The NCAAB Championship is the grandest stage in all of college basketball. How do 18, 19, and 20-year old players react? Some can’t handle the pressure. Others rise to the occasion.
The NCAA tournament is a prime opportunity to make a name for yourself.
For players, it’s a chance to cement yourself in your school’s history, achieve personal and team glory, and, most importantly, boost your chances of going to the NBA.
So much is expected of the players that compete in March Madness. Their smallest mistakes are magnified on national television. Tens of millions of people who picked their team in a bracket are expecting them to win. Guys who performed throughout the year are labeled “chokers” if they don’t excel in March. Not to mention, most players competing are below the age of 22.
It’s no surprise when a player or team as a whole collapse in March. It’s human nature.
What comes as more of a shock is when a player, particularly a lesser-known one, captures the attention of America by lighting up the tournament with their exceptional play.
Over the years, there have been numerous lightning rods - in the form of college basketball players - to come across our TV screens. Some go on to NBA stardom, some dwindle back to irrelevancy.
We gathered a list of the top solo tournament runs in men’s NCAAB Championship history.
The most obvious modern example of a player who flat-out dominated the NCAA tournament, Kemba Walker has already etched his name among college basketball’s all-time greats. Not because of his body of work in three years at the University of Connecticut, but his near invincibility in March.
Before the Huskies’ tourney run ever started, they ran through the Big East tournament, winning five games in five days to earn a 3-seed in the dance. Led by Walker, UConn went from bubble team to top seed by running the table in one of college basketball’s strongest conferences.
What Kemba and UConn did next was one of the most remarkable solo and team feats in college basketball history.
After taking care of #14 Bucknell in the first round, Walker and co. faced Big East foe #6 Cincinnati in the Round of 32. The 6-foot-1 guard poured in 33 points, his fourth-highest tally of the season, and led the brigade against a tough-as-nails opponent in Cincinnati.
He bettered that in the Sweet 16 vs. #2 San Diego State, a squad that included current Los Angeles Clippers superstar Kawhi Leonard. Kemba dropped 36 points in the Elite 8-clinching win.
While Kemba’s performances in the next three rounds – the Elite 8, Final 4 and national championship – were not on the scoring level as the previous rounds, his impact was more than clear.
Nicknamed ‘Cardiac Kemba,’ the point guard made play after play and bucket after bucket for the Huskies en route to the 2011 National Championship. He led UConn to wins in various ways, starting with a blowout vs. Bucknell and finishing with a ‘grind it out’ 53-41 win over Butler in the final game.
Even those who were born well after Christian Laettner’s run leading Duke to the 1992 national championship are aware of the cultural impact he had. For reference, an ESPN 30 for 30 titled ‘I Hate Christian Laettner’ was released in 2015.
Why did people hate him? Because he was annoyingly good.
So good, that he was near perfect. Unlike Walker, Laettner is not remembered for his stretch of six games of dominance. Rather, one performance sticks out from the rest.
In the Elite 8, #1 Duke matched up against #2 Kentucky. What followed was arguably the greatest game in the history of college basketball.
In a thrilling overtime affair, Laettner was perfect. The senior forward went 10-for-10 from the field and 10-for-10 from the free throw line, finishing with 31 points as Duke outlasted Kentucky, 104-103. In fact, the game was won on a sensational buzzer-beating shot by Laettner.
With 2.1 seconds left and the Blue Devils losing by one, Grant Hill launched a 3/4 –court football pass to Laettner, who had his back facing the basket and two guys on him. He caught it, pump-faked, dribbled, spun, and shot the ball milliseconds before the final buzzer sounded. Swish. It lives on in sports lore as ‘The Shot.’
Powered by Laettner’s moment of magic, Duke went on to win the 1992 national title and became one of the sport’s most dominant programs over the following 3+ decades.
Villanova shocked the sports world in 1985, storming to and winning the national title as an 8-seed.
Three years later, #6 Kansas went on an equally historic run. The instigator was senior forward Danny Manning.
Manning’s 1988 NCAA tournament is so significant because nobody expected it. Few expect a 6-seed to advance past the second round of the tournament, much less win it all. Manning did absolutely everything for the Jayhawks, notably putting in two superhuman performances in the Final Four and title game.
The 6-foot-10 forward scored at least 20+ points and logged 5+ rebounds in all six tournament games. In the national semifinal against #2 Duke, Manning put up a ridiculous stat line of 25 points, 10 rebounds, two assists, four steals, and six blocks.
Up against #1 Oklahoma in the national championship, Manning rose to the occasion on the biggest stage of them all. He almost single-handedly won Kansas the game, dropping 31 points, along with 18 rebounds, five steals, and two blocks. The underdog Jayhawks were national champs for the first time in 37 years.
Curry is the first on this list that didn’t win the national championship during his tournament run, and perhaps he’s only on here due to the fame and success he’s achieved in the 15 years since.
But there’s no denying what Curry did in the ’08 dance was magical.
Representing 10-seed Davidson, Curry and co. were expected to bow out in the first round. Curry himself was not the star he is today – he was skinny, undersized, and ‘just a shooter.’ He was yet to make any name for himself in basketball.
The Curry we saw in the next four games is the same one sports fans have grown to love since. The now-4x NBA champion lit up his opponents from range, burying 23 three-pointers across four games. Teams didn’t (and still don’t) know how to defend him.
In the first round, he went for 40 points off 8 threes vs. #7 Gonzaga. Next, Curry single-handedly erased an 11-point halftime deficit against #2 Georgetown, dropping another 30-piece. The run continued vs. #3 Wisconsin in the Sweet 16 with a 33-point performance. Nobody could stop the the 10th seeded Wildcats, led by a player who still looked like a teenager.
The magical March run came to an end in the Elite 8, as Davidson fell to eventual national champions Kansas. Curry posted his worst game of the tourney, but still played well enough to have his underdog side in contention against what was probably the best team in the country.
It came down to the final shot, which Curry famously passed up due to Kansas’ swarming defense. He dished it to teammate Jason Richards, who missed, ending Davidson’s run.