While you watch the Madness that is March—which consists of 68 teams and four play-in games—just remember that the star-making performances you are witnessing are likely preludes to budding NBA careers. This year, is all about the freshman phenoms from Duke forward Jabari Parker to Kansas star Andrew Wiggins and Kentucky’s Julius Randle. But then there are seniors like Creighton’s Doug McDermott, who is also ready to take the nation by storm. In the past decade or so, several current NBA players have dazzled the hardwood under the national spotlight, helping improve their draft stock or, in some cases, force the issue whether or not they’d declare for the NBA once the college season came to a close. Here are 11 pros who have used March Madness as their own personal coming out party.
When the preseason watchlists dropped at the start of the 2011-12 NCAA season, more college basketball pundits were salivating over Anthony Davis’ Kentucky teammate, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, touting the latter as the prospective Southeastern Conference Player of the Year. It wouldn’t be long before Davis, with his rebounding and defensive presence, had launched himself as the front runner for National Player of the Year. Davis led the Wildcats to a perfect 16-0 SEC Conference record. Kentucky started the NCAA tournament with the No. 1 seed. Davis averaged 15.2 points, 11.2 rebounds and 4.6 blocks in the tourney. But his most impressive game came in the championship final against Kansas where the one-and-done freshman forward went 1-for-10 from the field but dominated defensively, grabbing 16 rebounds and tying an NCAA championship-record with six blocks to earn the NCAA Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player award.
While he’s spent this season scoring 20 or more points for 31 straight games and setting a single-season franchise record for the Knicks, there was a time when Carmelo Anthony was the center of the New York State basketball universe. As a freshman at Syracuse during the 2002-2003 season, Melo was the premier diaper dandy in the nation, earning NCAA Freshman of the Year honors while also being named Second-Team All-American. Anthony led the Orangemen to the Big Dance, and continued his dominant play all the way up to the Final Four, where he dropped 33 points on Texas in the semis. In the championship game against Kansas, Melo had 20 points and 10 rebounds, leading Syracuse to its first ever NCAA title, winning the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player award, and capping off what some call the greatest season for a freshman in college hoops history.
The same year Melo led Syracuse to a National Championship, a guard from Marquette nicknamed “Flash” did everything in his power to prove there was more than one superstar in the 2003 tournament. Dwyane Wade had established himself as one of the best players in the nation during his junior season, being named First-Team All-American and leading the Golden Eagles to a Conference USA Championship. In an Elite Eight matchup against Kentucky, the top ranked team in the field, Wade delivered one of the greatest performances ever in the tournament, recording only the fourth triple-double (29 points, 11 rebounds, 11 assists) in March Madness history. The win secured Marquette a berth in the Final Four, its first trip since winning the national title in 1979. The team lost to Kansas in the semis, but Wade’s performance propelled his NBA stock in what became one of the greatest drafts in league history (Anthony, Wade, LeBron James, Chris Bosh).
While his one-and-done college career has since been marred by a grading/recruiting controversy (which ended up vacating Memphis’ 07-08 season) no one can deny the impact Derrick Rose had on the NCAA during his freshman year with the Tigers. Leading the team to a 33-1 record in the regular season, Rose was looking like the next coming of Carmelo Anthony heading into the 2008 Big Dance–a freshman capable of taking his team all the way. Rose was impressive throughout the tournament, edging out current NBA starting point guards like D.J. Augustin of Texas in the Elite Eight, and Darren Collison of UCLA in the Final Four semis. Despite averaging an incredible 20.8 points, 6.5 rebounds, and 6 assists in the tournament, Rose missed a crucial free throw in the final seconds of the title game against Kansas (more on that later) and Memphis went on to lose. Rose quickly declared for the NBA Draft, and went first overall to the Chicago Bulls.
Currently one of the best point guards in the NBA, Deron Williams was a stud at Illinois, and capped his college career with a deep tournament run during his junior (and final) season. Williams led the Fighting Illini to a 29-1 regular reason record and Big Ten Tournament title in 04-05, which earned them the top seed in the Big Dance. In the tournament, Williams scored 22 points with 10 assists in a gutty comeback win against Arizona in the Elite Eight, and Illinois then cruised by Louisville in the Final Four semis to earn a date with UNC in the title game. Williams had a tough assignment with current NBA point guard Ray Felton running the show for the Tar Heels, but still managed 17 points and seven assists in a close game, which the Illini ultimately lost 75-70. Williams declared for the 2005 NBA Draft (which also included elite point guard Chris Paul), and the three-time All-Star is currently running the show for the Brooklyn Nets.
Sometimes in college hoops, a strong performance in your conference tournament can serve as a springboard into the subsequent Big Dance. That was clearly the case for Kemba Walker, who as a junior, led UConn to five wins in five days en route to the 2011 Big East Conference Championship. On the momentum of winning that tournament, along with being named First-Team All-American, Walker led the Huskies to their second Final Four in his three seasons at UConn. Walker first dropped 18 points against Kentucky in the semis, before squaring off with Butler–which had miraculously made its second straight appearance–in the National Championship game. Walker scored a game-high 16 points leading the Huskies to victory, while earning Most Outstanding Player honors. Later in the year, Walker was selected 9th overall by Charlotte in the 2011 NBA Draft.
For Mario Chalmers, it was one definitive play during the 2008 NCAA Championship game that has him remembered as one of the tournament’s all-time greats. As a junior on a very good Kansas team (that included three other future NBA players), Chalmers was known for being a tenacious defender, with an impulse to take big shots. After beating Texas in the Big 12 Conference Championship, Kansas began its road to the Final Four and a fifth national title in school history. In the championship game against a Derrick Rose-led Memphis squad, all hope seemed lost with the Jayhawks down three with 10.8 seconds left. Chalmers, however, drained a three-pointer to tie the score with 2.1 seconds remaining, sending the game to overtime and an eventual Kansas victory. The shot is known in Jayhawk land as “Mario’s Miracle” and the now NBA veteran is currently enjoying his fifth season with the Miami Heat.
Just like Chalmers, Shane Battier is a current Miami Heat player who led his college team to a national title while winning the Most Outstanding Player honors. It was back in 2001 when Battier and the Duke Blue Devils edged the Arizona Wildcats for the championship, two years after losing to UConn in the ’99 Finals. Throughout his four years at Duke, Battier gained a reputation as a team leader and gritty defender. Most memorable, his play prompted the Cameron Crazies to chant “Who’s your daddy? Battier!” In the ’01 title game against Arizona, Battier racked up a double-double of 18 points and 11 rebounds, cinching the third national title for the Blue Devils (they added a fourth in 2010). Battier segued his illustrious college career into a successful NBA career as a defensive stopper, and has a good chance to match his NCAA championship with an NBA one on the Heat.
Just to make sure there is no Tobacco Road bias allegations, here is the mandatory Tar Heel for this list. What Battier was to Duke during his four years, Tyler “Psycho T” Hansbrough was an equally larger-than-life figure at North Carolina during his four years. The ACC’s all-time leading scorer, Hansbrough became a huge fan favorite due to his gutty play, and was the 2008 Wooden Award winner as the nation’s best player. Despite immense success through his first three years at UNC, Hansbrough didn’t make it to the Final Four until his junior season, when the Tar Heels fell in the semis. Hansbrough received one more shot at glory when he returned for his senior season, and scored 18 points against Villanova in the Final Four semis, setting up a title bout vs. Michigan State. Hansbrough added another 18 as the Tar Heels went on to win their fifth national title, and while he was overshadowed by star point guard Ty Lawson and tournament Most Outstanding Player Wayne Ellington, no one can deny Psycho T’s moment in the sun.
Of French and Swedish decent, Joakim Noah may not seem like your prototypical U.S. college basketball star, but at 6’11” with a towering wing span, he fit the bill rather well at Florida, one of the nation’s premier basketball programs. After playing sparingly as a freshman, Noah had a breakout sophomore campaign, leading the team in scoring and blocks. The Gators, a team also including current NBA players Al Horford and Corey Brewer, won the school’s first national title in 2006, defeating UCLA by 16 points. Noah received Most Outstanding Player honors after compiling a line of 16 points, nine rebounds, and a championship game record six blocks. Noah was highly favored to be the top pick in the 2006 NBA Draft, but along with Horford and Brewer, opted to return to Gainesville and the move paid off—the Gators pulled off a rare repeat as national champs in ’07.
UConn has an impressive lineage of current NBA players (Kemba, Ray Allen, Rudy Gay, Ben Gordon) and Emeka Okafor is undoubtedly one of the greatest to ever don a Husky jersey. During his junior season, Okafor was a defensive beast for UConn, winning the nation’s Defensive Player of the Year award, while also claiming Big East Player of the Year honors. Entering the tournament as a two-seed, the Huskies marched their way to the Final Four and a semifinals matchup against a very good Duke team. Okafor finished with 18 points despite early foul trouble, setting up a matchup with Georgia Tech in the final. While Gordon had been the team’s leading scorer up to that point in the tournament, Okafor took over against the undersized Yellow Jackets, pouring in a game-high 24 points, to go with 15 rebounds and 2 blocks. Okafor was named Most Outstanding Player, and went on to be taken second overall by the Charlotte Bobcats in the 2004 NBA Draft.