We love the NCAA Tournament because of the upsets and unforgettable runs, but we also love it because it makes stars -- and sometimes those stories come out of nowhere. Other times, great players reinforce their dominance and become immortals at the college level. There have been players who’ve had one or two strong games, but what about the guys who went deep into the tournament and really carried their teams to greatness, or at least the brink of it?
Here are the 25 most dominant individual performances in NCAA Tournament history. To qualify, you need to have played in at least four tournament games in a given year (so, Austin Carr’s 61-point outburst at Notre Dame does not qualify, as the Irish were two-and-done). This list was extremely hard to get down to 25, but at the same time, it feels right. You’ll notice a lot of names from decades ago. Used to be that teams were much more reliant on one player than what we see now.
In order, here’s who’s done best when it’s mattered most on the biggest stage in college sports. An asterisk indicates Final Four MOP.
25. Jay Williams (Duke) 2001
That 2000-01 Duke team was plenty stacked, but Williams was awesome. I think it’s overlooked now just how great Williams was in college. He’s one of the 10-15 best coillege players of the past 20 years, no doubt. In that tournament, Williams put up 31 in the second round against a good Missouri team, then dropped 34 on UCLA and 28 on USC (plus seven rebounds and six dimes) in the regionals. He averaged 25.7 points and 5.2 assists. Without him, Duke -- though good -- would have had no chance to win it all. Shane Battier won Final Four MOP, but Williams was the silver bullet and the best player for Duke over six games.
24. Shabazz Napier* (UConn) 2014
The 2014 Huskies are considered one of the most random winners in tourney history, the only 7 seed to ever cut down the nets. Shabazz Napier spearheaded UConn to an unforgettable run, knocking off No. 2 Villanova, third-seeded Iowa State, Tom Izzo and Michigan State in the Elite Eight, No. 1 Florida in the Final Four, then mighty Kentucky in the championship. Bazz had help from the likes of Ryan Boatright, DeAndre Daniels and Niels Giffey, but he was the star. He carried this group, averaging 21.1 points, 5.5 rebounds, 4.5 assists and 2.5 steals. He shot 47 percent from 3.
23. Dwyane Wade (Marquette) 2003
There have only been eight triple-doubles in NCAA Tournament history, and Wade had one of them in a huge Elite Eight win. The Golden Eagles, then coached by Tom Crean, made their first Final Four since 1977 in large part because of Wade. This is the run that vaulted Wade to top-five pick status that year. He pushed No. 3 Marquette over the heavy favorite, No. 1 Kentucky, in the Elite Eight. Wade’s triple-double in that game included 29 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists. Marquette won going away, 83-69. For that tournament, he averaged 21.8 points, 6.6 rebounds and 6.0 assists.
22. Hal Lear* (Temple) 1956
Only six players have ever scored at least 160 points in a single NCAA Tournament. Lear, who played at Temple, is one of them. You have that credential, you make the list. Temple made the ’56 Final Four, lost to Iowa in the national semifinals, then beat SMU in the consolation game. Lear averaged 32.0 points. Not enough guys named Hal these days.
21. Anthony Davis* (Kentucky) 2012
I know what I saw, right there with my own eyes, in person. In 2012, I saw one of the most impressive, unstoppable, fascinating college basketball players of the modern era. Davis famously took only the fourth-most shots on Kentucky’s team that season, yet he was the lynchpin. He averaged 13.7 points, 12.3 rebounds, 4.8 blocks, 3.0 assists and shot 51 percent from the field. I have covered college basketball on a full-time basis for eight seasons, and he’s the most dominant player at the college level (on both ends of the floor) I’ve seen in that time. His 2012 run wasn’t otherworldly, but I do think its commanding enough, and includes an MOP award and national title, to validate being on this list. No question.
20. Bo Kimble (Loyola Marymount) 1990
Among the most powerful sports stories of the entire decade: Bo Kimble taking Loyola Marymount to the 1990 Elite Eight. Kimble famously shot one-handed, left-handed foul shots in memory of his departed friend, Hank Gathers, who died during that season’s West Coast Conference tournament. Gathers had a heart ailment and collapsed on the court in a game against Portland. (LMU was the 1 seed and given the automatic bid.) Kimble and Gathers might be the best 1-2 punch in mid-major basketball history. Kimble didn’t miss a single one of those lefty freebies, either. Amazing. LMU beat New Mexico 111-92, then knocked off reigning national champs Michigan by an outrageous score of 149-115. After that, a two-point win over Alabama. And LMU would’ve made the Final Four had it not been forced to play the one team built to beat ‘em: UNLV. Amid this run, Kimble averaged 35.8 points, which is third-best in tournament history.
19. David Thompson* (NC State) 1974
Thompson gets placement on this list because he 1) Had a 40-point game, but more importantly 2) Helped end the UCLA title streak. NC State was awesome in 1973-74. David Thompson is one of the truly magnificent players and athletic specimens in the sport’s history. In that tournament, across four games, Thompson averaged 24.3 points and 7.3 rebounds. The numbers aren’t eye-popping, but Thompson’s abilities were, and he was big-time against UCLA, going for 28 and 10.
18. Akeem Olajuwon* (Houston) 1983
The Houston Cougars of the 1980s could well be the most talented team to never win a national title. Olajuwon was teamed up with Michael Young (who led the team in scoring), Clyde Drexler and Larry Micheaux. The Cougs would’ve won the title if not for Lorenzo Charles’ headiness to grab a wayward shot and dunk the ball just before time expired. Forgotten fact: Olajuwon was named the MOP in defeat. He averaged 20.5 points and 20.0 rebounds in the Final Four. He’s like Chuck Howley, who got the MVP in a Super Bowl despite being on the losing end.
17. David Robinson (Navy) 1986
This is one of my favorite entries. Can you imagine NAVY making an Elite Eight now? Or how about Navy earning a 7 seed? That will probably never happen again. But Robinson helped the Midshipmen achieve both. Navy got through Tulsa, then upset No. 2 Syracuse in the second round. Its Sweet 16 matchup offered up one of the all-time great Cinderella face-offs, as Navy won 71-70 over No. 14 Cleveland State, which famously had Ken “The Mouse” McFadden. Robinson’s averages that tournament were amazing: 27.5 points, 11.8 rebounds, 5.8 blocks. And he was a year away from going to the pros. Robinson had 22 points, 14 boards and nine swats vs. Cleveland State.
16. Jerry West* (West Virginia) 1959
The Logo was, long before a symbol of American basketball professionalism, an incredible baller at West Virginia. West scored a then-record 160 points over the course of five games, good for 32 per tip. Then there’s this: a guard averaging 14.6 rebounds. Yeah, he did that that year too. WVU lost the title that year to California, but West was rightfully named MOP. And if we want to extend out his greatness, West had at least 25 points -- decades before there was a 3-point line -- in eight straight tournament games. No one has ever matched that.
15. Larry Bird (Indiana State) 1979
Larry Legend got ISU to the national title game without a loss. The Sycamores were crazy-dominant that season, and if anything, it feels like a little bit of what Bird did to carry that club that year has been underrated in the modern era. In that tournament, Bird averaged 27.2 points, 13.4 rebounds and 5.2 assists. Few teams that have ever reached an NCAA final have relied more on one player the way that ISU team relied on Bird. This was the birth of his reputation, and that game was famously the most watched championship in the sport’s history. Unfortunately for Bird’s team, they couldn’t keep it close against the Spartans.
14. Stephen Curry (Davidson) 2008
Certainly one of the most magical runs, maybe the most memorable individual performance that doesn’t include a Final Four appearance. Good trivia: This was not Steph’s final season at Davidson. More good trivia: That next year, which was Curry’s last as a college player, did not have Davidson in the tournament field. But 2008 did, and that’s when Curry’s arrival to the world first hit. This is sort of forgotten now, but Curry’s ability was a known thing heading into that tournament. Some had Davidson as a Sweet 16 dark horse. So this wasn’t totally out of nowhere. A lanky stroker that looked to weigh 140 pounds soaking wet, Curry took the 10th-seeded Wildcats to the precipice of knocking off No. 1 Kansas. Remember, that Kansas team won the national title. If Jason Richards had hit the game’s final shot, who knows who wins the title—but it’s probably John Calipari getting his first at Memphis. For Curry, he killed Gonzaga by scoring 40 in the first round. He rallied Davidson past No. 2 Georgetown, putting up 30, before hanging 33 on Wisconsin in the Sweet 16. He averaged 32.0 points in the run.
13. Gail Goodrich (UCLA) 1965
The oft-overlooked original UCLA superstar. A slender guard, Goodrich poured it on. You’ll notice this list is populated with guys who were able to get theirs and clear 30 points seemingly at ease. A lot has changed with today’s game. Better athletes but so few guys who are actually given the green light. In ’65, Goodrich was good for 35/game in getting UCLA into the early parts of its dynasty. To average 35 points in four games of tournament play is something I’m not sure we’ll ever see again. Guys have a hard enough time getting to 30 every so often, and hitting 40 is like spotting a falling star.
12. Carmelo Anthony* (Syracuse) 2003
You’ll notice freshmen aren’t populating this list, nor should they. First-year guys aren’t expected to carry their teams to title games or outright crowns, but Melo was a special player that season. He and fellow frosh Gerry McNamara (who had himself a very nice March too, and absolutely deserves some recognition) got Jim Boeheim his only national title. In those six games, Anthony averaged 20.2 points and 9.8 rebounds, and diehard Orange fans remember SU becoming the de facto Big 12 champs in the process. Cuse defeated Oklahoma State, Oklahoma, Texas, and then Kansas in the national title game. Melo’s signature game was his 33-and-14 showing in the Final Four against the Longhorns. Syracuse was a 3 seed that season. In some ways, you could argue Carmelo’s legacy is still tied heavily to just that one season in central New York.
11. Lew Alcindor* (UCLA) 1968
Alcindor was awesome every year in the tournament — UCLA of course won the national title each season he was on campus — but 1968 is probably just a hair better than 1969. Alcindor went for 53 points and 34 rebounds in the Final Four, including UCLA’s ultimate revenge over Houston, a 101-69 clobbering. Earlier that year, when Alcindor was hindered with an eye issue, Houston pulled off the upset in what was billed as the greatest regular season game in the history of the sport to that point. Alcindor averaged 25.6 points and 18.8 rebounds in UCLA’s four blowout wins. The style of victory, and how Alcindor was so dominant despite being double-teamed constantly, is what easily vaults him onto the list.
10. Bill Bradley* (Princeton) 1965
Bradley was one of many dudes in the 1950s and ‘60s who just killed it in points and boards. Think if we had guys in the Ivy in this era dropping 58 points in the tournament. That’s what Bradley did in a consolation game against Wichita State more than 50 years ago. And it was the last game of his career. What a way to exit. He averaged 35.4 points in that tournament (fifth best ever), pushing Princeton to its only Final Four. Bradley totaled 177 points in five games, which was the record for a good while until one of the fellas listed below came along and took it. Bradley had 41 in Princeton’s Elite Eight win over Providence, and nearly pulled off a triple-double (10 rebounds, nine assists). He averaged more than 10 made foul shots, to boot.
9. Bill Walton* (UCLA) 1973
Walton is remembered for his 1973 title-game performance against Memphis State more than anything, including his time in the NBA. He had 44 points and was 21 for 22 from the field. Yeah, that’s never happening again. Ever. This UCLA title was the ninth for the for the school in 10 years, something that will also never be happening again. In UCLA’s four-game strut to the title, Walton averaged 23.4 points and 14.5 boards. The game against Memphis State puts him over the top and gets him onto the list.
8. Bill Russell (San Francisco) 1956
San Francisco was one of the first college basketball mini dynasties. Russell was ridiculous during that 1956 tournament, and it’s key to remember that his performance came while fellow Dons star K.C. Jones was unable to play due to sanctions. So Russell averaged 23 points and, likely north of 25 (!) rebounds (the official number for the rebounds he had in the Elite Eight has not been kept). To this day, no one has had more rebounds in a Final Four than Russell’s 50 snags across those two games. It’s also critical to remember how great Russell was on defense, and that blocked shots were not tracked. We sometimes forget how dominant some of these guys were in college, before they became NBA legends. I’d love to see how a guy like Russell would do if he was inserted in today’s college game.
7. Glen Rice* (Michigan) 1989
You knew he had to be on the list -- and high. When you set the record for the most points scored in an NCAA tournament and that record still stands to this day, almost three decades later, then yeah, you’re top-10 status. Rice got Michigan the 1989 national title by putting up 184 points in six games, a 30.7 average. He put up 31 in the title game, one of the most overlooked national championship games all these years later. Three-seed Michigan beat No. 3 Seton Hall 80-79 in overtime thanks to Rumeal Robinson’s free throws in the closing seconds. Rice’s 75 field goals made in that tournament still stand as a record, as does his 27 3-pointers.
6. Elvin Hayes (Houston) 1968
The reason why this list is populated with so many players from the 1950s and 1960s is because, to be frank, they’ve earned it. Elvin Hayes was a BAD DUDE ON THE FLOOR. He’d be just as good now as he was then, and he was a monster then. Hayes vs. Alcindor was a heavyweight fight on the basketball floor. In that tournament, although Hayes and Houston were downed by Alcindor and UCLA in the Final Four, he nonetheless put up 167 points and 97 rebounds. The former is good for third-best ever, the latter is still a standing record. Those averages come out to 33.4 points and 19.4 rebounds. Stunningly, Hayes was left off that year’s all-tournament team, maybe the worst voting gaffe in BIg Dance history. Dude went for 49 points and 27 rebounds (the only 45/25 game in tournament history) against Loyola of Chicago. He outscored the next-highest player (Alcindor with 103) by 64 points, also a standing record.
5. Oscar Robertson (Cincinnati) 1960
When the Big O left Cincinnati in 1960 after a Final Four loss to California, he had taken over as the NCAA’s all-time leading scorer. Robertson’s performance during that NCAA Tournament was particularly impressive, as he averaged over 29 points and 10 rebounds per game. In fact, he averaged at least 29 points and 10 rebounds per game each of his three years in the tourney. The Big O wasn’t a first-team pick because California restricted him to a total of 37 points in two Final Four games (1959 and 1960). He hit just nine of 32 from the floor against the Bears. Robertson, the nation’s leading scorer all three of his varsity seasons with averages of more than 32 points per game, is the only team-leading scorer to twice go more than 10 points below his season scoring average when his school lost in the national semifinals or final.
4. Christian Laettner (Duke) 1992
This was his senior season, and Laettner had a near-perfect tournament. He holds the record for best field goal percentage in an NCAA Tournament by any player that’s taken at least 20 shots. Laettner was 26-of-33 from the field in six games, which is amazing. He famously went 10 for 10 from the field and 10 for 10 from the foul line in what’s regarded as the greatest game in college basketball history, Duke’s 104-103 win over Kentucky the Elite Eight. Laettner of course hit the winner at the buzzer. I don’t even need to embed the video at this point. You can see the play and hear Verne Lundquist’s call in your head right now. For that tourney, Laettner put up 22.0 points and 7.5 rebounds, and ironically, it was Bobby Hurley who got the Final Four MOP. But that award (seemingly sometimes) doesn’t take into account the entire tournament. If it had, Laettner would’ve been a back-to-back winner.
3. Magic Johnson* (Michigan State) 1979
Few title runs are more synonymous with one player than Michigan State and Magic. Do you remember what he did that March? Yeah, guy had a triple-double in the title game, but it’s not officially logged as such because the NCAA didn’t formally track assists until a few years later. He had 17 rebounds, 13 points and 10 dimes in the title game. In MSU’s five-game run, Johnson averaged 21.8 points, 10.0 assists and 8.8 rebounds. He had two triple-doubles. He changed a program, and along with Larry Bird, changed a sport. Then went on and changed another one. Johnson and Oscar Robertson are the only players to have a triple-double in a Final Four game.
2. Kemba Walker* (UConn) 2011
I wrote this sentiment then and it seems even more true now: Kemba Walker lifting third-seeded UConn to the national title in 2011 put him atop the most beloved Huskies in program history. UConn famously never lost a game in bracket play that season, winning every game in Maui, then going five for five in New York City to take the Big East tournament -- as a 9 seed. When the Huskies won the whole thing, Walker averaged 23.5 points, 6.0 rebounds and 5.7 assists while playing 38.5 minutes per game. Walker had 36 in the Sweet 16 (San Diego State) and 33 against Cincinnati in the second round. He was the ultimate do-everything player, and few are in his class when it comes the best March runs in history. I’m talking league tournament and NCAAs.
1. Danny Manning* (Kansas) 1988
Given that Kansas was a No. 6 seed, I have to put this at No. 1. Danny and the Miracles went on a run that will never be forgotten. Manning averaged 27.2 points and 9.3 rebounds and established himself forever as a college basketball legend. It’s weird to think of the Jayhawks as an underdog, but they absolutely were that year. Manning’s legend is so large because of how good he was in the final two games, going for 25 points, 10 rebounds and seven blocks in the Final Four against Duke, then putting up 31 and 18 in the knockout blow to league foe Oklahoma in the championship.