Fans of college basketball love to get together and debate who is the greatest player to grace the college game. Unlike some sports where the greatest of all time is not up for debate, college basketball can point to a handful of men as its contenders for the title of greatest.
Here at the SportsDrop, we have consulted our college hoops experts and put together our definitive list of the most dominant college basketball players of all time. We’ve not waffled or sat on the fence. Instead, we ranked them from 25-1 to let you know exactly where they stand in our opinions.
So, flip through the slides and take a look. See if you agree with how our experts have ranked some of the sport’s finest competitors.
25. Doug McDermott – Combined his size and three-point shooting ability to dominate the sport.
24. Jimmer Fredette – Made “Jimmering” a verb with his exciting shooting performances
Jimmer Fredette’s BYU career started slowly as the point guard averaged just 7.0 ppg. By the end of his senior season with the Cougars, Fredette was averaging over 28 points a night. Fredette’s senior year stats led him to be voted Associated Press Player of the Year.
He also took home the trophy for NCAA Scoring Leader in 2011. His field goal percentage may have dropped in 2011 to .452, but his shot attempts rose by more than six per game.
23. Rick Barry – One of the all-time great shooters
22. Patrick Ewing – Opponents feared entering the paint and risking a showdown
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.
21. Len Bias – Exciting and explosive talent combined with great size.
Len Bias was taken from us in 1986, just after being drafted second overall by the Boston Celtics. The basketball world never got to see if Bias could have replaced Larry Bird to carry on the Celtics winning traditions. Instead of going into the details, we prefer to celebrate his incredible talent.
While he was alive, Bias was a superstar for the University of Maryland, chosen as a two-time All-American and two-time player of the Year in the ACC. During his senior year, Bias averaged 23 points per game and 7 rebounds per game. He was compared by Celtics scouts to Michael Jordan.
20. Austin Carr – One of the greatest scoring machines college ball has ever seen.
19. Elgin Baylor – Incredible rebounder despite his size.
Elgin Baylor’s college career began at the University of Idaho after inadequate high school grades kept him from bigger schools. A year later his coach was fired and his scholarship revoked. Baylor got a second chance at Seattle University.
Over three college seasons in Idaho and Seattle, Baylor averaged 31.3 points per game and 19.5 rebounds per game. Those are outrageous numbers. He led Seattle to their only championship where they lost to Kentucky, but Baylor was named the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player.
18. Tim Duncan – Dependable like a Buick; scored and rebounded consistently.
17. Michael Jordan – Unstoppable on his way to the basket, but could kill you with the jumper.
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 a 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.
16. Tyler Hansbrough – Had passion and drive like no one else before him
Tyler Hansbrough’s NBA career may not have been a huge success, but the North Carolina center was a star with the Tar Heels. A 2009 National Champion, Hansbrough was voted the NCAA Player of the Year the previous season. He averaged 22.6 ppg in 2008 along with 10.2 rebounds.
Hansbrough remains the only ACC player to ever be voted to the All-American First Team in all four seasons.
15. Danny Manning – Size and speed made him impossible to guard
Danny Manning was the best college basketball player of 1988. He led the Kansas Jayhawks to the NCAA Championship and was voted Most Outstanding Player along the way. But Manning was good well before his senior season with KU. In both his sophomore and junior years, Manning was voted the Big 8 Player of the Year. In his junior season, Manning averaged 23.9 ppg.
He followed it up with 24.8 ppg in his final year as he took home his third Big 8 Player of the Year award, his second consecutive consensus All-American plaque, and the NABC Player of the Year award.
14. Christian Laettner – Came up clutch when it mattered most
Christian Laettner didn’t look like an elite basketball player. But the Duke Blue Devil forward is one of the greatest college basketball players of all-time. He is also the most hated by fans of rival teams. Laettner was consistent during his time with Duke and made legendary shots to win games for the team. In 1990 and 1992, Laettner made dramatic, last-second buzzer-beaters to get the Blue Devils to win in the NCAA Tournament. His back-to-the-basket shot against Kentucky in 1992 is the most celebrated last-second win in college basketball history.
Laettner had ice water running through his veins in clutch moments, and he regularly delivered when his team needed him most. A two-time NCAA Champion, one-time NCAA Tournament Most Outstanding Player, and two-time ACC Athlete of the Year, Laettner is the poster boy for everything to hate about Duke University.
13. Tom Gola – The greatest rebounder of all-time.
12. David Thompson – The man who stopped UCLA’s incredible run.
David Thompson was named the Associated Press Player of the Year in 1974 and 1975, and he scored 30 points a game in his final year at North Carolina State. But his place in history will always be tied to his tournament run in 1974 not because of something Thompson did but because of who he beat.
The UCLA Bruins had a seven-year dynasty, winning a national championship seven straight times from 1967 through 1973 before Thompson’s Wolfpack stunned them in the Final Four in 1974. North Carolina State went on to win its first-ever national championship, and Thompson was named Most Outstanding Player for his role in ending (or at least pausing) the dynasty.
11. Jerry Lucas – Saved his best performances for the tournament.
Jerry Lucas was the Associated Press Player of the Year in 1961 and 1962, the first player to win the award twice. He made three straight all-tournament teams and was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player in both 1960 and 1961, one of four two-time winners.
Lucas has the only 30–30 game in tournament history, his 30 rebounds third-most all-time in a March Madness game. Lucas played in three straight championship games and won one of them, helping the Buckeyes to their only men’s basketball championship in 1960.
10. Elvin Hayes – He outrebounded every opponent
Elvin Hayes was Houston’s first African-American basketball player in 1966. He led Houston to the Final Four the following two seasons. In those two tourney runs, Hayes recorded eight 25 point games, tied for most all-time with Jerry West, and five 20 rebound games, tied for most with Bill Russell. His 167 points in five games were the most in a tournament at the time, and his 97 rebounds are second-most all-time in a tourney.
Hayes played in the first-ever nationally televised regular-season college basketball game, “The Game of the Century” against Lew Alcindor and UCLA, in which Hayes and Houston snapped the Bruins’ 47 game win streak. Hayes also won AP Player of the Year in 1968, interrupting wins by Alcindor in 67 and 69. His 222 career rebounds remain an all-time tournament record.
9. Magic Johnson – His combination of size and skill revolutionized the point guard position
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 led the Michigan State Spartans–a team not previously associated with college basketball success whatsoever–to victory in an 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.
8. Larry Bird – He carried an entire team on his back and could do it all.
A former Hoosier, though the “Hick from French Lick” makes the list for his glory days at Indiana State, the last time–and perhaps the only time ever–that the Sycamores reach the heights of playing in the NCAA title game. Bird transferred from Indiana to State to escape the team-first, military stylings of the dictatorial Bobby Knight.
Allowed to be the singular star, Bird flourished with the Sycamores, averaging over 30 points, 13 rebounds, 6 rebounds and three steals per game in his three campaigns there. As noted, Bird’s 1979 title showdown with Magic was a culture-changing game for NCAA basketball.
7. Wilt Chamberlain – He was so dominant, the shot clock was invented to force teams to play against him.
Wilt Chamberlain had 52 points and 31 rebounds in his first game for Kansas, breaking both all-time school records. That was just the beginning for a man who put up the most ridiculous numbers of any basketball player ever at every level. Chamberlain put up big numbers and overcame intense racism to reach the NCAA championship game against North Carolina but there he faced a new challenge as the Tar Heels literally triple-teamed him all game, with one defender in front, one behind him, and another running at him when he got the ball.
On offense, UNC resorted to “freeze ball,” passing the ball around to kill the clock in a pre-shot-clock era. Chamberlain and Kansas finally lost in triple overtime, but he was named Most Outstanding Player anyway, and we can thank his efforts for things like the shot clock and defensive rules that prevent us from that dreadful brand of basketball persisting today.
6. Jerry West – A double-double machine with humble roots.
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.
5. Oscar Robertson – The Big O filled the stat sheet and has more tournament triple-doubles than anyone in history.
The Big O always did put up some pretty huge numbers. Oscar Robertson averaged 34 points, 15 rebounds, and 7 assists per game during his Cincinnati career. He won multiple national player of the year awards all three seasons at Cincy and was so good they named one such player of the year awards after him once he had left for the NBA.
Robertson piled up the numbers in March too. His 56 points are the third-highest ever in a tournament game, and he also compiled four tournament triple-doubles. To properly appreciate that, you should know that only Magic Johnson and Draymond Green even have two triple-doubles in March Madness history.
4. Bill Walton – He was just as good at assisting as he was at scoring, and he was a great scorer.
Is it fair that UCLA had both Alcindor and Walton at the center? That’s like the Packers transitioning from Brett Favre to Aaron Rodgers at quarterback, it doesn’t happen too 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.
3. Bill Russell – Started filling his trophy case at U.S.F.
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 led 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.
2. “Pistol” Pete Marovich – The Pistol’s scoring record remains unmatched.
It may take two looks, but it is true, Pete Maravich averaged 44.2 ppg during his college career. His points per game average still stands today as the best ever. It is an impressive number, especially when it is remembered the three-point line didn’t exist in college basketball at the time. Maravich would have scored more points for LSU, but he wasn’t allowed to play for the varsity team during his freshman season.
Amazingly, LSU never made the NCAA Tournament during Maravich’s three seasons as a varsity player. He was selected to three All-American teams, however. The guard’s points scoring record alone is reason to believe he is the best college basketball player of all-time.
1. Lew Alcindor – Size, quickness, and intelligence. Alcindor was a near-perfect player.
Before he was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, he was Lew Alcindor, a basketball star for UCLA. Alcindor was a part of UCLA’s amazing 47-game winning streak that was ended by Houston in 1968. It occurred in a season that saw Alcindor score 26.2 ppg. It was a decline from his first year with the Bruins, a trend that would occur during his three-year stay at the school. Despite the decline in average points, Alcindor still won three NCAA Championships. He was also voted as the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player in all three seasons.
Add in three National Player of the Year awards and three consensus All-American selections, and Alcindor could be the greatest college basketball player of all-time.