We’ve seen plenty of dominant team performances in the NCAA tournament over the years. But in any single-elimination tournament, individual heroes are bound to emerge.
Sometimes, they’re the “win with” guys, those normally quiet players who fill an integral, if not necessarily starring, role. Then you have the “win because of” guys. Without them, teams just don’t win in March.
Here are eight of the greatest March Madness runs by an individual player ever:
*1960: Oscar Robertson, Cincinnati
The 1960 NCAA tournament didn’t end as the Big O had hoped, making him one of the most dynamic players to never win a national championship. But as expected, Robertson put up eye-popping stats in his four NCAA tournament games that year.
One performance stands out in particular: Against Kansas, Robertson scored 43 points on 30 shots while pulling down 14 rebounds. Assists weren’t tracked at the time, but you could imagine he had a good amount of them, too. No other Bearcat scored more than 11 points in Cincinnati’s 82-71 win.
Robertson had games in which he scored 29 and 32 points in that tournament, too, and lef all players in scoring by the end of March with 122. The final averages: 30.7 points, 11.8 rebounds. He was on his way to having perhaps the best March Madness run of all time. Those stats would have held up over the next 50-plus years, if you include assists. But he threw up a dud against California, shooting 4-of-16 in a loss. Regardless, he was a predictably awesome college player.
*1968: Elvin Hayes, Houston
We generally discuss basketball numbers in averages, but Hayes’ totals in the 1968 dance pop off of the page: He scored 167 points and grabbed 97 rebounds in the tournament. Against Loyola of Chicago, he went for 49 and 27. 49 and 27. That’s a nice two weeks for some guys, and remains the only 45/25 game in NCAA tournament history. He still holds the total rebounds record.
He still didn’t win a national title that season.
Nineteen-sixthy-eight was the year the “Game of the Century” happened against UCLA. On Jan. 20, Houston ended the Bruins’ 47-game win streak behind Hayes’ 39 points. But UCLA would get revenge at the Final Four. Revenge might not even be a strong enough word: UCLA straight up embarrassed Houston in the semifinal. The Bruins held Hayes to 10 points in a 101-69 win.
Despite that clunker, Hayes’ total body of work was robust. He outscored Lew Alcindor — the next highest scorer in the tournament — by 64 points. Like Robertson, Hayes had a stinker of a game in a limited sample size and still put up numbers that hardly seem believable when looking back on them today. The guy was an absolute legend.
*1979: Magic Johnson, Michigan State
The NCAA didn’t formally track assists until a few years later but, unofficially, Magic posted a triple-double in the title game to knock off Larry Bird and Indiana State. He was wowing crowds before he became an NBA superstar.
There’s something to be said for quality of competition when evaluating these runs. Hayes and Robertson put up crazy stats. Johnson’s numbers weren’t quite that wild, but A) he and the Spartans won the championship and B) he had to knock off Larry Legend to do so. Johnson made the rest of his teammates significantly better. As great as the other guys on here were, he’s the only one you can truly say that about.
Johnson averaged 21.8 points, 8.8 rebounds and likely somewhere around 10 helpers in the 1979 tournament. And frankly, Michigan State was never really challenged. The Spartans won every tournament game by 11 points or more. Their average margin of victory was north of 20. Like the rest of these guys, Magic was on a different level than his counterparts.
But his teammates shined almost as much as he did. As a result, the Spartans won the whole thing.
*1988: Danny Manning, Kansas
Manning was his usual self in the ’88 tournament: smooth, productive … and somehow, even better than people remember.
Kansas was a 6-seed that season and still won the championship behind Manning’s 27.2 points and 9.3 rebounds a game. These days, the Jayhawks win the Big 12 just about every year and earn high seeds because of it. But they haven’t had the kind of NCAA tournament success you’d expect.
It was the opposite story in 1988, due mostly to Manning. In the Final Four — against Duke and Oklahoma — Manning averaged 27.5 points and 14 rebounds a game. He wasn’t putting up 45/25 games, but it’s safe to say the competition was better by 1988. Manning proved himself one of the greatest Jayhawks ever, which is no small statement.
*1992: Christian Laettner, Duke
Of course, there’s The Shot:
We remember that shot for a number of reasons. Add one more to the list: It was indicative of Laettner’s tournament as a whole. The dude rarely missed.
Laettner shot 58 percent from the field in six games in Duke’s second championship run in a row. In that classic against Kentucky, he finished 10-for-10 from the field and 10-for-10 from the free-throw line. Every make mattered, considering the Blue Devils edged the Wildcats by one in overtime. Consider this: What percentage of the population could make 20 shots in a row in an empty driveway? Laettner did it in an Elite Eight bout against a college hoops blueblood.
Perhaps the most amazing stat: Laettner averaged 20 points in a tournament in which he only attempted 12 shots per game. You might argue that he should have taken more shots. But you can’t argue with rings. Laettner has two of them, and Duke wouldn’t have won either without him.
*2003: Carmelo Anthony, Syracuse
The youngest player on this list, freshmen aren’t supposed to do what Anthony did in the ’03 tournament.
He was the best player on a national championship team. Carmelo’s numbers: 20.2 points and 9.8 boards per game. The way the bracket fell required Anthony and the Orange to run through the Big 12, so that’s exactly what the did. Syracuse knocked off Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas and Kansas that year. The Jayhawks boasted Kirk Hinrich and Nick Collison, too.
And while he was no Laettner in the efficiency department, Melo took — and made — tough shots at a very high level all tournament long. He drained 48 percent of his 3s. (Good luck stopping 6-foot-8 wings who can do that.) Anthony hasn’t won an NBA title, but any hoops fan should be able to recognize how special he was in winning an NCAA championship.
*2008: Stephen Curry, Davidson
Curry is the only one of these eight not to make a Final Four, but that’s nitpicky. He played for Davidson, which hadn’t won an NCAA tournament game since 1970 before he arrived. To reach the Elite Eight, as a 10-seed, is a miraculous accomplishment.
Of course, Curry dazzled in those four games, averaging 32 points a game. He dropped 40 in Davidson’s opening win over Gonzaga. He made a whopping 23 3s, and if you’ve watched Curry, you can imagine the degree of difficulty on those looks. The Wildcats upset the Zags, Georgetown and Wisconsin before ultimately falling to Kansas in the regional final. Curry never really had an off game, though. Even in the loss to the Jayhawks, he put up 25.
An underrated part of Curry’s game has always been his defense. That goes back to college. Opposing teams would try to wear him out by putting him through an obstacle course of screens. Curry held up just fine. In fact, he notched 13 steals over those four games. He also turned the ball over only five times.
Curry was efficient and dynamic in every area. He was one of the most fun March Madness heroes ever.
*2011: Kemba Walker, Connecticut
Those sweet crossovers and those gorgeous stepbacks. Walker and the Huskies danced all the way to the national championship podium in 2011. Walker put his team on his back perhaps more than anyone on this list.
While we’re not taking conference tournaments into account here, it should be noted that Walker was brilliant the entire month of March, not just in the NCAA tournament. UConn had lost four of its last five regular-season games before heading to Madison Square Garden for the Big East tournament. There, Walker led them to the crown. At the NCAAs, it was more of the same.
For the tournament, he averaged 23.5 points, 6.0 rebounds and 5.7 assists a game while sitting out only a little over a minute each game. He scored. He passed. He rebounded. He defended. Most importantly, he was clutch. He notched 36 points against San Diego State and 33 against Cincinnati.
Another factor to keep in mind: Of the guys on this list who won a title, virtually all of them had a great sidekick — except Walker. Magic had Greg Kelser. Manning had Milt Newton. Laettner had Grant Hill and Bobby Hurley. Anthony had Gerry McNamara. Not saying Kemba was playing with a bunch of scrubs, but he didn’t have a teammate of that caliber.