Sports are great because of the characters that take part in the action. Some you love, some you love to root against. Every season has its heroes and villains. College basketball is no exception.
The names on this list have polarized fan opinions since their playing days. Some of them are known for winning. Some of them have changed the game. Still, others rubbed everyone the wrong way but you had to love them because they played for your team.
This list doesn’t stop at just players either. We’ve got coaches and even some media personalities. There’s nothing like yelling at an old man for building a great college program, heckling someone getting paid to say his opinions about your team. Sports are crazy, and so are its fans.
So take a look at this list. Be careful, though; there might be some players on this list who stir up some strong emotions in you. You’ve been warned!
Bill Laimbeer: Notre Dame (1975-1979)
Bill Laimbeer was a bit of a late bloomer. He originally flunked out of Notre Dame and had to go to a technical school for two semesters just to get his grades back up. When he finally made it back to the Fighting Irish, he wasn’t much to talk about. He averaged just 7.3 points and 6.0 rebounds per game.
However, he got his chance at the next level and eventually, he became one of the most frustrating players to play against in his generation. His Pistons’ teammate, Isiah Thomas, once said of Laimbeer, “Tell you the truth, if I didn’t know Bill, I wouldn’t like him either.”
Lew Alcindor: UCLA (1966-1969)
To paraphrase the famous DJ Khalid track, “All he does is win, win, win, no matter what.” Three National Championships and three National Player of the Year Awards later, you could see how the folks in Westwood would think Lew Alcindor was their hero, but everyone else would be sick of him.
Alcindor was so good the NCAA actually changed a rule to respond directly to his dominance. After Alcindor took the Bruins to his first national title in 1967, the NCAA outlawed dunks. In response, Alcindor produced the greatest hook shot the world has ever seen.
Wilt Chamberlain: Kansas (1956-1958)
Dominant big men have always been the brunt of cheap ploys by opposing teams to neutralize their effectiveness. In recent years the “Hack a Shaq” technique was used to prevent Shaquille O’Neal from getting easy buckets.
In the 1950s, Wilt Chamberlain was so dominating that opposing teams refused to try to score, and would instead pass the ball around to each other until the defense would lose focus or get tired chasing. Chamberlain was often triple-teamed too. In part because of these tactics, Chamberlain left school early to play in the NBA.
Kelvin Sampson is a good college basketball coach. His teams have performed well wherever he’s gone. Maybe the reason his teams have played so well is that he cheats. Sampson bailed on Oklahoma just as NCAA investigations began swirling, and was forced to resign from Indiana University after he was found to have committed major NCAA violations.
Most of these violations came directly from recruiting issues. That’s a way to make the rest of the men in your profession walk to the other side of the street when they see you coming down the sidewalk. These days he’s coaching at the University of Houston, and has yet to be accused of any violations.
Kenyon Martin: Cincinnati (1996-2000)
Kenyon Martin was a great basketball player, but it wasn’t his skill that made people notice him most. It was the outright aggression and anger that Martin played with that had people genuinely afraid to play against him.
North Carolina assistant coach Phil Ford once said, “They haven’t created a stat yet for what I call ‘scares”: all the shots he makes people miss just by his presence around the basket.” Martin is a legend in Cincinnati, where he won college player of the year during his senior season.
Gary Payton: Oregon State
Young folks, Gary Payton is more than just the guy in that reaction GIF. Sure, the GIF is good, but have you ever seen Gary Payton play defense? They didn’t call him “The Glove” for nothing.
While he was picking your pocket on the court, he was also letting you know about it. Payton drove everyone crazy with his trash-talking. He’s a legend at Oregon State and still holds most of the school’s offensive records.
When you win over 800 games in your coaching career, you’re bound to bother a few people. However, you win that many games and you’re likely to be loved just as much.
Unfortunately for Eddie Sutton, he’s run afoul of the NCAA rules committee a few times, and people don’t forget about those infractions too quickly. Controversy ended his tenure at Kentucky and Oklahoma State, but man can that guy coach a basketball team.
Eric Montross, North Carolina (1990-94)
If you were a Tar Heels fan in the early 90s, Eric Montross was a hero: a hard-working, lunch-pail kind of player. Not too flashy, but got the job done. He wasn’t scared of ganging bodies when he needed to either.
If you were a fan of another college team who had to play North Carolina, it was a different story. He was a bully, a bruiser, and someone who lacked the grace of the modern college basketball game. Either way, it got the job done for the Tar Heels, who won a national title in his time there.
Reggie Miller, UCLA (1983-87)
Reggie Miller: prolific scorer, prolific trash-talker. Miller could shoot the lights of the gym and make you miserable while doing it. This probably came from constantly going toe to toe with his older sister, Cheryl Miller, who is one of the greatest women’s basketball players of all-time.
You can just imagine two immensely talented kids talking back and forth for hours in the driveway. For Reggie, this never stopped. His passion and determination continued through his NBA days and boiled over in notable confrontations with the New York Knicks.
Mark Madsen: Stanford
Stanford guys naturally get a lot of hate just because they go to school at Stanford. But, Madsen was different. He wasn’t naturally gifted like many around him, but he worked hard in practice and he played hard on the court.
That grit and determination can sometimes rub people the wrong way. His teammate with the Lakers, Shaquille O’Neal once said of Madsen, “He used to beat me up in practice.” That gives you an idea of the way “Mad Dog” would work.
Danny Ainge, BYU (1977-81)
Before he was making the Brooklyn Nets wish they’d stayed in Jersey, Danny Ainge he was picking up multiple National Player of the Year awards. How did he do it?
Sure, he was really good. But what made Ainge so polarizing was his work ethic. He was everywhere all the time, including in the face of the man he was guarding, on the floor chasing after loose balls, and hustling. Always hustling. That kind of energy endeared Ainge to some and bothered others.
Jon Scheyer: Duke
Jon Scheyer is not the greatest Duke player of all-time, and he isn’t the greatest Duke player on this list. However, he earned begrudging respect from fans across the country who were conditioned to hate Duke.
Scheyer was never the most talented player, but he worked hard and earned All-American honors as well as a National Championship in his senior year. The “Sheyerface” became a trending meme on the internet during his time at Duke.
Let’s just say Jerry Tarkanian wasn’t on the NCAA’s Christmas card list. All three schools “Tark the Shark” coached at faced NCAA penalties as a result of his time at the school. IN 1977, The NCAA ordered UNLV to fire him which began a decade-long legal battle that eventually made it to the Supreme Court.
He sued them, they sued him. Everyone got sued and Tark kept coaching. He didn’t make many friends in the media either as he was particularly aggressive with them as well. He sure could coach though.
Larry Johnson, UNLV (1989-91)
Talk about a team that polarized opinions. The UNLV team that dominated Duke in the 1990 Championship Game should have been loved by the masses for downing the Dukies. But their arrogant and smug attitudes turned many people off.
The Rebel’s leader was the Naismith and Wooden Award winner, Larry Johnson. He played just two seasons at UNLV after transferring from junior college, but he earned All-America honors in both seasons.
Allen Iverson, Georgetown (1994-96)
Allen Iverson fit in at Georgetown during the era of “Big John” Thompson. He was talented and played with swagger, but he was also a little bit rough around the edges.
There’s no denying his incredible talent. He was the Big East Rookie of the Year his freshman season and was the Big East Defensive Player of the Year twice. However, he earned himself a reputation of being a bit of a troublemaker. It’s no surprise then that Iverson left after just his sophomore year at Georgetown.
Patrick Ewing, Georgetown (1981-85)
Patrick Ewing is a massive human being. Even by basketball standards, Ewing is huge. So is it all his fault that his elbows get thrown around when he’s banging bodies in the paint? Maybe.
Whether or not Ewing was a dirty player can be debated, but what cannot be is his dominance while at Georgetown. The Hoyas went to the NCAA Championship game in 3 out of 4 seasons when Ewing was there. They went home with the 1984 Championship Trophy.
Greg Paulus, Duke (2005-09)
Greg Paulus burst onto the scene as a highly touted freshman. Paulus started at point guard for Coach K as a freshman. If Coach K is willing to let you run the show as a punk 18-year old kid, you must be pretty good.
That alone earned Paulus negative attention from opposing fans. Well, that and he was playing at Duke. It didn’t end in glory like it seemed it might, as Paulus never won a National Championship and was relegated to a backup role during his senior season.
Marshall Henderson, Ole Miss (2009-14)
Marshall Henderson played just two seasons of basketball at Ole Miss but he could be their most important basketball player of all-time. Not only did he create memorable moments for Rebel fans patiently waiting for football season to start, but he brought the Landshark to the nation.
The Landshark is an Ole Miss athletics tradition that goes back to football player Tony Fein in 2008, but when Marshall Henderson began throwing it up in March the country took notice. These days, “Tony the Landshark” has officially replaced “Colonel Reb” as the game day mascot of Ole Miss athletics.
Eric Devendorf, Syracuse (2005-09)
Eric Devendorf and his chinstrap beard starred for 3.5 seasons at Syracuse before leaving for professional basketball. He never quite hit the heights the Orange faithful thought he might get to after his breakout freshman season.
That was just fine for opposing fans as they never really took to the guard. He was never a very nice guy, just google his off-court issues, but he could play basketball. He averaged 14.3 points per game over his career for Syracuse.
Steve Wojciechowski, Duke (1994-98)
Some of you may only know “Wojo” from his former role as Coach K’s right-hand assistant, or his current job as Marquette head coach. He seems like a nice guy, so what’s wrong with him? He’s the inventor of the Duke floor slap. How do you like him now?
Also, he played basketball with the intensity of a man possessed. Or of a man who thought it would be intimidating to smack the floor as you dribbled at him.
Derrick Coleman, Syracuse (1986-90)
Derrick Coleman was an enormous basketball-eating man. Coleman didn’t just collect rebounds though. He averaged double-digits in points each of his four seasons at Syracuse too. The thing that bothered opposing teams and fans the most though? His swagger.
Derrick Coleman would go onto to be the number 1 overall pick in the NBA Draft, but before that happened he set the Syracuse all-time scoring record. It was his confidence and attitude, combined with his tremendous playing ability that left the Big East glad he finally ran out of eligibility.
Geno Auriemma, Connecticut
It’s easy to dislike Geno Auriemma, but you have to respect the program he’s built at the University of Connecticut. The guy has dominated women’s basketball for nearly 30 years. His Connecticut teams get the best players, win the most games, and cut down the most nets.
The fact that UConn hasn’t won a National Championship since 2016 is incredible. Only twice in 30 years has Auriemma gone 5 years or more without a championship, of which he has won 11.
If you know the voice of one college basketball announcer it’s Dickie V. Whether you love it or hate it, you have heard it. Maybe it ruins your night when Vitale is on the call of the game you’ve just tuned into, or maybe you love hearing him yell-talk about “diaper dandies.”
However, you feel, his presence does carry a bit of gravitas. If Vitale is in your arena there’s something important going on. It’s almost a validation that you’re doing something right.
J.J. Redick, Duke (2002-06)
J.J. Redick was the epitome of Duke for the four years he was in Durham. He was talented, he was handsome, and he had an arrogant smugness to him that made him reviled all across the country. Unless you were a Cameron Crazy, that is.
Redick was the ACC Player of the Year his junior and senior seasons and was the National Player of the Year his senior season. Man, that guy could shoot a basketball too. It’s the main reason he’s still in the NBA at age 35.
Joakim Noah, Florida (2004-07)
Joakim Noah could either be described as passionate or over the top. To his fans, he was the heart and soul of those Florida Gators teams that won back-to-back titles. To everyone else he just needed to calm the heck down.
Noah was great though. He had a unique combination of size and energy that when harnessed made him dominant. He was a second-team All-American his senior season and was the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player the year before.
Chris Webber, Michigan (1991-93)
Chris Webber was the most famous member of the famed “Fab Five” group of freshmen that entered the college basketball landscape with Michigan almost 20 years ago. They were a stunning team that became the first team in NCAA history to start a National Championship game starting five freshmen.
All that glory turned sour when they had their awards and honors vacated by the NCAA due to rules violations. Also, unless you were a Michigan fan at the time, the team wasn’t that likable. They were just good.
John Calipari: Kentucky
When John Calipari arrives at your school you can be sure of 2 things. The first is that you’re going to win a ton of basketball games. Calipari has taken three schools to the Final Four and has won a National Championship.
The other thing you know is that there are probably going to be some NCAA violations coming at the end of his time in town. He is the only coach to have Final Four trips vacated by the NCAA at multiple schools.
Rick Pitino is an amazing college basketball coach. Probably one of the best of all-time. However, he doesn’t usually leave a school on the best of terms.
Sure, he’ll probably take your school to the Final Four. But he’s either leaving for a better job or for the NBA, or just because he’s brought your program dangerously close to the NCAA Death Penalty. And if you’re a Kentucky fan, he’ll return to the college ranks just to coach your arch-rival.
Tyler Hansbrough, North Carolina (2005-09)
Tyler Hansbrough played basketball like a crazy person. He was constantly screaming, yelling, and turning red. It’s unclear whether his teammates liked being around him or were too afraid of him to pretend like they weren’t.
While he may have been insane, he was a terrific basketball player. He was the first freshman in ACC history to earn unanimous All-ACC honors. Before he left Chapel Hill he was a 3-time consensus All-American, ACC Player of the Year, National Player of the Year and an NCAA National Champion.
Grayson Allen, Duke (2014-18)
It’s hard to say Grayson Allen was polarizing as it was really difficult to find anyone, even Coach K, who liked Allen by the time he finished his senior year at Duke. The whining, the attitude, and the tripping! Honestly dude, just stop tripping people.
Allen was a pretty good player at Duke and helped the Blue Devils to the 2015 National Championship. He was named All-ACC and All-America during his time in Durham. Allen was instrumental in the 2015 National Championship[p Game, with Coach K stating that “ Grayson just put us on his back.”
Shane Battier, Duke (1997-2001)
Somehow Shane Battier managed to only win one National Championship during his time at Duke. He was a lockdown defender and eventually a National Player of the Year Award winner. He was also incredibly smart, earning Academic All-American honors twice.
He was a Duke player though and he got his share of crap from opposing fans. But that’s just par for the course when you play at Duke. The only way to shut them up? Win. And Battier did. He left Duke with the most wins of any college basketball player ever, 131.
Bob Knight was a great college basketball coach. He came from an era of coaches that cared about winning first, and everything else second. You don’t like the way he does things? Too bad. It worked for him for a while, but eventually, the times caught up with Knight and he had to step away.
Knight could coach, though. He won 3 National Championships, 11 Big Ten Championships and won 763 games. Unfortunately, the thing most people remember is the moments where he lost his temper, especially the infamous chair-throwing event.
Jalen Rose, Michigan (1991-94)
Jalen Rose was another member of the “Fab Five” whose college basketball career started in greatness and ended in disgrace. He left Michigan after his junior season and went on to have a great NBA career.
While he was one of the players called before a grand jury, he was found to have not to have received large amounts of money during his time at Michigan. That scandal tarnished the once glittering legacy of the Fab Five.
Mike Krzyzewski: Duke
Mike Krzyzewski is the greatest college basketball coach of all-time. He has more wins than anyone else by a couple hundred. He’s got five National Championships, which is only topped by John Wooden. That’s not to mention that he single-handedly built the Duke basketball program into one of the greatest of all-time.
Sure he’s a bit grizzly on the sidelines but this is a guy who was mentored by Bob Knight while playing at West Point. What else would you expect?
Christian Laettner, Duke (1988-92)
Christian Laettner was the player that started it all; well, started all the Duke hate, that is. Laettner earned that hate by being the best college basketball player of his era. He is the only player in history to start in four Final Fours. He won two National Championships and two National Player of the Year Awards.
He also hit that incredible game-winning shot against Kentucky that lives on in history every time someone talks about great college basketball moments. If you want polarizing, look no further than Christian Laettner.