Ranking the 20 Best NCAA Tournament College Basketball Players Ever
Each March, a sense of aptly named madness seizes the sporting realm, and the players lucky enough to qualify for the NCAA tournament get a chance to etch their names into the history books next to legends who have participated in March brackets since 1939.
An exhausting number of teams and names have put on memorable performances since the madness first descended upon the month of March. Much has changed since the first tipoff too, as the best players these days don't often stick around to wreak havoc on multiple brackets like legends of the past did.
From Clyde Lovellette's gaudy numbers to Magic Johnson's electric presence, some of the top performers come to mind more smoothly than Lew Alcindor's hook. Others are harder to recall but stand tall when one holds a light to the resume.
Some go on to run roughshod on the NBA. Others don't. Some best the entire bracket and win a title. Others come oh so close. Either way, one could argue stepping under the bright lights of March Madness and playing at a high level consistently is one of the most impressive feats in sports, no matter if they had regular-season success or later took the pros by storm.
Below, let's rank the best tournament players ever based on numbers, team success, lasting impact and more, keeping in mind those who stayed in college longer naturally had larger impacts.
20. Clyde Lovellette, Kansas
To this day, few can match the scoring prowess of Clyde Lovellette during his days with the Kansas Jayhawks.
A three-year starter, Lovellette capped off his career averaging 28.4 points per game—best in the nation—and winning a national title in 1951-52, dropping 33 points in the title game.
At the time, few could stop the 6'9" center, hence his boasting one of the highest scoring averages during a single tournament in history with 35.5 points per game (141 points over four contests).
Lovellette was the Helms Foundation Player of the Year in 1952 and went on to win three NBA titles and Olympic gold, and he was enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame.
Helping to usher in the trend of versatile big men, Lovellette's impact is still felt today.
19. Gail Goodrich, UCLA
Gail Goodrich was a pioneer in an uptempo attack that helped head coach John Wooden win two national titles and create a dynasty.
Enough said, right?
Goodrich was only 6'1" and 170 pounds yet averaged 21.5 points in 1963-64 and 24.8 the year after. He dropped 27 points on Duke in 1964 to win the title and then another 42 on Michigan a year later.
An eventual NBA champion, Goodrich was part of arguably the best tournament backcourt in history. Shooting a ridiculous 52.5 percent from the floor during his final campaign is almost unfair. Clearly there wasn't a program that could contain him.
18. Tyler Hansbrough, North Carolina
Love him or hate him, Tyler Hansbrough is an anomaly these days given how long he suited up for the North Carolina Tar Heels and dominated the tournament.
Hansbrough was the high-effort guy every opponent's fanbase disliked yet would love to have on their side. He was efficient on the offensive end of the court as well, averaging a minimum of 18.4 points per game in each of his four seasons.
Over the course of his tournament career, Hansbrough averaged 19.1 points and 8.6 rebounds while acting as the heart of the program, helping it advance to the Elite Eight, the Final Four and then win a title outright in 2009.
Hansbrough has plenty of team and ACC records, though perhaps what's most impressive about his tournament resume is the fact he turned down a high NBA draft slot in exchange for more shots at brackets—much to the chagrin of the rest of the nation.
17. Hakeem Olajuwon, Houston
Let's get this out of the way first—no, Hakeem Olajuwon didn't win a title.
Cool? Good. Among those responsible for "Phi Slama Jama" thanks to his partnership with Clyde Drexler, Olajuwon forever has a spot on lists like this thanks to his ample collegiate performances and lasting impression.
It's sometimes easy to forget, but Olajuwon bullied the college game, averaging a double-double in each of his final two years as a starter and posting north of five blocks per game in both seasons.
In the Big Dance, Olajuwon scored in double digits in 12 of his 15 appearances and averaged a double-double, making it to three Final Fours, including the infamous loss to NC State in 1983.
A man with an exhaustive list of pro accolades, Olajuwon started his reign at the collegiate level and left a legacy few can surpass.
16. Elvin Hayes, Houston
Elvin Hayes is a case of mind-boggling stats and classic memories.
Hayes never won a title with Houston, though he played in two semifinal games. But he finished his career averaging 36.8 points per game during the regular season, impressively the smallest of his feats listed here.
"The Big E" put up 310 field-goal attempts over 13 career tournament games, making 152 of them for 358 points (27.5 per game).
It would take a long time to list the single-tournament records Hayes holds, so check them here. Of note, he ranks third all-time with 167 points over just five games. He was also a monster on the glass with 97 boards over five games.
The lack of a title hurts Hayes here, but only a little.
15. Danny Manning, Kansas
The fact "Danny and the Miracles" is a thing speaks to Danny Manning's lasting legacy.
Manning dominated the college scene over his final two years at Kansas, posting north of 23 points and nine rebounds per game.
The tournament, though, is where Manning really shined—he led an 11-loss Jayhawks team to a championship, hence the nickname, scoring 31 points with 18 boards in the title win against Oklahoma.
With a Final Four and national title on his resume alongside the epic memories and performances, Manning won't leave a list like this anytime soon.
14. Bob Kurland, Oklahoma A&M
Bob Kurland, as one of the first centers coming in at 7'0", is a staple of any all-time list about March Madness.
Kurland didn't just dominate regular seasons. He helped Oklahoma A&M make history as the first back-to-back champions while he carried the team on his back in 1945 and 1946.
Given his performances in the bracket, he is one of five players in history to win Most Outstanding Player of the NCAA tournament twice.
Not only did Kurland win a pair of titles, he changed the game of basketball forever—he's the reason goaltending rules exist today.
13. Patrick Ewing, Georgetown
Patrick Ewing led the Georgetown Hoyas to a national title game as a freshman, which, back in the 1980s, was quite the big deal.
As a whole, Ewing led Georgetown to three title games. His first attempt wound up thwarted by a guy known as Michael Jordan. Ewing then outdueled Olajuwon in the 1984 bracket to win the championship.
Ewing never put up more than 17.7 points per game during the regular season, but his rebound averages climbed north of 10 twice, and he boasted more than three blocks per game all four years.
Ewing seemed to save his best for the tournament, where he'd post big numbers and battle some of the biggest sporting juggernauts of his generation. He's undoubtedly one as well after shining each time the calendar flipped to March.
12. Tom Gola, La Salle
Philadelphia native Tom Gola stayed home for college and found unbelievable success.
Gola won the 1954 national championship with the La Salle Explorers along with the Helms Foundation Player of the Year award.
A Swiss army knife of sorts before all-around players ran rampant on brackets, Gola totaled more than 2,000 points and rebounds apiece over the course of his career. His timely, composed performances helped the Explorers win the title in 1954 and make it back to the final the following year.
Gola's numbers hold up well alongside his legacy, shaping what coaches ask of players even today.
11. David Thompson, NC State
Remember the aforementioned UCLA dynasty?
David Thompson took it down.
Thompson's high-flying highlight reels hold weight today because of his silly vertical leap and ability to get up and around almost any defender he encountered.
Over the course of three years, Thompson averaged 24.7, 26 and 29.9 points per game. In 1974, he and NC State sneaked past fourth-ranked Maryland in an ACC title-game classic just to make the NCAA tournament. They then overcame Bill Walton and UCLA in the semifinals before claiming the title with a win against Marquette.
Thompson averaged 24.3 points over the course of four tournament games. His before-his-time style, wild highlights and slaying of a seven-year UCLA dynasty place him high among the best ever.
10. Bill Bradley, Princeton
One wouldn't necessarily expect to see a program like Princeton come up on a list like this, but feel free to thank Bill Bradley.
Arguably the best Ivy League player of all time, Bradley averaged more than 30 points per game over each of his final two seasons at the collegiate level, also averaging more than 11 rebounds per game in all three seasons.
The tournament was another animal. Bradley led Princeton to three berths, taking the Tigers as far as a Final Four in 1965, where he dropped 58 points in a consolation-game victory to finish third.
The future presidential candidate ranks fifth all-time after averaging 35.4 points per game over five games in 1965, his 177 total points ranking him second all-time.
Given the heights to which he carried the program and the numbers he posted while doing so, it's hard to knock Bradley too much for failing to win a title.
9. Jerry West, West Virginia
What's not to like about Jerry West on an all-time tournament list?
The man whose likeness remains on the NBA logo came flying out of the gates as a sophomore at West Virginia, averaging 32 points per game in the tournament, his 160 points over six games good for sixth on the all-time list.
West borderline carried the Mountaineers on his back, leading all scorers and rebounders in each tournament game in 1959 before a one-point loss in the final.
He played four more tournament games the year after, bringing his career total to 275 points.
West didn't win a title either, but the way he carried a big program was unprecedented back in his era.
8. Larry Bird, Indiana State
Does this need an explanation?
Larry Bird, in tandem with Magic Johnson, brought the NCAA tournament to the forefront of the sporting world. His coming up short in the epic duel might be the only thing preventing him from ranking higher on the list.
Bird averaged 32.8 points per game during his first season with the Sycamores in 1976-77 after walking back a scholarship offer from Bob Knight at Indiana.
He then took Indiana State to the Big Dance in 1979, where he posted a double-double in his first four games while averaging 29.3 points and 13.5 rebounds. One of the most memorable Cinderella runs of all time ended in the title game against Magic Johnson and Michigan State despite Bird's posting 19 points and 13 rebounds.
Loss or not, the run still resonates with fans today.
7. Magic Johnson, Michigan State
Johnson brought an incredible array of freshness to the sport of basketball as a whole.
A charismatic, fiery leader made for the spotlight, Johnson was a giant 6'9" point guard who averaged at least 17 points per game in each of his two seasons at Michigan State alongside 7.4 assists or higher.
It was Johnson who rose to the occasion in 1979 against Bird, dropping 24 points, seven rebounds and five assists to win the title.
Magic wasn't just a superstar who demanded attention—he helped further the sport as a whole, as the NCAA expanded the tournament twice after the '79 class over the next five years.
6. Oscar Robertson, Cincinnati
Statistically speaking and otherwise, few match Oscar Robertson's run at the collegiate level.
The "Big O" led Cincinnati to consecutive Final Fours after averaging 33.8 points per game for his career, a number few have topped. Robertson cleaned up on the boards too, averaging 15.2, 16.3 and 14.1 rebounds per game over three seasons.
Over his tournament career, Robertson averaged 32.4 points and 13.1 rebounds per game, setting the stage for bigger wing players who stuffed the stat sheet via rebounds and assists.
A man well ahead of his time, Robertson's lack of a title doesn't take away from his impact on the game and must-see nature he brought to the NCAA tournament whenever he laced up the sneakers.
5. Wilt Chamberlain, Kansas
Wilt Chamberlain was also well ahead of his time and altered the game forever.
If guys like Magic and Robertson paved the way for evolution at positions, Chamberlain helped innovate the defensive side of things—he was often triple-teamed.
Chamberlain couldn't be stopped underneath the basket, which is what happened when Kansas let the 7'2" center loose to go to work. He averaged 29.6 points and 18.9 rebounds per game his first season in 1956-57, 30.1 and 17.5 the next.
He averaged north of 30 points per game in his first (and only) NCAA tournament back in 1957 before being slowed to 23 in a triple-overtime loss to North Carolina.
In a way, Chamberlain was a preview of what was to come at the center position, as well. But defenses altering the pace of games to keep the ball out of his hands and throwing triple teams his way are developments only he can boast about with bravado.
4. Christian Laettner, Duke
Here's a fun one.
In some circles, Christian Laettner isn't the most popular guy. But he's a tournament legend, a guy who played in 23 of a possible 24 Big Dance games over the course of his career.
Laettner is the only player in history to appear in four Final Four contests. He didn't help Duke secure a title in either of his first two tournaments, but he carried the Blue Devils to back-to-back championships after that.
Maybe most famous for buzzer-beaters in 1990 and 1992 (especially the latter after catching an 80-foot inbounds pass and sinking a dart to down Kentucky), Laettner's field-goal percentage of 78.8 in 1989 over five games is second-best in history for a single tournament.
To top it all off, Laettner tallied 407 points over those 23 games.
3. Bill Russell, San Francisco
Where to start with Bill Russell?
Maybe it's the fact the NCAA widened the lane to 12 feet due to his dominance. Or maybe it's the fact he averaged more than 20 points and 20 rebounds in each of his final two collegiate seasons (1954-55, 1955-56).
Winning two titles while hitting on a 60-game winning streak doesn't hurt, nor does grabbing 27 boards in a single title game.
Did anyone mention Russell was a defensive force? Blocks weren't much of a stat back then, but let's just say he would have flirted with a triple-double on more than a few nights.
A sport-changer with the championships and numbers to match, few will ever surpass Russell.
2. Bill Walton, UCLA
The college game wasn't ready for Bill Walton.
One of the greatest to ever step on a collegiate court, Walton won two titles during his time at UCLA, averaging 20.3 points and 15.7 rebounds over three years in the regular season.
More than anything, fans might recall arguably the greatest single-game performance of all time: In the Big Dance's finale against Memphis State in 1973, Walton poured in 44 points on 21-of-22 from the floor, while his team scored 87 points in the win.
Let's just say he won the Most Outstanding Player award with ease, his first of two.
Even today, much of what Walton accomplished from an individual standpoint stands strong against the rest of history.
1. Lew Alcindor, UCLA
Nobody tops Lew Alcindor, otherwise known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, on a list like this. Nobody.
Alcindor won three consecutive titles at UCLA, which could have reached four had freshmen been eligible.
The fact Alcindor won three titles manages to undersell his dominance—the man lost only two games over three seasons, both by a basket apiece.
Over three Final Four appearances, Alcindor averaged 25.7 points and 18.8 rebounds per game.
Alcindor revolutionized the game with his hook shot and was a big part of why the dunk was banned.
Taking it all together at once, like Alcindor's game itself, his resume is the perfect package and doesn't look like one that will ever be matched.
Stats and information courtesy of Sports-Reference.com unless otherwise specified.