The Electronic Entertainment Expo, better known as E3, is taking place in Los Angeles right now. Video game developers from all over the world are presenting fantastical worlds that you can explore. But none of them is brave enough to create the fictional universe I’d like to explore, which is one where LeBron James decided to forestall building one of the greatest NBA careers of all time and go to UC.
Yes, I know James was supposedly going to play at Ohio State if he didn’t go pro, but the Akron, Ohio native would have been welcomed with open arms by the Bearcats. Plus, if he was already planning on staying close to home, there’s certainly a chance, albeit a small (OK, fine, nonexistent) one, that he would end up in Cincy.
When James was finishing his high school career, the year was 2003. UC was in a much different place than it is now at that time. In the March before the 2003 NBA Draft, the Bearcats played in the NCAA Tournament under Bob Huggins and lost in the first round to the No. 9 seed Gonzaga Bulldogs, finishing a pretty forgettable 17-12 campaign. Still members of Conference USA, the Bearcats’ best players that year were Jason Maxiell and Leonard Stokes.
Little did this alternate dimension version of the Bearcats know but James was about to join their ranks and help them run roughshod through the college basketball world.
In James’ first year, he would have teamed with Maxiell, Tony Bobbit, Field Williams and sophomores James White and Eric Hicks. That’s a pretty solid team, IMHO. Without James, the Bearcats went 25-7 in the 2003-04 season, while finishing third in C-USA. I think adding a 6’8” small forward who could throw a triple-double up whenever he wanted would have allowed UC to claim the conference championship away from DePaul and Memphis.
As a rookie in the NBA, James was worth 5.1 win shares, so let’s just add that into UC’s total, which is probably underselling it considering he accomplished that number against the competition of the NBA and not C-USA. With five more wins added, the Bearcats would have gone 30-2 and earned themselves a much higher seed in the NCAA Tournament, leading to a deeper run than a second round exit. However, James would still be learning, and the Bearcats would fall short in the Elite Eight.
The 2004-05 season was the last of the Bob Huggins era, but something tells me he would have stuck around for a few more years if he could coach James for three more campaigns. While Huggins was pretty much forced to leave the program, a 30-win season and a recruiting coup like getting James would have to give him an extension.
Now back to the 2004-05 season. James, Maxiell and Hicks would create a frontcourt trio that could do EVERYTHING. Shoot from anywhere. Rebound every miss. Block every opponent shot. Defend anyone on the floor. This is a team that would have also won 30 games, taken a C-USA title and instead of falling short to Rajon Rondo and the Kentucky Wildcats in the second round, they would instead deal with them in the Elite Eight. Led by 28 points from James, the Bearcats would survive against the Wildcats and move on to face actual 2005 NCAA champion North Carolina in the Final Four.
In that Final Four matchup, Sean May would give Maxiell trouble and Raymond Felton would provide the guard play that the Bearcats would be lacking, but that wouldn’t matter after James tallies 26 points, 12 rebounds and 10 rebounds, while holding Rashad McCants to six points on 2-of-10 shooting.
Deron Williams and Dee Brown would be difficult to contend with in the title game, but the Illini couldn’t beat North Carolina in real life, so they for sure aren’t defeating James and the superior (also fictional) Bearcats.
This is the team that would have had the best chance to win a national title during James’ four seasons. With such a high level of success, James would be looking at at least first-team All-American honors, if not a Naismith award.
It is at this point in time that the actual history of the Bearcats and the one we are imagining will diverge the most. Huggins was replaced by Andy Kennedy for the 2005-06 season, which featured another 20-win season thanks to holdovers from Huggins’ time at the helm.
As I just explained, though, I’d find it hard to believe that Huggins would be shown the door if James was still on campus. That means he’d be back with the best player in college basketball for the Bearcats to defend a (possible) national title. With Hicks and White flanking him, James would lead UC into the Big East, where he would begin forming rivalries against Kyle Lowry (Villanova), Rudy Gay (UConn) and Jeff Green (Georgetown) that would carry over into the NBA. Instead of being a middle of the road team in the conference, UC would have given UConn a run for its money, but come up short in the chase for the Big East regular season title.
Of course, the Big East Tournament is where legends are made, and James would write his own and erase that of another player. This was the year Gerry McNamara went off to lead the surprising Syracuse Orange to the Big East title. Instead, they would have gone out quietly in the first round, as James and the Bearcats rallied to win the entire tournament and once again poise themselves for a NCAA Tournament run. Unfortunately, the 2005-06 Florida Gators were too good and would top the Bearcats in the Elite Eight or thereabouts.
James’ senior season would feature mountains of mock drafts proclaiming him as the easiest No. 1 pick in NBA history. This would be the weakest team in his run, although after three years of deep NCAA Tournament runs and conference titles, the Bearcats probably would have gotten better recruits. Still, with a freshman in Deonta Vaughn who provided the backcourt power the Bearcats had long been without in James’ career, UC would once again be at the very top of the Big East. James would average a triple-double in his final season and, showing what we know (that he doesn’t need great teammates to go far), he would turn what was actually an 11-19 team into a Final Four contender, perhaps winning UC its second national title in four years.
During the 2017 NBA Draft, James would easily be the No. 1 pick, changing the course of history for a number of franchises. In 2007, Greg Oden went No. 1 to the Portland Trail Blazers. That’s not what would have happened in our timeline. James would have become a Trail Blazer. The Seattle SuperSonics would probably still take Kevin Durant, but Oden would have ended up with the Hawks as the third pick. The repercussions go on from there.
So there you have it. The Cincinnati Bearcats would have had a much different four years if James decided to forgo the NBA (for four-straight years) and Ohio State to play for Huggins. That’s obvious. UC would have most likely won at least one national title, earned a few national awards for James and won more than its fair share of conference championships. James would also have kept Huggins in town for a bit longer, which might send further ripples, as Mick Cronin may not have come in as head coach in 2006. Who knows what else would have happened? We’ll never know, buts its fun to pretend.