25 Greatest College Basketball Players of All Time
With March Madness upon us, it’s always fun to see who on the court might be the next big NBA superstar. But sometimes, the players who put on the biggest show during the tournament — or just in college basketball, in general — don’t become huge stars at the next level. This could be because their game simply doesn’t translate to the NBA or because their skills were specific to a certain system in college.
We looked at the 25 greatest college basketball players in the history of the game, regardless of how their professional career — or lack thereof — turned out, with a minimum of 60 games played in the NCAA.
25. Bryant Reeves
Bryant “Big Country” Reeves had an NBA career with the Vancouver Grizzlies that lasted only a little longer than his college career, despite some early success. But he was an excellent college player at Oklahoma State in the early ’90s, averaging 17.4 points and 8.5 rebounds with 1.4 blocks per game.
His best season came as a junior, when he averaged 21 points, 9.7 rebounds, and 2.1 blocks and the Cowboys made the NCAA Tournament. That success prompted Reeves to return for a senior season, when he had another excellent year and led his school to the Final Four (they eventually lose to UCLA). Reeves was the Big 8 Player of the Year twice.
24. Joe Smith
Power forward Joe Smith only played two seasons in college, but they were excellent. At the University of Maryland, Smith was the 1993–94 Freshman of the Year with averages of 19.4 points and 10.7 rebounds in the ACC. After a loss that year to Michigan in the NCAA Tournament, Smith returned to raise his averages to 20.8 points and 10.6 rebounds on an excellent 58.6% from the field as a sophomore.
The Terrapins were 26-8 that year, but again lost in the Sweet 16 — this time to Connecticut. That year, Smith won the Naismith Award, the Rupp Trophy, the UPI Player of the Year, and was a Consensus First-Team All-American.
23. Keith Van Horn
Forward Keith Van Horn played all four years at Utah, finishing with averages of 20.8 points, 8.8 rebounds, and 40.1% shooting from three-point range. The Utes made the NCAA Tournament in three of Van Horn’s four years, making it to the Elite 8 once, but losing to Kentucky for the second consecutive year.
His best season in college was his senior year, when Van Horn averaged 22 points and 9.5 rebounds per game. He was a Consensus Second-Team All-American in 1995–96 and First-Team in 1996–97, and the Western Athletic Conference Player of the Year three times.
22. Lionel Simmons
In the late ’80s, forward Lionel Simmons was a stat-machine for La Salle in the MAAC. He played four seasons in college, averaging 24.6 points, 10.9 rebounds, and 1.9 blocks per game. Even at a small school, Simmons gained notoriety in his senior season for leading the Explorers to a 29-1 regular-season record heading into the NCAA Tournament.
That season Simmons averaged 26.5 points and 11.1 rebounds, winning the AP Player of the Year and the Naismith Award. La Salle lost in the second round of the tournament that March to fifth-seeded Clemson.
21. Lamond Murray
At the University of California, in the early ’90s, forward Lamond Murray built a reputation as an excellent scorer. By his junior season in 1993–94, Murray was playing 34.9 minutes per game with averages of 24.3 points and 7.9 rebounds per game, leading the Golden Bears to a 22-7 record and a second-place finish in the Pac-10.
That earned Cal a No. 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament, but they were upset by the 12-seeded Green Bay Phoenix. In that game, Murray shot just 6-for-21 from the field while teammate Jason Kidd was just 4-for-17. Even still, Murray was a Consensus Second-Team All-American in that year.
20. C.J. McCollum
C.J. McCollum was a big-time scorer for a small-time school during his time in the NCAA, playing all four years for the Lehigh Mountain Hawks. During his collegiate career, McCollum averaged 21.3 points and 6.5 rebounds per game. His best season came as a senior, when he knocked down 23.9 points and shot 49.5% from the field, but an injury limited McCollum to just 12 games. He was best known in college for his junior season, however, when Lehigh made the NCAA Tournament as a 15-seed and upset Duke in the first round.
19. Xavier McDaniel
Another small school but another talented big man, power forward Xavier McDaniel had quite a run with Wichita State back in the late ’80s. Although he played only 13.5 minutes per game as a freshman, from his sophomore to senior seasons McDaniel was absolutely outstanding. He averaged 22.2 points and 14.1 rebounds per game during those three years.
His 27.2-point, 14.8-rebound season in his senior year was good enough to lead WSU to their first appearance in the NCAA Tournament during McDaniel’s tenure, where they lost in the first round to Georgia. McDaniel was a Consensus First-Team All-American as a senior, and was twice the Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year.
18. Donyell Marshall
Forward Donyell Marshall may not have had the type of NBA career that makes you think of a college superstar. However, that’s pretty much what he was by the end of his time at the University of Connecticut. Marshall played three years at UConn. In his junior season he broke out for 25.1 points, 8.9 rebounds, and 3.2 blocks per game.
He led the team to the Big East Conference title in 1993–94 and a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament. The Huskies lost in the Sweet 16 to Florida, which ended up being Marshall’s final game before heading to the pros.
17. Allen Iverson
A special player at Georgetown, Allen Iverson only stuck around for two seasons. He really broke out as a sophomore, averaging 25 points per game with 4.7 assists and 48% shooting from the field. This was especially impressive at the time for a player listed at 6-feet-tall and 165 pounds; it was 1995 and the game — in both college and the pros — was much more physical. Iverson left after the team was eliminated in the Elite 8 from the NCAA Tournament.
16. Ralph Sampson
This 7-foot-4 center is somewhat of a forgotten man in basketball history. He ended up in the basketball Hall of Fame, but his bright NBA career was cut short due to chronic injuries. Sampson was also a good college basketball player, and the Houston Rockets were justified in taking him No. 1 overall in 1983.
During his four years at Virginia in the ACC, Sampson shot 56.8% from the field while averaging 16.9 points, 11.4 rebounds, and 3.5 blocks per game. He was a three-time Naismith Award winner and a two-time Wooden Award winner.
15. Glen Rice
Forward Glen Rice played four years at the University of Michigan, but he really came on in his junior and senior seasons to set himself apart as a major star. Rice averaged 24 points and 6.7 rebounds in those two years, shooting an outstanding 49.1% on three-pointers.
He was named the Big Ten Player of the Year in 1988–89 as a senior, leading Michigan to a No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament. The Wolverines upset the Fighting Illini of Illinois in the Final Four thanks to 28 points from Rice, and then they won the championship over Seton Hall with Rice dropping 31.
14. Tyler Hansbrough
Although he was clearly never the most talented player on the court, University of North Carolina forward Tyler Hansbrough gave his best effort every single game. He finished his four years at UNC as the leading scorer in school history, which is impressive given some of the names who passed through Chapel Hill.
Hansbrough had his best season as a junior, averaging 22.6 points and 10.2 rebounds per game. He was the AP Player of the Year that year, and he decided to return to school when his Tar Heels lost in the Final Four. It ended up working out well for him, as they won the National Championship the next year.
13. Shawn Respert
Another player who gets less love because of his mediocre NBA career: Michigan State guard Shawn Respert. He’s the leading scorer in team history, having averaged 21.3 points per game over four seasons (not including a redshirt freshman season in which he got into just one game). In his senior season, Respert averaged 25.6 points and was the Big Ten Player of the Year and Sporting News Player of the Year, leading the Spartans to the NCAA Tournament where they were upset by the 14-seeded Weber State in the first round.
12. Doug McDermott
Even though he went to a small school, Doug McDermott was a big-time scorer in his four years in the NCAA. While at Creighton, McDemott averaged 21.7 points and 7.5 rebounds while shooting 55% from the field and 45.8% from three-point range. His senior season was his best year, when he put down an average of 26.7 points per game.
The Blue Jays earned a No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament that year, but they were upset by Baylor in the second round. In their first-round victory over Louisiana-Lafayette, McDermott dropped 30 points.
11. Len Bias
The legacy of Len Bias will always involve his tragic death. Not too long after the Boston Celtics drafted him No. 2 overall in the 1986 draft, Bias died of a heart attack, likely caused by cocaine use. But Bias was an excellent player at Maryland, playing all four years and averaging 16.4 points and 5.7 rebounds per game.
That doesn’t tell the whole story, as he was the ACC Player of the Year in both 1984–85 and 1985–86. Bias averaged 23.2 points and seven rebounds per game as a senior, leading his Terrapins to the NCAA Tournament for the fourth consecutive season.
10. Christian Laettner
Duke power forward Christian Laettner is best remembered for his shot against Kentucky in 1992 NCAA Tournament on their way to winning the championship. But Laettner was so much more than just one amazing shot. He was a two-time NCAA champion, a Consensus Second-Team All-American and First-Team All-American, a Wooden Award winner, and a Sporting News Player of the Year. In ’92, he averaged 21.5 points and 7.9 rebounds per game. He finished his four-year career at Duke with averages of 16.6 points and 7.8 rebounds per game.
9. Danny Manning
Over four seasons with Kansas in the Big 8 Conference, Danny Manning finished with averages of 20.1 points and 8.1 rebounds per game to go with 1.4 blocks. He was one of the greatest college basketball players in the country by the time he was a senior, sporting averages of 24.8 points and 9.0 rebounds in his final season with the Jayhawks.
Manning was the Big 8 Player of the Year three times, a Consensus First-Team All-American twice, and a Wooden Award winner in his senior season. Despite being a six-seed in the NCAA Tournament in 1988, Manning and head coach Larry Brown led Kansas to the championship.
8. J.J. Redick
Not only was J.J. Redick a great college basketball player during his four years at Duke, he’s a great interview as well. For his overall numbers, Redick had 19.9 points on 40.6% shooting from three-point range. But that doesn’t tell the whole story.
During his senior season, he dropped 26.8 points and won the Wooden Award, the Sporting News Player of the Year, the AP Player of the Year, and his second consecutive ACC Player of the Year award. Even at just 6-foot-4, Redick was a unique scorer with an ability to shoot from long-range that has translated well to the NBA game.
7. Glenn Robinson
He only played 62 games in college basketball, but Glenn Robinson was a monster for the University of Purdue. As a sophomore, he won the Wooden Award, the Naismith Award, the Rupp Trophy, the Sporting News Player of the Year, the AP Player of the Year, and the Big Ten Player of the Year awards. During that time he averaged 30.3 points and 10.1 rebounds per game.
Robinson led Gene Keady’s Boilermakers to a 29-5 record in 1993–94, finishing first with a 14-4 record in the Big Ten. They were a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, but were upset by Duke in the Elite 8 when Robinson was held to 6-for-22 shooting.
6. Freeman Williams
Guard Freeman Williams, also known to fans as World B. Free, went to a small college in Portland State. Playing there for four years from 1975–78 also allowed Williams to put up some major stats, averaging 30.7 points per game over 106 total games.
As a junior, however, Williams dropped an insane 38.8 points per game. Now imagine the fact that the three-point line hadn’t reached the NCAA at the time, and you get an idea of just how pure a scorer Williams was. As a senior, he finally got some recognition by being named a Consensus Second-Team All-American.
5. David Thompson
Guard David Thompson was one of the greatest college basketball players in history, as well as in the NBA despite having a short professional career. A member of the basketball Hall of Fame, Thompson played three seasons at North Carolina State from 1973-1975 with averages of 26.8 points and 8.1 rebounds per game. He was a three-time ACC Player of the Year, among several other awards.
In his junior season Thompson led NC State to a 30-1 record and a win in the title game over Marquette. His best year came as a senior when he averaged 29.9 points per game; again, coming at a time when there was no three-point line in college basketball.
4. Hank Gathers
Another sad story of a great player goes to Hank Gathers of Loyola Marymount. After playing his freshman season at USC, Gathers transferred to LMU for a greater chance to get on the court. He was undersized for his position, standing 6-foot–7 and playing center for his team. But he was really good, nonetheless.
In his junior season, Gathers averaged 32.7 points and 13.7 rebounds per game, leading the NCAA in both categories. The unfortunate part of the story is that Gathers had a heart condition, and it caused him to collapse and die during a game against Portland State in March 1990. Nonetheless, he was one of the greatest college basketball players in history.
3. Bill Walton
Center Bill Walton was an absolute monster during his three-year stretch at UCLA in the ’70s. In 87 total games, Walton averaged 20.3 points and an outstanding 15.7 rebounds per game, shooting 65.1% from the floor and leading the Bruins to back-to-back NCAA Championships in ’72 and ’73.
Walton racked up a ton of awards and honors while playing for John Wooden’s team, including two AP Player of the Year Awards, three Consensus First-Team All-American selections, and three Naismith Awards. The famous “Deadhead” was a basketball sensation during his time in college.
2. Pete Maravich
This is a real big throwback, but “Pistol” Pete Maravich was the type of revolutionary basketball player whose name is remembered for generations. Maravich played for the LSU Tigers back in the late ’60s, and he averaged a jaw-dropping 44.2 points per game over three years. The game was different then, to be sure, but a player averaging over 40 points without the help of a three-point line is absurd to think about.
The stylish guard also won a ton of awards during his time in college, taking home the Sporting News Player of the Year Award, the Naismith Award, and three Consensus First-Team All-American selections.
1. Lew Alcindor
Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor Jr., otherwise known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, was a slender 7-foot-2 center for UCLA in the late 1960s. He absolutely dominated the competition, averaging 26.4 points and 15.5 rebounds while shooting 63.9% from the field for John Wooden’s Bruins.
Despite only playing three seasons before heading to the NBA, Alcindor might be the most accomplished player in NCAA history. He was a Consensus First-Team All-American three times, Sporting News Player of the Year twice, AP Player of the Year twice, and a three-time NCAA champion. It’s hard to do better than he did as college basketball player, and he ended up being a pretty good pro as well.