Ranking the Cards’ Best

Spring time in Louisville typically means four things: horse racing, baseball, making lists of the best UofL basketball players of all time, and soul-crippling allergies. One of those four things is going to take place in this column.

Only players who have completed their college careers were considered for this list, which means no David Levitch or Dillon Avare…for now.

1) Darrell Griffith (1976-1980)

There should be zero debate at the top.

Louisville’s all-time leading scorer, “Dr. Dunkenstein” led the Cardinals to a 33-3 record and their first national championship in his senior year of 1980. He holds the single-season scoring record with 825 points, and remarkably is the only player in Louisville history to score more than 700 in a season. In 1980 he was the recipient of the John Wooden Award, which is given annually to the best player in the country.

Kentucky’s Mr. Basketball in 1976, the Male High product had his jersey retired in a ceremony immediately following the 1980 championship. His road jersey is on permanent display at the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.

2) Wes Unseld (1964-1968)

In 1964, Unseld began his career at UofL, where he averaged 35.8 points per game and 23.6 rebounds per game in 14 games with a freshman team. He was a three-year letter winner, scored 1,686 points in 82 games (20.6 per game), grabbed 1,551 rebounds (18.9 per game), led the conference in rebounding in 1966, 1967 and 1968, and led Louisville to a 60-22 record with two trips to the NCAA tournament and one trip to the NIT. Unseld went on to be the first player in NBA history to win both Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player in the same season.

3) Pervis Ellison (1985-1989)

The only player in Cardinal history to total over 2,000 points and 1,000 rebounds, “Never Nervous Pervis” Ellison became the first UofL player to be taken number one overall in the NBA Draft when the Sacramento Kings took him with the first pick in 1989. He is Louisville’s all-time leading shot blocker, having blocked at least one shot in 130 of his 136 collegiate games, and is also the school’s third leading scorer. In 1986 he led the Cards to a national championship, and became the first freshman since 1944 to be named Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four.

4) Charlie Tyra (1953-1957)

Louisville’s all-time leading rebounder, Charlie Tyra led UofL to its first NIT title in 1956, and was a consensus All-American in both the ’55-’56 and ’56-’57 seasons. He set the school record for rebounds in a game when he snatched a remarkable 39 against Canisius, and ranks first in made free throws, second in career rebounding average, fourth in career scoring average, sixth in career scoring, and eighth in field goals made. He’s also surely somewhere in the top 10 in manly body hair.

5) Butch Beard (1966-1969)

One of only two UofL players to average 20 points or more in multiple seasons, Beard holds the Cardinal record for points in a conference game with 41 and ranks second on Louisville’s career scoring average list. He was a two-time All-Missouri Valley Conference selection, and was an All-American in 1969. Beard went on to play nine seasons in the NBA and coached the New Jersey Nets.

6) Russ Smith (2010-2014)

I doubt any of you need a refresher course on the story here, but we’ll get into it anyway.

Smith came to Louisville as a lightly regarded two-star prospect and played sparingly in his freshman season. He leaves UofL as the program’s all-time leading scorer in NCAA Tournament play, its first consensus First Team All-American since 1994, its all-time leader in steals, its all-time leader in made free throws, and its fifth all-time leading scorer. He’s also hilarious, which doesn’t earn him any bonus points as far as this list is concerned, but still warrants mentioning.

7) Derek Smith (1978-1982)

A starter on the 1980 national championship team and one of 19 Cardinals to have his jersey retired, Smith ranks seventh on UofL’s all-time scoring list with 1,826 career points. He was a three-time All-Metro Conference performer, and the league’s Player of the Year in 1981. A member of the flashy “Doctors of Dunk,” Smith and teammate Wiley Brown are believed by many to have invented (or at least popularized) the high five.

8) DeJuan Wheat (1993-1997)

Louisville’s second all-time leader in scoring (2,183 points) and three-point field goals (323), Wheat also ranks fourth all-time at UofL in assists (498). As a senior, he was named Honorable Mention All-America by The Associated Press, as well as Third Team All-America by the National Association of Basketball Coaches and Second Team All-America by The Sporting News. He led the Cardinals in scoring (17.3), assists (career-high 4.3), steals (career-high 1.94), three-point field goals (career-high 97) and minutes played (34.9 per game) as a senior and had 15 games with 20 or more points. The former Ballard High star helped lead the Cards to the Sweet 16 in 1996 and the Elite Eight a season later.

9) Milt Wagner (1981-1986)

A three-time All-Metro Conference selection, Milt “Ice” Wagner ranks sixth (was fourth after finishing his collegiate career) in Cardinal history with 1,836 career points, with a 12.7 career scoring average while also averaging 3.0 assists and 2.5 rebounds. He played in 144 career games, second all-time at Louisville, and started the last 111 games he played. He ranks sixth in career assists (432) and seventh in career free throw percentage (.808, 336-of-413).

Wagner helped lead the Cards to the 1986 NCAA Championship along with three Final Four berths (1982, 1983, 1986) and a trip to the 1984 Sweet Sixteen. He also helped UofL to a 113-32 record, three Metro Conference regular season titles and two Metro Conference Tournament crowns during his college career. He redshirted the 1985 season with a broken foot.

10) Junior Bridgeman (1972-1975)

Ulysses “Junior” Bridgeman was twice named the Player of the Year the Missouri Valley Conference, and would go on to have his jersey retired by the Milwaukee Bucks. He earned All-America honors as a senior when he averaged 16.1 ppg and led the Cards to the 1975 Final Four.