Ranking the 100 best college basketball players in NCAA history

The 100 best college players ever

A couple days ago, I had a fleeting thought about the best college basketball players ever and was interested in seeing where several names that came to mind landed on a list of the 100 best players. After some searching around, I realized that there weren’t already a bunch of lists on the internet.

We knew immediately that we weren’t qualified to take it on a list so large of the top players that have ever suited up for a NCAA D1 Men’s program whether for four years or one and done. Collectively, Interbasket has a moderate knowledge of college hoops, but we knew that NCAA basketball has been around for nearly 100 years, so there were large gaps in how we could evaluate what makes for an exceptional college player. On the other hand, if you were to ask us to name our top 100 NBA players, we’d feel a lot more comfortable.

Discuss the 100 best college players in our forum

Creating the Impossible

That said, we were up to the task. The more we thought about it, the more we realized that there were factors that translated between the best in the pro game to greats in the college game — championships, awards, consistency, scoring, deep tournament runs, and dominance to name a few. What’s different is that when evaluating great NBA players, championship titles tend to be weigh heaviest when it comes down to whom belongs over whom on a list. While winning a NCAA championship is an important factor, dominating offensively has a larger influence when it comes down to the college legends. We’ll talk a little more about that in a little bit.

If we’re not experts then how did I come up with a list so large?  Simple, we took the lists that do exist, smushed them together in an Excel spreadsheet and spent a couple hours of light addition and calculations along with a several hours researching players that were outside our generation/knowledge base (and we learned a lot about dominant players like Austin Carr, Hank Luisetti, and Scott May) to ultimately come to a subjective-objective consensus from #1 to #100.

Here are the lists/articles we utilized as reference points for putting our list together:

Yes, these all weren’t apples-to-apples comparisons and there were several problems with the above sources, but we’ll get to that in a bit. In a nutshell, it was a group effort that created our crowd-sourced list. Check out what we came up with and scroll down after the list to see more of how we got there, how we weighted the lists and more.

the 20 best college players in NCAA all time

Ranking the Top 100 College Basketball Players in NCAA History

Top 100 College Basketball Players of All-Time
# Player College Years
1 Lew Alcindor UCLA 1966–1969
2 Oscar Robertson Cincinnati 1957–1960
3 Bill Walton UCLA 1971–1974
4 Bill Russell San Francisco 1953–1956
5 Pete Maravich LSU 1967–1970
6 David Thompson North Carolina State 1972–1975
7 Jerry West West Virginia 1957–1960
8 Larry Bird Indiana State 1976–1979
9 Christian Laettner Duke 1988–1992
10 Jerry Lucas Ohio State 1959–1962
11 Wilt Chamberlain Kansas 1956–1958
12 Bill Bradley Princeton 1962–1965
13 Magic Johnson Michigan State 1977–1979
14 Elvin Hayes Houston 1965–1968
15 Ralph Sampson Virginia 1979–1983
16 Patrick Ewing Georgetown 1981–1985
17 Michael Jordan North Carolina 1981–1984
18 Austin Carr Notre Dame 1968–1971
19 Tom Gola La Salle 1951–1955
20 George Mikan DePaul 1942–1946
21 Tim Duncan Wake Forest 1993-1997
22 Danny Manning Kansas 1984–1988
23 Elgin Baylor Seattle 1956–1958
24 David Robinson Navy 1983–1987
25 Calvin Murphy Niagara 1966-1970
26 Wayman Tisdale Oklahoma 1982–1985
27 Phil Ford North Carolina 1974–1978
28 Bob Kurland Oklahoma State 1942–1946
29 Scott May Indiana 1973-1976
30 Tyler Hansbrough North Carolina 2005–2009
31 Rick Mount Purdue 1967–1970
32 Hank Luisetti Stanford 1935–1938
33 J.J. Redick Duke 2002–2006
34 Frank Selvy Furman 1951–1954
35 Danny Ferry Duke 1985-1989
36 Rick Barry Miami (FL) 1962–1965
37 Clyde Lovellette Kansas 1949-1952
38 Wes Unseld Louisville 1965-1968
39 Adrian Dantley Notre Dame 1973–1976
40 Shaquille O'Neal LSU 1989–1992
41 Bernard King Tennessee 1974–1977
42 Bob Pettit LSU 1951–1954
43 Sam Perkins North Carolina 1980–1984
44 Walt Hazzard UCLA 1961–1964
45 Larry Johnson UNLV 1989–1991
46 Grant Hill Duke 1990–1994
47 Cazzie Russell Michigan 1963–1966
48 Bob Cousy Holy Cross 1946–1950
49 Marques Johnson UCLA 1973-1977
50 Chris Jackson LSU 1988–1990
51 Johnny Dawkins Duke 1982-1986
52 Dan Issel Kentucky 1967–1970
53 Steve Alford Indiana 1983–1987
54 Kent Benson Indiana 1973–1977
55 Darrell Griffith Louisville 1976-1980
56 Butch Lee Marquette 1974-1978
57 Cliff Hagan Kentucky 1950–1954
58 Gail Goodrich UCLA 1962–1965
59 Ed Macauley Saint Louis 1945–1949
60 Mark Aguirre DePaul 1978–1981
61 Paul Arizin Villanova 1947–1950
62 Sean Elliott Arizona 1985–1989
63 Glenn Robinson Purdue 1992–1994
64 Isiah Thomas Indiana 1979–1981
65 Rod Hundley West Virginia 1968-1957
66 John Lucas Maryland 1972–1976
67 Shane Battier Duke 1997–2001
68 James Worthy North Carolina 1979–1982
69 Alex Groza Kentucky 1945–1949
70 Chris Webber Michigan 1991–1993
71 Danny Ainge BYU 1977–1981
72 Alonzo Mourning Georgetown 1988–1992
73 Arnie Ferrin Utah 1943–1948
74 Bobby Hurley Duke 1989-1993
75 Chet Walker Bradley 1959–1962
76 Blake Griffin Oklahoma 2007–2009
77 Hakeem Olajuwon Houston 1981–1984
78 Antawn Jamison North Carolina 1995–1998
79 Jimmer Fredette BYU 2007–2011
80 Glen Rice Michigan 1985–1989
81 Jay Williams Duke 1999–2002
82 Chris Mullin St. Johns 1981–1985
83 Stephen Curry Davidson 2006–2009
84 Mateen Cleaves Michigan State 1996–2000
85 Stan Modzelewski Rhode Island 1938–1942
86 Hersey Hawkins Bradley 1984–1988
87 Art Heyman Duke 1960–1963
88 Jameer Nelson St. Josephs 2000–2004
89 Kevin Durant Texas 2006–2007
90 Lionel Simmons La Salle 1986–1990
91 Doug McDermott Creighton 2010–2014
92 Elton Brand Duke 1997–1999
93 Frank Mason III Kansas 2013-2017
94 Frank Kaminsky Wisconsin 2011-2015
95 Anthony Davis Kentucky 2011–2012
96 Artis Gilmore Jacksonville University 1969–1971
97 Jimmy Walker Providence 1964–1967
98 Calbert Cheaney Indiana 1989–1993
99 Emeka Okafor Connecticut 2001–2004
100 Keith Lee Memphis 1981–1985

Honorable mentions are at bottom of this article. Discuss the 100 top college players in our forum

Are you pissed off yet? Hold on, wait until we talk about how we go to the honoriffic hundred.

Not only did the player ranking on their respective list matter, but we also weighted how often they showed up on the lists we looked at. The great news? Outside of the #2 and #3 spots, the top 5 players weren’t too hard to determine. The bad news is that anything after #65 or so was more an educated guess than a clear cut decision. It didn’t help that many of the existing lists were created several years ago, leaving us to figure out where contemporary players like Frank Mason III, Anthony Davis, Jimmer Fredette, Kevin Durant and Blake Griffin stood in the pantheon of the greatest- not to mention never knowing if Deandre Ayton was the college best player in the past 25 years or not.

Championships also played a factor. A player didn’t necessarily make the list if they led their team to a championship, but if they were already in consideration, they moved up because of it. Same goes with whether they led the entire NCAA in scoring or not. Again, it didn’t automatically get them on the list, but it certainly helped.

We also looked at whether players swept all the major “Player of the Year” awards – doing so allowed us to understand just how dominant the player was – at least for one year. Since this is a list of 100 players and the NCAA has been around less than 100 years, we found that to be an easy way to insert players that won every single major player of the year award: from the Naismith to the Rupp to the AP to Sporting News. That’s why you see a players like Frank Kaminsky, Lionel Simmons and Doug McDermott on the list. The media all agreed that these players dominated and they were the consensus best players that particular season. Dominance matters in college.

We shouldn’t have to say this, but what we didn’t take in consideration is whether they turned out to be great NBA players or not. We hate having to mention it, but we know we’ll get comments hating on the list because how could Wayman Tisdale and Tyler Hansbrough rank above Isiah Thomas and Stephen Curry. And where’s KOBE BRYANT? THIS LIST [email protected]!!!111

Discuss the 100 best college players in our forum

Let’s Talk About Some of the Best Ever

There’s still a few people that question whether Michael Jordan is the best player ever to play in NBA history. Just a few. Luckily there’s even less doubt about who the #1 college player of all time is. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the modern-Lew Alcindor, is the greatest NCAA player of all time to ever suit up. Not only did every list have Alcindor ranked #1, but he passed the dominance and championship tests with flying colors. From Wikipedia:

During his college career, Alcindor was twice named Player of the Year (1967, 1969); was a three-time First Team All-American (1967–69); played on three NCAA basketball champion teams (1967, 1968 and 1969); was honored as the Most Outstanding Player in the NCAA Tournament (1967, 1968, 1969); and became the first-ever Naismith College Player of the Year in 1969.

No other player on this list won three NCAA championships of the 190+ players in consideration and experts in that era seriously wondered if basketball would survive after Alcindor’s tremendous skills, athleticism and talent.

For the number two spot, we flip-flopped several times; replacing Oscar Robertson with Bill Walton, then flipped them again. And again. When I had Walton at #2, I found myself leaning on titles. When Oscar was second to Alcindor, dominance played a larger role. We had to remind ourselves that on-court impact and numbers were just as important, if not more, in college play, so Oscar stayed at #2. It certainly helped that three of the lists also had Oscar at #2. We’re open to discussions.

After the third spot, we looked at how many times each player appeared on the lists and where they ranked. The more they appeared on the lists, the higher we tended to place them. Then we used their rankings on those lists to juggle and move them around. For the most part that worked, but there were players like Christian Laettner that appeared on multiple lists but wasn’t necessarily ranked as high on them so trying to find a place for players like Laettner and Chamberlain wasn’t as easy because you’re really sweating the small things.

Reading About Dominance vs Watching Domination

Trying to gauge dominance is easy in some ways, not so easy in others. Sometimes you have to watch the player to see whether they scored a lot because they chucked up bad shots, or were they just that much better? For example, I remember watching players like Tim Duncan, Jay Williams and Chris Webber and thinking “Wow, he’s a man among boys” and it was no doubt that these players were special and going to have no problem on the next level. That said, we were able to make calls on players we grew up watching, but can only read articles, rely on stats and look at awards for players in pre-1990s.

There are obvious generational biases. For players from the earlier decades (from 1920’s-1960’s), we can only rely on what little information is out there for the lesser-known players like Art Heyman, Bob Kurland, Ed Macauley, Alex Groza and Stan Modzelewski. The generational problem doesn’t stop there but also is problematic for contemporary stars.

Many of the top players from the 2000’s tend not to spend much time in college before declaring themselves for the NBA. So even though Davis, Durant, Ben Simmons, Trae Young, and Carmelo Anthony were fabulous in their Freshman years, we didn’t get the pleasure of seeing how their college careers would have evolved and how far up they could have gone on a list like this. Because of this, the current great players that played one college season were collected at the bottom of the list.

Conclusion: With All These Factors…

With so many on-court factors, changes in the game (three point line, replays), generational differences, competitional differences between conferences, and different ways of looking at intangible impact (dominance, on-court impact, cultural influence), there’s no way to ever come up with an accurate list that everyone will agree on. Or that even half the people can agree on.

But you’re not here to get in the weeds, you’re here to disagree with our list. We did our best to lean on the experts that did all the work before us while injecting our knowledge when necessary so that we could be as objective with the data as we possibly could. And that’s the list you have in front of you. No matter how objective we tried to be, this stinks of (necessary) subjectivity.

The list is a living one, meaning that we’re going to be tweaking it based on any new research or information we come across, as well as any comments that come our way. Honestly, we’d love to hear your opinions in the comments below or post your thoughts in the forum thread.

Honorable Mention (alphabetical by first name):  Adam Morrison, Alfredrick Hughes, Allen Iverson, Andy Phillip, Bailey Howell, Bill Cartwright, Billy McGill, Bob Lanier, Bob McAdoo, Charles “Cotton” Nash, Charlie Scott, Chet Jaworski, Dale Ellis, Daren Queenan, Darnell Valentine, Dave Stallworth, David Rivers, Dereck Whittenburg, Derrick Coleman, Don Schlundt, Earl Monroe, Eric Floyd, Fennis Dembo, Frank Ramsey, Fred Hetzel, Freeman Williams, Gerry McNamara, Gordon Hayward, Hank Gathers, Howard Porter, Jason Kidd, Jerome Lane, Jim Jackson, Jim McMillian, John Moir, John Pierce, John Wooden, Johnny Neumann, Juan Dixon, Julius Erving, Keith Wilkes, Kenyon Martin, Kermit Washington, Kevin O’Shea, Khalid El-Amin, Len Bias, Lennie Rosenbluth, Luke Harangody, Marcus Camby, Marvin Barnes, Michael Graham, Mike Gminski, Mike Maloy, Mike O’Koren, Mookie Blaylock, Nick Collison, Otis Birdsong, Paul Silas, Pervis Ellison, Phillip Hutcheson, Raef LaFrentz, Ralph Beard, Ray Allen, Reggie Williams, Rex Chapman, Richard Hamilton, Ron Lee, Scott Skiles, Si Green, Sidney Wicks, Spencer Haywood, Stacey Augmon, Terry Cummings, Terry Dischinger, Tom McMillen, Tom Stith, Tony Delk, Tony Lavelli, Travis Grant, Walter Berry, Xavier McDaniel

1 Comment

  • Best list on any topic ever! Your top 16 is spot on with some small variances in order (Walton and Russell are most definitely ahead of Robertson) and the rest is not bad! Of course we all know Jordan is not really 17 but if you would have put him ahead of any of the top 16 this list would be invalid! One more point is Curry is at least top 30! How do you move Jordan up because of his pro career and move Curry down? He was in all reality the Maravich of his time but a better shooter and his team won!

Leave a Reply