March Madness: The 25 Greatest NCAA Tournament Players of All Time

Neri Stein@neristeinFeatured ColumnistMarch 14, 2011

March Madness: The 25 Greatest NCAA Tournament Players of All Time

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    Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

    Now that the conference tournaments and Selection Sunday are behind us, it's time to look back at some of the stars who have shone the brightest during the craziest event in sports, the NCAA tournament.  

    March has been Mad for years now, and whether you're a fan of basketball or not, it's got something or someone in it for everyone.

    There's always at least one Cinderella story and at least one team that just mystifies everyone. Best of all, there have been some truly stellar individual performances over the years.

    Some of these guys were stand-out stars the moment they enrolled in school, while others didn't get on the national scene until they got to the tournament.

    Whether they were household names before or after the tournament, these guys just knew how to dance better than anyone else.

    Being the best come tournament time was more about being the most exciting player on the court, not necessarily the most outstanding.  

    So here's my list of the 25 best NCAA tournament players ever. There's some recent guys along with the old favorites, and not all of them won the title.  

    Note: The rankings aren't definite, but each athlete is in the right general area, in my opinion at least. Please leave comments on who I left out or who you think doesn't belong! 

25. Jimmer Fredette: The Guy Who Can Join the List This Year

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    LAS VEGAS, NV - MARCH 12:  Jimmer Fredette #32 of the Brigham Young University Cougars shoots a jump shot during the championship game of the Conoco Mountain West Conference Basketball tournament against the San Diego State Aztecs at the Thomas & Mack Cen
    Ethan Miller/Getty Images

    Jimmer Fredette was probably the most talked-about individual in college basketball this year; that is, until his teammate Brandon Davies was suspended for breaking BYU's honor code.

    Without Davies, Fredette and the Cougars probably lost their shot at a No. 1 seed in the tournament, but a No. 3 seed in the Southeast shouldn't stop Fredette from putting on a show.

    He's got everything going for him. He's a great shooter, he's great in interviews and there's a lot to talk about with him, including the fact that he's up for some postseason awards. 

    He handles big situations well, so look for him to lead BYU deep in the tournament and excite everyone along the way. 

24. Bill Bradley

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    Bill Bradley is on this list because he took an Ivy League team to the Final Four and was even called the "White Oscar Robertson" by some. He was a household name athlete from Princeton, and the sport wasn't rowing or polo. 

    He led Princeton to the Final Four in 1965, where they lost, but he still won the tournament Most Outstanding Player.

    Photo courtesy of 

23. Tim Duncan

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    8 Mar 1997: Center Tim Duncan of the Wake Forest Demon Deacons stands on the court with the ball during a playoff game against the North Carolina Tarheels at the Greensboro Coliseum in Greensboro, North Carolina. North Carolina won the game 86-73.
    Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

    Tim Duncan may have never taken Wake Forest very far into the tournament, but every year, he had more pressure put on his shoulders and every year, he owned up to it. 

    Jerry West proclaimed him the No. 1 overall pick after just his sophomore season, but he had made a promise to his mother that he would get his degree, so he stayed all four years. He's a guy you can't root against.  

    The deepest his Wake Forest team went was the Elite Eight, but he still won all sorts of collegiate awards and was the No. 1 overall pick in 1997 NBA Draft. And that championship didn't elude him for long. 

22. Bob Kurland

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    Bob Kurland led the Oklahoma A & M Baggies (now the Cowboys) to two consecutive titles in 1945 and '46 and was also the Most Outstanding Player each of those years, the first player to do so.

    He was also one of the first players to dunk the ball regularly during games, so thank God he came along.

    Kurland was also known for leaping over the rim and grabbing opponents shots, and thus defensive goaltending was banned in 1945.

    Photo courtesy of 

21. Corey Brewer

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    ATLANTA - APRIL 02:  Corey Brewer #2 of the Florida Gators celebrates after defeating the Ohio State Buckeyes during the NCAA Men's Basketball Championship game at the Georgia Dome on April 2, 2007 in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
    Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    Corey Brewer was part of the University of Florida's own Fab Four that won back-to-back national championships in 2006-07, a big part.

    He was the tournament's Most Outstanding Player in 2007, but he had something more that made him stand out from teammates Al Horford, Joakim Noah and Taurean Green.

    Horford and Green's fathers each had, albeit limited, NBA careers, and Noah's father Yannick was a highly successful French tennis player.

    Brewer's family, on the other hand, really could have benefited from Corey entering the NBA draft in 2006, when he likely would've gone early in the first round.

    But he decided to stay for his junior year, along with his teammates, and it's lucky for the Gator nation that he did.

    He was stellar for the Gators all year and really stepped it up in the tournament, where he easily guided the Gators to their second national title.   

20. Carmelo Anthony

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    NEW ORLEANS - APRIL 7:  Carmelo Anthony #15 of Syracuse holds up tommorows paper which declares the Orangeman national champs after he and his team defeated Kansas 81-78 during the championship game of the NCAA Men's Final Four Tournament on April 7, 2003
    Craig Jones/Getty Images

    Carmelo Anthony led Syracuse to its only national title in 2003 and is only the third freshman to be named Most Outstanding Player. 

    He led the Orangemen all season long and then really made it count come tournament time. 

    In the Final Four game against Texas, he scored 33 points, a record for a freshman. He then notched a double-double in the championship game against Kansas.

    How many more titles would Syracuse have if he'd stayed another year or two?

19. Stephen Curry

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    CHARLOTTE, NC - DECEMBER 6:  Stephen Curry #30 of the Davidson Wildcats walks upcourt during the game against the North Carolina State Wolfpack at Time Warner Cable Arena on December 6, 2008 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Ima
    Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

    A Cinderella team is supposed to make a magical run to the Elite Eight after winning their tiny division's tournament, and then they don't come back for 30 years.

    Steph Curry must've seen a different version because he took Davidson to two NCAA tournaments in 2008 and 2009 and took down teams like Georgetown and Wisconsin while they were there.

    He scored over 30 points in his first four tournament games, only the fourth player to ever do it, and he was also only the second player to be named to the Most Outstanding Player of his region without making it the Final Four. 

    More than anything, Steph Curry is the kind of player everyone loves to root for. 

18. Derrick Rose

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    SAN ANTONIO - APRIL 07:  Derrick Rose #23 of the Memphis Tigers reacts in the second half after making a shot against the Kansas Jayhawks during the 2008 NCAA Men's National Championship game at the Alamodome on April 7, 2008 in San Antonio, Texas.  (Phot
    Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    First off, as a Memphis fan, it's hard to recall this. But Derrick Rose had an incredible tournament; there's no doubt about that. 

    Rose was the one new face on the Tigers in the 2007-08 season, and the difference was obvious, especially when the Big Dance came around.

    The Tigers cruised into the championship game behind his leadership, as he averaged over 20 points a game and stopped the opposing point guard from doing just about anything.

    But what he and Memphis fans remember most is that single free throw he missed that would've made all the difference in the world. 

    Ah well, he certainly was exciting to watch. 

17. Michigan Fab 5

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    ANN ARBOR, MI - FEBRUARY 20:  University of Michigan star forward Chris Webber strolls upcourt during a game against the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers on February 20, 1993 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Chris Webber was part of the top recruiting class
    Duane Burleson/Getty Images

    Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard, Jimmy King and and Ray Jackson made up possibly the most exciting starting five college basketball has ever seen. Their playing style had flair, they had big personalities and they learned how to use the media to their advantage quickly. 

    The "hip-hop flavor" that they pioneered was put on a national stage in the tournament, and they rode it all the way to the final their freshmen and sophomore seasons in 1992 and '93.

    They had a lot of talent and were pure excitement, but they could never win a championship, at the collegiate or professional level.  

16. Pervis Ellison

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    8 Dec 2000:  A close up of Pervis Ellison #29 of the Seattle SuperSonics as he looks on from the bench during the game against the Los Angeles Lakers at the STAPLES Center in Los Angeles, California. The SuperSonics defeated the Lakers 103-95.    NOTE TO
    Donald Miralle/Getty Images

    Ellison was nicknamed "Never Nervous Pervis" because he took charge of any and every chance he got, and that was pretty obvious when he led Louisville to its second national championship and became only the second freshman ever named Most Outstanding Player in 1986. 

    He had a stellar four-year NCAA career after that, but he never quite reached the heights of his debut season. He started at center all four years he was at school and was the No. 1 overall pick in the 1989 NBA Draft.  

15. Walt Hazzard

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    Walt Hazzard was a big part of UCLA's undefeated season in 1963-64. That year, he was the college player of the year and the Most Outstanding Player of the tournament.

    That summer, he won the Olympic gold medal with Team USA and was then the No. 1 NBA Draft pick.

    Put it this way. Kevin Love, it's a BIG deal that this guy let you wear his retired No. 42.

    Photo courtesy of  

14. Jerry Lucas

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    Jerry Lucas was the star of one of the first big recruiting classes in college basketball. At Ohio State, Lucas made it to three straight NCAA finals from 1960 to 1962, winning it all in 1960. He was the Most Outstanding Player in both 1960 and 1961. 

    He made one poor decision in his college career, and that was playing on a bad knee in the 1962 final.

    Other than that, he averaged over 20 points each of his three seasons and lead the nation in rebounding twice. He shared the ball well and stayed focus on what was important.

    He got his bachelor's after three years and was taking graduate-level classes in what would've been his senior year.

    He's a guy to emulate.

    Photo courtesy of  

13. Shane Battier

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    2 Apr 2001:  Shane Battier #31 of Duke looks for an open pass against the Arizona defense during the NCAA National Championship Game of the Men's Final Four tournament at the Metrodome in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  DIGITAL IMAGE. Mandatory Credit: Brian Bah
    Brian Bahr/Getty Images

    Is their a nicer guy in the world than Shane Battier? Really?

    Anyway, while at Duke, Battier was one of the best defenders college basketball had ever seen, winning the National Defensive Player of the Year Award three times in four years.

    He went to two Final Fours with the Blue Devils, winning it all in 2001, including a sweep of the Player of the Year awards and the tournament Most Outstanding Player. 

12. Patrick Ewing

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    PHILADELPHIA - APRIL 24: Assistant coach Patrick Ewing of the Orlando Magic talks on the bench during Game Three of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2009 NBA Playoffs against the Philadelphia 76ers at the Wachovia Center on April 24, 2009 i
    Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

    Patrick Ewing was one the most recruited players ever in his time and was one of the first freshmen to play with the big boys. 

    Georgetown went to the NCAA final three out of Ewing's four years, in 1982, '84 and '85.

    He made his presence felt in each of those tournaments and was the Most Outstanding Player in 1984 when his Hoyas won it all. 

11. Oscar Robertson

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    Oscar Robertson was the highest scorer in each of his three seasons at the University of Cincinnati and left college as the all-time leading NCAA scorer.  

    He went to two Final Fours, and although the championship eluded him, he was still one of the best to watch. The Player of the Year trophy is named after him for a reason.

    Photo courtesy of

10. Jerry West

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    LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 03:  Former Lakers player and Genral Manager Jerry west looks on as the Boston Celtics play the Los Angeles Lakers in Game One of the 2010 NBA Finals at Staples Center on June 3, 2010 in Los Angeles, California.  NOTE TO USER: User
    Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images

    There really isn't a basketball's best list without Jerry West on it. 

    While at West Virginia, he set numerous records, including tying an NCAA tournament record in 1959 for points total with 160 from five straight games.

    He was also named the tournament's Most Outstanding Player that year despite losing in the final.  

9. Wilt Chamberlain

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    Wilt Chamberlain was named the 1957 Most Outstanding Player despite Kansas losing to North Carolina in the final in triple overtime. 

    The reason UNC won was because the Tar Heels had at least three guys on Chamberlain at all times. This guy was so good, other teams decided playing basketball just wasn't the way to go up against him. 

    More teams followed this game plan the next season, so Wilt decided to leave for the NBA where he hoped people would let him play.

    Photo courtesy of 

8. Larry Bird

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    DETROIT - APRIL 06:  Larry Bird answers questions with Earvin 'Magic' Johnson (not pictured) during a news conference to relive their 1979 NCAA Championship Game between Indiana State and Michigan State before the 2009 NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Nat
    Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

    Before Larry Bird, a little school called Indiana State had never been to the NCAA tournament. He took them all the way to final in 1979, where they lost to someone Bird got to know very well later on. 

    He was the fifth-highest scorer in NCAA history when he left and averaged over 30 points a game in his three seasons. 

7. Magic Johnson

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    LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 01:  Los Angeles Lakers basketball great Magic Johnson speaks during an event announcing naming rights for the new football stadium Farmers Field at Los Angeles Convention Center on February 1, 2011 in Los Angeles, California. A
    Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

    Magic spent two very successful years at Michigan State. He and the Spartans went to the Elite Eight in his freshman season in 1978.

    The next year, he had his first encounter with Larry Bird in the 1979 NCAA final when the Spartans faced a then undefeated Indiana State. Magic won the game and Most Outstanding Player.  

6. Hakeem Olajuwon

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    SAN ANTONIO - JUNE 9:  NBA legend Hakeem Olajuwon is introduced to the crowd during the game between the San Antonio Spurs and the Detroit Pistons in Game one of the 2005 NBA Finals at SBC Center on June 9, 2005 in San Antonio, Texas.  NOTE TO USER: User
    Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    Hakeem Olajuwon was invited to tour the University of Houston just so the coaches could see what he could do, and it worked out pretty well. 

    The Nigerian-born center took the Cougars to the Final Four in 1982 and then consecutive finals in 1983 and 1984, though they lost both times.

    He was the Most Outstanding Player in 1983 and is, to date, the last player from the losing team to be awarded as such. 

5. Bill Russell

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    LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 19:  NBA legend Bill Russell looks on as he attends NBA All-Star Saturday night presented by State Farm at Staples Center on February 19, 2011 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
    Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

    Bill Russell wasn't recruited out of high school and had to play basketball at the University of San Fransisco, and he made sure people knew who the team was.

    He led USF to the NCAA championship in 1955 and '56, on the back of over 20 points and 20 rebounds a game.

    San Francisco won the title and Russell was the Most Outstanding Player in 1955, and John Wooden called him the greatest defender he'd ever seen. 

4. Michael Jordan

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    DETROIT - APRIL 06:  Michael Jordan is announced as a member of the 2009 Hall-of-Fame class at halftime of the Michigan State Spartans and the North Carolina Tar Heels during the 2009 NCAA Division I Men's Basketball National Championship game at Ford Fie
    Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

    Michael Jordan is one of the best ever to play the game of basketball; there's no doubt about that. 

    As a freshman, MJ scored the game-winner in the 1982 championship game to give the Tar Heels the victory over Patrick Ewing's Georgetown team, but it was Jordan's teammate, James Worthy, who was the Most Outstanding Player.

    Jordan was exciting to watch at every level, but his days at UNC were just a taste of what was to come.  

3. Bill Walton

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    WESTWOOD, CA - JUNE 26:  Former UCLA and NBA player Bill Walton attends the memorial for former UCLA basketball coach John Wooden June 26, 2010 at Pauley Pavilion on the University of California Los Angeles campus in Westwood, California. Wooden died June
    Pool/Getty Images

    Bill Walton was a big part in UCLA's 88-game unbeaten streak in the '70s, and as a Bruin, he won back-to-back national titles and Most Outstanding Player awards in 1972 and '73. 

    In the 1973 final over Memphis State, he was nearly perfect, going 21-for-22 from the field with 44 points. 

    He really doesn't need a whole lot of explanation, and his son is a perfect example of how far someone can get thanks to their name. 

2. Christian Laettner

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    DECEMBER 7:  Christian Laettner #32 of the Duke University Blue Devils prepares to shoot a free throw during a NCAA game against Canisius College in December 7, 1991.  (Photo by Rick Stewart/Getty Images)
    Rick Stewart/Getty Images

    Christian Laettner holds four NCAA tournament records. 

    Most points (407), most free throws made and attempted (142 and 167) and most games played (23). 

    He also scored the winning shot in the greatest college game ever played with a last-second shot to seal a 104-103 win for Duke over Kentucky. And that was just in the regional finals. 

    That was the year after Duke won the championship and Laettner was named Most Outstanding Player.

    Duke won it again in 1992, but the tournament is remembered partly for this game and mostly for this shot. 

    With so much talent, it's a shame this guy couldn't make it in the NBA. 

1. Lew Alcindor

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    LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 20:  Former NBA player Kareem Abdul Jabbar arrives to the T-Mobile Magenta Carpet at the 2011 NBA All-Star Game on February 20, 2011 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images)
    Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images

    Now, the order of this list isn't definite except for one spot, and that's this one. 

    Lew Alcindor played three seasons under John Wooden at UCLA and won a championship in each one. As a freshman, playing for the freshmen squad, he hit a double-double to defeat the No. 1-ranked Bruins.

    He's also the only player to ever be named the NCAA tournament's Most Outstanding Player three years in a row. 

    The only thing you can have against Lew is that after the 1967 season, the dunk was banned in college basketball because he was too darn good at it. Thankfully it was reinstated in 1976. 

    Alcindor was also the inaugural Naismith College Player of the Year winner.