar at Georgia, and I hope he is because it’s always fun to watch a great basketball player. But no matter what he accomplishes for however long he stays, he still won’t make the overall imprint on the fabric of his school and the SEC that the guys on this list did in their day. H&A