I’m fascinated with jersey numbers and the stories behind them. Some guys get assigned a jersey number in their first rec league and ride it out for their entire lives. Others (most notably Dennis Rodman and Metta World Peace) seem to change theirs every season. It’s amazing how the sole purpose of jersey numbers is for referees and scorekeepers to identify the players, yet they have an enormous impact on fans. Michael Jordan wearing no. 45 when he came out of retirement in 1995 was like seeing Jesus without a beard. Kobe Bryant switching from no. 8 to no. 24 was such a big deal that a lot of people treat Kobe’s career like the no. 8 version of him was a completely different person from no. 24. When LeBron James came back to Cleveland, he asked his Instagram followers which number he should wear, prompting way too many people to express their way-too-strong opinions.
Jersey numbers are trivial things that probably aren’t even necessary in some pro sports anymore, but if I mentioned no. 23 in basketball, no. 99 in hockey, no. 7 in football, no. 42 in baseball, or no. 3 in NASCAR, you would immediately know who I’m referencing.1 With this in mind, let’s look at the players who are doing their best to make themselves the first name associated with certain numbers in college basketball. I’m not sure why they chose the digits they wear across their backs, but every time I watch them play I notice and wonder why. These are the Unique Jersey Number All-Stars.
Delon Wright, No. 55, Utah
Marcus Camby, Wilf Paiement, Christian Ponder, Mo Vaughn, and Austin Dillon, of course!
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Wright is one of the best players in America and he’s the inspiration for this post, so it almost goes without saying that he’s the captain of the Unique Jersey Number All-Stars. Heading into this season, Wright was my pick for national player of the year because he does everything that a player can do on a basketball court well. Also, with the possible exception of Frank Kaminsky, no player in college basketball is as valuable to his team as Wright. And while he hasn’t been as jaw-dropping as I anticipated, he is still an unreal talent who will win loads of individual awards this season.
I wrote about how frustrating it was to see Wright play so passively for stretches in the Arizona game. This is my one big criticism of him. It’s unrealistic to expect Wright to affect every single play, but there’s no denying that he takes plays off occasionally. In theory, this is understandable. Utah asks Wright to do so much that it makes sense for him to pick his spots and can conserve energy for crunch time. But Wright’s minutes — less than 32 per game — aren’t that heavy. He should make them count even more than he already does.
Besides, Wright is Utah’s leader. Sometimes it feels like when Utah’s players see Wright going through the motions, the entire team follows his lead. The Utes lose their edge, and then struggle to get it back because Wright doesn’t have the fiery personality to grab everyone and say, “Listen, a-holes. I’m taking plays off because I’m the best and you need me fresh in the final minutes. When you’re as good as me, you can do it, too. Until then, get your heads out of your asses and play harder.”
This feels like a bigger deal than it probably is because Utah’s game at Arizona is still fresh in my mind. Even with his flaws, Delon Wright would start on any team in America, and his presence alone is enough to make Utah a legitimate Final Four contender.
Other notable no. 55s: Ryan Harrow (Georgia State), Jabril Trawick (Georgetown), Egidijus Mockevicius (Evansville), Tyler Larson (South Dakota), Tim Quarterman (LSU)
Ryan Spangler, no. 00, Oklahoma
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Before we get to Ryan Spangler, let me blow your mind. There are 86 teams in the seven major conferences in college basketball — ACC, American, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Pac-12, and SEC. Guess how many have a player who wears either no. 0 or no. 00.
The answer is 64! Am I crazy or is that at least 50 more than you would’ve expected? I thought the single zero was a unique enough jersey number to put Ohio State’s D’Angelo Russell on this list. As it turns out, it may the most popular number in college basketball. I blame Gilbert Arenas, who, by the way, doesn’t get enough crap for the story behind why he picked zero in the first place.
“Zero is the number of minutes people predicted I would play my freshman year at Arizona,” said Arenas, who ended up playing 32.1 minutes per game in his first season as a Wildcat. “I decided to go with it because I love proving people wrong.”2
I pulled this quote from NBA.com’s “Behind the Numbers” series, which includes a handful of other players and is a pretty fun read if you’re into that sort of thing.
I’m supposed to believe that “people” said Arenas wouldn’t even see the court at Arizona, and then a few months later he averaged more than 15 points per game for a 1-seed in the NCAA tournament? Riiiiiiiight.
Back to Spangler: He transferred to Oklahoma after a year at Gonzaga because he wasn’t Canadian enough for Mark Few’s tastes or something. Who knows? The reason doesn’t matter. What matters is that Spangler has carved out a heck of a career for himself in Norman. Three games into his first Big 12 season last year, Spangler scored 16 points and grabbed 15 boards in a win over ninth-ranked Iowa State. Overnight, Big 12 fans stopped looking at him as just a big, hard-working white dude with ugly tattoos and permanently wet hair and instead started worrying that he might keep churning out double-doubles against their teams. Spangler finished with five double-doubles in conference play last season.
Oklahoma is hard to pin down this season. The Sooners have been Final Four–good at times and they’ve also been “lose in the first round of the NIT” bad. Spangler, however, has been consistent since day one. He has been a steady source of scoring and rebounding while improving both his shooting range and his defense from a season ago.
Other notable no. 00s: Royce O’Neale (Baylor), Rashad Madden (Arkansas), Malcolm Canada (Auburn), Marcus Lee (Kentucky)
Trey Lyles, No. 41, Kentucky
Trey Lyles deserves more national attention. Willie Cauley-Stein is Kentucky’s best player. Karl-Anthony Towns is Kentucky’s best freshman and probably the team’s best pro prospect. Andrew Harrison is the starting point guard who has become a lightning rod for arguments. Aaron Harrison will always be a hero for the shots he made in last year’s NCAA tournament. Alex Poythress is the veteran who became a rallying point after tearing his ACL. Devin Booker and Tyler Ulis are fan favorites because they always seem to come in at just the right moment in games and wreck shit. A ton of ink has been spilled about what all of those guys mean to Kentucky’s pursuit of a perfect season. Meanwhile, Lyles quietly goes about his business, does a little bit of everything (except make 3s), and doesn’t get much fanfare.
Even if the rest of the country takes Lyles for granted, my guess is that NBA scouts have noticed how good he can be. It’s easy to forget because he’s surrounded by so much size, but Lyles is a 6-foot-10 235-pounder who can handle the ball, is a good passer, and has a solid-looking stroke even though he doesn’t hit 3s consistently yet. Lyles could potentially be a lottery pick. But even if he has a monster NCAA tournament and sees his draft stock skyrocket, I hope Lyles returns for his sophomore season. And I don’t mean that in a “JOHN CALIPARI IS BAD FOR THE GAME BECAUSE HE NEVER DEVELOPS HIS PLAYERS” way. What I mean is that with a little seasoning, Lyles could be a dominant force in college basketball and maybe even rise into the high lottery, which is why I hope he comes back and plays a bigger role for Kentucky next season.
Other notable no. 41s: Emmett Naar (Saint Mary’s), Marshall Guilmette (East Carolina)
Stefan Moody, No. 42, Ole Miss
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Confession: I’ve watched only one Ole Miss game this season. Before you tell me how to do my job, keep in mind that my job requires me to watch good teams. This is where I upset Ole Miss fans: The Rebels are not good. They might not even be average.
And this is the where I win Ole Miss fans back: Stefan Moody single-handedly provided me with the most entertaining 40 minutes of basketball I’ve seen all season. This isn’t just because I was entertained by Ole Miss almost upsetting Kentucky. It’s because I was entertained by Moody and the enormous stones he was waving around Rupp Arena that night. Moody was like a kamikaze with no regard for anything. He flushed conventional wisdom down the toilet before the game, decided he was going to slay a giant, and proceeded to drain so many ill-advised shots that I thought I was witnessing something supernatural. After his third made 3 of the first half, I started yelling, “MOODY MOODY MOODY MOODY ROCKIN’ EVERYWHERE!” every time he scored. And somewhere in between his third made 3 of the first half and the end of the game, my wife begged me to stop. If he hadn’t cramped up, I truly believe Ole Miss would have beaten Kentucky.
Someone needs to start a Twitter account to inform the masses when Stefan Moody is going nuts. If Ole Miss were playing at the same time as the national championship and someone told me that Moody had 20 first-half points, I’d seriously consider changing the channel.
Other notable no. 42s: Jakob Poeltl (Utah), Thomas Gipson (Kansas State), Nemanja Djurisic (Georgia)
Myles Turner, No. 52, Texas
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Myles Turner arrived at Texas with the hype that accompanies being the second-ranked recruit in America. Whether he has lived up to the hype thus far depends on who you ask. Critics call him inconsistent and say that his stats are inflated by dominating performances against awful teams in nonconference games. They say there are several other freshmen who carry their teams and that Turner isn’t close to their level. His supporters argue that Turner is doing just fine. Texas brought back a lot of guys from last year, including Jonathan Holmes and Isaiah Taylor, yet Turner is leading the Horns in scoring and rebounding. He’s blocking almost three shots per game and he’s been by far the most efficient Texas player. What more do you want?
It’s probably true that if the nation’s top recruits were re-ranked, Turner might not crack the top 10. But overall, I’m more in the “he’s just fine” camp. The biggest problem with Turner isn’t his fault, and it’s that he doesn’t play enough. I don’t want to turn this into another critique of Rick Barnes, because once I get started, there’s no telling when I’ll stop. BUT HOW IN THE HELL IS MYLES TURNER STILL NOT STARTING??? He leads Texas in scoring, rebounding, and blocks — ya know, the things that big guys are supposed to do. He shoots 40 percent from the 3-point line. He’s not a turnover machine like many young post players are. And most importantly, the other big men in Texas’s rotation are Cameron Ridley, Connor Lammert, and Prince Ibeh. Ridley is inconsistent, Lammert will always be a role player, and Ibeh has scored seven points in his last six games. How is this not the most obvious lineup change in the world? Just make Turner the starter and then alternate between the other three if you want to shake up the lineup. HOW IS THIS NOT OBVIOUS, RICK???
I need to step away from my computer and go lie down.
Other notable no. 52s: T.J. Price (Western Kentucky), Jordan Threloff (Northern Illinois), Volodymyr Gerun (Portland), Staphon Blair (UCF)