The 10 Best Men's March Madness Performances of All Time
Narrowing down the greatest performances in March Madness history to just 10 players is a tall order.
From the legends of yesterday such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Walton to more recent hero turns from Carmelo Anthony and Kemba Walker, the field of candidates is vast. In order to narrow the focus, we stuck exclusively to players whose impressive tournament performances culminated in a national championship.
After all, how good is an individual run if it doesn't help achieve the ultimate goal?
That was the only stipulation, though statistics and a player's impact on his team's success served as the biggest factors for our final selections.
Let's get to it.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, UCLA, 1968
Stats: 25.8 PPG, 18.8 RPG, 66.1 FG%
In his three seasons at UCLA, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then going by Lew Alcindor before changing his name in 1971) led the Bruins to three national championships and won three Most Outstanding Player awards.
His March Madness performances could have occupied three separate spots on this list. In the interest of space, we settled for highlighting his best—the 1968 tournament.
Here's a look at each of his stat lines:
- 1967: 26.5 PPG, 15.5 RPG, 65.0 FG%, 20 PTS in title game
- 1968: 25.8 PPG, 18.8 RPG, 66.1 FG%, 34 PTS in title game
- 1969: 23.8 PPG, 16.0 RPG, 61.9 FG%, 37 PTS in title game
Abdul-Jabbar was a true man among boys.
Carmelo Anthony, Syracuse, 2003
Stats: 20.2 PPG, 9.8 RPG, 2.5 APG, 47.5 FG%
Syracuse began the 2002-03 season unranked after it lost leading scorer Preston Shumpert and point guard DeShaun Williams from a team that went 23-13 and failed to make the NCAA tournament.
In fact, the Orange didn't even enter the AP rankings until Jan. 14, using a 10-1 stretch to close out the regular season to earn a No. 3 seed.
Anthony averaged 17.0 points through the first four games of the tournament—solid, but a bit lackluster compared to the 22.2 he averaged during the regular season.
Then he exploded for 33 points and 14 rebounds against T.J. Ford and Texas in the Final Four.
He followed that up with a 20-point, 10-rebound, seven-assist showing against Kansas in the national title game to secure his place as one of the best freshmen in college basketball history.
The full body of work stands up as one of the most impressive performances in March Madness history.
Anthony Davis, 2012, Kentucky
Stats: 13.7 PPG, 12.3 RPG, 3.0 APG, 4.8 BPG, 51.0 FG%
Anthony Davis didn't need to score to make his presence felt for a stacked Kentucky team.
While he averaged a respectable 14.2 points per game during his one and only season with the Wildcats, it was his ability as a rim-protector and rebounder that made him one of the most effective players college basketball has ever seen.
He began the NCAA tournament with 16 points and seven blocks against No. 16 seed Western Kentucky and never looked back.
Even when he shot a miserable 1-for-10 from the floor in the national championship game, he still made his mark with 16 rebounds, six blocks, five assists and three steals.
It was one of the most dominant performances you'll ever see from a player who failed to score in double figures.
Magic Johnson, Michigan State, 1979
Stats: 21.8 PPG, 8.8 RPG, 10.0 APG, 52.3 FG%
After reaching the Elite Eight as a freshman, Magic Johnson returned to Michigan State for his sophomore season and led the Spartans to a national title.
He kicked off an impressive tournament run with a 13-point, 17-rebound, 10-assist game against Lamar and recorded another triple-double with a 29-point, 10-rebound, 10-assist performance against Penn in the Final Four.
The 1979 tournament will always be remembered for one thing, though.
Magic Johnson vs. Larry Bird.
The two met in the national title game, and Magic came out on top, scoring 24 points and chipping in a modest seven rebounds and five assists in the Spartans' 75-64 victory over Indiana State.
Christian Laettner, Duke, 1992
Stats: 19.2 PPG, 7.8 RPG, 2.2 SPG, 55.7 FG%
Christian Laettner didn't even win Most Outstanding Player during the 1992 NCAA tournament.
That honor went to teammate Bobby Hurley.
However, Duke wouldn't have got to the Final Four without Laettner. His performance against Kentucky in the Elite Eight is the stuff of legend.
In a hard-fought overtime game that many consider the best in college basketball history, Laettner shot a perfect 10-of-10 from the floor and 10-of-10 from the free throw line for 31 points in 43 minutes of action.
The final made basket is as iconic as they come. We've all seen it countless times. The full-court heave from Grant Hill, the back-to-the-basket catch at the free-throw line, the buried turnaround jumper as time expired.
After scoring just eight points in the Final Four matchup with Indiana, Laettner netted a team-high 19 against Michigan's "Fab Five" in the title game to give the Blue Devils back-to-back national championships.
Danny Manning, Kansas, 1988
Stats: 27.2 PPG, 9.3 RPG, 2.3 BPG, 55.2 FG%
A three-time Big 8 Player of the Year, Danny Manning capped off his four-year career at Kansas in style.
While Manning had a stellar senior campaign, the Jayhawks went a disappointing 21-11 during the regular season, including a four-game losing streak in January.
They entered the NCAA tournament as a No. 6 seed and unranked in the AP poll.
It didn't matter where they were seeded. Manning went on arguably the most impressive run in March Madness history to beat long odds and bring home a title:
- vs. Xavier: 24 points, 12 rebounds, 3 blocks
- vs. Murray St.: 25 points, 5 rebounds, 1 block
- vs. Vanderbilt: 38 points, 5 rebounds, 1 block
- vs. Kansas St.: 20 points, 6 rebounds, 1 block
- vs. Duke: 25 points, 10 rebounds, 6 blocks
- vs. Oklahoma: 31 points, 18 rebounds, 2 blocks
The same Oklahoma team they upended in the championship game had beaten them twice during the regular season.
Manning went No. 1 overall in the draft that year, and his legacy as one of the best players in CBB history lives on to this day.
Ed O'Bannon, UCLA, 1995
Stats: 19.2 PPG, 9.0 RPG, 1.5 APG, 50.0 FG%
Ed O'Bannon is best known today for challenging the NCAA in a class action lawsuit over the use of his likeness for commercial purposes.
In his playing days, he was one of the best college basketball players of his era.
In 1995, the senior forward led UCLA to its first national championship since the 1974-75 season, which marked the end of the John Wooden era.
On a team that featured six future NBA players, O'Bannon was the unquestioned star.
The Bruins lost just two games all season, and after surviving a scare against No. 8 seed Missouri in the second round, they rolled to the national championship game.
O'Bannon averaged 17.0 points and 7.4 rebounds through the first five games of the tournament, but he had yet to truly go off.
Squaring off against second-team All-American Corliss Williamson and Arkansas in the national championship game, O'Bannon exploded for 30 points and 17 rebounds as UCLA walked away with an 89-78 victory.
UCLA has not won a title since.
Glen Rice, Michigan, 1989
Stats: 30.7 PPG, 6.5 RPG, 2.0 APG, 57.3 FG%
Trivia question: Who holds the record for most points scored in a single NCAA tournament?
If you guessed anyone but Glen Rice, context clues are not a strong suit.
The Michigan star poured in 184 points during the Wolverines' six-game run to the national title in 1989. The closest anyone has come to that total since is 155 from Maryland guard Juan Dixon in 2002.
Rice averaged 25.6 points per game during his senior season, connecting on 99 three-pointers at an absurd 51.6 percent clip.
It was more of the same during March Madness.
He scored at least 23 points in each of the team's six games, including 36 against South Alabama in the second round and 34 against North Carolina in the Sweet 16, when he shot 8-of-12 from beyond the arc.
The Wolverines needed every one of his 31 points and 11 rebounds during the national championship game, as they squeezed out an 80-79 victory over Seton Hall.
Kemba Walker, Connecticut, 2011
Stats: 23.5 PPG, 6.0 RPG, 5.7 APG, 40.2 FG%
There might be no single player in college basketball history who played a bigger role in his team's national championship triumph than Kemba Walker.
After posting a 9-9 record in conference play, UConn entered the Big East tournament as the No. 9 seed.
The Huskies ran the table, winning five games in five days with Walker averaging 26 points and 38 minutes per game.
That was enough to pull them up to a No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament, but they were still far from favorites to make a serious run.
But the Huskies just kept winning, and Walker just kept producing.
When all was said and done, UConn had won 11 games in 28 days.
Walker averaged 23.5 points and played all but nine minutes during the NCAA tournament.
Bill Walton, UCLA, 1973
Stats: 23.8 PPG, 14.5 RPG, 4.8 APG, 76.3 FG%
Bill Walton's time at UCLA didn't quite surpass Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's, but it was awfully close.
Unlike Abdul-Jabbar, Walton won just two national championships during his three years on campus, as opposed to all three.
Still, the 6'11" big man was the driving force behind those two titles, and it came down to picking the best stat line:
- 1972: 20.0 PPG, 16.0 RPG, 68.3 FG%, 24 points in title game
- 1973: 23.8 PPG, 14.5 RPG, 76.3 FG%, 44 points in title game
Those 44 points against Memphis in the 1973 national championship game still stand as the single-game record with the title on the line.
All stats courtesy of Sports Reference unless otherwise noted.