The best NCAA Tournament performances ever

The best NCAA Tournament performances ever

Kemba Walker
Kemba Walker
Photo: Getty Images

The NCAA tournament is one of the most captivating sporting events of the year. For an entire month, the world of college basketball takes center stage and the world is introduced to young, new stars trying to make a name for themselves. Many players have had great NCAA tournament performances over the years, but only a few have elevated their status so drastically that they leapt from being known only to hard-core fans to household names.

This list is for players who not only had great NCAA tourney runs, but used their newfound fame to catapult themselves up the NBA Draft boards (except for the exception at No. 10, who rewrote a number of rules in his name).

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10. Larry Bird, Indiana State, 1979

10. Larry Bird, Indiana State, 1979

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Photo: AP

Bird led Indiana State to the National Championship game in 1979. Bird averaged 27.2 points, 13.4 rebounds, and 5 assists per game during the NCAA tourney run. The tournament was the coming-out party for Bird who was originally just a small-town Indiana kid, but after showing his basketball prowess in the tournament he would turn into Larry Legend. Indiana State lost the championship to Michigan State and some guy named Earvin Johnson who would also become an NBA legend. Bird was drafted by the Celtics in 1978 with the sixth overall pick. Due to an NBA rule, he could go back and play his final season at Indiana State while the Celtics still had draft rights to him. The only reason Bird is so low on this list is because he was already drafted before this NCAA run.

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9. Sindarius Thornwell, South Carolina, 2017

9. Sindarius Thornwell, South Carolina, 2017

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Photo: AP

The South Carolina guard was the undisputed leader of one of the most surprising Final Four teams in recent memory. They upset a Jayson Tatum, Grayson Allen, and Luke Kennard-led Duke team (a 2 seed), Baylor (a 3 seed), and then beat SEC rival Florida (a 4 seed). Thornwell averaged 23.6 points, 7 rebounds, and almost two steals per game during the five-game NCAA tournament run that led to the 7th-seeded Gamecocks losing to Gonzaga in the National Semifinals. The tournament run probably made Thornwell an NBA player. He was drafted in the second round that same year and has played four years in the league with the Pelicans and Clippers.

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8. CJ McCollum, Lehigh, 2012

8. CJ McCollum, Lehigh, 2012

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Photo: AP

McCollum had a stellar career at Lehigh from 2009-2013. He averaged 21.3 points per game and shot 44% from the field during his time on campus. However, undeniably his most defining moment came in a first-round NCAA tournament matchup against Duke in 2012. Lehigh (a 15 seed) upset the 2-seed Blue Devils with Austin Rivers, Seth Curry, and the Plumlee brothers. McCollum led the way for Lehigh with 30 points, making multiple tough shots off the dribble and showing an NBA-level skill set as a shot-maker. McCollum didn’t finish his final season at Lehigh because of a broken foot, but the performance against Duke in 2012 was enough to get the crafty guard drafted tenth overall in 2013 by the Portland Trail Blazers. He’s now a part of one the most talented backcourts in NBA history with teammate Damian Lillard.

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7. Andre Miller, Utah, 1998

7. Andre Miller, Utah, 1998

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Photo: AP

In the 1998 NCAA tournament, Miller and the Utes were slaying traditional college basketball powers left and right. On their way to the national title game, they took down a Mike Bibby- and Jason Terry-led Arizona team and then turned around and beat a North Carolina team that had Antwan Jamison, Brendan Haywood, and Vince Carter. Miller averaged 16.7 points, nearly 7 assists, and 2 steals per game during those six games. Miller was drafted eighth overall in 1999 by the Cavaliers and went on to play 21 seasons in the league.

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6. Shabazz Napier, UConn, 2014

6. Shabazz Napier, UConn, 2014

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Photo: AP

Napier’s performance in the 2014 NCAA tournament was one of the most impressive displays of shot-making and leadership ever. Napier gave the Huskies 21.2 points, 5.5 rebounds, and 4.5 assists per game during the 2014 run that resulted in the second championship in four seasons for the program. It was Napier’s second ring as a collegiate hooper and he was named the NCAA Tournament most outstanding player after defeating Kentucky 60-54 in the championship game. Napier was another player who likely would have fallen through the NBA cracks if not for their outstanding tournament performance. Napier was drafted with the 24th pick in the first round of the 2014 Draft and has now played six seasons with six different teams.

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5. Gordon Hayward, Butler, 2010

5. Gordon Hayward, Butler, 2010

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Photo: AP

Hayward led the Cinderella Butler Bulldogs to the National title game in 2010 averaging nearly 16 points, and 7 rebounds a game. If Hayward’s half-court shot at the buzzer doesn’t bounce off the rim to end the 2010 national championship game, that Butler team would be one of the greatest underdog stories in sports history. For Hayward, the tournament was certainly a coming-out party. After that season Hayward left Butler and was drafted with the ninth overall pick in the draft by the Utah Jazz. Hayward is now a one-time All-Star.

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4. Dwyane Wade, Marquette, 2003

4. Dwyane Wade, Marquette, 2003

Illustration for article titled The best NCAA Tournament performances ever
Photo: Getty Images

Wade had one of the best games in NCAA tournament history when he put up a triple-double in the Elite Eight against Kentucky in 2003. Wade dropped 29 points, grabbed 11 rebounds, and dished out 11 assists to send Marquette to the Final Four. Wade averaged 21.8 points, 6.6 rebounds and 6 assists over his five-game tournament run that season. Wade and the Golden Eagles would lose to Kansas in the National Semifinals, but Wade had certainly elevated his basketball status. Wade would be drafted with the fifth overall pick by Miami in 2003. He became a three-time champion and will likely become a first-ballot Hall of Famer.

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3. David Robinson, Navy, 1986

3. David Robinson, Navy, 1986

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Photo: AP

Robinson and his Navy squad made it to the Elite Eight in 1986 as a 7 seed. They took down 2-seed Syracuse and became one of the surprises of the tournament. Robinson was dominant during that tourney run, averaging 27.5 points, nearly 12 rebounds, and almost 6 blocks per game. He also shot 72.7 percent from the field. Robinson was drafted with the first overall pick in the 1987 Draft by the Spurs. Robinson became one of the most dominant big men of the 1990s and a Hall of Famer.

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2. Stephen Curry, Davidson, 2008

2. Stephen Curry, Davidson, 2008

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Photo: AP

Curry averaged 32 points on 47 percent shooting during Davidson’s 2008 journey through the tournament. Curry became must-see television for a month while he took down traditional powers such as Georgetown and Wisconsin. Curry even gave Gonzaga a 40-piece in their First Round matchup. Even though Curry had NBA lineage, he wasn’t talked about very much in the national media until after this historic performance in the tourney. Davidson lost to eventual champion Kansas in the Elite Eight. Curry would play another year at Davidson before being drafted seventh overall by Golden State in the 2009 Draft.

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1. Kemba Walker, UConn, 2011

1. Kemba Walker, UConn, 2011

Illustration for article titled The best NCAA Tournament performances ever
Photo: AP

Walker is one of the most dominant and clutch guards to ever grace the floor of the NCAA tournament. He led UConn on one of the most spectacular winning streaks in recent history. The Huskies won their last 11 games en route to winning the national championship behind Walker’s 23.5 points, 6 rebounds, and 6 assists during NCAA tournament play. Walker was named the Most Outstanding Player of the tournament after their win against Butler in the National Championship. And who could forget that the run started with “the step-back” from Cardiac Kemba to propel the Huskies to an eventual Big East Tournament win. Walker would be drafted with the ninth overall pick in the 2011 draft by the Charlotte Bobcats. He is now a four-time NBA All-Star.

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