March Madness is a crazy, magical tournament. The single game knockout format creates a huge amount of drama, as the best college teams in the country all strive to be crowned National Champions. Over the years, we’ve seen many great young basketball talents emerge during the tournament, propelling themselves from “he’ll probably get drafted” to “that guy’s a bona fide All-Star.” Most of the players on this list are even Hall of Famers, or likely to end up there eventually.
March Madness started in 1939 and was expanded to its current 64-teams in 1985 (we’re not counting the play-in games). Over the years, thousands of different players have stepped onto the court hoping to make a name for themselves in one of the most-watched sporting events of the year. With that in mind, here are 10 of the all-time great performers on college basketball’s biggest stage.
10. Stephen Curry
Curry, arguably the best player in the NBA right now, didn’t come from a massive hoops factory like Kentucky, but rather little Davidson College. Son of former NBA player Dell, he started his march to greatness with the Wildcats during the 2007-08 season, when he set the NCAA mark for three-pointers made with 159. While he scored 30 as a freshman in a losing cause in the Wildcats’ loss to Maryland in the ’07 event, Curry really put his mark on March Madness ’08. Curry started by scoring 40 for the 10th seeded ‘Cats in a 82-76 triumph over No. 7 Gonzaga (including 8-of-10 from beyond the arc). He followed it up by lighting up No. 2 seed Georgetown with 30 (25 in the second half) in the second round. In the round of 16, Curry poured in 33 against 3rd-ranked Wisconsin, sending Davidson to just its third Elite 8. The No. 1 Kansas Jayhawks ended Davidson’s run there, but not before Curry scored another 25 (including the record 159th three-pointer).
9. Carmelo Anthony
It’s too bad that Anthony’s luck in one season of NCAA DI basketball hasn’t followed him to the NBA — at least on a team scale. Anthony was a freshman with Jim Boeheim’s Orange during the 2002-03 season and suffice to say he was worth all his hype coming out of high school. He averaged 22.2 points (16th overall in the NCAA) and 10 rebounds during the regular season and kept it rolling right into the tournament, where the Orange captured their first and only title (so far) in school history by beating Kansas 81-78 in the final. Anthony would score a freshman record 33 against the Texas Longhorns in the Final Four and another 20 along with 10 rebounds against the Jayhawks in the final. He was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player. Now, about that NBA championship that’s eluded him.
8. Oscar Robertson
The Big O was at one time the NCAA’s leading all-time scorer with an astounding 2,973 points in just 88 games. The future Hall of Famer would lead the University of Cincinnati to back-to-back Final Four appearances in his junior and senior seasons, leaving the Bearcats with tournament averages of 32.4 points and 13.1 rebounds in 10 games. The three-time All-American and two-time College Player of the Year, who owns 14 NCAA and 19 Cincinnati records, scored 56 points in 97-62 win over Arkansas in 1958. He also recorded 39 points and 17 rebounds against Louisville in a 98-85 loss in 1959 and 43 points with 14 rebounds in an 82-71 victory against Kansas in 1960.
7. Patrick Ewing
Before he became a NBA superstar and Hall of Famer, Ewing made a choice that would alter the course of his future career. After signing a letter of intent to attend North Carolina, he witnessed a KKK rally while visiting the basketball factory and eventually signed on to play with Georgetown. It paid off, as Ewing would go on to guide the Hoyas to three national championship game appearances in four seasons. As a freshman, he would score 23 points and 11 rebounds in the 1982 national title game, but that performance wasn’t quite enough to overcome the team he eschewed for Georgetown, the Tarheels, a team that featured Michael Jordan and James Worthy. However, Ewing would be named the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player in 1984 after leading the Hoyas to their only national championship with a 84-75 win against Houston and Hakeem Olajuwon.
6. Larry Bird
Instead of sticking it out with the high profile Indiana Hoosiers, West Baden, Indiana native Bird opted instead to go to school and play basketball at Indiana State, a school that had never been to the NCAA tournament before he arrived on campus. Bird would be selected sixth overall by the Boston Celtics in the 1978 NBA Draft after his junior year but he elected to return to the Sycamores to play out his senior season. Indiana wouldn’t lose a game during the 1978-79 season and Bird would average 27.2 points and 13.4 rebounds in the 1979 tournament before locking horns with Magic Johnson and Michigan State in the national title game. Johnson and the Spartans would win 75-64 in what remains to this day as the most watched college basketball game of all time.
5. Magic Johnson
Earvin “Magic” Johnson was seen as a generational talent long before he ever stepped foot on a NBA court. Recruited by schools like UCLA and Indiana (where his archnemesis Larry Bird was also recruited), Johnson chose to stay close to home and play at East Lansing for the Spartans. A point guard with the body of a power forward, he could score seemingly at will, but preferred to distribute the ball, making him a truly special talent. Magic and Bird were front and center in college hoops in 1979, which would culminate with an epic national title game in which Johnson’s Spartans would beat Indiana State 85-74 in the national title game. Johnson scored a game-high 24 points and added five assists and seven rebounds and would be named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player.
4. Christian Laettner
His NBA career wouldn’t amount to a whole lot, but for four years at Duke, Christian Laettner as The Man. He is the only player to start four consecutive Final Fours and was the focal point of two national championship-winning teams for the Blue Devils. Laettner, who was the 1991 Most Outstanding Player, would also establish the tournament scoring record with 407 points in 23 total games. His most memorable performance came in the East regional final in 1992 when he knocked down a game-winning turnaround jumper at the buzzer to beat Kentucky 104-103. It capped a performance in which he shot 10-of-10 from the field and 10-of-10 from the free throw line.
3. Bill Russell
Before he took his considerable game and winning ways to Boston and earned himself 11 NBA championships, Bill Russell was a dominant force in the college game during his time at San Francisco. However, college recruiters widely ignored him until Dons’ recruiter Hal DeJulio watched him in a high school game. Even though he was unimpressed, DeJulio sensed Russell had clutch instincts. That hunch paid off big time. Russell would lead USF, which hadn’t been to the tournament before, to a 57-1 overall record and two consecutive national titles in 1955 and 1956. He pulled down a record 50 rebounds during the 1956 Final Four, including 27 in the national title game.
2. Bill Walton
Talk about daunting tasks. When Bill Walton arrived at the UCLA campus in Los Angeles in 1971, UCLA had already captured four successive national titles, as well six in seven years under legendary coach John Wooden. But that didn’t stop Walton from establishing his presence with the program. Walton would be the linchpin of national title-winning Bruins teams in 1972 and 1973, recording what may be the greatest single-game performance in tournament history. In the 1973 championship game, Walton drained 44 points on astounding 21-of-22 shooting in a 87-66 win over Memphis State. Incredibly, Walton also owned a near five-year personal winning streak that stretched to his UCLA days. He never lost a game between the middle of his junior year of high school until the middle of his senior year of college (A loss to Notre Dame in 1974 snapped a UCLA 88-game winning streak).
1. Lew Alcindor
The future Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was so prolific at throwing the rock down as a sophomore with UCLA that dunking was banned by the NCAA in 1967. As a freshman, he was ineligible to compete in varsity contests, but Alcindor made up for lost time in his three seasons with the Bruins under John Wooden, winning three consecutive national titles (and helping the team to a 88-2 record). The two time NCAA Player of the Year and three-time First Team All-American is the only player ever to be named Most Outstanding Player at the Final Four three times. He also used that patented sky hook to average 25.7 points, as well as 18.8 rebounds in six Final Four games.