The Greatest Individual Seasons in Men's College Basketball History

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystMay 9, 2020

The Greatest Individual Seasons in Men's College Basketball History

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    UCLA's Lew Alcindor
    UCLA's Lew AlcindorAssociated Press

    If you had to coach one season of college basketball and could build your roster around one player in his collegiate prime, who would you choose?

    It's a tough call, and ranking the top 10 candidates for that pick was even tougher.

    Two key points of criteria before we dive in:

    1. Only one player per season. Sorry, but if you weren't the best player in your season, it's hard to argue that you had one of the 10 best seasons in college basketball history.
    2. Only one season per player. Sorry, but we're not ranking all three times Lew Alcindor won a national championship or all three times Pete Maravich averaged better than 43 points per game.

    Aside from that, everyone was fair game.

    In general, we targeted the guys who unanimously won National Player of the Year awards. At any rate, that was the obvious starting point in the research. But candidates certainly weren't limited to that pool. In fact, one of the guys in our top five does not fit that description.

Honorable Mentions

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    Jimmer Fredette
    Jimmer FredetteEd Andrieski/Associated Press

    Jerry Lucas, Ohio State (1959-60)
    Stats: 26.3 PPG, 16.4 RPG

    Magic Johnson, Michigan State (1978-79)
    Stats: 17.1 PPG, 8.4 APG, 7.3 RPG

    For the most part, the "one player per season" limit was a non-factor.

    These were two colossal exceptions to that rule, though, as both Lucas and Johnson were sensational en route to national championships for their respective Big Ten teams. However, neither one won any of the National Player of the Year awards in the specified season, which made it difficult to consider either among the 10 best seasons of all time.

    Lucas did win AP Player of the Year for both the 1960-61 and 1961-62 seasons, so it was certainly tempting to shoehorn him in as a career legend and just pick one of those years. However, 1959-60 was definitely his best of the bunch, and that year overlapped with the No. 2 player on our list. He'll have to settle for Most Honorable Mention for leading the Buckeyes to three consecutive title games.


    Clyde Lovellette, Kansas (1951-52)
    Stats: 28.4 PPG, 12.8 RPG

    Bill Russell, San Francisco (1955-56)
    Stats: 20.6 PPG, 21.0 RPG

    Lovellette led Kansas to a national championship and led the nation in points per game in 1951-52. Russell led San Francisco to back-to-back titles, including a perfect 29-0 record in his final season. Each 6'9" center was nothing short of dominant.

    However, there were no National Player of the Year awards at this time, and neither big man was selected with the first pick in the subsequent NBA draft. Tom Heinsohn averaged 27.4 points and 21.1 rebounds in Russell's big season, and the No. 1 pick in Lovellette's draft (Bill Mlkvy) averaged 29.2 points and 18.9 rebounds in 1950-51. Video-game numbers were relatively common back then.


    Bill Bradley, Princeton (1964-65)
    Stats: 30.5 PPG, 11.8 RPG

    Bradley led Princeton to its only Final Four in program history. Prior to the third-place game of that 1965 NCAA tournament, he was "only" averaging 29.5 points and 11.6 rebounds. But in the finale of his college career, he exploded for 58 points and 17 rebounds in Princeton's 118-82 win over Wichita State. He had already secured the AP Player of the Year vote prior to that exhibition.


    Tim Duncan, Wake Forest (1996-97)
    Stats: 20.8 PPG, 14.7 RPG, 3.3 BPG, 3.2 APG

    Duncan was the only player in the past 28 years to average at least 20 points, 14 rebounds and three blocks in a season, not to mention his impressive assist rate for a big man. He's also one of just eight players since 1995-96 to accumulate at least 10 win shares in a single season, and he was the only one to do so in fewer than 32 games. He was a consummate pro long before he became a 15-time All-Pro Hall of Famer with the San Antonio Spurs.


    Michael Beasley, Kansas State (2007-08)
    Stats: 26.2 PPG, 12.4 RPG, 1.6 BPG, 1.3 SPG, 1.2 APG

    Beasley probably deserves some extra credit for putting up these numbers as a freshman on a young Kansas State team. However, it was Tyler Hansbrough who swept the Player of the Year awards for the 2007-08 season, and he wasn't even a particularly strong candidate for this list.


    Jimmer Fredette, BYU (2010-11)
    Stats: 28.9 PPG, 4.3 APG, 3.4 RPG

    Jimmer Mania consumed the college basketball world for this season as Fredette led BYU to a No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament. However, Stephen Curry and Trae Young had similarly limitless range and were considerably better in the assists and steals departments. Even if we insisted on including a three-point assassin, it would have been more tempting to include one of the baby-faced phenoms from Davidson or Oklahoma.

10. Zion Williamson, Duke (2018-19)

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    Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

    Stats: 22.6 PPG, 8.9 RPG, 2.1 APG, 2.1 SPG, 1.8 BPG

    People are going to freak out about this, but that's OK. In fact, it proves my point.

    Did Zion Williamson have one of the 10 greatest statistical seasons of all time? Probably not. Just from our list of honorable mentions, Tim Duncan and Michael Beasley put up more impressive numbers while playing a similar position.

    But the intense infatuation with (or hatred for) Williamson was second to none. He had the Midas Touch, except instead of turning everything to gold, everything he touched became #content.

    There have been plenty of other beloved players during the era of social media. Jimmer Fredette hit his peak right as Twitter was gaining steam/legitimacy. Then it was Anthony Davis, several years of Doug McDermott, Frank "the Tank" Kaminsky, Trae Young and at least a dozen other players without whom an oral history of the 2010s would be incomplete.

    None of them can hold a candle to Williamson.

    For one year, we thought Young was going to be the biggest meteoric superstar of this generation. But comparing the obsession with Young to that of Williamson is akin to trying to put Wichita State's 34-0 regular season in 2013-14 on the same level as Kentucky's the following year. The first was a great story. The second was an inescapable phenomenon.

    Never forget that it was Barack Obama who first pointed out that Williamson's shoe broke. What a strange, five-month ride this was.

    And let's not downplay how good he was by making this all about the media circus that surrounded him. Williamson was elite on both ends of the flooraside from shooting free throws—and his ability to soar like Vince Carter despite being built like Robert "Tractor" Traylor made for viral highlights on the regular.

9. Glenn Robinson, Purdue (1993-94)

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    Stephan Savoia/Associated Press

    Stats: 30.3 PPG, 10.1 RPG, 1.9 APG, 1.6 SPG, 0.9 BPG

    A couple of minor-conference stars (Marcus Keene and Chris Clemons) messed around and averaged 30 points per game in a recent season. But dating back to 1992-93, only one player has put up at least 30.2 points per game while playing at least 20 contests: Glenn "Big Dog" Robinson.

    And Robinson did his damage while playing in the loaded Big Ten conference. He also averaged better than 10 rebounds per game, dominating as a power forward, not as a pint-sized combo guard with a permanent green light.

    This big man had serious range, though, which made him virtually unguardable.

    Robinson shot 79-of-208 (38.0 percent) from downtown while winning all of the National Player of the Year awards in 1993-94. Most wings/guards had no hope of keeping him from getting to the rim, while the vast majority of frontcourt players were helpless to defend him along the perimeter.

    As a result, he propelled Purdue to a breakthrough season. The Boilermakers had won 18 or fewer games in each of the previous three years, but they exploded for 29 victories and a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. In Purdue's Sweet 16 victory over Kansas, Robinson scored 44 of the team's 83 points.

    He was the No. 1 overall pick in the subsequent draft, and he went on to average 20.7 points per game in his 11 NBA seasons.

8. Kevin Durant, Texas (2006-07)

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    Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

    Stats: 25.8 PPG, 11.1 RPG, 1.9 BPG, 1.9 SPG, 1.3 APG

    The NBA's controversial one-and-done rule went into effect for the 2006 draft, which meant that Kevin Durant's class was the first one forced to go to college. Per 247 Sports, he was the No. 2 overall player in that recruiting class and surely would have been one of the top candidates to go straight from high school to the pros.

    But he couldn't. And after we missed out on the likes of Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Dwight Howard, Amar'e Stoudemire and many others, college basketball fans were giddy about Durant's potential long before his first game with the Longhorns.

    It didn't take long for him to deliver on that immense promise.

    Thanks in part to the departure of all five of Texas' leading scorers from the previous season, Durant and his silky-smooth jumper were immediately given the opportunity to shine. He scored 20 in the season opener, he put up at least 20 in each of his next six games, and he was just getting warmed up.

    In 19 Big 12 games (including the conference tournament), Durant averaged 29.2 points and 12.2 rebounds while shooting 46.8 percent from three-point range, carrying an extremely young Texas teamfive freshmen and two sophomores were the seven leading scorersto a No. 4 seed in the NCAA tournament.

    We've grown accustomed to seeing John Calipari and Mike Krzyzewski let freshmen run the show in recent years, but what Durant and Co. did in the first year of the one-and-done era was revolutionary. (Ohio State also had one heck of a freshman class that year, but Greg Oden and Mike Conley had upperclassmen like Ron Lewis and Jamar Butler for veteran leadership. Durant had nothing of the sort.)

7. David Robinson, Navy (1986-87)

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    Uncredited/Associated Press

    Stats: 28.2 PPG, 11.8 RPG, 4.5 BPG, 2.1 SPG

    Over the past 60 years, Navy men's basketball has been predominantly irrelevant.

    If we temporarily exclude David Robinson's four years on the roster, we're looking at zero seasons with 24 or more victories, zero weeks in the AP poll and just three NCAA tournament appearances, each one as either a No. 15 or No. 16 seed that was completely overmatched in the first round.

    But the Admiral changed everything for four years.

    The Midshipmen won 24 games his freshman year. They won 26 the following season, including a first-round NCAA tournament upset as a No. 13 seed. When Robinson was a junior, they won 30 games, earned a No. 7 seed and made it to the Elite Eight.

    Then he really took over as a senior.

    Robinson's top teammates from those first three seasonsVernon Butler and Kylor Whitakerboth graduated in 1986, and his head coach, Paul Evans, jumped ship for the Pittsburgh job after that Elite Eight run. As a result, the team understandably wasn't as good in 1986-87.

    However, Robinson was such a star by this point that the Midshipmen debuted at No. 9 in the AP poll anyway, which is still their highest ranking in program history.

    Despite losing that combination of coach and key players, Navy still won 26 games and made the NCAA tournament with room to spare as a No. 8 seed. It lost to Michigan in the first round, but not for lack of effort from Robinson. He had 50 points and 13 rebounds in the 97-82 Wolverines win.

6. Bill Walton, UCLA (1972-73)

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    Uncredited/Associated Press

    Stats: 20.4 PPG, 16.9 RPG

    Long before Bill Walton's second career as the most polarizing commentator in college basketballI, for one, very much enjoy his late-night, nonsensical ramblings to Dave Paschhe was one of the most unstoppable big men in college basketball history.

    Walton was UCLA's anchor in the paint en route to back-to-back undefeated seasons in 1971-72 and 1972-73. He averaged 21.1 points and 15.5 rebounds in the former season, and you can see his next set of numbers above. In both seasons, he was named the AP Player of the Year.

    The first 15 games of the famous 88-game winning streak took place before Walton's college career began, but there's no question he's the main reason it lasted as long as it did.

    In the 1972 Final Four, he had 33 points and 21 rebounds against Louisville, followed by 24 points and 20 rebounds in the championship game against Florida State.

    But we're picking his work during the 1972-73 season because his performance in that title game was even more unfathomable.

    Walton shot 21-of-22 from the field against Memphis, finishing with 44 points and 13 rebounds. The game was tied at halftime, but the Bruins ended up with a 21-point victory by simply feeding their human cheat code over and over again. To this day, that was easily the most impressive individual performance in a title game.

    Per Sports Reference, Walton averaged 23.8 points, 14.5 rebounds and 4.8 assists during that NCAA tournament. If he hadn't literally broken his back 10 games into the following season, UCLA might have enjoyed a third consecutive undefeated campaign.

5. Shaquille O'Neal, LSU (1990-91)

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    BILL WAUGH/Associated Press

    Stats: 27.6 PPG, 14.7 RPG, 5.0 BPG, 1.6 APG, 1.5 SPG

    Every other player in our top 10 was the unanimous NPOY for the season in question. Shaquille O'Neal was the AP Player of the Year in 1990-91, but UNLV's Larry Johnson won the Naismith Award, the Wooden Award, the Oscar Robertson Trophy and the NABC POY. And that makes perfect sense because Johnson's team was undefeated prior to losing to Duke in the Final Four while O'Neal's team (LSU) went 20-10 and didn't even win its conference.

    That said, Shaq Diesel was a damn freight train.

    O'Neal led the nation in rebounds per game, ranked third in blocks per game and was seventh in points per game. It was just mind-boggling production. Even if we reduce each of his averages by 30 percent to 19.3 points, 10.3 rebounds and 3.5 blocks, the only players since O'Neal to hit those marks in a single season have been Colgate's Adonal Foyle (1995-96 and 1996-97) and Florida A&M's Jerome James (1997-98).

    The only reason he didn't run away with all of the awards is that the rest of that LSU team was just plain not good. While Grandmama was on a UNLV roster loaded with NBA talent, the only non-O'Neal 1990-91 LSU player to appear in the NBA was Geert Hamminkfor 27 total minutes.

    O'Neal had 27 points, 16 rebounds and five blocks in LSU's 1991 NCAA tournament opener, but the Tigers lost by 17 because no one else had more than seven points or seven rebounds. It wasn't always that bad, but that was more or less the story for LSU all season long. All opponents had to worry about was O'Neal, and he still destroyed everything in his path.

    What he did the following season had no bearing on his ranking, but I would like to point out that in the 1992 NCAA tournament, O'Neal had a triple-double (26 points, 13 rebounds and 11 blocks) in LSU's first-round game and shot 12-of-12 from the free-throw line in the second-round loss to Indiana. Given the struggles he had from the charity stripe throughout his NBA career, the latter of those two feats is definitely the hardest to believe.

4. Pete Maravich, LSU (1969-70)

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    Jack Thornell/Associated Press

    Stats: 44.5 PPG, 6.2 APG, 5.3 RPG

    In the past decade of college basketball, there have been just 87 instances of a player scoring at least 44 points in a single game. Both Campbell's Chris Clemons and Marquette's Markus Howard did it three times during the 2018-19 season, and they were the only players to hit that mark at least three times.

    For "Pistol" Pete Maravich, however, 44 was just another night at the officein an era without a three-point line and without a shot clock, no less.

    Playing at LSU for his dad, Press, Maravich had the greenest of green lights throughout his three collegiate seasons.

    As a sophomorefreshmen weren't allowed to play on the varsity squad back thenhe averaged 39.3 field-goal attempts and 13.0 free-throw attempts per game. The rest of the roster combined for 35.0 and 13.7, respectively. He averaged 43.8 points that season, improved to 44.2 as a junior and peaked at 44.5 in his final season.

    While he was sitting out his freshman year, LSU went 3-23. The Tigers improved to 14-12 in his first season on the floor and went 22-10 in his final year. However, the world never got a chance to experience Maravich in the NCAA tournament. That 22-win season in 1969-70 was by far LSU's best campaign between 1954-55 and 1977-78, but it wasn't enough to reach the Big Dance.

    It might be a bit harsh to pin that on Pistol Pete. He certainly did all he could on offense to carry that team to victory. But we opted to put the highest-scoring season in men's NCAA history just outside our top three because the Tigers didn't go to the NCAA tournament and Maravich only averaged 25.7 points in their three NIT games.

    Marquette's Al Maguire basically played a Triangle-and-2 defense with two guys shadowing Maravich all night long in their 101-79 loss in the semifinals. He still somehow scored 20 points, though.

3. Larry Bird, Indiana State (1978-79)

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    Anonymous/Associated Press

    Stats: 28.6 PPG, 14.9 RPG, 5.5 APG, 2.5 SPG

    Much like David Robinson at Navy, Indiana State's only national relevancyaside from having John Wooden as head coach for two seasons before he took the UCLA jobwas when Larry Bird was on the roster.

    In his first season (1976-77), Bird averaged 32.8 points as the Sycamores went 25-3, but they didn't qualify for the NCAA tournament. The following year, he averaged 30.0 points and got Indiana State up to No. 4 in the AP poll with a 12-0 start. The Sycamores lost nine of their next 20 games, though, and again missed the tournament.

    In 1978-79, they went undefeated throughout the regular season, climbed to No. 1 in the AP poll and earned a No. 1 seed in the Big Dancethe first year with seeding, for what it's worth.

    Bird led the team in points, rebounds and steals and ranked second in both assists and blocks. He took home all of the NPOY awards, even though his scoring average was the lowest of his college career, and even though Magic Johnson was having a ridiculous season of his own at Michigan State.

    Those two legends met in the 1979 national championship for what was possibly the most highly anticipated game in college basketball history. Johnson's Spartans won the game, in large part because Bird had an off night, shooting 7-of-21 from the field. He still racked up 19 points, 13 rebounds and five steals, though.

    As great as Bird was at Indiana State, he is definitely near the top of the list of "Imagine if the three-point line existed when he played" guys. Pete Maravich is No. 1 on that list, but Bird is probably No. 2 given how well he shot from distance from 1984-92 in the NBA.

    To this day, Indiana State has only been ranked in the AP poll when Bird was there.

2. Oscar Robertson, Cincinnati (1959-60)

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    Associated Press

    Stats: 33.7 PPG, 14.1 RPG, 7.3 APG

    The assist was not a recognized statistic by the NCAA until 1982, but Oscar Robertson was so proficient at setting up teammates that his dimes were tracked nearly a quarter-century prior to that rule change.

    Officially, The Big O never recorded a triple-double in college. Unofficially, though, he had four of them just in Cincinnati's eight games in the 1959 and 1960 NCAA tournaments. In fact, his average* stat line in 10 career NCAA tournament games was 32.4 points, 13.1 rebounds and 10.3 assists.

    Robertson led the nation in scoring in each of his three seasons and led the Bearcats to the Final Four in 1959 and 1960.

    With the exception of the first AP poll of his first season, Cincinnati was ranked in the Top 10 for his entire college careerthis despite never previously playing in the NCAA tournament, nor spending a single week in the AP Top 10. The Bearcats also spent the entirety of Robertson's senior year at No. 1, entering the tourney with a one-point road loss to a very good Bradley team serving as their only misstep.

    California was his kryptonite, though.

    Cincinnati lost to the Golden Bears in the Final Four in both 1959 and 1960. He had 19 points, 19 rebounds and nine assists in the first meeting and a triple-double (18 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists) in the rematch, but he shot 9-of-32 from the field in those losses. It was just about the only teamcollege or procapable of slowing him down in the slightest.

    *Assists were only tracked in eight of the 10 games, but he had 82 assists in those eight contests.

1. Lew Alcindor, UCLA (1966-67)

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    Anonymous/Associated Press

    Stats: 29.0 PPG, 15.5 RPG

    From 1964-76, UCLA won 10 national championships and reached the Final Four 12 out of 13 times. The lone exception was the year when Lew Alcindor (later known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) was on the bench as a freshman and not allowed to play. The Bruins went 18-8 that year and missed the tournament altogether.

    With Alcindor, though, they went 88-2, including a perfect 30-0 campaign in his debut year.

    In all three seasons, he led UCLA in both points and rebounds by an absurd margin. In this particular season, the next-closest Bruins ended up at 15.5 and 5.9, respectively, so Alcindor was a full 2007-08 Blake Griffin (14.7 PPG, 9.1 RPG) better than everyone else on an undefeated roster.

    Suffice it to say, he was pretty good.

    Alcindor didn't just beat up on the otherwise weak AAWU conference, either. He had a double-double in each of UCLA's four NCAA tournament games, each of which the Bruins won by at least 15 points. He went for 38 and 14 against 24-4 Pacific, had 19 and 20 in the Final Four against 27-4 Houston and put up 20 and 18 in the national championship win over Dayton.

    That's not quite as ridiculous as his 34 points and 16 rebounds in the subsequent title game against North Carolina, nor the 37 points and 20 rebounds in his college career finale against Purdue, but it was complete dominance all the same.

    If we hadn't imposed a limit of one season per player, Alcindor probably would have landed in the top 10 three times.


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