Top Five Best Opening-Round Players To Play In SLC
SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – Later this week, Salt Lake City will host the first and second rounds of the NCAA Tournament for the 16th time in the tournament’s history.
Over the years, Salt Lake City has hosted some great games with some major upsets. Some of the game’s greatest players have started their tournament runs in Utah as well.
While arguably the greatest Final Four in the sport’s history was hosted by the University of Utah when Michigan State’s Magic Johnson defeated Indiana State’s Larry Bird in the 1979 championship, for this particular list, the focus will be on the best players of the opening round games that have been played in Salt Lake.
Here’s the list of some of the best players to begin a major NCAA Tournament run in Utah:
Chris Mullin – St. John’s
Top-seeded St. John’s was sent to Salt Lake Cityin 1985 to begin its tournament run after a 31-4 season that included a Big East championship.
The Red Storm featured a roster of six future NBA stars, the biggest of all being Chris Mullin. In the two games in Salt Lake City, Mullin put up 21 points against Southern in a first-round drubbing and then followed that up with a 26-point outing in a slim victory over Arkansas.
Led by Mullin, the Red Storm advanced all the way to the Final Four, where they feel to Georgetown in the semifinals.
Mulllin went on to a Hall-of-Fame career with the Golden State Warriors and the Indiana Pacers. He is currently the head coach at St. John’s.
Larry Johnson – UNLV
The UNLV Rebels won the program’s only national championship in 1990 and began their march towards the championship in Salt Lake City.
The Rebels had a roster with three future NBA players, but forward Larry Johnson is probably the most well-known of that group.
In the opening round game, a 30-point beatdown of 16-seed Little Rock, Johnson put up a 13-point, 12-rebound double-double to set the tone for the tournament.
Against Ohio State in the next round, Johnson was even better with a double-double of 23 points and 16 rebounds to lead the Rebels into the Sweet 16.
Johnson came back the next season to help UNLV defend its title, but the Rebels were defeated in the semifinals by the eventual champion, Duke. He then entered the NBA Draft where he was selected first overall by the Charlotte Hornets.
Ray Allen – UConn
At one point the NBA’s all-time leader in 3-pointers made, UConn’s Ray Allen was brilliant in opening round games in Salt Lake City.
As a 2-seed in the 1995 tournament, UConn drew Chattanooga in the first round and made quick work of the Mocs in a 100-71 victory. In the win, Allen was dominant scoring 18 points on 7-for-9 shooting.
In the second round, the Huskies edged Cincinnati thanks to 24 points by Allen.
UConn would go on to the Elite Eight, where they were defeated by the tournament’s eventual champion, UCLA.
A year later, Allen entered the NBA, where he enjoyed an 18-year long Hall-of-Fame career with two NBA championships.
Ron Mercer – Kentucky
After winning the title in 1996, the Kentucky Wildcats were sent to Salt Lake City in 1997 to begin their title defense.
Head coach Rick Pitino’s squad featured six players that would go to the NBA, but in ’97, none shined brighter than Mercer.
The Wildcats blew out Montana in the first round thanks to 16 points from Mercer and then rolled past Iowa to go the Sweet 16 thanks to 10 points by Mercer.
On their way to the Final Four, the Wildcats defeated Utah in the Elite Eight. Mercer scored 21 points in that game.
Kentucky fell short of its second-consecutive title with a loss to Arizona in the championship game, but Mercer was still named to the All-Tournament team.
He was later selected with the sixth overall pick by the Boston Celtics in that summer’s NBA Draft.
Adam Morrison – Gonzaga
Gonzaga came to town as a 3-seed in 2006 led by their mustachioed superstar, Adam Morrison.
Morrison had been putting up big numbers all season and continued that trend in the opening round games in Salt Lake City.
The Bulldogs were pushed to the limit in a slim 79-75 win over Xavier in the opening round but Morrison and his 35 points saved the day.
He wasn’t nearly as sharp in the second round against Indiana, scoring just 14 points but it didn’t seem to matter as the Bulldogs won 90-80 to advance to the Sweet 16.
Gonzaga was bounced from the tournament in the next game against UCLA and Morrison was famously shown shedding tears as time expired.
He would go on to be selected third overall in the NBA Draft by the Charlotte Bobcats and had a somewhat disappointing pro career. He won back-to-back championships in 2009 and 2010 with the Los Angeles Lakers.