You only get four years. Some players take less. Unlike the NBA, which can create dynasty mainstays who light up the television for a decade or two, the brightest stars of college basketball have quick expiration dates. While it’s easy to recall NBA greats, being a great college player takes a special kind of flair and pizzaz. You’ve got to make a lasting impression on people’s minds after only a few years of hoops.
It’s easy to judge college players by whether or not they had successful NBA careers. But in this list of the top 10 college basketball players of all time, we’re trying to ignore the ways that their names became great in the pros and focus instead on their college career.
Here are 10 players, some of whom turned into huge NBA stars, and others who had their best athletic days in college.
- Christian Laettner
- Bill Russell
- Pete Maravich
- Larry Bird
- Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
- Jerry West
- Shane Battier
- Tyler Hansbrough
- Michael Jordan
- Steph Curry
10. Steph Curry
Just barely making it into the list of top 10 college basketball players of all time, coming in at number 10, is Wildcats player Steph Curry, from Davidson. While there’s something to be said for putting together an incredible college career, there is also something electric about a great player who does a lot with only a little. His incredible run with underdog UC Davis is one for the record books.
9. Michael Jordan
Playing for the North Carolina Tar Heels, the greatest player in the history of the NBA, Michael Jordan. While Jordan had an amazing pro career, it started with the incredible training and fundamentals that he picked up at North Carolina. Jordan’s stats are nowhere near the kinds that were put up by Bird and Russell, two later entries on the list, but Jordan did manage to lead his team to an NCAA championship. He hit the game-winning shot against Patrick Ewing’s powerful Georgetown squad. It was a turning point for Jordan, and another huge victory for North Carolina’s impressive championship resume.
Jordan’s college career became something more than just a college career. It became a story about a guy who was cut from his high school basketball team, only to go on and play for a prestigious program and win them a championship. His hard-working, team-oriented college attitude became the foundation of the Air Jordan brand.
8. Tyler Hansbrough
In 2008, Tyler Hansbrough swept the individual awards of college men’s basketball: winning all six Player of the Year Awards from the Associated Press, Sporting News, NABC, Basketball Writers Association, the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, and in the Wooden categories. He’s elite, undeniably earning his place in our ranking as one of the most notable players. Throughout his career as a Tar Heel, he managed to swing a 53.6% FGP, ammassing 2872 points.
7. Shane Battier
Battier is the only primary defender on this list. He won the NABC Defensive Player of the Year three times during his career with Duke, and is second in the Duke record books with the most minutes played in a single season. He would frequently take charges, and do whatever he could to lockdown opposing players, giving Duke one of the better defenses in the league during his time with the team. He is one of the greatest defenders of all time, especially in college.
6. Jerry West
Jerry West is the man on the background of the NBA logo. However, he doesn’t get royalties for it, basically because the NBA won’t admit that it’s him on the logo. And of course, they won’t admit it because they don’t want to pay Jerry West—business is business. But, if any player has earned his place on the NBA logo, it’s Jerry West.
The best part about his college career is his astounding ability to get better every year. His sophomore year, he totalled 498 points for West Virginia. The following year, he nearly doubled that number, sinking a grand total of 903 points for his team.
5. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Playing for the legendary John Wooden with the terrifying UCLA Bruins, Kareem only lost two games. He won 88 games, and only lost two. He averaged 26 points a game for his college career, and was largely responsible for the dunk being banned in college basketball for about 10 years, from the 1967 season until after John Wooden retired because he was just too good.
Abdul-Jabbar would go on to be a popular NBA star as well, but made himself a person of interest in the NCAA, winning the NCAA Tournament “Most Outstanding Player” three times. If you know anything about basketball, you know his name.
4. Larry Bird
Larry Bird played for Indiana University Hooisers and Indiana State Sycamores in his time. During the entirety of his college career, he put up 30 points a game and tracked down 13 rebounds. He led his team to an impressive 81-13 record.
Bird is a great comeback story. From a small town, he originally accepted a scholarship to play ball for Indiana University, but found the experience overwhelming and dropped out. He’d return to play college basketball for the smaller Indiana State a few years later. Bird led his team to a 33-0 record before losing to Magic Johnson’s Michigan State Spartans in the beginning of one of the most famous rivalries in sports history.
3. Pete Maravich
Pistol Pete: Fiery, creative, and an absolute joy to watch on the court. There’s really only one stat that you need to know, which justifies Pete Maravich’s position on this list. Well, two stats really.
First of all, Pete Maravich averaged a total of 44.5 points per game over his three years of college basketball. Second of all, when Pete was playing in the late 60s, there was no three-point line, meaning he played in a time when the NBA wouldn’t give you three points for a shot.
You might picture a guy with 44.5 points a game racking it up by hitting eight or nine three-pointers each time, and then topping it off with some layups and free throws. Not Pistol Pete Maravich. He did it old-school, knocking down jumper after jumper, and confounding defenders with creative dribbles and excellent ball handling.
2. Bill Russell
Not only was he a great NBA player, Bill Russell put up an unimaginable statline over the course of his college career. He 20.7 points and 20.3 rebounds during his collegiate career. He was an undeniable powerhouse on the court, providing consistent and strong performance.
Russell was passed up by a lot of great college programs due to his race, but was picked up by the no-name program the University of San Francisco. He led the program to two NCAA championships during his junior and senior years, with a string of 55 consecutive victories in that mix. He once blocked 13 shots in a college game. Suffice to say, he was top of the top.
1. Christian Laettner
Any player can play a maximum of 24 NCAA tournament games. If you win every single game in the tournament and get to the championship, you’d play 6 games total. If you play in the tournament for all four of your years of eligibility, that would come to a total of 24 tournament games that you could play in. Again, you’d have to win most of those games.
Christian Laettner played in 23 out of 24 possible tournament games, winning 21 of those 23 games, carrying Duke to two NCAA championships, and participating in almost every single tournament game over a four-year span. No other player on this list has had that big an impact on a program. Bird, Russell, and Jordan didn’t do that for their respective teams.
That’s why Christian Laettner is #1 on our list of the top 10 college basketball players of all time.