The NBA might have as much star power as any sport on the planet, but even guys like LeBron James will never gain the adoration of the thousands of students and alumni who cheer on the college basketball team of their alma mater. Even if you fail in the NBA, when you cement your legacy in college basketball, and especially in the NCAA Tournament, you’re forever a legend.
That’s why we thought it’d be fun to take a look back at the best college basketball players since the turn of the century. The majority of these guys weren’t the top pick in the NBA Draft, nor did they become NBA superstars. But we’ll always remember their names because of all they were able to accomplish during their college basketball days.
Shane Battier (2001)
A cerebral assassin for the Duke Blue Devils, Shane Battier was one of the most infamous players to play on the hardwood of Cameron Indoor Stadium. Battier led Duke to two Final Four appearances in 1999 and 2001; the Blue Devils would eventually win the National Championship following the latter appearance.
In 2001, Battier swept virtually every single award available to college basketball players, including the John Wooden R. Wooden Award (most outstanding college basketball player), AP College Player of the Year, Oscar Robertson Award (most outstanding college player), and a First-Team All-American status. But he’s most well-known, perhaps, for the infamous chant he inspired, shouted by the Cameron Crazies: “Who’s Your Daddy, Battier!”
Juan Dixon (2002)
One of the most highly-regarded players coached by Gary Williams at the University of Maryland, Juan Dixon became the school’s all-time leading scorer in 2002, accumulating even more points than even former Terrapins great Len Bias.
After being tormented by Duke University for years while at College Park, Dixon and the Terps finally broke in through in the 2002, with the former leading the latter to the school’s first-ever Final Four appearance, and eventually their first National Championship.
That season, Dixon was named the ACC Men’s Basketball Player of the Year, ahead of guys like Jay Williams and Shane Battier, as well as the ACC Athlete of the Year.
Jay Williams (2002)
One of the most decorated players to ever play for Duke University coach Mike Krzyzewski, guard Jay Williams started off his college career with a bang, been named the ACC Rookie of the Year and National Freshman of the Year after becoming one of only a handful of Duke freshmen to average double-digit scoring.
As a sophomore, Williams and the Blue Devils won the National Championship, and after graduating in 2002, Williams left Durham as the National College Player of the Year, having scored 2,079 points, which has the 6th-most for any player to suit up for the Blue Devils.
Carmelo Anthony (2003)
Baltimore basketball legend Carmelo Anthony passed on the chance to play hoops at the University of North Carolina, instead going to Syracuse University to play for Jim Boeheim.
In his lone season at Syracuse, Anthony averaged 22.2 points and 10 rebounds, and paired guard Gerry McNamara to lead the Orangemen to their first-ever National Championship. Anthony was named both the Big East Conference Freshman of the Year, and later the Most Outstanding Player of the 2003 NCAA Tournament.
TJ Ford (2003)
Inspired by watching his home town Houston Rockets win back-to-back NBA Championships when he was a kid, Terrance Jerod “TJ” Ford grew up wanting to be a basketball player himself some day. After a superb high school basketball career, Ford went on to play at the University of Texas.
During his freshman season with the Longhorns, he became the first player in NCAA history to lead the nation as assists as a freshman, averaging 8.27 per game. After winning the Big 12 Freshman of the Year distinction, he won the John R. Wooden Award and Naismith College Player of the Year award the following year, eventually becoming just the fourth athlete in the history of the University of Texas to have his jersey retired (and the first basketball player to ever receive that distinction).
Emeka Okafor (2004)
Center Emeka Okafor was one of the most feared rim protectors in both the Big East and the country as a whole. The tenacious shot-blocker was the defensive anchor for the University of Connecticut, leaving Storrs with the most blocks in program history (441), and having been named the NABC Defensive Player of the Year in both 2003 and 2004.
In the latter season, Okafor was named the Big East Player of the Year, and alongside future NBA players Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva, he led the Huskies to their second college basketball championship in six years.
He was named the NCAA Final Four Most Outstanding Player after said championship run.
Jameer Nelson (2004)
Jameer Nelson was named the National Freshman of the Year in 2001 as the starting point guard for Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Two years later, the backcourt of Nelson and future NBA player Delonte West were considered to be the premier guard duo in the NCAA, leading the Hawks to a 27-0 regular season record in 2003-2004.
While Nelson and the Hawks fell short of making it to the Finals Four (despite being awarded a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament), Nelson swept the majority of individual awards after the season, including being named the National College Player of the Year and John R. Wooden Award-winner.
Sean May (2005)
A McDonald’s All-American coming out of High School, forward Sean May spurned the home town University of Indiana, and instead chose to play for Roy Williams at the University of North Carolina.
In his junior year at Chapel Hill, May helped lead the Tar Heels to their fourth National Championship, defeating the University of Illinois in the final game of the 2005 NCAA Tournament.
After being named a second-team All-American that season, he was also named the NCAA Final Four Most Outstanding Player.
Adam Morrison (2006)
The moppy-haired basketball dynamo who helped cement Gonzaga University as college basketball Titan, Adam Morrison was a star at the small Spokane university from the moment he arrived.
Morrison was named to the West Coast Conference All-Freshman team in 2004, and to the All-WCC First Team as a sophomore in 2005 (along with an All-American honorable mention).
In his junior year, Morrison had 13 games where he scored more than 30 points, and five games with more than 40 points. Despite a heartbreaking loss to UCLA in the Sweet 16 of the 2006 NCAA Tournament, Morrison was still named a first-team All-American, and the NABC Co-Player of the Year.
Joakim Noah (2006)
After moving to the United States at 13 years old, Joakim Noah turned into a four-star recruit whom former University of Florida head coach Billy Donovan brought to Gainesville.
A year later, Noah — along with teammates Al Horford and Corey Brewer — led the University of Florida to the first of back-to-back NCAA Championships. As a junior, Noah was named the Most Outstanding Player of the 2006 NCAA Tournament, after leading the Gators to win over the top seeded Villanova University.
Noah had 16 points, nine rebounds, and six blocks in the championship game against UCLA.
Kevin Durant (2007)
Considered to be the second-best college basketball recruit in the nation behind only big man Greg Oden, Kevin Durant was the MVP of the 2006 McDonald’s All-American Game and the best player in the basketball-rich Washington, D.C. area coming out of high school.
After enrolling at the University of Texas, Durant averaged 25.8 points, 11.1 rebounds, and 1.3 assists as a freshman, and put up 30 points and nine rebounds in the Longhorns’ loss against USC in the second round of the 2007 NCAA Tournament.
Durant still went on to win the John R. Wooden Award and Naismith College Player of the Year Award.
Tyler Hansbrough (2008)
Few players are more remembered — and probably more hated — than former University of North Carolina forward Tyler Hansbrough, infamously known by college fans all over the nation as “Psycho T.”
The first player in NCAA history to be named First-Team All-ACC and First-Team All-American four times during his college career, Hansbrough helped the Tar Heels win the NCAA Tournament in 2009, during his senior season.
However, one could argue that his best season might’ve been his junior year, when he averaged 22.6 points and 10.2 rebounds per game, becoming the first player in a decade to lead the ACC in both statistical categories, and the third UNC basketball player in 30 years to average a double-double at season’s end.
Stephen Curry (2009)
Living proof that skill can defeat size, Stephen Curry was actually denied a scholarship by his college of choice (Virginia Tech), and opted to play for little-known Davidson University, who aggressively recruited the then-160lb guard.
By his sophomore year, Curry was putting up Sportscenter-worthy highlight performances, setting a record for the most three-point field goals made in a season (162), and even winning an ESPY award along the way (for Breakthrough Player of the Year).
But it was his junior year in which Curry really started to become a legend, after leading the nation in scoring with 28.6 points per game, and being named a consensus first-team All-American.
Blake Griffin (2009)
Long before he was dunking over cars or making commercials for basically any company that paid him, forward Blake Griffin was the highest-rated recruit ever to enroll at the University of Oklahoma; luckily for the Sooners, Griffin chose to stay locally, after winning four Oklahoma state basketball titles.
While his successful rookie season in Norman was cut short due to injuries (stop us if you’ve heard that before about Griffin), as a sophomore, Griffin swept all six of the national player of the year awards for college basketball players, averaging 22.7 points, 14.4 rebounds, and 2.3 assists per game.
His 504 rebounds in one year fell short of the record set by Larry Bird in 1979, and his 14.4 rebounds per game fell just short of Tim Duncan’s all-time mark in 1997 (14.7).
Ty Lawson (2009)
A first-team USA Today and Parade All-American coming out of the famed Oak Hill Academy in Virginia, speedy point guard Ty Lawson helped the Tar Heels win the ACC Tournament in his freshman year, and earn a berth in the Final Four.
After opting to stay in school after his sophomore season, Lawson finished his junior year as a First-Team All-ACC selection, a second-team All-American, the ACC Player of the Year, and the winner of the Bob Cousy Award (given to the nation’s top point guard).
Lawson and the Tar Heels would win the National Championship in 2009, Lawson’s final season at UNC.
Evan Turner (2010)
After a highly successful high school basketball career in Chicago, forward Evan Turner was recruited by several schools in the Big 10 Conference, but eventually chose to play at Ohio State.
Turner led the the Buckeyes to winning the 2008 National Invitation Tournament (NIT) as a freshman, and after showing significant signs of promise as a sophomore, Turner became a bona fide college basketball star as a junior during the 2009-2010 season.
By the end of the year, Turner swept virtually every single award available to college basketball players, and was named a First-Team All-American and the Big Ten Conference Male Athlete of the Year.
Kemba Walker (2011)
At the University of Connecticut, guard Kemba Walker went from a rather disappointing five-star recruit over his first two years in Stores, to the nation’s leading scorer and a Consensus First-Team All-American in his junior year.
Leading the nation with 26.7 points per game, Walker was named the winner of the Bob Cousy Award — given to the top point guard in the nation — and led the Huskies to a National Championship in 2011.
Even though he finished second to Jimmer Fredette in the College Basketball Player of the Year award honors, there were many around the country who considered him to be the best player in the nation.
Jimmer Fredette (2011)
As a senior at Brigham Young University, James Taft “Jimmer” Fredette essentially became a household name in the college basketball world, after winning the 2011 National Player of the Year award and leading all of NCAA Division I basketball in scoring.
In fact, when he would have one of his many scoring outbursts, people would say that his opponents got “Jimmered.” He won countless awards that named him the best college basketball player in 2011, and won the 2011 Best Male College Athlete ESPY award.
Even President Obama called Fredette “unbelievable” and the “best scorer in the country, obviously.”
Anthony Davis (2012)
One of the crown jewels of John Calipari’s “one and done” factory at the University of Kentucky, Anthony Davis went from a 6’7 guard as a junior in high school to a 6’10 forward who could move like a guard but block shots like few players we’ve seen in college basketball history.
Coming to Lexington as the #1 recruit in the country, analysts were in awe of Davis’ combination of skills, including being able to run the floor, score in the low post, face up to the basket, and shoot the ball from outside.
In his one season at Kentucky, Davis led the Wildcats to a virtually inevitable National Championship run, averaging 15.2 points, 11.2 rebounds, and 4.6 blocks per game, and was named the NCAA Final Four Most Outstanding Player.
Trey Burke (2013)
Alfonso Clark “Trey” Burke III was named the 2011–12 Big Ten Co-Freshman of the Year, and was named to the 2011–12 All-Big Ten 2nd team during his freshman year at the University of Michigan.
After leading the team in points, assists, steals and blocked shots that year, he followed his freshman season up with being named the Big 10 Conference Player of the Year, a First-Team All-American, and the recipient of the John R. Wooden Award.
Burke and the Wolverines also advanced to the Finals of the 2013 NCAA Tournament, which they lost to the University of Louisville.
Doug McDermott (2014)
Doug McDermott is one of the biggest reasons why “name brand” Division I basketball programs have stopped overlooking the so called “mid-major” basketball schools, and likely installed a healthy fear of the latter into the former.
The Three-time consensus All-American at Creighton University, Fredette left the school having scored the fifth-most points in NCAA Division I basketball history, surpassing a guy named Larry Bird.
“Dougie McBuckets,” as he was nicknamed for his scoring ability, was named the Consensus National College Player of the Year in 2014.
Frank Kaminsky (2015)
A two-time First-Team All-Big 10 selection and Consensus First-Team All-American in 2015, center Frank Kaminsky was the foundational player for a University of Wisconsin team that advanced all the way to the final game of the 2015 NCAA Tournament, which they eventually lost to Duke University.
“Frank The Tank” led the nation in Player Efficiency Rating (PER) that year, averaging 18.8 points and 8.2 rebounds per game, despite playing for one of the slowest-paced offenses in the entire nation.
At season’s end, Kaminsky was named the Naismith College Player of the year, and the University of Wisconsin’s Male Athlete of the Year (a praiseworthy distinction at a football-crazy school).
Frank Mason III (2017)
During his four years at the University of Kansas, guard Frank Mason III played alongside four different guys who were selected in the top half of the NBA Draft.
But not one of those guys was as beloved by Kansas coach Bill Self, and none of those guys he played with can brag about the litany of awards that Mason received, including AP Player of the Year, Sporting News Player of the Year, USA Today Player of the Year, Oscar Robertson Award, Naismith Award, and NABC Player of the Year, all of which he received in 2017 after leading the Jayhawks to a Final Four appearance in that year’s NCAA Tournament.