Picking the top NCAA basketball players is a daunting task; there are so many players to choose from. Do we set criteria? Do we only pick championship winners? Many of these guys were stars before they hit the court, while others had to wait until the tournament to get their big moment. The players that made our list may not all have necessarily been the most outstanding players, but when the tournament spotlight shined on them they took it over in a major way.
13. Bill Bradley, Princeton
The future U.S. Senator and New York Knick dominated college basketball before heading off to Washington D.C and the bright lights of New York City. While at Princeton he led the Tigers to three consecutive NCAA tournaments and a run to the 1965 Final Four. Princeton may have lost to Michigan in the semifinals, but Bradley dropped 58 points on Wichita State in the third place game, which is still the record for most points by a single player at the Final Four. Bradley was named the Most Outstanding player of the tournament, where he averaged 33.7 points per game.
12. Jerry West, West Virginia
You know you’re good when your silhouette is the trademark for the NBA. The man known as “The Logo” rose to stardom on the hardwood during his sophomore year where he averaged 32 points and almost 15 rebounds per game. His 160 points in five tournament games tied a record, soon to be broken by Bill Bradley and Elvin Hayes (both on this list). West led his team in scoring and rebounding in every West Virginia matchup. He scored an amazing 275 points in nine NCAA Tournament games.
11. Elvin Hayes, Houston
The “Big E” as he was known during his playing days, attempted 310 field goals, making 152 of them during his 13 NCAA Tournament games, both of which are records. He also scored a jaw-dropping 358 points, good enough for second-most all-time. While Hayes scored in bunches he could never lead his team to the championship game, losing to UCLA in 67’ and 68’ in the semifinals. Hayes scored 25 points and pulled down 24 rebounds in ’67. In the 1968 semi, which was a rematch of the aptly titled “Game of the Century” from the regular season where Hayes bullied Lew Alcindor for 38 points, UCLA held Hayes to just 10 points.
10. Oscar Robertson, Cincinnati
He led Cincinnati to two consecutive Final Fours averaging 32 points and 13 rebounds. As the highest scorer in each of his three seasons Robertson left college as the all-time leading NCAA scorer. Although the Championship trophy never reached his hand, he was a three time All-American and was still the best player on the floor. That’s the reason the Player of the Year Trophy is named after him.
9. David Thompson, North Carolina State
UCLA was the team of the 1970s, so it was a big feat to stop their run of seven consecutive NCAA Championships. Then in flies David “Skywalker” Thompson who led his team to the 1974 championship game where they beat Marquette, but it was the matchup against UCLA in the semis that propelled him to stardom. Thompson scored 28 points and grabbed 10 rebounds in the double overtime semi, which brought UCLA’s streak to a halt. Even more remarkable is the fact that Thompson was rushed to the hospital with a head injury in the preceding game against Pittsburgh. In four tournament games he averaged 24 points per game.
8. Jerry Lucas, Ohio State
Lucas clinched his legacy by leading Ohio State to the 1960 National Championship, he was twice chosen as the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player during his three straight trips to the Final Four. Lucas played alongside basketball legends Bob Knight and John Havilcek. He still holds the Buckeye record for points, field goals, rebounds and shooting percentage in the tournament. Lucas averaged more than 20 points per game during his tenure and led the nation in rebounding twice.
7. Danny Manning, Kansas
The 1988 NCAA Championship team from Kansas was known as Danny and the Miracles because of their unlikely march to the championship game, with 11 losses and a No. 6 seed. In the final against Oklahoma, Manning scored 31 points, corralled 18 boards, made 5 steals and blocked 2 shots giving Kansas the 83-79 victory. Manning previously led the Jayhawks to the 1986 Final Four and the 1987 regional semifinal. He left Kansas as the school’s all-time leading scorer and was the overall number one pick in the NBA draft.
6. Patrick Ewing, Georgetown
Ewing was one of the most heavily recruited players of all-time; it was almost unheard of for a freshman to start let alone star for a Georgetown team in the 80’s, but Ewing did both during Georgetown’s run to the 1982 Championship game where they would lose to Michael Jordan’s North Carolina Tar Heels, despite Pat’s 23 points and 11 rebounds. Ewing would carry his team to two more championship games winning it all in 1984 by beating Houston and the memorable 1985 tilt where Villanova knocked off the heavily favored Hoyas. He was voted Most Outstanding player at the 1984 Final Four.
5. Earvin “Magic” Johnson, Michigan State
Magic is perhaps the most famous college basketball player of them all. His smile and charm captivated the hearts of nearly all sports fans more than his ability to score and dish passes. He spent two electrifying seasons at Michigan State, leading the Spartans to the Elite Eight in 1978 and the Finals in 1979. The 1979 Final is still the most watched college basketball game of all-time; it pitted Magic against Larry Bird and the undefeated Indiana State Sycamores. In this, the first of their many meetings over the next several years Magic and the Spartans won 75-64; Johnson was voted the Most Outstanding Player. His passing style and flair revolutionized the sport.
4. Bill Russell, San Francisco
Legendary Coach John Wooden called him the greatest defender in college basketball. He was so dominate that the NCAA changed the rules after he left, widening the lane and eliminating goaltending. Russell led the Dons to back to back titles in 1955 and 1956. He was a force on the inside, grabbing 50 rebounds in the 1956 Final Four, a record that still stands, including 27 boards in the title game. In 1955 Russell averaged more than 20 points and 20 rebounds to win the Most Outstanding Player award, see he was not just a defensive player.
3. Christian Laettner, Duke
His NCAA moments almost require a separate story. His shot to beat Kentucky in 1992 still stands at the most memorable play in NCAA Tournament history. It’s played hundreds of times during March Madness. He played in four consecutive Final Fours, scoring 407 points in 23 tournament games, a record that still stands, he won back to back titles in 91’ and 92’, and of course he had plenty of help playing alongside Grant Hill and Bobby Hurley, but it was Laettner who was the catalyst that turned Duke into a dynasty. He was voted Most Outstanding Player in the 1991 Tournament and was selected to the 1992 US Men’s Olympic Team, the greatest team ever assembled.
2. Bill Walton, UCLA
He was a big reason that UCLA won a record 88 games in a row back in the 1970’s. He won back to back national titles and Most Outstanding Players awards in 1972 and 1973. In his best game ever, Walton scored 44 points on 21 of 22 shooting in the 1973 Championship game over Memphis State (as they were called back then), if not for the next guy on this list who went to the same school and played the same position, Walton would be No. 1,. He was that good!
1. Lew Alcindor, UCLA
For three seasons 1966-1969 he was the most dominant player on the court. He led the Bruins to three consecutive NCAA championships and was voted the Most Outstanding Player each year, the only player to accomplish this feat. He was so good that the NCAA banned the dunk in 1967 because he was so good at it. He quickly perfected the jump hook, which he perfected. Alcindor was a man-child in college basketball. Alcindor was the recipient of the inaugural Naismith College Player of the year award. He was hands down the greatest college basketball player ever.