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Top College Basketball Players to Ever Play in the Olympics

Thad NovakCorrespondent IJanuary 8, 2017

Top College Basketball Players to Ever Play in the Olympics

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    Although Anthony Davis made a now-rare appearance by a college player on a U.S. Olympic team, he never had any chance of matching the accomplishments of the best college stars ever to wear that uniform. Back when college players were the only ones who could play for Team USA, the best of them earned their places among the greatest Olympians in U.S. history.

    It should come as no surprise that one of those standouts was a North Carolina junior named Michael Jordan. The Chicago Bulls draftee posted one of the top-scoring performances in the Team USA record books…while sharing the ball with two other future Hall of Famers.

    Read on for more on MJ and a dozen more of the greatest Olympic performances ever turned in by an American college player.

13. Wayman Tisdale, Oklahoma (1984)

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    He didn’t have the flash of Olympic teammate Patrick Ewing, but Wayman Tisdale proved himself as one of the toughest frontcourt players ever to wear a U.S. uniform. The 6’9” Tisdale led the 1984 squad with 6.4 rebounds per game, third-best for any college player ever.

    In a shot-hungry lineup with Michael Jordan, Chris Mullin and Steve Alford, Tisdale was the odd man out on offense, scoring just 8.6 points a night.

    Then again, it’s not like the team exactly needed him to put points on the board during an undefeated run that saw the Americans win by an average margin of 32.1 points per game.

12. Leon Wood, Cal State Fullerton (1984)

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    Though he’s far from the most recognizable name on this list, Leon Wood entered the Los Angeles Games off a senior season that saw him average 24 points and 6.3 assists a game for Cal State Fullerton.

    He had the good fortune to earn the starting point guard’s job on a team loaded with elite shooters, and he took full advantage of the opportunity.

    Wood’s 63 assists (7.9 per game) are a U.S. Olympic record, and he helped lead his squad to an average of 95.4 points a night for the Games.

    Although he took very few shots overall, he was also one of the team’s most effective free throw shooters, draining 19 of his 24 attempts.

11. Jim Brewer, Minnesota (1972)

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    The 1972 edition of the U.S. Olympic team featured one of the worst offenses in Team USA history, and Jim Brewer wasn’t a whole lot of help with that problem.

    Despite his unremarkable 7.6 points per game, though, the 6’9” Golden Gopher made a huge splash on the boards.

    In the first Olympics in which rebounds were an official stat, Brewer racked up 7.1 of them per game, still the fourth-best figure in Team USA history.

    Sadly, Brewer and his mates lost out on their chance at a gold medal, falling to the USSR in the most disputed game Olympic hoops is ever likely to see.

10. Jerry Lucas, Ohio State (1960)

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    Unfortunately for Jerry Lucas, rebounds weren’t yet a statistic at the 1960 Olympics, but his scoring performance speaks for itself. 

    While sharing the ball with three other future Hall of Fame starters, Lucas tied for the fifth-best scoring average in Team USA history.

    Lucas’ 17 points per game weren’t even an outright team high, as he was matched by backcourt sensation Oscar Robertson.

    Astoundingly, Lucas’ punishing style didn’t translate in at least one aspect of the international game: he attempted a mere six free throws for the entire Rome Games.

9. Patrick Ewing, Georgetown (1984)

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    Fresh off a national title win with the Hoyas, Patrick Ewing turned in a stellar all-around showing at the Olympics.

    Though he ranked just third and second on his own team in scoring and rebounding (respectively), he posted 11 points and 5.6 boards a night over the course of the L.A. Games.

    Of course, Ewing’s biggest stat was the one they weren’t keeping at the college level yet: blocked shots.

    His 18 blocks are still the second-highest total for any U.S. Olympian—just ahead of his own 15-block performance eight years later with the original Dream Team.

8. Scott May, Indiana (1976)

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    As if Scott May hadn’t already done enough in winning the Naismith Award for the undefeated national champs from Indiana, he came up with a pretty impressive encore at the Montreal Games.

    The bruising May served as the leading rebounder (6.2 boards a game) on another undefeated champ as the U.S. took home the gold medal.

    May’s place on this list, though, owes just as much to his surprising scoring output: though he finished second on his own team, May’s average of 16.7 points per contest would have led many U.S. Olympic squads.

    He also shot a dazzling 16-for-18 from the charity stripe, the top performance on a team that set the U.S. Olympic record with a .831 percentage.

7. Spencer Haywood, Trinidad State College (1968)

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    The only player ever chosen for a U.S. Olympic team out of a junior college, future University of Detroit star Spencer Haywood left no doubt that he belonged on the roster.

    The hyper-athletic PF soared for 16.1 points per game, and his total of 145 points stood as a Team USA record until Kevin Durant broke it in this year’s gold-medal game.

    Heywood’s dunking prowess was always the stuff of legend, and it had a lot to do with his jaw-dropping .719 shooting (64-for-89) at the Mexico City Games.

    His numbers would doubtless be even more impressive if rebounding stats had been recorded in 1968.

6. Oscar Robertson, Cincinnati (1960)

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    The 1960 edition of Team USA featured one of the best backcourts ever assembled at the pro or college level, with West Virginia’s Jerry West paired with Cincinnati’s Oscar Robertson.

    Both players lived up to their future Hall of Fame talent, but Robertson turned in the more impressive show on offense.

    Robertson’s 17 points per game (tied with forward Jerry Lucas for the team lead) is tied for the fifth-best average in U.S. Olympic history.

    With neither rebounding nor assist numbers available for 1960, the full measure of Robertson’s dominance has been lost to history, but he was the biggest part of a gold-medal offense that outscored its eight opponents by more than 40 points per game.

5. Phil Ford, North Carolina (1976)

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    In the first year in which assists were an official stat at the Games, Phil Ford set a Team USA record that hasn’t been touched in nearly four decades since.

    Playing for his college coach, Dean Smith, Ford dished out 9.0 assists per game for the unbeaten gold-medal winners.

    Those Olympics also featured an unexpected preview of the next year’s college national championship when Ford went head-to-head with Puerto Rico point guard Butch Lee.

    Although Lee—whose Marquette team would stun the Tar Heels in the 1977 title game—scored 35 points, Ford forced him into a crucial charge with just eight seconds remaining, then drained the key free throws in a 95-94 U.S. win.

4. Bill Russell, San Francisco (1956)

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    There aren’t any individual stats to measure Bill Russell’s effect on Team USA’s 1956 defense, but the team stats aren’t too shabby.

    The Americans allowed just 45.6 points per game, and their opponents shot (this is not a typo) .330 from the field for the Games.

    Russell also led the roster with 14.1 points per game, though scoring was never his biggest contribution to any team.

    Perhaps the most amazing stat we do have from those Olympics, however, is that Russell—one of the most physical, game-changing defenders ever to step on a basketball court—committed a grand total of five fouls for the entire Games.

3. Michael Jordan, North Carolina (1984)

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    Michael Jordan hadn’t left much doubt as to his talent in sweeping the Wooden and Naismith Awards in 1984, and that year’s Olympic Games told much the same story.

    With two other future Hall of Famers in the starting lineup, Jordan led Team USA in scoring by a resounding 5.5 point-per-game margin.

    Jordan’s 137 total points still stand as the fourth-best mark in Team USA history, with his 17.1 point-per-game average ranking fourth.

    While he was at it, he also snatched 1.5 steals per game, making him one of four members of the vaunted 1984 squad to reach that mark (along with Chris Mullin, Steve Alford and Alvin Robertson).

2. David Robinson, Navy (1988)

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    Although his team only captured a bronze medal, David Robinson put on as impressive a show as any center in Team USA history. The Navy star placed second on the 1988 squad with 12.8 points per game while leading the team with 6.8 rebounds a night.

    Robinson’s biggest contribution, though, was on defense, where he led a unit that held opponents to 61.3 points per game. Robinson’s 19 blocked shots over the course of the Seoul Games still stands as a U.S. Olympic record.

1. Adrian Dantley, Notre Dame (1976)

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    As dominant a scorer as Adrian Dantley had been in his college career, he reached another level on the Olympic hardwood. Dantley’s average of 19.3 points per game stood as a U.S. Olympic record until Kevin Durant edged him out this summer.

    As usual for him, Dantley also made a major impact on the glass, tying for the second-most rebounds on the squad with 5.7 a night. He also excelled in getting to the free throw line, leading Team USA with 30 free throws made in 36 tries.

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