Looking back at some of the greatest college basketball players of all time is always enjoyable. Many went on to be all-time greats in the NBA and eventually become members of the Basketball Hall of Fame.

What does it take to be named the greatest college basketball player of all time? Some of the guys on this list won at least one national championship. Others never celebrated an NCAA title but have some of the most outstanding individual stats in the college game’s history

When examining college basketball history, this question often arises: Who is the best college basketball player? Is there a clear-cut answer, or are there several contenders for the top spot? This is my personal list, and it could easily be three times longer.

Ranking the 10 greatest college basketball players of all time

  1. Larry Bird, Indiana State (1976-1979)

College Career Averages: 30.3 PPG, 4.6 ASG, 13.3 RPG
Awards: National College Player of the Year (1978-79), Two-time consensus First Team All-American (1977-78 and 1978-79), Two-time Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year (1977-78 and 1978-79)

Larry Bird came close to spending his college career with the Indiana Hoosiers. He was offered a full scholarship to join the team under head coach Bobby Knight, and he even enrolled in the university. However, he withdrew from the program after less than a month on the Bloomington, Ind., campus.

Although he had the talent to play for any school in the country, Bird wanted to be closer to his hometown of French Lick, Ind., where he could help to financially support his family. He briefly enrolled at Northwood Institute before opting to continue his Division I college basketball career with the Indiana State Sycamores.

Bird had a sensational career with the Sycamores, helping them reach the NCAA tournament for the first time in school history following a 33-0 unbeaten record in 1978-79. They made it all the way to the NCAA championship game, where Bird went up against Magic Johnson and Michigan State. The Sycamores would lose in that final, but their 1978-79 roster is considered the greatest in the school’s history.

Bird’s Indiana State teams went 81-13, including that fairytale season in 1978-79. He was named a consensus All-American twice and was named the National College Player of the Year in 1979. Bird averaged over 30 points per game in college as well as 13.3 rebounds and 4.6 assists. He is not only one of the very best to ever play in the NBA, but one of the top-ranked college basketball players of all time, too.

Following his junior year at Indiana State, Bird became eligible for the NBA Draft and was selected by the Celtics with the No. 6 overall pick. However, he did not start playing professionally until the 1979-80 season, when he was named NBA Rookie of the Year award in helping the Celtics record one of the greatest single-season improvements in NBA history -- a remarkable 32-win turnaround from the previous year.

  1. David Thompson, North Carolina State (1972-1975)

College Career Averages: 26.8 PPG, 8.1 RPG
Awards: NCAA Champion (1974), Two-time National College Player of the Year (1973-74 and 1974-75), Three-time Consensus First Team All-American, ACC Player of the Year, and First Team All-ACC (1972-73, 1973-74, and 1974-75),

David Thompson is undoubtedly one of the most electric college basketball players of all time. He was nicknamed “Skywalker” for his phenomenal ability to get up into the air and create highlight plays. Michael Jordan claimed that the concept of “vertical leap ability” originated with Thompson.

In his first season at North Carolina State, Thompson led the team to a perfect 27-0 season, while averaging 24.7 PPG. Unfortunately, the Wolfpack were banned from the NCAA tournament that year due to violations in their recruitment of Thompson.

The following year, the Wolfpack would make up for lost time, thanks to Thompson. They went all the way to the 1974 NCAA Championship game, where a 21-point performance from Thompson helped them claim their first national championship. Their run to the final included beating UCLA 80-77 in the Final Four to snap the Bruins’ seven-year NCAA title run. The Wolfpack took legendary head coach John Wooden’s Bruins to double overtime before going on to beat Marquette in the finale.

Thompson won every award possible during his collegiate career, as well as his national title. He is widely considered one of the very best players to come out of the ACC, and one of the best NCAA basketball players of all time.

In 1975, Thompson was the No. 1 pick in both the American Basketball Association and National Basketball Association drafts. He was taken by the ABA’s Virginia Squires and the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks, Thompson was the top pick for both leagues, with the Virginia Squires and Atlanta Hawks selecting him, respectively. However, he went on to join the Denver Nuggets of the ABA after the Nuggets traded for the right to sign him.

He is the best of the best when it comes to NC State basketball players and the only player to have his jersey (No. 44) retired by the university.

  1. Elvin Hayes, Houston (1964-1968)

College Career Averages: 31 PPG, 17.2 RPG
Awards: UPI Player of the Year (1967-68), Sporting News Player of the Year (1967-68), Two-time Consensus First Team All-American (1966-67 and 1967-68)

Louisiana native Elvin Hayes played in the very first nationally televised NCAA basketball game between his Houston Cougars and the dominant UCLA Bruins in 1968. UCLA, led by Lew Alcindor (who later changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), had won 47 straight games amid its dominance of college basketball in the 1960s.

Hayes, however, stole the show. He scored 39 points and had 15 rebounds to help Houston to a 71-69 win that snapped UCLA’s winning streak. He won the Sporting News College Basketball Player of the Year that season as recognition for his dominance throughout the year.

The former Houston Cougars big man led his college team in scoring in all three of his playing seasons and holds the record for the most rebounds ever by a single player in NCAA tournament history (222). He averaged 31 points per game and a huge 17.2 rebounds per game over his college career and was selected by the San Diego Rockets with the No. 1 overall pick in the 1968 NBA draft.

Hayes was known for his iconic turnaround jumper from mid-range, as well as dominance around the basket. He averaged a career-high 36.8 points per game in his final year with the Cougars.

  1. Jerry West, West Virginia (1957-1960)

College Career Averages: 24.8 PPG, 13.3 RPG
Awards: Two-time Consensus First Team All-American and SoCon Player of the Year (1958-59 and 1959-60) 

Jerry West was born and raised in West Virginia, and despite having interest from just about every school in the nation, he eventually chose to stay home and play for the West Virginia Mountaineers.

In his freshman year at WVU the team went 17-0, a sign of things to come with West on the court. Two years later, he led the team all the way to the NCAA tournament final, where he scored 28 points in a loss to California. Despite falling short of the national title, he was named the Final Four Player of the Tournament. He was a fantastic two-way player, excelling as a ball handler, scorer, and premium defender.

West got progressively better during his collegiate career, capping off his four-year spell with the Mountaineers by setting new collegiate career-highs in his final season. His college stats that year included 29.3 PPG, 16.5 RPG and more than 130 assists. He had 30 double-doubles in 1959-60 and scored 30-plus points 15 times. West was named the Southern Conference MVP for his efforts and was named a consensus First Team All-American for the second time.

One of the best college basketball players of all time, West went on to have a sensational pro career in the NBA. When he made himself eligible for the 1960 NBA draft, he was selected as the second overall pick by the Minneapolis Lakers, who soon after relocated to Los Angeles. As a result, West became the first-ever draft pick for the relocated franchise. Additionally, the Lakers hired his former college coach, Fred Schaus, to lead their team.

  1. Wilt Chamberlain, Kansas (1956-1958)

College Career Averages: 29.9 PPG, 18.3 RPG
Awards: NCAA Tournament Most Outstanding Player (1957), Two-time Consensus First Team All-American (1956-57 and 1957-58), First Team All Big 7 (1956-57) 

Wilt Chamberlain has had his No. 13 jersey retired five times. The Harlem Globetrotters, Golden State Warriors, Philadelphia 76ers, LA Lakers and of course, the Kansas Jayhawks all have Chamberlain’s jersey hanging in the rafters, and with very good reason.

In his college playing days, Chamberlain was nearly impossible to stop. He led the entire nation in scoring and rebounding two seasons in a row as both a sophomore and junior. Chamberlain led the Jayhawks to the NCAA tournament final against North Carolina in his sophomore year. Kansas came up short, but the Tar Heels had to triple-team Chamberlain to secure their win.

By Chamberlain’s junior year, most teams were playing at least three players on him, which grew frustrating, even though it proved just how good he was. Despite the extra attention, Chamberlain still averaged 29.9 PPG that season with 18.3 rebounds. Having fallen out of love with the NCAA game, he then decided to leave college rather than return for his senior year.

Chamberlain wasn’t old enough to enter the NBA in 1958, so he spent 1958-59 with the Harlem Globetrotters -- something he enjoyed and often returned to during the off-seasons of his pro career.

In the 1959 NBA Draft, Chamberlain was selected by the Warriors as a territorial pick, the No. 3 overall selection.

Wilt Chamberlain was the best player in college basketball during his playing career at Kansas, and his dominance became a theme throughout his pro career, too, as he is one of the most decorated NBA stars of all time.

  1. Bill Walton, UCLA (1971-1974)

College Career Averages: 20.3 PPG, 15.7 RPG, 5.5 APG
Awards: Two-time NCAA Champion (1972 and 1973), Three-time National College Player of the Year and Consensus First Team All-American (1971-72, 1972-73, and 1973-74)

Bill Walton was the NCAA Player of the Year in all three of his college seasons and was an integral part of the UCLA Bruins’ phenomenal run of success during that era.

Walton helped the Bruins to two national championships, and the team enjoyed a remarkable 88-game winning streak during Walton’s collegiate career. In his junior year, the Bruins had a perfect season, going undefeated all the way to the national title, as Walton was named the player of the tournament.

In the 1973 title game against Memphis State, Walton scored 44 points --making 21 of 22 shots. His performance helped the Bruins to their seventh straight national title.

During his first year on campus, Walton was not allowed to play for UCLA due to an NCAA-wide policy that banned freshmen from the varsity squad. Despite this, he went on to play 87 varsity games, and the Bruins went 86-4 over the three years he was part of the team.

A three-time consensus All-American, Walton is one of the greatest UCLA basketball players of all time. Most teams had no answer for the big man, and there are many who believe he might deserve to be No. 1 on a list of college player rankings.

The Portland Trail Blazers selected Walton with the No. 1 pick in the 1974 NBA draft.

  1. Pete Maravich, LSU (1967-1970)

College Career Averages: 44.2 PPG, 6.5 RPG, 5.1 APG
Awards: Two-time National College Player of the Year (1968-69 and 1969-70), Three-time Consensus First Team All-American, SEC Player of the Year, and NCAA Scoring Leader (1967-68, 1968-69, 1969-70), NCAA D1 All-Time Scoring Leader

Pete Maravich, known as “Pistol Pete,” averaged over 44 points per game during his college career at LSU. He did so while playing in an era of basketball that came before the introduction of both the shot clock, which encouraged shorter possessions and more shooting, and the 3-point line.

Despite not being able to shoot 3-pointers, Maravich often pulled up from deep. LSU coach Dale Brown believed that had the 3-point line been implemented prior to Maravich’s college career, he would have averaged closer to 57 PPG rather than 44. This is frankly quite unbelievable. Maravich is considered one of the most renowned players in the history of LSU basketball and is widely regarded as the greatest player to have ever played for the program.

While Maravich might not have seen the same team success as the likes of Bill Walton and Lew Alcindor, he was one of the most entertaining individual talents, and one of the greatest college basketball players of all time.

His miraculous numbers enable him to remain the all-time leading scorer in D1 basketball history with 3,667 points in three seasons. Maravich is a basketball icon, whose dominance at the college level has never been replicated.

The Atlanta Hawks selected the slender, 6-foot-5 Maravich with the third overall pick in the 1970 NBA Draft behind Bob Lanier (Detroit) and Rudy Tomjanovich (San Diego).

  1. Oscar Robertson, Cincinnati (1957-1960)

College Career Averages: 33.8 PPG, 15.2 RPG, 4.8 APG
Awards: Two-time Helms College Player of the Year (1958-59 and 1959-60), Three-time UPI College Player of the Year, Sporting News College Player of the Year, Consensus First Team All-American, NCAA season scoring leader, NCAA Scoring Leader, First Team All MVC (1957-58, 1958-59, and 1959-60)

Oscar Robertson, undoubtedly one of the greatest college basketball players of all time, went on to dominate the NBA with 12 All-Star appearances and finally an NBA Championship with the Milwaukee Bucks.

Robertson was born in Tennessee but moved Indianapolis when he was just 18 months old. In 1955-56, he was part of the first Indiana high school team, Crispus Attucks, to record a perfect season in winning its second straight Indiana High School Basketball tournament. A year earlier, Robertson’s Attucks team became the first all-black school to win a state championship.

The talented point guard chose to play at the University of Cincinnati, where he was coached by Ed Jucker. Robertson averaged over 33 points per game in his college career, with 15.2 rebounds and 4.8 assists.

Cincinnati quickly realized what they had in Robertson when he led the nation in scoring in his first varsity season. The high-flying Bearcats guard scored 35.1 PPG and was named a First Team All-American, as Cincinnati made it to the NCAA tournament.

Robertson went on to win scoring titles in all three of his playing years, while being named a consensus All-American and College Player of the Year by everybody who was anybody. He was one of the most impressive basketball players the NCAA game has ever seen, and the U.S. Basketball Writers Association honors him annually by awarding its Oscar Robertson Trophy to nation’s best college player.

While he couldn’t win an NCAA title, Robertson did win every individual accolade available to him and held the NCAA scoring record until it was later broken by Pete Maravich. Robertson is widely considered one of the greatest guards of all time, and likely the best college guard the game has ever seen.

Robertson was the first selection of the 1960 NBA draft and went on to earn Rookie of the Year honors with the Cincinnati Royals. 

  1. Bill Russell, San Francisco (1957-1960)

College Career Averages: 20.7 PPG, 20.3 RPG
Awards: Two-time NCAA Champion (1955 and 1956), NCAA Tournament Most Outstanding Player (1955), UPI College Player of the Year (1955-56), Two-time Helms Player of the Year and Consensus First Team All-American (1954-55 and 1955-56), WCC Player of Year (1955-56), 3x First Team All-WCC (1953-54, 1954-55, and 1955-56)

The late, great Bill Russell is arguably the most successful athlete of all time. He won 11 NBA titles as the leader of the Boston Celtics dynasty in the 1950s and 1960s, was a 12-time NBA All-Star, and claimed five NBA MVP trophies. The player he became was astonishing, but he was not heavily recruited out of high school. In fact, he had been ignored by scouts until San Francisco’s Hal DeJulio saw something in him.

Russell had barely made his high school basketball teams, so when DeJulio offered him the opportunity to play in San Francisco, Russell accepted right away. As it turned out, that was the best scholarship offer USF would ever make. Bill Russell turned into a national phenomenon, developing his skills to become one of the most dominant forces in college basketball.

Russell led the Dons to two NCAA titles in 1955 and 1956. He was named the entire tournament’s Most Outstanding Player in 1955. He always showed up in the big games, which included an NCAA-record 27 rebounds in the 1956 championship against Iowa.

Russell played college ball at a time when racism was a major issue. He faced racist jeers and chants throughout his career, which bled into his NBA career with Boston. He used his experiences to enforce positive change, and was never afraid to stand up for his beliefs. Russell never allowed himself to be a victim despite facing some terrible abuse throughout his career and is remembered as an iconic figure in sports history, alongside the likes of Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali.

The former college hoops player went on to have one of the most decorated careers in NBA history. Shortly after his death in 2022, Russell had his No. 6 jersey retired across the entire league -- becoming the first former NBA player to receive the honor. He joined Jackie Robinson (MLB) and Wayne Gretzky (NHL) as the only players in major North American pro sports to have their jerseys retired league-wide.

  1. Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), UCLA (1966-1969)

College Career Averages: 26.4 PPG, 15.5 RPG
Awards: Three-time NCAA Champion (1967, 1968, 1969), Three-time National College Player of the Year and Consensus First Team All-American (1966-67, 1967-68, 1968-69)

Lew Alcindor, (known since 1971 as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), dominated the college basketball scene from the moment he stepped on the court. In his first varsity season, Alcindor helped the UCLA Bruins go undefeated on their way to the NCAA tournament championship and was named the NCAA Final Four Most Outstanding Player.

UCLA was unstoppable during that era, and Alcindor’s unmatched scoring and rebounding ability led the team to three straight NCAA championships. He set a new NCAA record in rebounding with 1,559 boards, a career mark that still stands today, while averaging 4.8 blocks per game. Averaging almost five blocks per game is quite remarkable indeed.

Alcindor’s dominance caused the NCAA to ban dunking from 1967 to 1976. He was so difficult to stop around the rim that this temporary rule change was often referred to as the ‘Lew Alcindor rule’.

The former college star went on to have perhaps the most successful career in NBA history. He won six titles, six MVP awards, and was a 19-time NBA All-Star. Early in his NBA career, Alcindor honored his Muslim faith by changing his name Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Under that name, he would go on to lead the NBA in all-time scoring until the record was broken by Lebron James in 2023.

Ultimately, Alcindor tops the list because he won everything every year during his college career. Nobody could stop him, whether it was his defensive prowess and rebounding, his offensive mastery or his famous trademark skyhook shot. Lew Alcindor therefore deserves to be crowned the greatest college player of all time.

Parameters for Rankings

Rankings of these college superstars are based on both their individual accomplishments and their achievements with their respective teams during their college careers. Their NBA careers have not been factored into these rankings, as the focus is on their college playing days alone.

Comparing players across different eras of basketball is never easy, but rule changes and other factors such as the introduction of the 3-point line have also been considered, since players like Oscar Robertson and Pete Maravich performed in an era when 3-point shots were not an available to them.

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