The NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. One of the most exciting events for basketball fans around the globe. Some may even say it’s more entertaining than the NBA Finals. It’s that one month of the year where even the most casual of college basketball fans tune in for a few games, often rooting for the underdog 15th seeded school over the giants that are Duke, North Carolina and Villanova.
In the spirit of March Madness, it got me thinking. Who are the best collegiate players of all-time? I mean, we’ve heard of Stephen Curry’s magical run with Davidson in 2008-09, and Jimmer Fredette’s equally as impressive year with BYU in 2011. But what about the players who aren’t one-year wonders? The players who stuck around for 3 to 4 years of their college tenure, and dominated every single game they stepped onto the court?
10. Christian Laettner – Duke (1988-1992)
Laettner was not the most impressive college athlete of all-time when he came to Duke in 1988.
Posting freshman averages of 8.9 points and 4.7 rebounds a game certainly does not get you on a list with other college greats, especially as a 6’11 center.
But his senior year under Coach K is what Laettner is rightfully known for.
AP Player of the Year, ACC Player of the Year, All-American, Naismith Award, Wooden Award, National Champion, and of course, that shot.
Laettner collected all the above honors over the course of his senior year at Duke. That year, Laettner averaged 21.5 points and 7.9 rebounds per game, shooting 58% from the field and 56% from three.
What Laettner will be remembered for most however, is the turnaround jumper from the free throw line to push Duke over the edge against Kentucky, and for that, he is a college basketball legend.
9. Magic Johnson – Michigan State (1977-1979)
Eavin ‘Magic’ Johnson only spent two years at Michigan State, but he was already showing signs of the type of player he would be in the NBA.
Johnson collected career averages of 17.1 points, 7.6 rebounds and 7.9 assists per game playing for the Spartans, and in the NCAA Tournament of 1979, the seeds would be planted for one of the greatest player rivalries in NBA history.
In that year’s tournament, Magic came away as an All-American, an All-Tournament player, and the Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, as well as winning the championship game over Larry Bird’s Indiana State Sycamores.
Johnson posted 24 points and 8 rebounds in the championship game, hoisting the Spartans over the Sycamores 75-64, and impressing scouts enough to draft him number one overall in that year’s draft to the Los Angeles Lakers.
8. Carmelo Anthony – Syracuse (2002-2003)
One of the most popular one-and-dones in college history, Carmelo Anthony deserves a spot on this list.
Melo opted out of the route fellow high schooler LeBron James took to the NBA, deciding to go to college for one year to hone his skills as a scorer, rather than go straight to the big leagues out of high school.
It seemed to work for him, as he was an extremely dominant scorer at a collegiate level, averaging 22.2 points and 10 rebounds his freshman year, leading Syracuse to their first ever National Championship.
Anthony was named a second team All-American, an All-Tournament player, and the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player for his efforts, as well as being the fourth-highest scorer in the country that year.
7. Jerry West – West Virginia (1957-1960)
What are the odds that The Logo would have an equally impressive college career before he hit the pros?
Spending three years at West Virginia, ‘Mr. Clutch’ as he is now known, led the Mountaineers to their sole championship game appearance in his sophomore season, falling to the University of California 70-71. West scored 28 points and grabbed 11 rebounds that game.
Over the course of his college career, Jerry West averaged 24.8 points and grabbed a whopping 13.3 rebounds a game. For a 6’2 guard, that is extremely impressive.
The Logo racked up several All-American and Player of the Year honors but never achieved much team success despite his effort, much like his NBA career, only winning one ring.
6. Oscar Robertson – Cincinnati (1957-1960)
It’s unfortunate that early college basketball is murky when it comes to counting assists, as records simply do not exist or are inaccurate. If they were accurate, I wholeheartedly believe The Big O would’ve averaged a triple-double in college as well.
The stats speak for themselves. Across 3 years at Cincinnati, Robertson collected 33.8 points a game, 15.2 rebounds a game, and unofficially 7.1 assists a game. That is insane for a 6’5 guard.
Much like Jerry West, Oscar bathed in individual awards and achievement, being voted a consensus 3-time All-American, 2-time All-Tournament player, 3-time Sporting News Player of the Year, and 3-time UPI Player of the Year.
Also like Jerry West, Robertson had very little team success, falling in the Final Four all three years Oscar was there. Ironically, the Cincinnati Bearcats ripped off three straight national titles after The Big O left.
5. Larry Bird – Indiana State (1976-1979)
Larry legend is the other half to that rivalry I was speaking about before, I don’t know, maybe you’ve heard of him.
Although scouts thought differently, Bird was a better player in college than Magic Johnson, as indicated by his trophy case of awards, and of course, stats.
Through three years at Indiana State, Bird averaged 30.3 points and 13.3 rebounds a game, already showing signs of the scorer he would pan out to be.
His freshman year was arguably his best, posting averages of 32.8 points and 13.3 rebounds a game, but the awards and accolades didn’t start rolling in until his Junior year. Bird collected numerous awards, too many to mention here, but a few highlights include the Naismith Award, Wooden Award, AP Player of the Year, Rupp Trophy, All-American, and MVC Player of the Year.
Unfortunately for Larry, team success was almost non-existent during his stay, as the Sycamores failed to reach the tourney the first two years of Bird’s tenure, and lost in the championship game to Magic and Michigan State his last year. As they say though, the rest is history.
4. Bill Walton – UCLA (1971-1974)
It’s unbelievable how lucky UCLA have been with recruiting generational talent to their school, as Bill Walton was the second coming of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and appeared only two years after KAJ left.
During his three-year stay at UCLA, Walton was a monster, especially in the paint, posting 20.3 points a game on 65% shooting, and pulling down 15.7 rebounds a game.
Bill Walton didn’t just have stats, he also had the accolades to back up his greatness as well. The 6’11 center racked up 27 awards during his college years, ripping off three straight All-American selections, Naismith Awards, and Rupp Awards, as well as winning two National Championships in 1972 and 1973, continuing the streak left by Kareem.
There’s no denying that legendary coach John Wooden had something to do with Walton’s success, as UCLA had won 5 titles straight prior to Walton’s arrival, but three straight Naismith awards don’t lie, Bill Walton was the real deal.
3. Wilt Chamberlain – Kansas (1956-1958)
As you could probably tell, The Big Dipper was a man amongst boys on the court during college. It’s hard not to be when you’re a once-in-a-lifetime 7’1 physical specimen.
During his two years with the Kansas Jayhawks, Chamberlain averaged a tame 29.2 points and 18.3 rebounds per game, by his standards at least.
These monster performances made him a 2-time All-American, and the 1957 NCAA Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player.
Wilt went 42-8 during his stay at Kansas, but only made the tournament once, his freshman year. As is the case with most players on this list however, his individual talent was not enough, and Kansas were defeated in the championship game 54-53 by North Carolina.
2. Pete Maravich – LSU (1967-1970)
If you don’t follow college basketball, it may be surprising to some of you that The Pistol has made an appearance on this list. Even though Maravich is in the Hall of Fame, and rightfully so, he doesn’t come up that often in conversations regarding the greatest players of all-time, like all the other players on this list (Apart from Laettner and Anthony).
So why is Maravich the second greatest college basketballer of all time? Playing 3 years for LSU, The Pistol garnered All-American honors 3 times, was a 3-time SEC Player of the Year, was a 2-time USBWA Player of the Year, was a Sporting News Player of the Year, and won the Naismith Award in his junior year.
Even when you ignore the multiple awards, the stats speak for themselves. 44.2 points a game across 83 games, shot 43% from the field while attempting 38 field goals a night, and averaged a humble 6.5 rebounds a game.
Unfortunately, Pistol Pete never made the NCAA Tournament, but the blame cannot be placed directly on him. He redefined basketball, and discovered a new way to play, adding creativity and flair to his game, way before the likes of Magic Johnson, Steve Nash, Jason Kidd and Steph Curry ever did so.
1. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Lew Alcindor) – UCLA (1966-1969)
Could it be anyone else?
Remember what I was saying about Bill Walton earlier? Take that, and multiply it by 10, that is how good Kareem was.
Again, being coached by arguably the greatest college basketball coach in John Wooden doesn’t hurt, but Cap’s resume speaks for itself.
3 straight NCAA titles, 3-time Consensus All-American, first-ever Naismith Award winner, 3-time NCAA Tournament Most Outstanding Player, 2-time AP Player of the Year, 3-time Helms Foundation Player of the Year, and a host of other accolades.
The awards I just rattled off aren’t even the most impressive part of Kareem’s college career. The NCAA banned the slam dunk because Kareem was too dominant in the paint, and even with this disadvantage, he still found a way to destroy opposing defenses.
Even more impressive however, is Kareem’s very first game for the Bruins. Abdul-Jabbar was an ineligible freshman, and as a season-opener, UCLA’s varsity team, a squad that was ranked number one in the nation and were fresh off two NCAA titles, faced off against the freshman squad. Lew collected 31 points, 21 rebounds and 8 blocks that game, and the freshman team smashed the number one ranked team in the nation by 15 points.
An 18-year-old who couldn’t yet play on the team manhandled the defending champs all by himself. If that doesn’t prove he is the greatest college basketballer of all-time, I don’t know what does.