Perhaps the greatest individual performance in college basketball history happened on December 7, 1968, in front of roughly 3,200 people in a gym in western New York. That’s where Calvin Murphy, a 5-foot-9 guard from Niagara University, began his junior season by dropping a then–Division I record 68 points (while throwing in six assists and six rebounds for good measure) in a 118–110 win over the visiting Syracuse Orangemen. Murphy averaged 38.2 points per game the season before, was named a first-team All-American twice in his career, and eventually became a Naismith Hall of Famer. So while this game was certainly jaw-dropping, those who followed Murphy’s career will tell you that a 68-point outing was within the realm of possibility every time he took the court.
That last part is a huge reason why Murphy’s performance against Syracuse has mesmerized me from the moment I learned about it. To my knowledge, no footage of this game is publicly accessible (if it even exists at all), which means the legend of Murphy’s night against the Orangemen lives on almost exclusively through the words of those who witnessed it. The first time I read about this game, I swore that there had to be a typo, or that I was the victim of an elaborate hoax. Sixty-eight points in a regulation college game? Scored by a guy standing 5-foot-9? And the people who saw it act like it wasn’t really that surprising? How is that even remotely possible?
Just look at what Bob Kouwe, a Syracuse player who attempted to guard Murphy that night, told Bud Poliquin in 2003:
We had Ernie Austin guard him. We had John Suder guard him. We had Ray Balukas guard him. I guarded him. But there was no way. None. He was the fastest human being you’ve ever seen. He could run faster dribbling than anybody could run without a ball, and he never mis-dribbled. So how do you cover that?
We picked him up as soon as he crossed center court. We tried a box-and-one. We double-teamed him. We tripled-teamed him. We’d play defense on him when we had the ball on the offensive end, and I’m serious about that. But it was fruitless. There was no playing Calvin Murphy. It was a total loss even trying.
The legend of Murphy’s night gets even better. Poliquin’s 2014 book, Tales From the Syracuse Orange’s Locker Room, features this excerpt:
“I remember that they actually stopped pregame drills so Calvin could go through his baton-twirling exhibition,” recalled Bill Smith, who was SU’s sophomore center on The 68-Point Night. “We didn’t have to watch, but we did. We couldn’t help ourselves. So, you’ve got to picture this: Both teams, and the entire crowd, have stopped what they’re doing and they’re staring at Calvin Murphy while he’s twirling a baton. We’re standing there on the court and we’re thinking, ‘My God, look what this guy can do.’ We were psyched out before the game even began.”
I’ll say it again. HOW IS THIS POSSIBLE? How can a 5-foot-9 baton twirler get triple-teamed and still drop 68 points in a regulation game against Division I competition? Murphy’s single-game scoring record has since been broken, first by Pete Maravich (69 points) in 1970 and then by Kevin Bradshaw (72 points) in 1991. But Maravich was 6-foot-5 and played for his dad, while Bradshaw was a 6-foot-6 guard who scored his 72 against Loyola Marymount in a 186–140 game that barely resembled basketball as we know it. (It’s also worth noting that Murphy won his record-breaking game, while Maravich and Bradshaw lost theirs.) I don’t mean to discredit the performances of Maravich and Bradshaw, but at least I can comprehend how they arrived at their astronomical numbers. The more I think about Murphy’s game against Syracuse, though, the more it breaks my brain.
But then, maybe it shouldn’t. Maybe the idea of someone with Murphy’s stature torching a Division I defense shouldn’t come as much of a shock. After all, recent history seems to suggest that this wasn’t as improbable as it may have seemed. In what has become one of the most bizarre anomalies I can recall, college basketball appears to have found itself in the midst of an inexplicable 5-foot-9 scoring revolution.
Campbell University’s Chris Clemons averages 24.7 points per game this season, good enough for fourth in the country behind Oklahoma’s Trae Young, Central Arkansas’s Jordan Howard, and Oakland’s Kendrick Nunn. Clemons, like Murphy, stands 5-foot-9. He’s scored 20-plus points in 13 of his last 14 games, headlined by a 42-point showing in a 94–85 win over Liberty on January 23. And for those who don’t closely follow the Campbell Fighting Camels, know that he’s doing it efficiently: Clemons is making 45.7 percent of his field goal attempts on the season and has shot better than 50 percent from the field seven times over that 14-game stretch.
Now, these numbers may not mean much to you. Your initial reaction might be that short players scoring a ton of points shouldn’t be a big deal, especially for someone in the Big South. And if you’ve been a fan of college basketball for more than a few years, chances are that you can name at least a dozen players under 6 feet who had prominent collegiate careers and/or went on to play in the NBA. That is why I want to be absolutely clear about what makes Clemons’s scoring average so interesting.
Clemons is not just short. According to his bio on Campbell’s official athletic department website, he stands exactly 5-foot-9. And that is important because there appears to be something magical about this particular height.
Let me throw some stats at you. According to Sports-Reference (my source for every player’s height mentioned in this article that couldn’t be found on an official school website), there have been 10 individual seasons in which a player shorter than 6 feet has averaged 25 or more points per game over the last 20 years of Division I college basketball. Four of those came from guys who were 5-foot-11 (although Howard, who is 5-foot-11, is averaging 25.8 points per game in 2017–18 and will likely bump that number to five). One of those can be credited to a 5-foot-8 player (Chicago State’s David Holston in 2008–09), and zero came from 5-foot-10 players. Meanwhile, five such seasons have been recorded by players listed at exactly 5-foot-9.
College Basketball’s 5-Foot-9 Scorers
|Name||School||Season||Points Per Game|
|Name||School||Season||Points Per Game|
|Marcus Keene||Central Michigan||2016-17||30|
|Keydren Clark||Saint Peter's||2003-04||26.7|
|Keydren Clark||Saint Peter's||2005-06||26.3|
|Keydren Clark||Saint Peter's||2004-05||25.8|
If you find yourself thinking that 25 points per game is an arbitrary cutoff point, I should mention that 5-foot-9 guys dominate the list when you move the bar down to 24-plus points per game as well, thanks to the additions of Oakland’s Kay Felder, who averaged 24.4 points per game in the 2015–16 season, and Clark’s 2002–03 campaign, as he averaged 24.9 as a freshman. The same trend holds true if you adjust the cutoff to 23-plus, 22-plus, or 21-plus points per game. It’s also true if you move the bar up to 28-plus, 29-plus, and 30-plus points per game. (If the cutoff is set at 27-plus points per game, both 5-foot-9 and 5-foot-11 players have posted one such season in this 20-year span; if the cutoff is set at 26-plus points per game, 5-foot-11 seasons outnumber the 5-foot-9 seasons four to three.) Almost any way you slice it, the data spits out these two baffling points:
- 5-foot-9 college basketball players are scoring at high volumes more frequently than any other sub-6-foot height; and
- Three different 5-foot-9 players have averaged 24 or more points per game in the last three seasons, which is something that cannot be said of any other height under 6 feet.
If you’re looking for an explanation behind this, you’ve come to the wrong place. I have no earthly idea as to how or why this is happening. I can get behind the theory that a lot of great players who are listed as exactly 6 feet are shorter than that and round up to avoid being tagged with a stigma. But if we’re going off the assumption that all of the schools’ data on player heights is flawed because the players fudge their numbers, all that does is raise an equally inexplicable question: Why are so many great scorers choosing to be listed at 5-foot-9?
Shoot, it’s not just the volume scorers either. In the last 20 years, there have been three consensus first-team All-Americans who were shorter than 6 feet. Two of them were 5-foot-11 Kansas point guards, Frank Mason III and Sherron Collins. The other was Kentucky’s Tyler Ulis, who stands — wait for it — 5-foot-9. What is it about that exact height? Where are all the 5-foot-10 or 5-foot-8 players? WHAT IN THE NAME OF CALVIN MURPHY IS GOING ON HERE?
Look, I get that the path I’ve taken to arrive at my thesis is the furthest thing from the scientific method. I basically just used the “Season Finder” tool on Sports Reference, set up a few filters, clicked on each name that showed up, and made a list of all the players under 6 feet tall. I’m not here to suggest that I have STONE-COLD PROOF that coaches should stop recruiting 5-foot-11 players and instead start targeting 5-foot-9 guys. I wouldn’t dare claim that I’ve discovered a recruiting market inefficiency like it’s going to be college basketball’s version of Moneyball, especially since Moneyball already exists in recruiting, only it has nothing to do with algorithms and everything to do with duffel bags full of cash.
I just can’t help but notice that there’s something weird going on with that height, and that’s before I even factor in 5-foot-9 Isaiah Thomas, who was named first-team All-Pac-10 at Washington before taking over the NBA a season ago, or 5-foot-9 Nate Robinson, who led Washington to the 2005 Sweet 16 and has won more NBA dunk contests than any player in history. Oh, and have I mentioned that Devan Downey — the former South Carolina star who dropped 30 points in a win over a no. 1-ranked and 19–0 Kentucky team led by John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins in January 2010 — was also listed at 5-foot-9? Or that Chaz Williams, who in 2013–14 averaged 15.6 points and 6.9 assists and led UMass to the school’s first NCAA tournament appearance since 1998, was 5-foot-9? Because those feel like things that should be mentioned.
At this point, I don’t care if there are mountains of evidence that disprove my theory. I’m now 100 percent convinced that 5-foot-9 is a sacred height. I’m convinced that the basketball gods are emitting supernatural powers to players standing 5-foot-9 and that Calvin Murphy’s 68-point game against Syracuse is the origin story that explains why. I’m convinced that stardom awaits Michigan State commit Foster Loyer, who is the only player shorter than 6 feet in ESPN’s Class of 2018 recruiting top 100 and is listed at the exact damn height you should suspect. And I’m convinced that Michigan State, Purdue, Arizona, and Auburn’s path to the Final Four this year starts with tweaking the heights of their respective point guards. If Tum Tum Nairn Jr., P.J. Thompson, Parker Jackson-Cartwright, and Jared Harper were listed at 5-foot-9 instead of their current heights, there’s no doubt in my mind that they would absorb Murphy’s powers, become unstoppable, and lead their teams to a title.
Or, if nothing else, maybe they’d suddenly become great at baton twirling.