Each year March Madness showcases college basketball’s greatest talent on the national level. With teams led by current superstars like Stephen Curry to NBA legends like Michael Jordan, the tournament is always filled with talent. But who is the best of the best? The greatest college basketball players of all-time didn’t just help their teams earn a spot in the month-long competition, they also helped their program reach new heights. These are the greatest college basketball players of all-time.
Lew Alcindor Left UCLA With An 88-2 Record
Today, Lew Alcindor is better known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the NBA’s all-time leading scorer. In high school and college, he was better known by his given name, Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor Jr.
Alcindor was recruited by UCLA after winning 71 straight games in high school. His success continued in college as he went 88-2 and won three national championships. If freshmen had been allowed to participate in March Madness back then it’s likely he would have four appearances.
Bill Walton Followed In Alcindor’s Footsteps
As hard as it could be to follow in a legend’s footsteps, that’s exactly what Bill Walton did when he got to UCLA. Another big center picked to lead the school, Walton led the Bruins to two undefeated seasons as well as an 88-game winning streak.
In the 1973 NCAA Final, Walton was spectacular, sinking 21 of 22 shot attempts for 43 points. To many historians and analysts, this is considered the single greatest performance in the history of college basketball.
Wilt Chamberlain Was Triple Teamed Regularly
Perhaps no scorer in the history of college basketball was more feared than Wilt Chamberlain. Playing for Kansas, he recorded 31 rebounds and scored 52 points in his debut. His abilities scared opposing teams so much they regularly assigned three players to defend him.
When it came time for March Madness, Chamberlain helped take Kansas to the title game where they faced North Carolina. Even while being triple-teamed, Chamberlain was able to lift Kansas to triple-overtime in an eventual loss and was named the best player of the tournament.
Christian Laettner Was A Bully… Literally
Playing basketball in the ’90s meant referees let players get away with a lot more physicality than you would see today. As the star player at Duke during that time, Christian Laettner took full advantage and became one of the best and most hated bullies in NCAA history.
For how physical Laettner was on the court, though, he was equally athletically gifted. In his time at Duke, he played in 23 March Madness games, winning 21. During the NCAA Final in 1992, he was a perfect 10-for-10 from the floor and made the final game-winning shot.
David Thompson Ended UCLA’s Dynasty
From 1967 until 1973, UCLA was undefeated in March Madness. The powerhouse school won seven straight national titles before coming face-to-face with David Thompson and North Carolina State in 1974.
The teams met in the Final Four, and NC State came away with the victory. The school rode the momentum to their first national championship and Thompson was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player. He was also named the Associated Press Player of the Year.
Michael Jordan’s College Career Was Just A Preview Of His Greatness
With how impressive Michael Jordan’s career in the NBA was, it could be easy to overlook his dominance at the college level. Playing for the University of North Carolina, Jordan helped lead the Tar Heels to a title over Georgetown with a final score of 63-62.
After three years at the school, and mounting frustrations that he wasn’t being featured enough in the offense, Jordan declared for the NBA draft, where his name is now legendary.
Jerry West Is More Than Just “The Logo”
A legendary NBA star whose silhouette serves as the logo for the league, Jerry West’s greatness started with his run at West Virginia. In college, West averaged 25 points-per-game and 13 rebounds per game.
In 1959, West nearly led his team to an upset victory in the NCAA title game against the University of California at Berkeley. The team trailed by six points at the half, and came back to within one by the time the buzzer rang. West scored 28 points that night.
Oscar Robertson Was A Triple-Double Machine
To this day, Oscar Robertson is the only college basketball player to finish his March Madness career with four triple-doubles. He also scored 56 points in one game, the third-highest total in tournament history.
To put his accomplishments into perspective, Magic Johnson only ever managed two tournament triple-doubles. Roberston was so explosive at Cincinnati that he won multiple player achievement awards, and even had one named after him after he entered the NBA.
Grant Hill Took His Own Path
When it came time for a young Grant Hill to pick a college program to attend he was torn. His mother wanted him to go to Georgetown while his father wanted him to go to UNC. Hill ended up going against both parents’ wishes and enrolled at Duke.
Playing alongside Christian Laettner at Duke proved to be the right decision for the young star. During a 1992 regional final, Duke was trailing Kentucky 103-102 with 2.1 seconds left when he floated a pass 75 feet to Laettner, who pulled up and sunk the game-winning shot as time expired.
Patrick Ewing’s Upset Of Houston Is The Stuff Of Legend
In the ’80s, Patrick Ewing was tasked with being the star player at Georgetown University. When his tenure ended, his resume was filled with three NCAA Title appearances and one win, taking down the University of Houston in 1984.
Ewing was named the Player of the Tournament in 1984 and would play one more season at Georgetown before going pro. In 2017, Ewing returned to Georgetown as the programs head coach.
No One Has More Titles Than Bill Russell
By the time Bill Russell ended his career (both college and the pros), he had won a breathtaking 13 championships. Before joining the Celtics, he helped bring recognition to the University of San Francisco, a small college based in the Bay Area.
Russell led the school to back-to-back championships in 1955 and 1956. By some accounts, he was such a dangerous defender that he is the reason the NCAA widened the free throw lane to 12 feet.
Hank Gathers Had More To Give The Game
During the 1988-89 season, Hank Gathers became the second player in Division I history to lead the nation in rebounding and scoring. At the time, he was considered one of college basketball’s great NBA prospects – then tragedy struck.
During a game at home against UC Santa Barbara in 1989, Gathers collapsed on the floor and was found to have an abnormal heartbeat. One year later he collapsed on the court again and couldn’t get up. Gathers passed away at 23-years-old.
Scott May Went Undefeated In 1975-76
One of the lower-profile players on this list is Scott May. A strong college player, he never blossomed into an NBA star, but his accomplishments at the collegiate level are still worth mentioning.
May was the co-captain of the Indiana Hoosiers 1975-76 team that went a perfect 32-0. He averaged 18 points-per-game to go along with eight rebounds. Most notably, he was a part of the last undefeated Division I program through the regular season and March Madness in history.
James Worthy Stood Up To The Competition
In 1982, James Worthy was named the Most Outstanding Player of March Madness. He was a member of the Tar Heels team alongside Michael Jordan that helped win the school’s first NCAA Title.
In the NBA, Worthy was just as good, being a featured player on the “Showtime” Lakers where he won three NBA Championships and was named the NBA Finals MVP once. Not too shabby for someone who played alongside several of the greatest players in NCAA, and NBA history!
Akeem Olajuwon Deserved More Credit
Before adding the “H” to his first name, Akeem Olajuwon played his college ball at the University of Houston where he faced stiff tournament competition. Despite a highly decorated collegiate career, Olajuwon could never propel his team to win the NCAA Title.
In back-to-back years, Olajuwon lost to the Michael Jordan-led UNC and the Patrick Ewing-led Georgetown. Even with the losses, he was named the All-Tournament player both years.
Earvin Johnson Turned Michigan Into A Contender
Before Earvin “Magic” Johnson played for Michigan State, the school was an unknown in the college basketball world. In two years he transformed the program, turning it into a perennial contender and even going toe-to-toe with Larry Bird.
The “Magic vs Bird” match happened in the NCAA Final in 1979. The underdog Spartans shocked Indiana with a commanding 75-64 win that was never in much doubt. Both players would go on to become NBA icons.
Larry Bird Kept It At Home
Known as the “Hick from the Lick,” Larry Bird returned home to Indiana to play college basketball after butting heads with Bobby Knight at a larger program. With the Sycamores, Bird was allowed to be the star of the program and flourished.
In three years at college, Bird averaged 30 points-per-game, 13 rebounds per game, and went head-to-head against Magic Johnson in 1979 in an NCAA Final classic. After college, he found even more success as a member of the Boston Celtics.
Austin Carr Was A Prolific Scorer
In NCAA tournament history, no scorer was more prolific than Austin Carr. Playing for Notre Dame, he took shot after shot, and with good reason. The second-fewest points he ever scored in a tournament game was 45!
His highest output ever was 61 points, which also stands as a Division I Tournament record. In 1970, Carr averaged 52.7 points-per-game. The next season he averaged 41.7 points-per-game. In 2007, Carr was inducted into the College Basketball Hall of Fame.
Len Bias Got Better Every Year
As a freshman in college, Len Bias was considered “raw and undisciplined” and only averaged 22 minutes per game while he learned the ropes. By his senior year, he was averaging 37 minutes per game and 23.2 points-per-game.
Bias’ performance earned him several accolades, including being named the ACC Player of the Year as a junior. In the NBA Draft, Bias was taken second overall by the Celtics but never played a minute with his team after his life was cut short.
Gail Goodrich Built UCLA Before Lew Alcindor Arrived
Before Lew Alcindor arrived at UCLA, Gail Goodrich was the star of the program. He was named the Bruins’ Player of the Year for the 1964-65 seasons and helped kick off the school’s dynasty.
Goodrich was the main player for UCLA during their first title run. The next year Alcindor arrived at the school, solidifying the unbeatable lineup. Goodrich was mostly known for his defense and formed an intimidating backcourt for UCLA next to Walt Hazzard.
Ralph Sampson Deserved To Win It All
Standing 7’4″, Ralph Sampson gave his all to the Virginia Cavaliers. He was named the Player of the Year three times but was never able to bring a title home to his university.
The furthest Sampson was ever able to take Virginia was to the Final Four in 1981, where the team lost. Still, his college career was so outstanding that he became the first overall pick in the draft when he turned pro. He was inducted into the College Basketball Hall of Fame in 2011.
Pete Maravich Averaged 44.2 Points-Per-Game
When Pete Maravich left Louisiana State University to go pro, he was the highest-scoring player in NCAA history. For his collegiate career, he averaged an astonishing 44.2 points-per-game, proving he was a one-man wrecking crew.
Maravich didn’t only rely on his offensive prowess to power through college though. He was also a top-notch rebounder and averaged over six per-game. Nicknamed “Pistol Pete” for his shooting ability, it helped that his father was the team’s head coach and made him the focus of each game.
Isiah Thomas Never Left The Floor
One of the iconic members of the “Bad Boy” Detroit Pistons of the late ’80s, Isiah Thomas first started getting everyone’s attention while in college. Playing for Bobby Knight at Indiana, Thomas was a part of the 1981 NCAA Title team.
In that title-clinching match, Thomas scored 23 points, had four steals, and five assists. He also played the entire 40 minutes, which is unheard of in today’s game. The final score of the game was 63-50, Indiana over North Carolina.
Steve Alford Was A Four-Time MVP
Playing for Bobby Knight and the Indiana Hoosiers, Steve Alford had one of the school’s most successful collegiate careers. By the time he went pro, he was the school’s all-time leading scorer and had been named the team MVP four times.
Alford went onto a four-year career in the NBA playing for the Dallas Mavericks. When his NBA career was over, he went back to college, becoming a coach for several programs including UCLA.
Danny Manning’s Title Game Was A Masterpiece
Was Danny Manning the greatest player in the history of the Kansas Jayhawks? The answer is subjective, but when you look at his career there, he’s definitely a strong candidate. More than anything, it’s what Manning did in the title game that makes him really stand out.
The Jayhawks were considered heavy underdogs in the 1988 finals match when Manning exploded for 31 points, 18 rebounds, 2 blocked shots, and 5 steals. The team defeated Oklahoma 83-79 in what is still considered one of the best games ever played.
Shaq Never Stopped Studying
Shaquille O’Neal played his college ball at Louisiana State University where he made quite the name for himself. By the time he went pro, he had won two Player of the Year awards, was a two time All-American and won the Adolph Rupp Trophy.
Did we mention he left college early, too? Actually, while Shaq left the game of college basketball to enter the NBA he continued his studies to get his degree. Today, Shaq is a Hall of Famer and a highly successful businessman.
Steph Curry Was A Cinderella Story
The college career of Stephen Curry doesn’t get as much respect as it deserves considering he went to a small school. At Davidson Curry became the star of the team, averaging over 30 minutes per-game and 25.3 points-per-game.
It was his sophomore year at Davidson that the world took notice of the budding star. After earning a March Madness tournament bid, the school went on a run of several upsets and powered their way to the Elite 8 thanks to the shooting prowess of Curry.
Shane Battier Had His Number Retired
Shane Battier went to Duke, where he saw great success from 1998 until he went pro in 2001. Not only was he athletically gifted, but he also had a high IQ. This allowed him to process the game as a defender, which he did with complete dominance.
After winning several end-of-the-year awards throughout his career, Duke retired Battier’s jersey number. He went on to have a 14-year NBA career where he became a two-time NBA Champion.
Bill Bradley Was Known For His Discipline
College basketball coach Van Breda Kolff once described Bill Bradley as, “not the most physical player. Others can run faster and jump higher. The difference… is self-discipline.” Throughout his career at Princeton, Bradly was known for the rigorous schedule he kept, which included extended practices, long hours studying, and teaching on the side.
Bradley’s hard work paid off with several awards, both athletic and education bestowed upon him. He was inducted into the College Basketball Hall of Fame in 2006.
Elgin Baylor Took The Road Less Traveled
Elgin Baylor had trouble finding his way to college. After one year at the College of Idaho, he lost his scholarship and sat out a year to earn back his eligibility. He then enrolled at Seattle University, where he was quickly drafted to the NBA by the Minneapolis Lakers.
Baylor turned down the Lakers to stay in school, where he led Seattle to its only Final Four appearance in history. Averaging 31 points-per-game, Baylor upped his draft stock and was again selected by the Lakers – this time with the first overall pick in the draft.
Walter Berry Dominated At Multiple Collegiate Levels
Standing nearly seven feet tall, Walter Berry was a dominant force at two collegiate levels. He began his incredible run at San Jacinto Junior College before heading to St. John’s University.
During his three-year college career, Berry won the Wooden Award and electrified crowds with his scoring attack. No one had ever seen an offensive player dominate while only using their left hand. Unfortunately for Berry, his skillset failed to translate to the NBA.
Lionel Simmons Stands Alone
As far as college basketball careers go, there are plenty of players who scored 2,000 points and grabbed 1,000 rebounds. Not many can claim to have scored 3,000 points and 1,000 rebounds like Lionel Simmons can, though.
By the time Simmons left college, he had scored 3,217 points and rebounded 1,429 balls. When Simmons got to the NBA, his career was derailed and he was forced to retire after seven seasons.
J.J. Redick Was The Bad Guy
For unknown reasons, J.J. Redick is known as one of the most despised college basketball players of all time. He was also one of the best. While playing for Duke, Redick was a scoring machine who frustrated defenses with his abilities.
In the NBA, Redick found a strong career as a role player for five different teams. Most recently, he signed a contract with the New Orleans Pelicans to help mentor the young core of talent on the team.
Freeman Williams Averaged Nearly 40 Points Per Game
Playing for Portland State from 1974 until 1978, Freeman Williams was a scoring machine that college basketball had rarely seen. As a sophomore, he averaged 30.9 points per game. The next year he upped the ante and averaged 38.8 points per game.
Despite his collegiate domination, Williams’ skillset was not tailor-made for the NBA. After being drafted by the San Diego Clippers in 1978, he worked his way around the league before finding his way overseas in the mid-’80s.
Mookie Blaylock Could Play Offense And Defense
Playing for Oklahoma from 1987 until 1989, Mookie Blaylock was a sensational two-way player. Known for his defense, any team who slept on his scoring ability found themselves victims of circumstance.
With Blaylock as their star, Oklahoma was a powerhouse. In the NBA, Blaylock became a star defensively and won several accolades. His defensive focus at the professional level meant he scored less, but that’s a fair price to pay for a 14-year career.
Rex Chapman Is More Than Just A Viral Influencer
Known more today for his viral Twitter career than his NBA and college basketball past, don’t sleep on Rex Chapman. He was one of the most clutch and promising players to ever come out of the college the ranks.
As for his NBA days, that’s a much more harrowing story filled with addiction and rehab. Considering where he came from, what he accomplished, how he nearly ruined his life, and how he has come through better, in the end, is a statement to the person he always was.
Scott Skiles Couldn’t Stay Out Of Trouble
No one who has watched Scott Skiles’ highlight tapes from his college days questions his toughness. The problem was he may have been too tough for his own good. While he was busy wreaking havoc on opposing teams on the court, he was fighting the law while off-court.
While at Michigan, Skiles was arrested three times. Once he left college, Skiles cleaned up his act, had a successful NBA career, and eventually transitioned to coaching.
Reggie Williams Was Great On A Losing Team
Proving that college basketball is a team sport, Reggie Williams was an ascendant player on a bad team. If the unstoppable scorer had talent around him, maybe his college career could have ended with a winning record.
It wasn’t Williams’ fault the Virginia Military Institute struggled so much from 2004 until 2007. He averaged nearly 23 points-per-game for 112 total games. That number helped him lead the nation as both a junior and senior.
Alfredrick Hughes Never Stopped Shooting
A member of Loyola University’s college basketball program from 1981 until 1985, Alfredrick Hughes was a one-man show. At one point in his career, he missed 20 consecutive shots, but kept shooting anyway.
In one season, he took an unseemly 655 shots while providing only 17 assists. This high volume output might not have always been successful, but it did lead to big numbers for the man and made him one of the most exciting players in the country to watch.
Daren Queenan Took His Talents To Belgium
Standing six feet and four inches tall, it was never going to be an easy path for Daren Queenan to make it in the NBA. Even with a decorated college career at Lehigh that saw him finish with 2,703 points and 1,013 rebounds, no team was willing to take a chance on him.
We’re not here to talk about his move to Belgium, though. We want to highlight this quote by Queenan that shows how he looked at his life in basketball, “My body is my briefcase.”