A colleague of mine asked me recently whether it was better for a college team to have a true "superstar" or just a collection of really good players. The answer is easy: there is no right answer. The best college teams are the teams that play the best together, and star players are usually elevated by winning rather than by individual performances. How many superstars have carried their teams to the national championship, or even the Final Four? Purdue's Glenn Robinson was as dominant as any player I have seen in the last 15 years (I watched him courtside as he poured in 44 points against Kansas in the NCAA Tournament), yet the Big Dog never played in the Final Four. I played against Maryland's Len Bias and Navy's David Robinson, and few were in their class in the game's history, yet neither played in the Final Four as an upperclassman. Two of the precious few players that have dominated play and dragged their teams to the Final Four were Larry Bird of Indiana State in 1979 and Danny Manning of Kansas in 1988. Quickly, who led the nation in scoring in 2003? Just as quickly, which team won the national championship in 2003? If you knew the answer to the first question without taking the time to look it up, please turn off the television and go outside. If you didn't know the answer to the second question without looking it up, please pull your head out of the sand. We remember winners, and we carve out a special place in the game for the champions of the game. They don't make rings for statistical leaders or No. 1 draft picks -- they make rings for champions. In the vast majority of cases, a star does not make a championship team; rather, a championship team makes stars out of its players. When I was a schoolboy, Indiana had the best team in the country for two straight years, and was an injury away from back-to-back unbeaten seasons in 1975 and 1976. The Hoosiers lost just one game in 1975 (to Kentucky in the NCAA Tournament after Scott May was injured), and went 32-0 in 1976, cutting down the nets down in Philadelphia. I remember my father telling me that every starting player on that 1976 Indiana team would play in the NBA, because they were good, but most importantly, because they were winners. Individually, they may not have been the best players, but together, no team was its equal. Scott May was probably not the best player in the nation that year ? but he was National Player of the Year. May, Quinn Buckner, Bobby Wilkerson, Tom Abernethy and Kent Benson all went on to play in the NBA. None were ever members of a team as good as the one they played on at Indiana. Together, they were truly special. Syracuse won the national championship in 2003, and did so without having been one of the top seeds in the field. The Orange built through the regular season and peaked at the end of the season -- the mark of a champion. The facile interpretation after the season was that Carmelo Anthony was the superstar that single-handedly led the Orange to the title, but that is simply not true. Anthony was indeed a difference-maker, a star performer who made everybody better, but he did not lead his team to the title like Manning did with Kansas in 1988. Syracuse had leadership, defense and shooting from Kueth Duany, big-time shooting from Gerry McNamara and outstanding rebounding and defense from Hakim Warrick. Carmelo was the Orange equivalent to the "straw that stirred the drink" and put Syracuse over the top. As I have said before, if Kansas had either hit their free throws at a normal rate or had Wayne Simien been healthy, our facile interpretation of the last five national champs would be that seniors win championships and the premium would be on seniors you can build with rather than a "one and out" freshman. We would have been in awe of Kirk Hinrich and Nick Collison, and would have quickly dismissed the idea that a freshman superstar was the easy route to hanging a national title banner. North Carolina's Roy Williams, one of the game's great coaches, said last year that he would hesitate to recruit top ten-ranked players coming out of high school, presumably because those players would bolt college early. While I believe Williams was speaking out of some frustration with the current state of the college game, I don't think such a policy would work well for North Carolina or anyone else. By that measure, North Carolina would not have recruited Sean May, Rashad McCants and Raymond Felton, all of whom were ranked in the top ten nationally coming out of high school. All have stayed for three years, and could stay for the duration. Conversely, Lute Olson recruited Gilbert Arenas out of California, and Arenas was not ranked in the Top 100 nationally. He blossomed early, and left after his sophomore season. The key questions with regard to a star player are simple ones. Does he fit? Does he make others better? Basketball is the ultimate team game, much more so than baseball or football. In basketball, you have to play both ways in rapid succession, and there is not a stoppage in play after each sequence. Everything must be in sync on the run, with little time to adjust, with no coaches in skyboxes looking at photos and no radio communication among players and coaches. It is only the players on the floor, and those players must relate to each other, communicate with each other, cover for each other and work with each other to be great. There are very few "superstars" on any level of play, let alone in the college game. If there are indeed players who could conceivably carry a team to great heights by themselves, those players are probably going to be shaking hands with David Stern before ever showing up on campus. In its truest form, a college "superstar" is just a role player. The role he plays is one that, when you have a true team, is never resented or coveted by his teammates. Look at some superstars in the college game right now -- Providence's Ryan Gomes, Arizona State's Ike Diogu and NC State's Julius Hodge. Do you think they would rather hang a banner or polish an individual award? The truth is, the individual awards will likely go to the players who win. That's the way it is, and the way it should be. That's why I love watching Illinois and North Carolina this year. The Illini play five as one, and as a result, all players are elevated in stature. Illinois has been credited with making the "extra pass" this season, but I disagree. Illinois makes the "right pass" and the one that leads to the right play. They don't seem to care who scores, as long as he is wearing Orange. This is a special team, having a special season, whose players are memorable not just because they are great individually, but because they are great together. North Carolina is playing the right way, as well. For the most part, the Tar Heels have put aside individual agendas, and are also playing great team basketball. Illinois and Carolina make you feel good about the game, and are playing it the way it should be played. That's what "teams" do, and what superstars cannot do alone. I appreciate great individual talent, but I marvel at great teams. It takes so much more for a team to be great, and it's so much more fun to watch.
Jay Bilas, a college basketball analyst for ESPN, is a regular contributor to Insider.