The Madness of March is finally upon us, one of the true highlights of the yearly sports calendar, perhaps only surpassed in hype and passion by the mighty Super Bowl itself. And while we look ahead to the thrills and surprises of the “2019 NCAA Division 1 Men’s Basketball Tournament” (March Madness’ official, long-winded title), it’s also an opportunity to look back at the greatness that has come before.
For this list, we’ll focus on the players, even though in the college ranks, the coaches are generally more high profile. However, as 10-time champion coach of UCLA John Wooden noted, practice is for implementation of coaching techniques, but the actual game on the court was to be determined by the players. This list is part opinion, part established reality, and while there’s always going to be a name or two year that might have been left off the rankings, there’s no denying the greatness and legacy of these 25 college basketball icons.
10. Patrick Ewing
All Ewing did was lead the Georgetown Hoyas to three NCAA Finals games in four seasons. Even if the Hoyas did only take home one title–against the team featuring a player to later appear on this list–Ewing was as impactful and high-profile player as it got dung the early and mid-80’s.
And the Hoyas will always be remembered as the toughest college team ever and Ewing’s mean glare helped contribute to that edge with which they played. Even his last game was memorable, the Hoyas’ shocking upset loss to Villanova in the 1985 title game.
9. Michael Jordan
Jordan gave the basketball universe a preview of what was to come during his game winning shots for NBA championships career when he sunk the decisive bucket for his University of North Carolina Tar Heels when they defeated the Georgetown Hoyas in the instant classic 63-62 UNC triumph when the Hoya’s Fred Brown mindlessly threw the ball away to James Worthy to seal the legendary coach Dean Smith’s first title as head coach.
Ironically, Smith’s only other title also came as the result of a mental miscue; the 1993 title game in which Chris Webber of Michigan called timeout when the team had none, resulting in a technical foul and a turnover. After three seasons of having his game stifled by the team-oriented Smith, Jordan moved on to the pros and true greatness.
8. Jerry West
Sure his iconic outline serves as the NBA logo, but West was also an outstanding collegiate hoopster, averaging 25 points and 13 rebounds in 93 career games for the West Virginia Mountaineers.
Jerry truly put the “West” in West Virginia, almost bringing the Mountaineers to the promised land, just barely losing the University of California-Berkeley 71-70 in the 1959 championship game that they had trailed by six at halftime.
No one could blame West for the loss as he scored 28 points on 48 percent shooting and also managed to snag 11 rebounds.
As noted by Grantland, Louisiana State University’s Maravich was a player who had an astonishing career collegiate points-per-game average of 44.2 points per game, yet that was actually higher than his three-year average shooting percentage of 43.8, a remarkable feat when you think about it. And to show that he was no one-dimensional player, “Pistol Pete” also totaled averages of over six rebounds and five assists per game, keeping his Tiger teammates involved.
Even though he was not permitted to play his freshman season, Maravich still ended his three years at LSU as college basketball’s all time leading scorer. Of course, it helped that his father, Press Maravich was the Tigers’ head coach, allowing Maravich to throw up 38 shots per game.
6. Danny Manning
The greatest Jayhawk of them all? Another great player with a remarkable Madness run, as Manning lead the underdog, under-talented 1988 Kansas Jayhawks to the title in a thrilling 83-to-79 championship finale over Oklahoma that often gets overlooked by fans, considering all the great Finals games of the 1980’s.
Embodying the brilliant nickname of “Danny and the Miracles,” Manning’s totals for the title game were a mind-boggling 31 points, 18 rebounds, 5 steals and two block shots for good measure. Manning was college player of the year in ‘88 and departed KU as the program’s all time leading scorer and rebounder.
5. Magic Johnson
Earvin “Magic” Johnson only played two seasons at Michigan State, setting the stage for other college stars who would vacate their respective campuses early for the money and the glory of the NBA. Johnson’s sophomore season is the stuff of legends as he lead the Michigan State Spartans–a team not previously associated with college basketball success whatsoever–to victory in a NCAA Finals game in 1979 against Larry Bird’s Indiana State Sycamores.
(For more on Bird, keep scrolling this list). That game is more memorable for the “Magic vs Bird” showdown than it was for being a quality game, as Johnson–aided by the very talented forward Greg Kelser—and the Spartans went on to a 75-64 game that was never in very much doubt.
4. Bill Russell
And here we’ve arrived at the only player who can put Alcindor/Kareem to shame in the championship category, as Russell amassed 13 total titles during his tenure with the University of San Francisco (a small, private Jesuit college located near S.F.’s famous Haight-Ashbury district) and the Boston Celtics.
Russell lead the USF Dons to back-to-back NCAA titles in 1955 and 1956, and was such a defensive force that the NCAA actually widened the free-throw lane to twelve feet allegedly to lessen his dominance over smaller, less capable players. While it’s highly unlikely USF will ever win another college crown, they’ll always have the memories when the school with the “hilltop campus” was on top of the amateur basketball world.
3. Christian Laettner
Laettner would be high on this list even if he didn’t make “The Shot,” the most famous made bucket in NCAA hoops history, the mid-range jumper he hit to propel Duke to victory over Kentucky 103-to-102 in the two high-profile programs’ classic overtime East Regional Final in Philadelphia on March 28, 1992. That shot was the culmination of Laettner’s perfect 10-for-10 shooting from the field, as well as going 10-for-10 from the free throw line.
Duke would need every single one of those points to take the regional and win their second of back-to-back titles and Laettner became the stuff of legend. Laettner holds many Madness records but the most impressive may be that he played in 23 tournament games and won 21 of them.
2. Bill Walton
Is it fair that UCLA had both Alcindor and Walton at center? That’s like the Packers transitioning from Brett Favre to Aaron Rodgers at quarterback, it doesn’t happen to often to too many teams, when greatness is transferred so directly with no drop-off in quality. Millennials know Walton as a goofy hoops announcer and world-famous Deadhead, but he is generally regarded as the greatest passing center in basketball history.
All Walton did during his tenure in Westwood was to be the leader of two 30-0 teams, an 88-game winning streak, and lead the Bruins to back-to-back titles (1972 and 1973), hitting 21 of 22 shots for 44 points in the ‘73 Final against Memphis State, the greatest single-game performance in all of Madness.
1. Lew Alcindor
Lew who? Before he was six-time NBA champion sky-hooking Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the NBA’s all-time scoring leader was a super tall skinny kid out of the projects of Upper Manhattan born Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor, Jr. After winning 71 straight high school games, Alcindor was recruited by Coach Wooden and went on to lead UCLA to an 88-2 record and three titles.
The only reason he did not win four was that back in the day, freshmen couldn’t play on the varsity team And while it’s true Kareem won a total of nine titles for his collegiate and pro career combined, yet there’s a name soon to appear that will leave Kareem’s totals in the dust. For more, keep reading.