It’s March Madness time. What you get with March Madness is five weeks of do-or-die basketball and, at the end, the crowning of a national champion. In concordance with this annual ritual, we’re subjectively analyzing 16 of the greatest college basketball players of all time. These are players that were not only talented but are icons of competitive greatness.
Certainly, this list is subject to scrutiny. There have been many great college basketball players. Many of whom could be on this list. However, even if your favorite player is not on the list, there is no arguing about the 16 players listed below. These are not only our picks, but the picks based on a composite score from a survey of sports writers, editors, and bloggers.
We’re certain you may have your own opinion about who should be on the list. Please feel free to share. We certainly welcome adverse opinions. Honorable mentions go out to J.J. Redick, Glenn Robinson, Freeman Williams, the late and great Hank Gathers and Len Bias, Glen Rice, Anthony Davis, Hakeem Olajuwon, George Mikan, Ralph Sampson, David Robinson, Michael Jordan, Patrick Ewing, Jerry Lucas, Bill Bradley, Austin Carr, Dan Issel, Shaquille O’Neal, Artis Gilmore, Tom Gola and many more.
Danny Manning (Kansas, 1985-1988)
He brought the Kansas Jayhawks a title. He’s the all-time leading scorer and re-bounder in KU history. He was also a 3-time consensus All-American. May the Jayhawk fans unite around this pick.
Tyler Hansborough (North Carolina, 2005-2009)
Perhaps the quintessential college basketball player, Hansborough led the resurgence of the North Carolina program and the 2009 NCAA championship. A great all-around player, he is the only player in ACC history to be named an All-American and a first-team All-ACC selection in the four years he played for the Tar Heels.
Tim Duncan (Wake Forest, 1993-1997) – 16 of the Greatest College Basketball Players of All Time
The Big Fundamental. Before he was an outsize star on the Spurs, Timmy D starred on Wake Forest. He led the Deacons to four consecutive post-season appearances. He was a two-time ACC player of the year. He was also on Bill Simmon’s Celtic wish-list. The guy is a baller.
Jerry West (West Virginia, 1957-1960)
The Logo for the NBA and the moniker of West Virginia Mountaineers basketball. Mr. Clutch, averaged 25 points and 13 rebounds as a Mountaineer. He remains the Everest of a Basketball Idol and the GM of GM’s in the NBA.
Elvin Hayes (Houston, 1965-1968)
The Prince that organized a proper coup of UCLA’s Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul Jabbar), Elvin was a crucial player in battering down racial prejudice in the South and a supreme talent, averaging 31 points and 17 rebounds for his career at Houston.
David Thompson (North Carolina State, 1972-1975) – 16 of the Greatest College Basketball Players of All Time
Air Thompson led the Wolfpack to an undefeated season in 1973 and the NCAA championship in 1974. Thompson was named the National Collegiate Player of the Year in 1975. Nicknamed “Skywalker,” Thompson defied gravity before it was sexy.
Wilt Chamberlain (Kansas, 1956-1958)
Wilt “The Stilt” Chamberlain redefined the center position in College. He averaged 30 points and 18 rebounds per game and was a consensus All-American for both of the seasons he was at Kansas. A rangy track athlete in a basketball uniform, Wilt was a basketball unicorn before we even understood the term.
Oscar Robertson (Cincinnati, 1957-1960)
The Big O was often called the Grouch. He may have been a curmudgeon, but the wonderfully talented Robertson averaged 33.8 and 15.2 rebounds per game. He is often called the greatest player to never win a championship. Robertson was a three time consensus All-American and was called “the best all-around player in the history of college basketball” by the National Basketball Hall of Fame. Oscar made Cincinnati the Bearcats.
Larry Bird (Indiana State, 1976-1979)
The Great White Hope. Likely the best three-point shooter in history, even before there was a three-point line. Consider this – Bird averaged 30.3 points and 13.3 rebounds per game to along with 4.6 assists. He not only was a great scorer and rebounder but a great passer as well. His basetball IQ was off the charts. Stunningly efficient and gritty to the core, Bird led Indiana State, a team with no basketball credentials, to the NCAA Championship game where they fell to Magic Johnson’s MSU team. Let that Bird fly like an Eagle.
Earvin “Magic” Johnson (Michigan State, 1977-1979) – 16 of the Greatest College Basketball Players of All Time
Does this need a preface? Magic was “magic” for a reason. He was so good, he almost averaged a triple double for his career at Michigan State with 17.1 point, 7.6 rebounds and 7.9 assists per game. Johnson became college basketball’s most popular star and led the Spartans to the 1979 NCAA championship win. Magic was the ultimate team player, the ultimate passer, the ultimate point guard. He elevated an MSU program that was previously relatively somnolent onto the national stage.
Christian Laettner (Duke, 1988-1992)
The walking embodiment of Duke Fatigue. Hateable. Annoying. Irritating. But, nonetheless, one of the best college basketball players of all-time. His fade-away jumper in the last second against Kentucky to send Duke to the Final Four is a stuff of legend and remains one of the greatest shots ever. The simple fact is Laettner is arguably the best Blue Devil of all time, leading Duke to four consecutive Final Four appearances and back-to-back championship wins in 1991 and 1992.
Pete Maravich (LSU, 1967-1970)
John Wooden famously said, in reference to Pete, “I don’t ever recall seeing a player who could do so much with a basketball, but he never played on a championship team.” However, “Pistol” Pete averaged 44.2 points per game in an era where there wasn’t a three-point line and holds the NCAA’s all -time career points record. The Pistol was extraordinary, almost robotic in his movements. The technical mastery he achieved in college, and the NBA, hasn’t been superseded.
Bill Russell (San Francisco, 1953-1956) – 16 of the Greatest College Basketball Players of All Time
Bill Russell is better known for his 11 NBA championships, so not enough is made of his college career. Let it sink in — He led USF to back-to-back NCAA championships in 1955 and 1956. What have the Dons done since? Russell is the “King of Competitiveness.” Want proof. He averaged 20.7 point and 20.3 rebounds per game.
Bill Walton (UCLA, 1971-1974)
The “Ginger Patriarch” or “Big Redhead” as he was often called, led the UCLA Bruins to 88 consecutive wins, an exemplar of near perfection, two undefeated seasons, and two consecutive NCAA championships in 1972 and 1973. Walton was named the National Collegiate Player of the Year three years in a row from 1972 to 1974. Yeah, and his 21/22 shooting against Memphis in the 1973 finals is as close to perfect as you will ever get. A man, a myth, a legend.
Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) (UCLA, 1966-1969) – 16 of the Greatest College Basketball Players of All Time
Lew Alcindor, who later changed his name to Kareen Abdul-Jabbar, was the author of the skyhook, the most powerful and efficient basketball move in the history of the game. During his college career, Jabbar was so dominant, the rules of the game had to be changed to outlaw dunking. That’s right, NCAA officials felt Jabbar would be unstoppable, so they changed the rules. The dunking ban lasted from 1967 to 1975.
Did it stop Kareem. Absolutely not. Jabbar was the best player on the most dominant team of all time. In all three of his Varsity seasons at UCLA (freshman were not allowed to play Varsity ball at the time), he lead the Bruins to three consecutive NCAA championships from 1967 to 1969 and was named the tournament’s most outstanding player in each of those years. Nevertheless, Kareem is perennially underrated, but is arguably the greatest college basketball player of all time.
March Madness. Let’s go! What a time.