SN 50: Remembering Glenn Robinson’s reign as Purdue’s Big Dog

The Sporting News ranked the 50 greatest individual seasons recently, and college basketball made its impact on the list.

The four players who produced seasons worthy of our list:

SN 50: The 50 greatest individual seasons of all time

UCLA’s Lew Alcindor (later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) (1966-67, No. 13 overall);

USC’s Cheryl Miller (1985-86, No. 20 overall);

LSU’s Pete Maravich (1969-70, No. 21 overall):

Purdue’s Glenn Robinson, (1993-94, No. 47 overall).

Sporting News senior writer Mike DeCourcy has an essay remembering when it took everything a Hall of Famer had — two, really — to slow down Glenn Robinson:

No one bigger than the Big Dog

We did not have camera phones at the time, and even if we did, sportswriters don’t often gather at an NCAA Tournament site for a group photo or selfie. So I do not recall everyone who was present in the press room at Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville on that Friday afternoon in March nearly three decades ago. I know exactly what we were discussing, though.

We were talking about the Big Dog.

Specifically: How far back into college basketball history did one need to travel to find a player who delivered a more impressive season than the one Purdue’s Glenn Robinson was near to completing as a junior in 1993-94?

Even those of us who didn’t touch a beer the night before still were drunk on the delirious performance he’d authored in a Sweet 16 victory the previous night against Kansas. Against a front line that included future pros Greg Ostertag and Scot Pollard, Robinson lit up the Jayhawks and the city of Knoxville with 44 points and 6-of-10 3-point shooting. He grabbed 7 rebounds and picked off 3 steals. He produced more than half his team’s points in an 83-78 victory.

Robinson finished that year as the top scorer in NCAA Division I, with 1,030 points and an average of 30.3 per game. Only three Division I scoring leaders since reached the 30-point plateau, and none did it in a major conference. Only six of the 27 scoring leaders since Robinson competed in major conferences, and none of them carried his team to a No. 1 seed. That’s how much of a game-changer the Big Dog was.

“Our best play was to give it to Glenn and get the hell out of his way,” Todd Foster, a guard on that Purdue team, told the Journal & Courier of Lafayette, Ind., in 2019.

I had just finished my first year on the Memphis Tigers beat for the Commercial Appeal newspaper when I was sent across the state to Knoxville to cover the Southeast Region. With a second-round upset, Marquette made it there out of the Great Midwest Conference. In the Sweet 16, the Golden Eagles played Duke, which had earned the No. 2 seed. Purdue was the Big Ten champion and seeded No. 1, and Kansas was the No. 4 seed after finishing third in the Big Eight.

This was my first opportunity to see in person what Robinson had been doing to a long list of overmatched opponents in the Big Ten and beyond. He scored 49 points against an Illinois squad featuring Deon Thomas and Kiwane Garris that was bound for the NCAA Tournament. His 44 against Kansas represented his fourth consecutive 30-point game in the NCAAs, including his one-game appearance in the 1993 tournament. He shot 48.3 percent from the field and 38 percent on 3-pointers.

It seemed there was no stopping him, but something did. There are multiple explanations for the 13-point clunker that ended his college career. Ostertag, who weighed nearly 300 pounds, fell on Robinson during the course of the semifinal game. Teammates told the Journal & Courier, years later, that Robinson’s back was injured during horseplay at the team hotel on the day before the regional final.

Or it might just have been that another superhuman, Grant Hill, was able to get the better of Robinson. After rescuing Duke from a halftime deficit against Marquette – after, by many accounts, a severe challenge to his competitive spirit from Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski – Hill was assigned to defend Robinson in the regional final.

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And that was pretty much all Hill was asked to do. That’s not to say it wasn’t an enormous job, but standard man-to-man defense requires a player to be aware of the ball and offer help when the ball is moving toward dangerous positions. Hill kept his eyes locked on Robinson through nearly every Purdue possession, turning his back only when it was time to box out and pursue a defensive rebound. At the offensive end, Hill shot just 4-of-12 from the field, but all that mattered was his occupation with Robinson, who attempted 22 shots, missed 16 of them and scored just 13 points.

At the time, Purdue’s Final Four drought had only reached 14 years. It has persisted to this day, with the dream dying in two more Elite Eights. The Final Four never seemed closer for the Boilers, though, then it did on the afternoon before the Duke game, when the discussion raged about how big a giant Robinson had made himself.

Ultimately, as I recall, we went past Larry Bird’s 1977-78 season (28.6 ppg, 14.9 rpg) and David Thompson’s 1974-75 (29.9 ppg, 8.2 rpg) and started throwing around names like Maravich and Abdul-Jabbar.

That’s how great the Big Dog was at his biggest.

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