For the average American sports fan, Northwestern’s basketball history stretches back around two months. Decades of futility and losing had left the Wildcats completely off the national radar until late this past season. Despite playing in one of the country’s most prominent, rich conferences, Northwestern has never even managed a long-term NBA starter.
But we know better. Northwestern’s basketball history is not rich, but it is still history, and we must try to understand it and remember it as best we can. The Wildcats may have zero players who would crack the Top 50 at Kentucky or UCLA, but we have just enough players to be proud of to make an arbitrary and completely subjective ranking. Sportswriting—it’s the best.
Without further ado, here is the unarguable, definitive ranking of the Top 10 Northwestern Basketball Players of All Time.
(Disclaimer: I only considered players from after the first NCAA Tournament in 1939. Sorry Joe Reiff. Also, there’s definitely some recency bias.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article listed Drew Crawford as a walk-on, which is crazy, why did I think that?)
Dererk Pardon, Vic Law and Scottie Lindsey
Right now, none of these players make the top 10. As this is a historical analysis, it’s hard to justify putting these players in, despite their crucial roles in, well, history. Pardon has had one real season. Vic Law missed a year and was not very good in his freshman season. Lindsey just turned it on in 2017, but that also came with missed games due to illness. All three have had one really good season, and while that led to Northwestern making the NCAA Tournament for the first time, it’s hard to argue for them over guys who played for three or four years.
This doesn’t necessarily mean they won’t make it in future iterations of this list. This nice thing about having no basketball history is that your all-time Top 10 players can change every year. Pardon and Law will almost certainly crack the top 10 at the rate they’re going, and Lindsey probably will as well.
Tre Demps and Alex Olah
This feels mean, but I can’t find a way to get Demps and Olah onto the list. Demps finished 11th all-time in scoring, which is already out of the top 10. He also shot under 40 percent from the field and under 70 percent from the line, which is slightly concerning for a volume scorer. In the end, Demps just missed the cut.
As for Olah, he was never quite the center Northwestern hoped for, even if he showed flashes at times. It’s not quite fair to compare him to his successor, but Pardon has nearly doubled Olah’s offensive rebound rate and is far better on offense than Olah ever was.
He’s sixth in Northwestern’s all-time points list, but it took him about 12 shots per game to get there, in an era without a shot clock. Seems like a “good stats, bad team” guy. He was very good, by Northwestern standards, but misses the cut. Did make the NIT in 1983 though!
Kevin Rankin and Cedric Neloms
That ridiculous 1993-94 NIT run under Byrdsong was insane (sometimes literally) and special, but I’m not totally sure that team was that good at basketball. It was certainly Northwestern’s first decent team in generations, but they did lose nine straight games, after all.
Rankin certainly scored a lot (ranks eighth all-time in points), but for a center, he was rather inefficient. I didn’t watch him play, so he might make it for the older fans, but the team did lose 75 games while he was around. He also never really improved after his sophomore year. A center averaging around 14 and 7 for his career is solid for Northwestern, but against falls short of the top 10.
Neloms, in the eyes of some, should make the list solely for dropping 28 in an OT win over the Fab Five, but he was, uh, not that good overall. He averaged less than assist per game and 4.7 boards. Sidenote: someone (perhaps Inside NU) has to do a feature on the mid-90s point shaving scandals. I can’t even imagine that happening today.
You’re already Northwestern’s best football player ever. Give some other guys a shot.
Never heard of Max Morris? Not surprising. Morris played between 1944-46. In his time at Northwestern, Morris was essentially the best player of Northwestern’s prehistoric basketball days. He won the Chicago Tribune Big Ten Player of the Year Award (perhaps a bit biased, but whatever). He led the conference in scoring twice. Northwestern went 34-24 with him and Graham on the squad and still somehow didn’t make the NCAA Tournament. Max Morris deserves more respect. But...he played in 1944 against no competition. Tough to put him on here.
Um, he shot a lot of threes for a big man?
Somehow, he deserves an honorable mention for averaging 12.7 and 8 for Northwestern in the 1960s. Wow, this school was so bad at basketball.
I love Sanjay, but I can’t
Decent scorer and rebounder for me, but his teams never won. Again, Morris played years before my birth. You might remember him fondly, but...he wasn’t that good.
10. Kevin Coble (2006-09)
Now, most mentions of Kevin Coble concern his mysterious departure due to a dispute over an injury with head coach Bill Carmody. But, it should be noted that Kevin Coble was a very good basketball player. He made a second-team All-Big Ten in 2007-08 and an Honorable Mention in 2008-09.
In his freshman year, he led the team in offensive rating, defensive rebounding and effective field goal percentage. He was even better by offensive rating in his final season, in which Northwestern went 17-14 and was one or two close losses away from an NCAA Tournament. He almost certainly would’ve cracked the Top 10 in points if he’d stayed healthy.
But then he feuded with Carmody and the medical staff, refused to go on a team trip to Italy, and never played his senior season. It was a weird series of events with plenty of blame for both sides. Because Coble didn’t get that last season, and partly due to the complete lack of results from his first two teams, he only slides in at 10.
9. Jim Burns (1964-67)
This is slightly controversial, but I think we need to value Jim Burns a bit more. For three years, Burns was a one-man wrecking machine. He scored 21.5 points per game and averaged 7.8 boards. He was an AP Third Team All-American in 1966-67 and also made an All-Big Ten First Team. He was selected in the fourth round of the NBA Draft in 1967 and went into politics after his basketball career ended.
8. Jitim Young (2000-04)
In his final two seasons, Young led Northwestern in scoring, rebounding and steals. He made one All-Big Ten First Team and is currently 10th on the all-time points list. It took a while for Young to get going, but by the end Northwestern had eight conference wins and was tied for fifth in the Big Ten.
Jitim Young was not the most talented basketball player in Northwestern history, but he deserves to be on this list.
7. Joe Ruklick (1956-59)
Another old-timer gets the nod here. He played between 1956 and 1959, so you may have never heard of him, but he played in the NBA for three years and was probably Northwestern’s most accomplished center until Eschmeyer showed up. Averaged 19.9 points and 13 boards per game. Not bad.
6. Michael “Juice” Thompson (2008-11)
JUICE! Northwestern will probably never have a better player under six feet, and that’s okay with me. What do you want me to say about Juice? He’s Juice! He’s the toughest kid on the block!
I just want to point out that the advanced metrics love Juice. Sure, his 40.9 percent field goal percentage looks bad, but his 56.6 percent eFG% and 115 offensive rating over two years look very, very good. In an era where three-pointers were still slightly undervalued, Juice’s 40.9 percent career three-point percentage sets him apart from the other volume scorers that Northwestern has collected over the years. Keep shooting! The nerds are on your side!
5. Bryant McIntosh (2014-present)
Yes, Bryant McIntosh is No. 5 on this list. You can talk to me about recency bias all you want, but this man led Northwestern to its first NCAA Tournament. That’ll do, Bryant. Yes, his stats and efficiency dropped in 2016-17. Yes, he’s occasionally cost Northwestern at the end of games throughout his career. But how many clutch shots has McIntosh hit? How many times has he bailed out this team? Don’t quote stats to those with wins. Also, McIntosh will probably be either No. 2 or 3 if Northwestern makes the NCAA Tournament again next year.
4. Drew Crawford (2010-2014)
The legend himself slides in at No. 4 on this list. Sure, for most programs, a solid two-way guard who could play in the Big Ten would not come close to a top 10 players in program history list. But this is Northwestern. Sure, he never quite got the accolades, or the awards (other than his four Academic All-American Awards, which should count for something), but Drew Crawford was Northwestern basketball for a while.
Also, he dropped 30 on Frank Kaminsky’s Wisconsin team in a win at the Kohl Center in 2014, and that alone might’ve put him over McIntosh, to be honest.
3. Billy McKinney (1973-1977)
Billy McKinney could score like no other. His 1,900 career points stood as the program record for over 30 years. After his Northwestern career, he played in the NBA for eight seasons. Even if you disregard his post-NU success, he was arguably Northwestern’s most talented player until the 2000s. What did he get for it?
Almost nothing. His teams lost consistently, even with Tex Winter as head coach and McKinney averaging 20 a night. Northwestern’s best record during this period was 12-15. Billy McKinney “Westbrooked” his way through four years at Northwestern, taking an absurd number of shots and usually getting them to fall. He was good.
2. Evan Eschmeyer (1993-99)
When Evan Eschmeyer returned to Welsh-Ryan Arena to attend one home game for the historic 2016-17 season, he was duly featured on the video board.
“We had an All-American once?” a fan next to me said. “I didn’t know that.”
Yes, Evan Eschmeyer, certainly the most talented player to attend Northwestern before the arrival of Chris Collins, has been forgotten to the sands of time by our youth. I have only seen highlight videos. Judging from those and his numbers, it’s hard to overestimate how good he was. Northwestern has never had a big man with his scoring and defensive ability.
But of course, Northwestern had arguably the best center in the Big Ten for three seasons and made one NIT. Eschmeyer’s Wildcats lost in the first round to DePaul. There’s a reason many fans thought Northwestern was cursed.
1. John Shurna (2008-12)
Who else could it be? John Shurna was so, so good. For those who don’t know, and there are many who don’t know (maybe 5 percent of the current student body knows who John Shurna is), Shurna left Northwestern with the most blocks, points and games played in program history. He was the 2012 Big Ten scoring champion. He shot 43.7 percent from three over his final two seasons.
But forget the awards and the stats. John Shurna was great because he just seemed unstoppable. Any Northwestern fan during this time will remember the nights he just couldn’t miss, like when he scored 22 points in the first half against Michigan or when he scored 24 on 11-of-15 shooting to beat Illinois on the road.
While 2016-17 was awesome and I’m thrilled that it happened, you can’t help but look through Shurna’s numbers and accomplishments and feel that he somehow missed his destiny. He could have done it. It just didn’t happen.
The 2011-2012 season, as has been chronicled many times, was a Shakespearean tragedy for Shurna and Northwestern. There’s the OT loss at home to Michigan, in which Shurna had an off night and missed a shot with the game tied at 49-49. There’s the Jared Sullinger shot, which was predictably followed by a Shurna heave that fell short. There’s the overtime loss to Minnesota in the Big Ten Tournament, in which Shurna poured in 21 and hit five threes. Bill Carmody’s brain-dead out of bounds play at the end of regulation ended with a missed shot from Dave Sobolewski, who had missed all five of his shots that day. In hindsight, it is really sad that Shurna never played in the NCAA Tournament (and, perhaps, the fireable offense for Carmody). It was probably infuriating in the present.
Time flies. Shurna plays in Serbia now for Cedevita Zagreb. I figured, as one bit of compensation for the futility of Northwestern basketball, I’d put him as the No. 1 player on this humble list.