The top coaches in college basketball always give credit to their players.
While there is a great deal that goes into recruiting, scouting and creating a successful strategy, the results are ultimately decided by the players and team who can execute most consistently.
The best coaches in college basketball have a way of finding players who fit their system and will grow during their careers. Whether it’s a highly touted recruit or a diamond in the rough, these coaches know how to find players who can grow and excel as a result of their coaching.
The following list looks at the best students of some of the top coaches in the country. The selections were determined based on how each player improved over the course of his career and best fit in his coach’s system.
Mark Few has built Gonzaga into one of the most respected programs in the country by finding guys who aren’t highly recruited but are willing to work to become outstanding players.
Blake Stepp is a great example of that.
Stepp was the WCC Freshman of the Year in 2001 and later became a two-time WCC Player of the Year as a junior and senior. He did all this while having to battle nagging knee and ankle injuries that required multiple surgeries.
Similar to what Few has done with the Bulldogs program, Stepp never complained or used the obstacles as an excuse. He simply worked to overcome them.
Thomas Robinson had to overcome a tremendous amount of adversity during his college career.
He was a highly ranked recruit coming out of high school who had a minimal impact during his freshman season in 2009.
Then, tragedy struck during his sophomore season when he lost his mother, grandmother and grandfather during a three-week period. Robinson found solace in basketball and committed himself to becoming one of the best players in the country.
As a junior, he fulfilled his potential and had a remarkable season, being named a first-team All-American while leading the Jayhawks to the national championship game.
Bill Self is a coach who always talks about the importance of his players committing to working hard, and Robinson was one of the hardest workers he ever had the opportunity to coach.
Draymond Green won’t necessarily remind folks of Michigan State alum Magic Johnson, but he was certainly one of the most versatile Spartans to ever play for Tom Izzo.
Izzo is a coach who’s known for instilling a toughness in his players and getting maximum effort from each person who suits up for him, and there is no question he got that from Green.
Green finished his career as Michigan State’s leading rebounder and was a first-team All-American and Big Ten Player of the Year as a senior. He’s also second in school history in steals and blocks and one of only three players in Michigan State history to finish with 1,000 points and rebounds.
Green was also the unquestioned leader of the Spartans during his career and played with the same passion that makes Tom Izzo one of the best coaches in college basketball.
Billy Donovan only played for Rick Pitino for two years at Providence University, but the two had an incredibly successful two-year period together.
Donovan saw limited action during his first two years with the Friars, but his career took off when Pitino took over the team in 1985 prior to Donovan’s junior year.
Donovan was a perfect fit for Pitino’s style of play, and he quickly took advantage of the three-point line being introduced to college basketball. He averaged 15.1 points per game as a junior and led the Friars on a magical run to the Final Four during his senior year.
It was only the beginning of a strong relationship between the two as Donovan would later join Pitino’s coaching staff at the University of Kentucky.
Similar to his mentor Rick Pitino, Billy Donovan builds his teams around terrific athletes who play aggressive, physical defense
Joakim Noah was the perfect player for what Donovan likes to do and played a huge role in the Gators winning back-to-back national championships in 2006 and 2007.
Noah wasn’t the most polished guy, but his attacking style made him extremely difficult to defend, and he was one of the best defensive players in the country during his four year career as a Gator.
Noah was the epitome of what made those Florida teams so great. He never cared about putting up big numbers or drawing attention to himself. It was all about helping the team win.
Many of John Calipari’s best students don’t learn from him for long because they quickly jump to the NBA, but Calipari has had some great four-year players during his coaching career.
One of the best was Rodney Carney, who played for Calipari at Memphis from 2002-06. Carney was an incredibly athletic 6’7”, 205-pound forward who completely bought into Calipari’s attacking, up-tempo style of play and flourished during his four-year career with the Tigers.
He led Memphis to a 30-3 record during his senior season and was the Conference USA Player of the Year and an All-American.
For all that’s made about Calipari’s ability to prepare players to quickly jump to the NBA, Rodney Carney was the perfect example of how Calipari can develop a player who elects to stay in school.
David Lighty was a member of the highly regarded “Thad Five” 2006 recruiting class for Thad Matta at Ohio State, but he was arguably the most unheralded member of the class.
Lighty was an afterthought because all the attention went to Greg Oden, Mike Conley and Daequan Cook.
However, Lighty went on to have the most productive and successful college career of the 2006 class. He played sparingly during his freshman season but eventually worked his way into the rotation because of his commitment to playing Thad Matta’s aggressive style of defense.
Lighty battled various injuries during his career with the Buckeyes but was a versatile and well-rounded player who Matta could always depend on.
Gerry McNamara was a tough guard who led Syracuse to many victories because of his fight and will to win.
He played for the Orange from 2002-06 and never missed a start during his four years. His commitment to taking the court is similar to the commitment Jim Boeheim has shown to Syracuse University during his decorated coaching career.
McNamara helped lead the Orange to their first national championship during his freshman season in 2003, and he later led Syracuse to an improbable Big East tournament championship in 2006, winning four games in four days.
That tournament championship was particularly special for McNamara, who had been labeled “overrated” prior to the tournament.
Steve Wojciechowski’s senior day at Cameron Indoor Stadium is something many Duke fans will never forget.
He helped lead the Blue Devils to a dramatic comeback victory over North Carolina and immediately shared an emotional embrace with Mike Krzyzewski when the game ended as the students rushed the court.
It was a touching moment that symbolized the special bond between player and coach, particularly between these two individuals.
Wojciechowski was a scrappy, fiery leader during his time as Duke’s point guard, and he made his mark as a ferocious defender. His playing style was the perfect representation of how Mike Krzyzewski coaches—with incredible intensity and heart.
It’s fitting that Wojciechowski now continues to learn under Mike Krzyzewski as an assistant on the Duke coaching staff.
Roy Williams wants his players to be relentless when they take the floor. It’s part of what makes his teams exciting to watch and difficult to defend.
Nick Collison is one of the most relentless players to ever suit up for Williams.
Collison played for Williams from 1999-2003, and the 6’9” forward played the game with a passion and intensity that let Kansas fans know he left everything on the floor.
Collison averaged double figures in scoring in all four years of his college career and was a first-team All-American as a senior, averaging 18.5 points and 10.0 rebounds per game. While he wasn’t able to get Roy Williams a national championship, Collison gave his coach absolutely everything he had.
All of these coaches have had some incredible students. Who do you think is the best student to play for each coach? Leave your thoughts in the comments section.