The Best Basketball Players To Compete in March Madness, Ranked
| LAST UPDATE 03/21/2023
It's the most wonderful time of the year, and it ain't Christmas. It's March Madness (aka the NCAA Tournament)! We're looking back at the best players to dunk, dribble and shoot on the hardwood, per Bleacher Report.
30. Isiah Thomas
Isiah Thomas became a legendary NBA player on the infamous Detroit Pistons "Bad Boys" and is considered one of the game's all-time greats. But before all that, he dominated college ball at Indiana University.
Coach Bob Knight awarded Thomas the position of captain, and it sent Thomas off to the races. That season, they won the conference title and the 1981 NCAA tournament, with Thomas scoring 23 points in the final game. The Hoosier was awarded Most Outstanding Player. If he's #30, who can top that?! Keep scrolling to find out.
29. Ed Pinckney
Standing quite tall at 6 feet and 9 inches, Ed Pinckney was bound to make a lasting impression. The New York native was recruited to play basketball for Villanova. He was a true force to be reckoned with and helped take the eight-seeded Villanova Wildcats to victory in the 1985 NCAA Tournament.
Pinckney and the Wildcats made a record as the lowest seed to upset a highly favored team, and it is still considered one of the greatest upsets of all time. With Pinckney sinking 16 points and 6 rebounds, he helped the Wildcats clinch a 66 to 64 victory over the Georgetown Hoyas and earned the Most Outstanding Player.
28. Kemba Walker
Kemba Walker made magic whenever he stepped onto the courts as a University of Connecticut Huskie. As a freshman, he helped his team earn a number-one seed placement in the 2009 NCAA tournament. Then, in his junior year, he cemented his spot as one of the best to ever play in March Madness.
During the 2011 Big East tournament, Walker scored the game-winning shot right at the buzzer against the #3 ranked Pittsburgh Panthers. Walker and the Huskies continued to dominate, ultimately winning the NCAA tournament. They became the first team to win five games in five days and ended up with the title. What a run!
27. James Worthy
James Worthy is definitely worthy of being on this list. The UNC power forward was part of one of the greatest collegiate teams to ever exist in basketball history. He played alongside Sam Perkins and Michael Jordan. They created an unbeatable team, winning the NCAA tournament in 1982.
Worthy intercepted a pass in the championship game, securing UNC's victory over the Georgetown Hoyas and the Most Outstanding Player award for Worthy. He was selected as the number-one pick for the Los Angeles Lakers. The Tar Heels never forgot his contributions and retired his jersey number, 52.
26. Mateen Cleaves
Mateen Cleaves is one of the best Michigan State University players to ever play for the school and the nation. He was named captain three times, received All-American status three times, was named Big Ten Player of the Year two times, and holds the record for steals at MSU. That list still excludes his greatest achievements.
He helped lead the Michigan State Spartans to win the national championship in 2000 and was awarded Most Outstanding Player. He was simply on fire, and no one could stop him. Cleaves had his number retired by MSU in 2007. So, who is following up this star-studded act as #25?
25. Darrell Griffith
Known by his nickname, Dr. Dunkenstein, Darrell Griffith truly dunked on the college basketball scene when he was playing. Every school in the country wanted him as a player, but Griffith decided to stay in his hometown and play for the University of Louisville. As a Cardinal, he flew above expectations.
He averaged 20.1 points per game and became Louisville's all-time leading scorer. He brought the team their first-ever championship title. With 23 points on the board, he helped the Cardinals defeat UCLA in the 1980 championship game. Deservedly so, Griffith was named Most Outstanding Player—a round of applause for Griffith.
24. David Thompson
David Thompson became one of the greatest players ever. He was dubbed "Skywalker" because of the insane vertical he could reach. Although his 1973 season with North Carolina State University was undefeated, the team was banned from advancing to the post-season due to violating recruiting rules. Wait for the following year…
NCSU won their first-ever championship, thanks to Thompson. He averaged 24.5 points and 8.5 rebounds per game, unsurprisingly earning him MOP. He also invented the famous alley-oop pass, which is now an essential staple of the game. Forever a Wolfpack, his #44 jersey was retired by NC State. How can anyone follow that?
23. Jack Givens
2,038 - that's the number of points that Jack Givens scored over the course of 123 games as a Kentucky Wildcat. He ranks third on the school's all-time scoring list, but he didn't just score a lot. Givens was a natural talent and leader who helped Kentucky through the madness of March to win the 1978 NCAA championship title.
During that 1978 championship game against the Duke Blue Devils, Givens contributed a beyond-impressive 41 points. The game went down in history as one of the most outstanding in collegiate basketball history. His legacy lives on as his #21 jersey was retired.
22. Danny Manning
Danny and the Miracles aren't a band you can listen to on Spotify. No, that's the nickname Danny Manning and his teammates were given during the 1988 collegiate season. The Kansas Jayhawks were complete underdogs, winning the championship title against the odds. What a miracle, indeed.
Danny Manning scored 31 points and had 18 rebounds in the championship game against Oklahoma. Holy cow! Basketball runs in Manning's blood- his dad, Ed Manning, was a longtime NBA player and coach. He also followed in his dad's footsteps and now coaches for the University of Louisville Men's Basketball Team.
21. Bill Bradley
According to Bleacher Report, Bill Bradley "is the sole reason why Princeton was ever truly relevant in the college basketball world." Those are some big shoes to fill! While he was originally set to attend Duke, a broken ankle and a change of heart led him to attend Princeton. The Ivy League was ecstatic to have him on their team.
He helped bring Princeton to its only Final Four appearance in 1965. While they ultimately lost in the Final Four to Michigan, Bradley became a national hero for scoring 41 points in this game and 58 points in the previous against favorite Wichita State. Any guesses on which player is next up on the list?
20. Bob Kurland
Standing at a mighty 7 feet tall, Bob Kurland was destined to play basketball. The Missouri native was the first of his family to attend college. He attended and played for Oklahoma A&M (now Oklahoma State). His height enabled him to dunk over anyone, and according to Bleacher Report, he was one of the first to do so regularly.
He helped the team win consecutive NCAA titles in 1945 and 1946. Both times Kurland was awarded Most Outstanding Player. He became one of the greatest players in the school's history. Here's a fun fact, his defensive tactic of jumping above the rim to grab the other team's shots caused the NCAA to ban defensive goaltending.
19. Joakim Noah
Gator Nation, make some noise! The NYC native Joakim Noah was crucial to the University of Florida's basketball team. Under the leadership of Coach Billy Donovan, Noah helped the team to win not one but two NCAA championship titles in 2006 and 2007. And it almost didn't happen!
After his sophomore year and winning the 2006 title, Noah declared for the 2006 NBA Draft. However, he later changed his mind, returning for his junior year. The reward was sweet. Noah was named MOP of the tournament after scoring 26 points and helped bring another championship title home. No wonder why he's listed as #19!
18. Carmelo Anthony
Although it wasn't a long run, it was certainly memorable for Carmelo Anthony. The New Yorker played an Orangeman at Syracuse University for one season, but he made that one season count. In 2003, Anthony took the team to its only NCAA tournament championship. Not to mention, he was only a freshman at the time!
Anthony averaged 26.5 points, 12 rebounds, and 4 assists during the Final Four games, leading to him being crowned the MOP and Syracuse the winner of the NCAA tournament. With Coach Jim Boeheim's blessing, Anthony left his collegiate career behind and went to the pros. That's what we call a mic drop.
17. Pervis Ellison
Another freshman player who made a big impact was Pervis Ellison. The Georgia native played ball for the University of Louisville, and as a freshman, he led the team to the national championship in 1986. He scored 25 points in the championship game, helping Louisville cinch the title over Duke.
Not only did they win the title, but Ellison was awarded MOP that year. Over his next three years with Louisville, they made it to the Sweet Sixteen but never again the championship. Ellison earned himself the nickname "Never Nervous Pervis" for his clutch play. Everyone loved him on and off the court.
16. Walt Hazzard
Walt Hazzard dominated as a player for the UCLA Bruins basketball team. As a freshman, he helped the team make it to their first Final Four appearance. Although they didn't continue to the championship, it wouldn't take long for them to taste victory. In 1964, they would win their very first NCAA championship.
In addition to a championship title, Hazzard was given the honor of Most Outstanding Player. Over the season, he scored an average of 18.6 per game. Walt really was a hazard to any opposing team. Eventually, UCLA retired his #42 jersey number. As we inch closer to #1, who do we think is next? Keep scrolling to see!
15. Shane Battier
It is none other than Shane Battier. Battier went to Duke and made quite the impact as a Blue Devil. He was one of the best defensive players in the game, winning Defensive Player of the Year three times. He helped Duke reach two championship games. While they lost their first chance at the title in 1999, they won it all in 2001.
The student section often chanted, "Who's your daddy? Battier!" whenever the Michigan native was on the court. In 2001, he won all major awards, including Defensive Player, National Player, and Most Outstanding Player. It's no wonder why Battier has made it into the top 15 of the list.
14. Jerry West
Considered short for the game of basketball, standing at 6 feet and 2 inches tall, Jerry West didn't let that get in his way. No sirree! He was considered one of the most aggressive players in the game. In 1959, he helped take West Virginia University to the Final Four, where West averaged 33 points and 12.5 rebounds a game.
Despite their efforts, the team went home empty-handed from the national championship game, but West didn't. He was awarded MOP. West was so dedicated to being a Mountaineer that even when he had a broken nose, he still scored 19 points and helped his team win a game. Don't mess with West.
13. Jerry Lucas
The Buckeyes hit a bullseye when they recruited Jerry Lucas. Already a standout in high school, Lucas received more than 150 scholarship offers nationwide. He decided to stay close to home and declared with Ohio State University. Lucas brought the team to three consecutive championship games. Yeah, you read that right.
Unfortunately, they only brought home one championship title in 1960 from those three appearances. Lucas became the only college player to score 30 points and have 30 rebounds in an NCAA tournament game. Not only is Lucas an OSU legend, he is still regarded as one of the greatest college players ever.
12. Patrick Ewing
Ewing was here to make an impact. He became one of the first college freshmen to start and star on the varsity team. In 1982, Ewing and the Georgetown Hoyas faced off against Michael Jordan and James Worthy and the UNC Tar Heels for the championship title. Although it ultimately went to UNC, Ewing was not ready to give up.
They appeared in the national championship again the next year, but it would take until 1984 for Ewing and his team to finally win the title. Ewing was awarded the much-deserved MOP award. He was also a trendsetter. Ewing would always wear a short-sleeved t-shirt underneath his jersey. How about that?!
11. Austin Carr
Austin Carr scored over 2,000 points - and that was just when he was in high school. Carr signed to play at the University of Notre Dame. He didn't disappoint. By the end of his three years, he scored 2,560 points, averaging 34.5 points per game. Carr was one of the best scorers in college ball.
In 1970, Carr sunk in 61 points against Ohio State University. A record-breaking amount of points for a single game by a player and a record that still stands today. Even though Carr never won the March Madness tournament, he is still considered one of the best college players. It's easy to see why.
10. Oscar Robertson
Shooting in at the tenth spot is University of Cincinnati alum, Oscar Robertson. Known by the nickname "The Big O," Robertson was a massive presence on the court. He led the Cincinnati Bearcats to two Final Fours. Although he never returned from March Madness with a championship title, he didn't let that get to him.
Every year he played at Cincinnati, he led the entire organization in points. He averaged 33.8 points, 15.2 rebounds, and 7.1 assists per game. Robertson would eventually get his win - as an NBA player with the Milwaukee Bucks. It is clear why Robertson made it in the top ten players as ranked by Bleacher Report.
9. Larry Bird
While he would go on to greater fame, Larry Bird started his dominating career when he was at Indiana State. A seemingly odd choice for such a talented player, Bird preferred to be in a smaller environment. No one knew about the Indiana State Sycamores until Larry Bird put them on the map.
He led the team to the NCAA tournament for the first time. Ultimately, they lost the 1979 championship game against Magic Johnson and the MSU Spartans. That game started a rivalry that fueled sports for years to come against Bird and Johnson. Although Bird didn't bring home the title, he was named the AP National Player of the Year.
8. Michael Jordan
A name that everyone in the world practically knows. Before there was The Last Dance, Jordan was a young high school player being recruited by the best basketball programs in the country. He accepted a scholarship to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and started his journey as a Tar Heel.
With only 16 seconds left on the clock, Jordan made the game-winning shot against Georgetown in 1982, securing the championship title for UNC. He averaged 17.7 points a game and pursued a degree in cultural geography. While he would go on to have a storied career, he still made a strong impact in his college days.
7. Wilt Chamberlain
To say that this guy was in demand would be an understatement. Over 200 colleges tried recruiting Chamberlain, but the University of Kansas would get the honor of having the Philly native playing for them. Teams knew how dangerous he was on the court and would always assign two or three guys to guard him.
He helped bring the team to the 1957 championship game against UNC. It went into triple overtime, but the Jayhawks couldn't secure the win. However, Chamberlain was awarded MOP for his contribution. The overachieving Chamberlain also dominated on track and field for Kansas, winning the high jump three years in a row.
6. Hakeem Olajuwon
As we get closer to the top spot, here is Hakeem Olajuwon, the Nigerian native who came and dominated college basketball. His time at the University of Houston was marked by his effortless dunking. He was nicknamed "the Dream" and also part of the group dubbed "Phi Slama Jama." It's just how it sounds, a slam-dunking fraternity.
Olajuwon helped the Cougars get to the national championship game two years in a row, and he won the MOP award for his appearance in the 1983 Final Four. In a tough call, he decided to leave school for the NBA draft, but he didn't go far. He was drafted by the Houston Rockets to continue what would become an epic career.
5. Magic Johnson
He wasn't always called Magic Johnson. The nickname came after a journalist watched him score 36 points as a high schooler. Although many top schools recruited him, Magic chose to stay close to home and attended Michigan State University. The magic continued there, with Johnson averaging 17.1 points and 7.9 assists during college.
He helped secure the win in 1979 against Larry Bird and Indiana State. Everyone wanted to see the rivalry between Bird and Johnson, and this championship game is still one of the highest-rated college basketball games, according to ESPN. There was nothing that Magic Johnson couldn't do. He truly was a magical player.
4. Bill Russell
Bill Russell was a player unlike any other. He helped the University of San Francisco win the national championship two years in a row, in 1955 and 1956. At the same time, he was awarded MOP in 1955. Russell was such a good player that the NCAA literally had to rewrite the rules because of him.
The organization banned offensive goaltending because of his dominant style. The craziest thing is that USF was the only school that tried recruiting him. They felt that something extraordinary was waiting to be unleashed in Russell. Thankfully, he trusted his gut, and Russell became one of the best college ball players.
3. Bill Walton
Earning a spot as #3 is UCLA player Bill Walton. The California boy was built for March Madness. Playing for the legendary Coach Wooden, Walton stepped up to the task of being a Bruin. Walton assisted in bringing the team on an 88-game winning streak, which is still the record today. That's not all Walton accomplished.
He helped the Bruins win two national championship titles, and he won two MOP awards. Over his entire college career, Walton averaged 20.3 points, 15.7 rebounds, and 5.5 assists. The team only lost four games during the three seasons he played for them. Rightfully so, he was named College Player of the Year by multiple outlets.
2. Christian Laettner
Dunking into the second spot is Christian Laettner. The New Yorker was a Duke Blue Devil, and he helped bring his team to their first two national championship appearances and victories in 1991 and 1992. Not only that, but Laettner holds multiple March Madness records, including the most points scored, games won, and games played.
His most famous play came against Kentucky during the 1992 East Regional Final. Laettner was on fire the entire game. Then, he hit "The Shot" - yes, it is still called that today. It was overtime, and Kentucky was up by one point. At the last second, Laettner received the ball and took a jump shot. It went in, and Duke won!
1. Lew Alcindor
Taking the number one spot is Lew Alcindor, or you may know him as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Simply put, he is still the only player to win MOP three times. He was a UCLA Bruin and helped win the team three NCAA championships in a row. Additionally, the Bruins had an 88-2 record when he was playing.
In his debut playing on varsity, he scored 56 points, causing Sports Illustrated to label him "The New Superstar." That just set the tone for his entire career at UCLA and beyond. Over his college career, he averaged 26.4 points and 15.5 rebounds a game. No wonder why he is considered the best college player by Bleacher Report.