The Thunder has a pretty stacked roster when it comes to March Madness experience. Two players won national titles, two more played for the national championship but lost and two more reached the Final Four. That’s half of the 12 Oklahoma City players who played college basketball.
Does the big-game experience that a deep NCAA Tournament run matter much in the NBA playoffs? Admittedly, probably not. But it surely doesn’t hurt. And at least there are big-game reps involved in those runs that the players can draw on mentally when big moments come in the playoffs.
Pondering the Thunder’s significant Final Four chops made me think about how OKC stacks up compared to its two most likely first-round playoff opponents, the Portland Trail Blazers and the Denver Nuggets. Turns out the Thunder more than holds its own when it comes to collegiate pedigrees as compared to its potential foes. Let’s break it down.
Oklahoma City Thunder
National champions: Nazr Mohammed (Kentucky, 1996 and ’98) and Cole Aldrich (Kansas, 2008)
Mohammed didn’t play much as a freshman in Kentucky’s ’96 championship season, but he was a key cog in the ’97 national runner-up team and the ’98 title team. That’s just an outstanding run in general by the Wildcats, and one that no one has come close to matching since then. Aldrich was a key player off the bench in KU’s most recent championship season … but was also a bigger part of a rather disappointing run in 2010 when the Jayhawks memorably lost to Northern Iowa. And, of course, Aldrich doesn’t appear likely to play a major role in this year’s Thunder playoff run.
National runners-up: Nick Collison (Kansas, 2003) and Daequan Cook (Ohio State, 2007)
Collison was also part of KU’s Final Four run in 2002, which ended in the national semifinal against eventual-champion Maryland. He and Kirk Hinrich then led Kansas one step further in 2003, falling to Carmelo Anthony’s Syracuse team in the title game. Collison was truly a dominant player for much of that season — check out his highlights from the 2003 Kansas-Texas game if you want to see proof. It’s the kind of thing that makes you nod your head when you read Kendrick Perkins’ quotes from a couple of days ago when he said Collison should look to score more. Cook only played nine minutes in the Buckeyes’ loss to Florida in 2007.
Final Four: Royal Ivey (Texas, 2003) and Russell Westbrook (UCLA, 2007 and ’08)
Ah, Rick Barnes’ only Final Four team. Ivey was an important player on that Longhorns squad, which, like Collison and KU, also lost to Anthony’s Orangemen. (That title run by Syracuse is still a sore spot for a lot of college basketball fans ’round these parts. The Orange beat Oklahoma State in the Sweet 16, Oklahoma in the Elite Eight and then Texas and Kansas in the Final Four. Ouch, Big 12.) The ‘Horns made it to the Sweet 16 in ’02 and ’04 with Ivey as a key contributor. As for Westbrook, he was more of a bit player in UCLA’s run to the Final Four in ’07, which ended with a loss to Florida in a rematch of the 2006 title game. He was a much more important piece of the Bruins’ run the next season when UCLA went down to Memphis.
Other: Nate Robinson led Washington to a No. 1 seed in 2005, and the Huskies went to the Sweet 16 before losing to eventual Final Four participant Louisville. The Huskies lost as a No. 8 to UAB in the first round in ’04 and didn’t qualify in Robinson’s freshman season. … Kevin Durant won only one tournament game in his lone season at Texas, losing in a minor upset as a No. 4 seed against No. 5 USC. … James Harden had a similar fate, winning only one game as a No. 6 seed with Arizona State in his sophomore season in 2009 and missing the tournament in ’08. … Eric Maynor hit what is still the most famous shot in VCU history — largely because VCU has been shockingly dominant in its Final Four run this year — when the Rams upset Duke in 2007 as a No. 11 seed, as VCU is this year. But that was the only tournament win of Maynor’s career, as the Rams didn’t make it in ’06 or ’08 and lost narrowly as a No. 11 again in ’09. … Ohio State lost as a No. 8 to Siena in the first round in Byron “Don’t Call Me B.J.” Mullens’ only collegiate season.
Portland Trail Blazers
National runners-up: Greg Oden (Ohio State, 2007) and Andre Miller (Utah, 1998)
Since Greg Oden famously isn’t healthy, let’s just leave him alone and not talk about him. We already covered the Buckeyes’ loss in that game with Cook in any case. As for Miller, what, you forgot that Utah actually played for all the marbles in 1998 against Mohammed’s Wildcats? True story. It was one of the more unlikely runs to the last game until Butler did it last year (and until Butler returns this year or loses to VCU to put the Rams in the title game), even though the Utes were a No. 3 seed. Mountain West conference teams just don’t typically advance that far in the tournament, and Utah’s best player from the previous season was in the NBA. Who was that, you might ask? Keith Van Horn. Wow. The Utes were upset in Miller’s senior season the next year, falling in the second round as a No. 2 to Wally Szczerbiak’s Miami (Ohio) team. Utah had advanced to the Elite Eight in ’97, also losing to Kentucky, as a No. 2 seed. In ’96 when Miller was a freshman, the Utes lost in the Sweet 16 as a No. 4 seed to … Kentucky. (Pretty amazing run for a mid-major until Butler came along, right?)
Final Four: Marcus Camby (UMass, 1996) and Chris Johnson (LSU, 2006).
Well, UMass eventually had to vacate its Final Four run with Camby, but it still happened. I even remember watching. Without having to look it up, I can tell you that UMass beat Kentucky in the regular season when both teams were undefeated before losing to the Wildcats in the Final Four. Why I can remember stuff like that but not where I most recently put my car keys, I can’t tell you. Anyway, UMass pretty much sucked in basketball before and after their brief run with John Calipari. UMass made it to the Elite Eight as a No. 2 seed the year before, falling to Bryant “Big Country” Reeves and No. 4-seeded Oklahoma State. The Minutemen were also a No. 2 in Camby’s freshman season in ’94, losing in the second round to 10th-seeded Maryland. Johnson barely played in ’06 on the Big Baby Davis/Tyrus Thomas-led LSU team that made a Final Four run, but he makes the list. Barely. He only played significant minutes his junior and senior seasons, and LSU only qualified for the tournament in his last year, 2009. The Tigers won as a No. 8 seed in the first round before losing to eventual-champ North Carolina. Johnson has played in only four games for Portland this season.
Other: LaMarcus Aldridge suffered through a first-round exit with Texas as a No. 8 seed to Nevada in 2005, but made it to the regional final in ’06 before being upset by LSU. … Luke Babbitt never qualified for the tournament with Nevada in his two seasons there. Neither did Armon Johnson, who got to Nevada a year before Babbitt and stayed for three seasons. How did Nevada not make a tournament during two seasons with TWO eventual NBA players in a league like the WAC? That’s wack. … Wesley Matthews suffered through a first-round exit at Marquette as a freshman in 2006 when the Golden Eagles were a No. 7 seed and the next year as a No. 8 seed. They made it one round further the next two seasons. … Patrick Mills lost his only NCAA tournament game while at St. Mary’s when the Gaels lost as a No. 10 seed to Miami (Fla.). … Brandon Roy was a key player in the aforementioned No. 1 seed Washington team in 2005, as well as in their first-round loss in ’04 and not qualifying in ’03. Roy was the Huskies’ best player in ’06 when UW went down in the Sweet 16 to No. 1 UConn. … Gerald Wallace didn’t make the tournament with Alabama in 2001. Elliott Williams missed the tournament in 2010 with Memphis and didn’t play a lot with Duke in 2009 when the Blue Devils fell as a No. 2 in the Sweet 16 to Villanova.
National champions: Raymond Felton (North Carolina 2005) and Ty Lawson (North Carolina 2009)
Felton and Lawson trump the Thunder’s pair of national champs because they’ll both be heard from in the postseason, whereas Aldrich seems likely to be glued to the bench this year. Felton, who reportedly hosted Lawson on a UNC recruiting visit and now backs him up in Denver, plays a similar style to his running mate, especially when they were in Carolina blue. And both were star players on Roy Williams’ two title teams. These guys were probably the most important players on title teams on this list so far. Carolina won only one tournament game as a No. 6 seed in ’04 and didn’t even make the dance in ’03. Lawson’s other UNC squads went to the Final Four in ’08 and the Elite Eight in ’07 (where the Heels lost to Jeff Green’s Georgetown team … does this mean Green will face criticism in the comment section?).
National runner-up: Arron Afflalo (UCLA, 2006)
Afflalo was one of the best players on the Bruins’ 2006 team that fell to Florida in the championship game, and then again in ’07 when UCLA lost to the Gators again in the Final Four. Those were the first two years in what was an impressive three-year run to the Final Four by the Bruins, who haven’t approached those heights in the last three seasons. Afflalo has really come on lately for Denver too, much like the rest of the team after the Anthony trade. UCLA lost as a No. 11 in Afflalo’s freshman season.
Other: Kenyon Martin’s Cincinnati teams suffered upsets in each of his four seasons as a Bearcat. No. 3 Cincinnati lost to No. 6 Iowa State in ’97, the second-seeded Bearcats lost to No. 10 West Virginia in ’98, another loss came as a No. 3 again to No. 6 Temple in 1999 and 2000 ended with a loss to No. 7 Tulsa as a No. 2 seed. Each loss came in the second round. … DePaul didn’t qualify for the dance in Wilson Chandler’s two years there. … Fresno State made the tournament twice with Melvin Ely. The Bulldogs lost as a No. 9 in 2000 to Wisconsin, which made a Final Four run that season, and won once in ’01 as a No. 9 seed before going down to eventual champ Michigan State. … Gary Forbes played two seasons at Virginia and two at UMass without ever making the tournament. As I said before, UMass sucked pre- and post-Calipari. … Kosta Koufos is the only other Nugget to have played college ball. The Buckeyes missed the tournament in his only season.