The Final Four of the NCAA tournament is the culmination of perhaps the most exciting event in American sports.
College basketball teams spend all season trying to lock up one of the 68 available invitations. Once the brackets are set, a frenetic month of win-or-go-home action follows.
While the tournament is built to separate the cream of the crop from all other challengers, it's also served as a springboard for some of the all-time greats.
All of the players on this list are household names now, and the tournament only magnified their status.
Note: To be considered for this list, a player needs to have the numbers in the NBA as well. Due to injuries, Bill Walton was left off.
College Stats: 26.4 points, 15.5 rebounds, 62.8 FG%, 3 seasons
NBA Career Stats: 24.6 points, 11.2 rebounds, 55.9 FG%, 20 seasons
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then Lew Alcindor) was a marvelous player from start to finish in his NCAA career, and he really turned it on late in the season.
He played three seasons on the varsity level with the UCLA Bruins, and all three times his team pulled away to win an NCAA championship.
In 1968, he became just the fourth player to win multiple NCAA tournament Most Outstanding Player Awards. A year later, he became the first (and last) player to win the award a third time.
Through those three championship seasons (1967, '68 and '69), Kareem pulled together an average of 25.7 points and 18.8 rebounds per game in the Final Four.
His college career was highlighted with a 34-point performance in the 1968 title game with a blowout 78-55 win over North Carolina. He capped it with a dominant 37-point, 20-rebound game in UCLA's 20-point win over Purdue in 1969.
College Stats: 22.2 PPG, 10.0 RPG, 45.3 FG%, 1 season
NBA Career Stats: 25.0 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 45.5 FG%, 10 seasons
Whereas Abdul-Jabbar built his hoops legend over a sustained run, Carmelo Anthony's arrival was equal parts dominant and swift.
But he saved his greatest moments for the game's grandest stage.
Anthony was effective in the regular season; he ranked fourth in a loaded Big East in scoring. But he became legendary during the Orangemen's charge through March.
He carried coach Jim Boeheim's team into a Final Four matchup with the Texas Longhorns, the only No. 1 seed still alive in the tournament. Behind Anthony's 33 points and 14 rebounds, Syracuse held off Texas for a 95-84 victory and earned a trip to the title game.
Two nights later, Anthony compiled his third straight double-double (20 points and 10 rebounds), and Syracuse had its first championship in school history.
He was selected with the third overall pick in 2003 and has since made six All-Star Games and five All-NBA teams.
College Stats: 31.2 PPG, 19.8 RPG, 49.8 FG%, 2 seasons
NBA Career Stats: 27.4 PPG, 13.5 RPG, 43.1 FG%, 14 seasons
Admit it: Even though it's a major market, you had to take a second to think about where Seattle University, Seattle College or whatever it's called is located. (It's Seattle University, by the way.)
That's how prominent this program is.
Yet after it landed Elgin Baylor in 1956, a talented player struggling to crack the college ranks with a less-than-stellar academic history, it was suddenly a basketball powerhouse.
It rattled off 22 wins against three losses behind its second-team All-American. By Elgin Baylor's second season, he led his team to a 23-6 record and a berth in the NCAA title game.
The Minneapolis Lakers grabbed Baylor with the top pick of 1958. He helped lead the Lakers to eight NBA Finals during his career, although the team won its first L.A. title in the 1971-72 season when Baylor retired just nine games into the year.
College Stats: 30.3 PPG, 13.3 RPG, 53.3 FG%, 3 seasons
NBA Career Stats: 24.3 PPG, 10.0 RPG, 49.6 FG%, 13 seasons
Larry Bird's collegiate career was one of the finest resurrection stories in basketball history.
He was lured to Indiana by the legendary Bob Knight but left the school after just 24 days as the small-town boy felt overwhelmed by the sprawling campus. After a year away from the college life, though, he decided to give it another shot at the smaller Indiana State University.
His talent was immediately apparent as he tore through a freshman campaign that saw him average better than 32 points per game. He continued that torrid play in his sophomore season with an even 30 points a night.
Yet he was lost playing for an Indiana State team that had never been to the NCAA tournament, not even in Bird's first two seasons. By season No. 3, a year in which he averaged 28.6 points per game, the Sycamores went undefeated up until the championship game.
Bird led his 33-0 team in a title match with a highly touted Michigan State team, a game that's still the highest-rated college basketball game in history (via ESPN.com). While Bird fell short in his title bid largely due to a player still to come on this list, he had finally arrived to the casual fans.
He was grabbed with the sixth pick in the 1978 draft and helped bring the Boston Celtics three NBA titles.
College Stats: 29.9 PPG, 18.3 RPG, 47.0 FG%, 2 seasons
NBA Career Stats: 30.1 PPG, 22.9 RPG, 54.0 FG%, 14 seasons
Wilt Chamberlain was no stranger to the basketball minds of his day. He finished a prolific high school career as one of the most sought-after recruits in the sport's history.
But the University of Kansas lucked into his services, thanks to his desire to spend time away from the Northeast and his refusal to spend his college career in a segregated South.
He played on the Jayhawks team under the legendary Phog Allen, who was since made the namesake to the college's storied arena. Chamberlain quickly lived up to his extraordinary billing, dropping 42 points and grabbing 29 rebounds against the Kansas varsity team (via KUHistory.com).
The sports media knew what they had on their hands and followed Chamberlain's every move. But college basketball was far from the beast that it is today, leaving much of the nation lost on his incredible achievements.
Allen was forced into retirement before Chamberlain's sophomore season (the casualty of a regulation dealing with state employees), but his star center shined bright in his absence.
He scored 52 points in his regular-season debut, but despite his best efforts, he could not bring a title to Lawrence. Chamberlain's Jayhawks fell to North Carolina in a triple-overtime battle of wills, but the game forced the big man into the public forum.
After finding his way to the NBA, Chamberlain blitzed the record books with many of his marks standing to this day, including his incredible 50.4 scoring average in 1961-62 and 100-point outing that season.
College Stats: 17.7 PPG, 5.0 RPG, 54.0 FG%, 3 seasons
NBA Career Stats: 30.1 PPG, 6.2 RPG, 49.7 FG%, 15 seasons
Although the stories of Michael Jordan being relegated to junior varsity status have reached near mythical proportions, truth be told he enjoyed a prolific high school career. He played his final two seasons at the varsity level and was named a McDonald's All-American during his senior season.
That led to a scholarship from the University of North Carolina, where his legend was born.
Although he had a solid season during his freshman year of 1981-82 (13.5 points per game), he was clearly the third option between future NBA players James Worthy and Sam Perkins.
But when the Tar Heels found their way to the 1982 NCAA championship game, they would clearly be needing all hands on deck. A powerful Georgetown team awaited them in the finals, led by future Hall of Famer Patrick Ewing.
The teams traded buckets, and leads were exchanged throughout the contest. But the Hoyas took a one-point lead with 55 seconds left that put North Carolina's championship hopes in doubt.
Tar Heels coach Dean Smith knew that Georgetown wasn't going to let either Worthy or Perkins get loose under the basket, so he entrusted his talented freshman with making what could be the biggest play in the school's history.
Jordan freed himself about 15 feet from the basket and calmly dropped in what would be the game-winning basket with 17 seconds left on the clock.
And when that shot fell through the basket, a legend was born.
Jordan brought six NBA titles to the Chicago Bulls during his 13 seasons in the Windy City, and he is widely regarded as the league's greatest player of all time.
College Stats: 17.1 PPG, 7.9 APG, 7.5 RPG, 46.3 FG%, 2 seasons
NBA Career Stats: 19.5 PPG, 11.2 APG, 52.0 FG%, 13 seasons
The second half of one of the most storied rivalries in NBA history, Magic Johnson was the person responsible for shattering Bird's championship hopes.
His play was flashy but very much under control. His smile could light up a room, but his elite-level talent could silence opposing arenas.
Johnson, a Michigan native, chose to play his college ball close to home and signed on as a member of the Michigan State Spartans.
During his freshman season, Johnson dazzled basketball minds with his ability to productively man the point guard spot at his size, 6'9". Despite a masterful effort from him, though, the Spartans were knocked out of the tournament in the Elite Eight by the eventual champion Kentucky Wildcats.
Johnson seemed determined to not meet the same fate and helped carry the Spartans all the way to the 1979 NCAA championship game against Bird's Indiana State squad. Many of Johnson and Bird's accomplishments had been missed on the national scale, as the media limitations of the time left many to follow their careers by brief clips and word of mouth.
The game didn't quite live up to its massive hype (the Spartans led by nine at the half, then cruised to an 11-point win), but its stars sure did. Bird finished the game with 19 points and 13 rebounds, but it wasn't enough to overcome Johnson's 24 points and seven boards.
Johnson was taken with the top pick of the 1979 draft by the Lakers. Along with players like Abdul-Jabbar and Worthy, he helped lead the franchise to five NBA championships.
College Stats: 13.3 PPG, 10.7 RPG, 63.9 FG%, 3 seasons
NBA Career Stats: 21.8 PPG, 11.1 RPG, 51.2 FG%, 18 seasons
While we all now affectionately know him as "The Dream," Hakeem Olajuwon (then Akeem Olajuwon) needed a dominant Final Four appearance to wake the slumbering hoops world.
Of course, a basketball career hadn't even entered Olajuwon's dreams throughout most of his youth. He didn't pick up a basketball until he was 15 years old, but he showed enough natural ability that the University of Houston brought him across the globe from his native Nigeria.
He played sparingly during his freshman season, and offseason workouts with Hall of Famer (and Houston resident) Moses Malone helped mature his game. By his sophomore season, he was an automatic double-double (13.9 points and 11.4 rebounds per game).
His Houston team made three Final Four appearances in his three collegiate seasons, playing in back-to-back championship games in his sophomore and junior seasons. Although his team fell short in both championship bids, Olajuwon was named the Most Outstanding Player of the tournament in 1983—becoming the last player to win the award who did not play on the winning team.
Olajuwon was drafted by the Houston Rockets with the first pick of the 1984 draft and brought the city two NBA titles during his Hall of Fame career.
College Stats: 20.7 PPG, 20.3 RPG, 51.6 FG%, 3 seasons
NBA Career Stats: 15.1 PPG, 22.5 RPG, 44.0 FG%, 13 seasons
While Bill Russell exhibited perhaps the highest basketball IQ of any player in the sport's history, the complexities of the game largely avoided him early in his career. In fact, he didn't start for his high school team until his senior season (via Ron Flatter of ESPN.com).
The interest in him from the college ranks wasn't reserved; it was nonexistent. Russell tried out for the University of San Francisco team, and although he didn't impress, coach Phil Woolpert still granted him a scholarship on somewhat of a whim.
His rebounding prowess was quickly evident as he pulled down over 19 rebounds per game as a freshman. But he wasn't even a blip on the basketball radar as his Dons team went 14-7 in a forgotten West Coast Conference.
By his sophomore season, though, Russell bullied his way on to the national stage. Alongside future Boston Celtics teammate K.C. Jones, Russell didn't just lead the school to the tournament; he delivered back-to-back NCAA championships. And just for kicks, his team enjoyed a stretch of 55 consecutive wins.
He helped close out La Salle in the 1955 championship game with 25 rebounds, then poured in 26 points in the 1956 championship win over Iowa.
Russell was drafted second overall by the St. Louis Hawks but landed with the Boston Celtics in a draft-day trade. His NBA career is perhaps best defined by the fact that he doesn't have enough fingers for all the championship rings that he collected (11 in all).
College Stats: 24.8 PPG, 13.3 RPG, 50.8 FG%, 3 seasons
NBA Career Stats: 27.0 PPG, 6.7 APG, 47.4 FG%, 14 seasons
Long before becoming immortalized as the form fitted for the NBA logo, Jerry West was something of a West Virginia legend. During his senior season at East Bank High, he became the first player in the state's history to score more than 900 points and led his team to a state title (via Bob Carter of ESPN.com).
He wasn't short on college suitors but opted for his home state university. He wasn't quite yet at logo status, but there was no mistaking who was the king of the Mountaineers.
During his three seasons at West Virginia, he led the team to an 81-12 mark.
But his real breakthrough moment came in his junior season (1958-59). After battering opponents for a blistering 29.3 points and 16.5 rebounds per game, he guided West Virginia to the 1959 NCAA title game.
Although the Mountaineers suffered a heartbreaking 71-70 defeat at the hands of California, West was named as the Final Four's Most Outstanding Player, thanks in no small part to his 28-point effort in the championship game.
The Lakers snatched him up with the second pick of the 1960 draft and received instant returns on their investment. Although his Lakers teams were often victimized by Russell's Celtics in the Finals, a 33-year-old West still played a major role in L.A. winning the 1971-72 NBA championship.