The Greatest Performance from Every Decade in NCAA Tournament History
Danny Manning was already a superstar entering his senior season at Kansas. He was a two-time All-American selection and likewise had earned a pair of Big 8 Player of the Year awards. But it was what he did in his final six games that made him a legend.
Manning averaged 27.2 points per game in leading the Jayhawks to the 1988 NCAA championship, a feat made even more impressive by the 11 losses KU suffered during the season and its status as a mere No. 6 seed.
That said, was Manning's performance the most impressive single tournament run of the 1980s? After all, that was the decade that brought us multiple dances from Patrick Ewing and Hakeem Olajuwon and impressive outings from Isiah Thomas and Darrell Griffith.
Let's take a look back over the tournament's lengthy history and shine a light on each decade's most dominant single-tournament performance.
Players from the era before a 32-team tournament needed to play in at least three games to qualify. Those from tournaments of 32 or more needed to make at least the regional finals.
Usually, the run ends with a championship...but not always.
1939 and 1940s: Alex Groza, Kentucky (1949)
Alex Groza had already done it all before the 1949 NCAA tournament tipped off. He and his Kentucky teammates were the defending national champions, he was about to be named an All-American for the third time and he owned an Olympic gold medal.
The Wildcats had suffered an inexplicable defeat to Loyola of Chicago in the first round of the NIT (sounds familiar, eh?), and thus entered the NCAAs with something to prove.
The 6'7", 220-pound Groza began his run by outdueling future NBA star Paul Arizin of Villanova. Each man dropped in 30 points, but Arizin fouled out trying to contain the Kentucky star. UK rolled to an 85-72 win.
In what would be today's national semifinal, but was then considered the regional final, Groza put up another 27 points as Kentucky crushed Illinois 76-47.
The final was much lower-scoring, but Groza still controlled the day. Despite playing less than 30 minutes, he scored more than half of UK's points, producing 25 in a 46-36 victory over coach Hank Iba's Oklahoma A&M (now Oklahoma State) team.
Groza's three-game total of 82 points was a tournament record. Groza went on to become a player and part-owner of the NBA's Indianapolis Olympians, but it was only two years after Kentucky's back-to-back titles that he and two teammates would admit to taking bribes to shave points in the NIT game against Loyola.
1950s: Clyde Lovellette, Kansas (1952)
Clyde Lovellette claimed to be the biggest baby ever born in Pike County, Indiana. While that record would require some additional research, the eventual 6'9" star of the Kansas Jayhawks was the biggest force in college basketball during the 1950s, taking up the mantle left behind by legendary giants like Bob Kurland and George Mikan.
Lovellette remains the only man in college basketball history to lead the nation in scoring and win an NCAA championship in the same season, and it was in this 1952 tournament that he finished the feat.
Lovellette hung 31 points on TCU in Kansas' first game, and that output tied what was then the tournament record. Enjoying the feel of record-book ink, he would go on to better that mark three more times.
"Cumulus Clyde"—just one of a host of Lovellette's nicknames—scored 25 in the second half alone to beat St. Louis in the East regional final. That finish gave him 44 points on the night, a mark that still stands in the tournament's all-time top 20.
Lovellette pounded Santa Clara for 33 points and 18 rebounds in the semifinal, then finished his tornado-like path of destruction by putting another 33 and 17 on St. John's in the title game.
The final totals were eye-popping. Lovellette posted 141 points, nearly a 70 percent improvement on the old mark of 83. His 35.3 average is still sixth all-time, and remember that no one had ever scored 32 in any single game before Lovellette came along. Likewise, his 69 rebounds set a tournament record, albeit one that was crushed by decade's end.
1960s: Gail Goodrich, UCLA (1965)
Over-under on number of comments castigating us for passing over Lew Alcindor: 1.5. Some may even beat the drum for Bill Bradley, who set a tournament single-game scoring record with 58 in this same 1965 season.
However, the slight, 6'1", 170-pound Gail Goodrich dominated UCLA's opposition without being genetically superior like Alcindor, plus his major scoring explosion came in a game that mattered, unlike Bradley crushing Wichita State in the third-place game.
From the regional semifinal on, here were Goodrich's scoring outputs: 40, 30, 28, 42. He hammered BYU for 16 points over the first six-plus minutes of the second half to blow open the Sweet 16 matchup.
UCLA's toughest test came in the regional final against San Francisco, and there Goodrich excelled late. He dropped in eight points over the final five minutes, and the Bruins won by that margin.
In the Final Four matchup with surprising Wichita State, Goodrich scored 28 despite being pulled with 12 minutes left by a merciful John Wooden.
The Michigan Wolverines and their big front line of Oliver Darden (6'7", 220), Bill Buntin (6'7", 230) and Larry Tregoning (6'5", 195) awaited in the final. That's not to say that any of them were around at the end, as all three fouled out in a futile chase of Goodrich.
The 42 points Goodrich put up in that final stood as a record for eight years, until fellow Bruin Bill Walton tore up Memphis for 44 on 21-of-22 shooting. Goodrich's 18 made free throws (on 20 attempts) still stand as a Final Four record.
1970s: Magic Johnson, Michigan State (1979)
Michigan State coach Jud Heathcote summed up his team's Elite Eight matchup with Notre Dame in 16 words reported by Sports Illustrated: "Notre Dame goes at you with nine players, and we come back at you with two." But when one of the two is Earvin "Magic" Johnson, most of us will take our chances.
Magic's 1979 tournament was historic for reasons that go beyond the famous championship matchup with Larry Bird and Indiana State. It started from the Spartans' second-round game against Lamar, which saw Magic finish with an unofficial triple-double. Assists weren't an officially tracked statistic yet in 1979, but Johnson was credited with 10 of them to go with 13 points and 17 rebounds.
Johnson scored when he needed to, dropping 24 on LSU in the Sweet 16, including 14-of-15 shooting from the foul line. That Elite Eight matchup with Notre Dame and their army of future pros—Orlando Woolridge, Kelly Tripucka, Bill Hanzlik and Bill Laimbeer—was never really in doubt. Magic dropped another 13 dimes, most of them to set up stud forward Greg Kelser's 34-point explosion.
In the national semifinal against Penn, Magic set himself alone in a class with one of the game's all-time legends. His 29 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists gave him his second triple-double in the same tournament. He and Oscar Robertson are still the only players to accomplish that feat twice in one season, and they also put up the only two trip-dubs in the history of the Final Four.
That legendary final was an all-Magic act, as well. Johnson led all scorers with 24 points, his penetration instrumental in forcing Bird's top sidekick Carl Nicks into foul trouble. Defensively, the Spartans frustrated Bird all night, and the previously unbeaten Sycamores were sent home runners-up.
And everyone knew that night that they were far from done with the Magic-Bird rivalry.
1980s: Glen Rice, Michigan (1989)
The 1980s brought us Worthy and Jordan, Olajuwon and Ewing, Alford and Manning. But the strongest performance under the oddest set of circumstances may have come from Michigan gunner Glen Rice.
An interim coach leading a football team into its bowl game happens every season. Since bowl games are largely meaningless, we think little of it anymore. But Michigan athletic director Bo Schembechler firing basketball coach Bill Frieder on the eve of the 1989 NCAA tournament was and is a rare event.
Rice came out firing under interim coach Steve Fisher's guidance, scoring 125 points just to steer the Wolverines to the Final Four. He made 26 of 35 shots in regional wins over North Carolina and Virginia, including 12 of 17 from three-point land.
In the Final Four, Rice went basket-for-basket with Big Ten rival Kenny Battle of Illinois. Although Battle outscored Rice 29-28, Michigan advanced to the final against Seton Hall. There, Pirate guard John Morton again won the individual matchup, but Rice's 31 points and 11 rebounds helped send the game to overtime.
UM's Rumeal Robinson made what may be the most clutch pair of free throws in tournament history, and Michigan completed a strange journey to the national title. For the tournament, Rice poured in 184 points, a record that still stands today. Likewise, his 27 made three-pointers still top the all-time chart. He shot 57 percent from the floor and 55 percent from deep, so it wasn't all mindless chucking, either.
1990s: Bo Kimble, Loyola Marymount (1990)
No player since the 1970s had averaged 33 points in an NCAA tournament run when a bereaved Loyola Marymount team hobbled into the 1990 event. Recovering from the tragic on-court death of star forward Hank Gathers, the Lions were awarded the West Coast Conference's automatic bid when the tournament was cancelled.
Gathers' fellow scoring stars Bo Kimble and Jeff Fryer rose to the occasion. Loyola averaged 105 points per game in a four-game tournament run, an absolutely sick scoring average for any other team, but a good 17 points short of its season average.
Kimble kept his 35-points-per-game average going in the tournament, including shooting almost 90 percent from the foul line. To honor Gathers' memory, Kimble took the first foul shot of each game left-handed. He made them all.
Kimble crushed New Mexico State for 45 points and 18 rebounds in the first round, then added 37 and seven to eliminate Michigan. Another 42-point, 11-rebound night in the regional final went for naught, as UNLV's crew of future pros beat LMU by 30.
Just like a college quarterback who plays in a spread offense, Kimble was derided as a system player. In that 1990 tournament, however, the system worked better than anyone could have hoped while the team mourned the loss of one of its primary cogs.
2000s: Stephen Curry, Davidson (2008)
Stephen Curry was not a complete stranger to NCAA tournament heroics when he led Davidson into the 2008 NCAA tournament. After all, he'd poured in 30 points for the Wildcats in a first-round loss to Maryland the year before.
It was in 2008, however, that Curry announced himself on a national scale by leading his unheralded dout of Wildcats to the school's first Elite Eight since the end of the Lefty Driesell era in 1969.
Curry was a second-half assassin in beating Gonzaga and Georgetown. He hung 30 on the Zags in the second half alone, then closed out the Hoyas with another 25 in the final 20 minutes of that game. The Cats stormed back from a 17-point deficit in the final 10 minutes to eliminate Georgetown.
Another 33 points in a Sweet 16 encounter with Wisconsin put Curry into an extremely exclusive club. He became only the fourth player in college basketball history to score 30 or more points in each of his first four NCAA tournament games. Only Clyde Lovellette of Kansas, Jerry Chambers of Utah and Purdue's Glenn Robinson accomplished the feat before Curry.
Kansas finally slowed Curry's roll in the regional final, "holding" him to 25 points. The second-generation sniper missed 12 of his 16 three-point attempts, but the 23 that he made over the course of the tournament still tied him for fourth in championship history. Only one more make would have sent DC to the Final Four, as Kansas escaped 59-57.
2010s: Anthony Davis, Kentucky (2012)
Anthony Davis was a modern-day freak and a nostalgic throwback all in one unibrowed package. The late-blooming big man retained the ball skills of the 6'3" guard he'd been as a high school junior, but utilized his new 6'11" frame to protect the rim like few others in college history.
Davis' scoring average in the 2012 tournament was a mere 13.7, the lowest of any Final Four Most Outstanding Player since Ed Pinckney put up 14.5 in 1985. Where Davis flexed his true muscle was on the defensive end.
The Kentucky freshman pulled more than 12 rebounds per game, 9.5 defensive. His 29 blocks would have been a tournament record if not for the 31 swats racked by his championship game counterpart, Jeff Withey of Kansas.
A dominant all-around line of 16 rebounds, five assists, three steals and six blocks helped make up for a weak 1-of-10 shooting night in the title game. No player had ever strung together those numbers in any NCAA tournament game. Furthermore, according to ESPN, no one had done it all in any game since Joel Przybilla of Minnesota in 2000.
Kansas shot only 35 percent as it tried to elude the omnipresent Davis. The Jayhawk is a fictional bird, but the real group of Jayhawks found Davis too similar to another fictional creation—the Boogeyman. He was certainly the stuff of nightmares that night in New Orleans.
For more from Scott on college basketball, check out The Back Iron.
Like the new article format? Send us feedback!