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NBA AM: NBA’s Biggest March Madness Stars

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We like to think that March Madness success translates to NBA success, but the truth is that the fraternity of NBA players with college championships on their resumes is rather small, and most of the league’s biggest stars don’t have one to their name. In fact, of all the current players who won NCAA championships, only five of them have even made an All-Star Game, and none of those five have NBA championship rings.

Despite that, there are 26 players in the NBA who have won NCAA championships, and the glory lives on. In chronological order, here they are:

Jason Terry, University of Arizona (1997) – Considering Terry is one of the oldest active players in the league, it should come as no surprise that he’s also the league’s oldest NCAA champion. Terry’s Arizona Wildcats came into the ‘97 tournament that year as only a 4-seed, but they topped two 1-seeds on their way to a championship matchup against a third 1-seed, the Kentucky Wildcats, who they beat in overtime, 84-79. To illustrate just how long ago this was, that Kentucky runner-up team featured former NBA players like Jamaal Magloire, Ron Mercer and Nazr Mohammed.

Mike Dunleavy, Jr., Duke University (2001) – While Dunleavy is the only player remaining from this championship team, he was only the fourth-best player on that team behind Jay Williams, Carlos Boozer and Shane Battier. Arizona kept the game close for most of the second half, but that’s entirely too much Dukie talent not to win a national championship.

Carmelo Anthony, Syracuse University (2003) – While Carmelo Anthony could have declared for the NBA after high school, he chose to attend college instead in pursuit of a national championship, which he did, of course, ultimately win. Anthony averaged 22.2 PPG and 10.0 RPG as a member of the Orangemen in his lone college season and they cruised to a title. After scoring 33 points against Texas in the semis, Anthony dropped in his typical 22 and 10 in the championship game, earning the tourney’s Most Outstanding Player and wrapping up what would be the prototype for the one-and-done college championship pursuit.

Marvin Williams and Ray Felton, University of North Carolina (2005) – As one of the first college “Super Teams” of the new millennium, the 2009 Tar Heels were absolutely stacked with talent. Williams (who didn’t even start for that team) and Felton are the only two players from that squad still in the league, but teammate Sean May was a 2005 lottery pick, and Rashad McCants spent his fair share of time in the NBA, as well. Ultimately, though, this UNC group gave Roy Williams his first college championship and blocked Deron Williams and the University of Illinois from getting their first NCAA hoops title.

Joakim Noah, Corey Brewer, Marreese Speights and Al Horford, University of Florida (2006 & 2007) – These were glorious years in the world of college basketball, if only for the dancing Joakim Noah GIFs that have survived. Of the aforementioned five active All-Stars to win National Championships, two (Noah and Horford) were on this team. College basketball dynasties don’t happen often, but this crew was the last we’ve seen of anything even remotely approaching that. In a world where college basketball’s biggest stars leave after only a year, it may be some time before back-to-back championships happen again, particularly with teams featuring the same core of stars.

Brandon Rush, Cole Aldrich and Darrell Arthur, University of Kansas (2008) – Mario Chalmers, no longer in the NBA, was the star of this game, knocking down one of the most dramatic three-pointers in college basketball history. Memphis, up two with only a few seconds left, saw Derrick Rose make one-of-two free throws to push the lead the three, but Chalmers ended up with a weakly-contested three-point opportunity in the waning seconds that sent the game into overtime. Following “Mario’s Miracle,” Rush and Arthur would help Chalmers earn the victory, and over the course of the last 20 years, Rush and Chalmers are two of only a small handful of players with both college and NBA championships.

Danny Green, Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington and Ed Davis, University of North Carolina (2009) – Interestingly, the best player from this team, Tyler Hansbrough, isn’t even on an NBA roster anymore, while four of his teammates remain employed. The 2009 championship game itself was a blowout. That Michigan State team was fairly pedestrian (even with freshman Draymond Green on the roster) and got blown out by 17, the first team in almost a decade to lose the title game by double digits.

Mason Plumlee, Miles Plumlee, Kyle Singler, Lance Thomas, Duke University (2010) – This game probably always will be remembered for the half-court game-winner that Butler’s Gordon Hayward didn’t make, but Singler, Thomas and the two Plumlees were the ones that walked away with the championship, however much the country may have been rooting against them.

Kemba Walker, Jeremy Lamb and Shabazz Napier, University of Connecticut (2011) – Few times in the last ten years has a team built up more momentum heading into the tournament than the 2011 UConn team that sliced through the Big East tourney like a warm knife through butter. Walker led that crew to a National Championship and Most Outstanding Player honors, while 2014’s UConn star, Shabazz Napier, barely played. That 2014 team, by the way, was one of the most improbable in college basketball history, winning the title as 7-seed, and that was when Napier was given his opportunity to shine.

Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Terrence Jones, University of Kentucky (2012) – Easily one of the most loaded recruiting classes in college basketball history, the 2012 National Champion Kentucky Wildcats featured talented freshmen Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who would go on to be the first ever college teammates to be taken with the first two selections of the NBA Draft. Jones was a little older during that title run, but he’s made his own footprint in the league anyway. Other teammates on that team, like Marquis Teague and Doron Lamb, weren’t quite as effective in their own short NBA careers.

Gorgui Dieng, University of Louisville (2013) – It’s only been four years, but only Dieng remains of this talented Louisville team. Peyton Siva and Russ Smith, both barely six feet tall, were the team’s top scorers, while Dieng’s role was more that of a rebounder and rim protector. Tiny guards don’t always do well in the NBA (Isaiah Thomas notwithstanding), while Dieng-like rim protectors are all the rage these days. Either way, Rick Pitino earned his first championship at Louisville with this squad, which is most of the historical relevance of this game.

Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow, Tyus Jones and Quinn Cook, Duke University (2015) – Duke never has had a freshman class quite like this one, with top overall prospect Okafor and fellow five-star recruit Jones announcing their commitment to Duke at the same 2014 press conference. Winslow committed just a week later and Grayson Allen threw his hat into the ring that year, as well. That year’s National Championship game against Frank Kaminsky’s Wisconsin squad was a good one, with the score tight most of the game and tied up with just seven minutes to go. Okafor came alive in the final minutes, however, after sitting out a good chunk of the game in foul trouble, and the Blue Devils won their second championship in six years.

Daniel Ochefu, Villanova University (2016) – While last year’s title game was as thrilling as it gets, Villanova wasn’t exactly a team loaded to the brim with NBA talent. Only Ochefu is on an NBA roster this season, and even he has been minimally effective as an undrafted rookie on a loaded Washington Wizards team. Kris Jenkins was the real star of the 2016 title game, drilling a thrilling three-pointer at the buzzer to clinch Villanova’s first National Championship since the mid-80s, while Ochefu finished the game with 9 points and six rebounds. He has only 14 points and 15 rebounds total in his rookie season with the Wizards.

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There’s a high probability that we’ll see even more future NBA stars hoisting up a championship trophy this spring, but for now we have no idea which players that will be. While there are a million great reasons to watch March Madness, getting an early look at potential NBA legends cutting their teeth in clutch situations is certainly one of the more compelling. That means this year’s tournament is only going to get more fun from here.

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About Joel Brigham

Joel Brigham

Joel Brigham is a senior writer for Basketball Insiders, covering the Central Division and fantasy basketball.