The first college basketball team I can remember falling for was the 1997-98 North Carolina Tar Heels. Antawn Jamison was the most dominant forward in the country, and Vince Carter was just starting his human highlight reel origin story.
But the player who really drew me in was point guard Ed Cota.
Cota couldn’t even get a cup of coffee in the NBA, but he was the ideal college floor general. As a four-year starter, he helped lead UNC to three Final Four appearances by dropping dimes to his more touted teammates. He’s still UNC’s all-time assist leader, and it isn’t even close — his 1,030 career assists are the third most in NCAA history.
Among North Carolina diehards or casual college basketball fans who came up in the late ‘90s, Cota is the perfect example of cult hero within the sport. Every program has one. We asked for your favorites on Twitter:
Every college basketball program has a cult hero. Who is your favorite underappreciated player ever from your school?— SB Nation CBB (@SBNationCBB) August 17, 2017
Tell us why!
This is what you told us.
PG Spike Albrecht, Michigan (2012-2016)
For Michigan, is there any question about this?! pic.twitter.com/fYd1nIYLRL— Sam Meads (@sammeads3) August 17, 2017
Spike Albrecht never scored more than seven points in a game during his freshman season at Michigan....until the 2013 national championship game against Louisville. That’s when Albrecht officially made himself a legend.
National player of the year Trey Burke was forced to the bench early in the first half with two fouls. Albrecht stepped in and immediately started raining three-pointers. When it was over, he had dropped 17 first-half points:
Michigan would ultimately lose in heartbreaking fashion, but not before Albrecht endeared himself to the fan base forever. Of course, he’s still remembered as much for the shot he took after the game:
@KateUpton hey saw you at the game last night, thanks for coming out! Hope to see you again— Spike Albrecht (@SpikeAlbrecht) April 9, 2013
The rest of Albrecht’s college career was plagued by injuries that included a pair of hip surgeries. He spent his post-grad year at Purdue last season where he scored only 46 points the entire campaign.
In a way, that makes his national title game moment even more incredible.
PF Darnell Jackson, Kansas (2004-2008)
Darnell Jackson for Kansas. Overcame tremendous family tragedy to be heart and soul of '08 title team.— Ben W. (@twocoach) August 17, 2017
Darnell Jackson spent his first three years at Kansas as a reserve big who could provide energy off the bench. When he finally got the chance to start as a senior, he became an indispensable rebounder and interior scorer for a 2007-08 Kansas team that outlasted Derrick Rose and John Calipari’s Memphis squad to win the national championship.
Jackson will never be the first name you think of on that team. Mario Chalmers hit the iconic shot, Brandon Rush was the team’s leading scorer, Darrell Arthur was the front-court player who would go on to enjoy a long NBA career. But there’s a reason Jackson is always noted as a fan favorite whenever he comes back to Lawrence.
On the court, Jackson was selfless and efficient. He led that ‘08 title team in rebounding while also averaging 11.2 points per game on 62.6 percent shooting. He also had to deal with heartbreak off the court.
During his freshman year, Jackson’s grandmother was killed by a drunken driver in a car accident that left his mother with broken bones in her arms and legs. He was also hit with a (bogus) nine-game suspension from the NCAA as a sophomore in part because a family friend was driving his mother to games.
Kansas might be a one-and-done destination now, but the most memorable players are the ones you get to watch grow. For Jayhawks fans, that’s Darnell Jackson.
Will Yeguete, Florida (2010-2014)
Will Yeguete played four years at Florida; Florida made the Elite Eight in all four of those years, and ventured to the Final Four in his senior season. He played in 127 games as a Gator — and led the team in scoring once, in an Elite Eight loss to Michigan that was over well before halftime. (Even then, he shared the team lead!) Yeguete dealt with injuries that sapped him of his pogo-like bounce as a sophomore and junior, and his rate stats took a hit as a senior, as players around him figured out how to rebound and do more defensively.
But Yeguete played ferocious defense against wings smaller and centers bigger than he was, and he came through with little plays more times than he should have. And he did it all with the world's biggest smile on his face.
Many players have made the Florida Gators great on the court, but I don't think anyone's ever had as great a time as a Gator as Will Yeguete — and I'm not sure anyone else ever will. And for that joy, a joy that seeped into every facet of his team's stunning 2013-14 season, he is as beloved as a Gator can be.
Matt Stainbrook, Xavier (2013-2015)
Stainbrook all day— BW (@BigRedWolfer) August 18, 2017
Stainbrook is one of the most memorable personalities to hit college basketball in the last few years. He was overweight, then got in good shape. He wore goggles. He powered Xavier to the Sweet 16 as a senior. He showed up to radio interviews in his full uniform. And who could forget: He spent his downtime as an Uber driver.
The “Stain Train” simply brought a lot of joy to college basketball. The sport needs more players like him.
Roger Powell, Illinois (2001-2005)
Roger Powell, one of the first big Chicago recruits to go to Champaign in a while (along with Head), and helped start the '05 title run— Jeff Feyerer (@jfey5) August 17, 2017
Illinois’ 2005 squad will forever go down as one of the best teams to never win a title. Deron Williams and Dee Brown were the stars, and Luther Head was an excellent supporting actor.
But the heart and soul of that team always seemed to be 6’6 power forward Roger Powell Jr.
Powell was a three-year starter who helped Illinois reach two Sweet 16s and make the national title game as a senior. He scored 16 points during the Illini’s incredible Elite Eight comeback against Arizona, then dropped 20 points against Louisville in the Final Four. He was also a local recruit from south side Joliet whose commitment was the first building block of what turned out to be a great team.
Kevin Pittsnogle, West Virginia (2002-2006)
Pittsnogle rose to infamy in the 2005 NCAA tournament as a sweet-shooting big man for a West Virginia team that went to the Elite Eight as a No. 7 seed. That run finally earned John Beilein the recognition he deserved as one of the brightest minds in coaching and produced a worthy co-star in shooting guard Mike Gansey. But it was Pittsnogle who always seemed to define the team.
College basketball has rarely seen a big man who could shoot like Pittsnogle. He knocked down 60 threes at a 42.6 percent clip during his breakout junior season, then returned to school to hit 90 threes at a 40.1 percent clip the next year as a senior, when he was legitimately one of the best players in the country.
His final NCAA shot was one of his greatest — his sixth three of the game against Texas in the Sweet 16 — but his college career ended on the wrong side of a buzzer-beater:
West Virginia has consistently produced very good teams in recent years under Bob Huggins, but the Mountaineers still haven’t had a player as memorable as Pittsnogle.
We could go all day on this. Leave your favorite college basketball cult heroes in the comments, and tell us what made them special.