The assignment was as easy as walking a tightrope across the Atlantic on ice skates: pick the ultimate Mount Rushmore of college basketball. Four faces for all time.
I made a conscious decision to split the baby. Two coaches and two players.
For the coaches, John Wooden was nonnegotiable. Don Haskins was the tougher call, but he won the game that changed the game forever. That made him stand out from all the other spectacular achievers I had to leave off.
For the players, I went with Lew Alcindor of UCLA and Pete Maravich of LSU. Alcindor was the ultimate winner, going 88-2 as a collegian and claiming three national titles in three seasons. Maravich was a toss-up choice with half a dozen other greats, but I went with him for this simple fact: When kids go out to play in the backyard or on the playground, the universal goal is to put the ball in the basket. Nobody ever put it in the basket better than Pistol Pete, and nobody ever will.
Now here's the thought that struck me during this endeavor: Over the next 100 years, it's easier to see replacing one of those coaches on the mountaintop than one of those players.
It's next to impossible to believe any coach will ever again win 10 national titles -- in a span of 12 years -- as Wooden did. Or 88 straight games. Or 39 straight NCAA Tournament games.
Nor is it conceivable that any coach will do anything as culturally significant as Haskins, who at Texas Western became the first coach to win a national title with an all-black starting lineup in 1966, defeating all-white Kentucky. Intentional or not, social statements don't come any bigger, bolder or more timely than that.
But slim as the odds are in both cases, it's still more likely that a future coach will necessitate a lineup change than a future player.
Bottom line: Nominations are now closed for the player portion of the college basketball Mount Rushmore.
As in, closed forever.
There will be no new candidates to be etched in stone. Barring some radical change in the NBA labor laws that forces the return of the four-year player, the days of truly legendary college ballers are over.
Nobody stays in school long enough to do the kinds of things required to put a face on a figurative mountain. It's too ephemeral a game now for the permanence of history -- and it's been that way for nearly a decade.
Tim Duncan turned off the legend lights behind him when he left college in 1997, after staying a scandalous four years at Wake Forest. Nobody since then has even been worth serious discussion for Mount Rushmore inclusion -- and as good as Duncan was, he isn't even a front-and-center candidate. He didn't make any of the ESPN-era (1980 to present) lists at ESPN.com.
We all know that this sea of change has been ongoing, but the true impact of it hit me when it came time to make these Rushmore lists.
The pre-1980 candidates were a daunting collection of deities: Alcindor, Maravich, Bill Walton, David Thompson (my four), Larry Bird, Bill Russell, Oscar Robertson, Magic Johnson, Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry Lucas, Elvin Hayes -- and that's admittedly giving the guys from the 1950s and earlier short shrift.
How, I asked myself at selection time, can you possibly leave off Larry Bird, the greatest one-man mid-major savior in history? How can you leave off Bill Russell, who won back-to-back titles at San Francisco? How can you leave off the Big O, whose stats are so gaudy they seem fictitious? But I did. Somebody had to go.
Then I looked at the list of 1980-to-present player candidates. By comparison, it was positively barren.
Christian Laettner was a no-brainer. So was Patrick Ewing. After that, there was nobody who absolutely demanded inclusion. I finally went with Danny Manning and David Robinson, two four-year guys from the 1980s -- excellent players, but not exactly slam-dunk Rushmorites in comparison to the guys from the other side of the great divide.
That made Laettner my most modern Rushmorite, and he hung up his Duke uniform 14 years ago.
In fact, I lobbied for a little Enron-style flimflammery that would have changed the cutoff date to 1979 and grandfathered Bird and Magic onto the modern-player Rushmore. Wiser heads vetoed.
By the mid-'90s -- after the Fab Five sped up the clock and Kevin Garnett pushed it up even faster -- the transcendent talents became college short-timers or no-shows. Now the kids are almost boxed into coming for a year, but it's hard to see the Greg Odens of the world staying longer than that and mounting any kind of serious challenge to the Rushmore elite.
That's the current collegiate catch-22. If you're good enough to make Mount Rushmore, why hang around long enough to prove it?
Instead, if you average double figures at any point in your college career, then congratulations! You're an early-entry candidate.
Wait, check that. Double figures are optional. Duke's Josh McRoberts pondered putting his name in the draft until just this week after averaging a mighty 8.7 points per game for the Blue Devils as a freshman. The stuff of legends, right there.
A competent jump shot is optional. See: Rondo, Rajon, and Shakur, Mustafa. Heck, see Thomas, Tyrus, considered a possible No. 1 overall pick despite serious deficiencies in his ability to shoot. (Since the two-hand-set-shot days, has the NBA ever made a guy who averaged 12.3 points per game its No. 1 overall pick? I'm guessing no.)
A grasp on playing your position is optional. Memphis sophomore point guard Darius Washington is in the draft despite averaging more turnovers (3.2) than assists (3.1) and playing so erratically at season's end that walk-on Andre Allen was the team's more effective point.
How far we've come from the days when Ralph Sampson -- 7-foot-4, Sports Illustrated cover boy in high school, three-time AP national Player of the Year -- played four years at Virginia. Or from the days when Alcindor was playing on the freshman team at UCLA, biding his time before he could move up to the varsity.
We won't see those times again. Nor will we ever see another player worthy of the college game's Mount Rushmore.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.