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Top 10 Centers in College Basketball History: Alcindor, Russell, or Walton at Number one?

Publish Date: 04/06/2024
Fact checked by: Mark Lewis

If you are under thirty, you might ask, what’s a center? Centers dominated basketball games until the turn of the 21st century. That has changed, as have so many other things over the last quarter of a century. Today we will look back at the most outstanding big men to play college basketball. Remember, Pro Career does not matter in these rankings.

Criteria

As always stats are huge and winning games and Championships plays an enormous part of these ratings, which means UCLA will be on the list a few times. Current players are not eligible so no, Zach Edey will not be on this list, but a Purdue win Saturday night and Monday night will add his name to somewhere on this list.

10) David Robinson, Navy

As a 6’7″ freshman at the Naval Academy, he was more focused on becoming an officer than a professional basketball player. Over time, though, his height increased steadily until reaching 6’9″, then 7’0″, then 7’1″, with averages of 28.2 points, 11.8 rebounds, and 4.5 blocks per game during senior year – becoming one of only a handful of Naval Academy graduates ever to make the NBA. He led the Navy to the Elite Eight in 1986. Check out our guide to betting on Basketball!

Video: David Robinson: Incredible 50-point performance in 1987 first round

David Robinson: Incredible 50-point performance in 1987 first round

9) Tim Duncan, Wake Forest

The Big Fundamental was a great post power in his four years at Wake Forest, rarely playing center in the NBA but becoming better and better each year of college basketball as a center, culminating in his senior year when he shot 62% from the field, scored 20.8 points per game, grabbed 14.7 rebounds per game and blocked 3.3 shots – earning two All-America honors as well as both Naismith and Wooden Awards.

Video: Tim Duncan highlights: NCAA tournament top plays

Tim Duncan highlights: NCAA tournament top plays

8) Hakeem Olajuwon, Houston

Olajuwon arrived at New York City’s JFK airport to visit St. John’s University but felt the cold winter air instead, prompting him to make a U-turn back inside and ask a baggage handler where he could find warm weather like Nigeria. That worker checked Dream’s tickets and recommended Houston. His summer sparring against Moses Malone toughened up Dream and made him an impressive defensive presence that led the Cougars to back-to-back championship games appearances.

Video: Hakeem Olajuwon Houston Cougars(College) Highlights

Hakeem Olajuwon Houston Cougars(College) Highlights

7) Patrick Ewing, Georgetown

Ewing was one of the roughest athletes at Georgetown, initially getting called for 11 goaltends during his inaugural game. Yet he became an All-American three times and led his Hoyas to victory at the 1984 National Championship tournament with an average block percentage of 3.43 throughout his career. The Hoyas made it to the finals in 1982 and 1985 also.

Video: Patrick Ewing ๐Ÿ˜ค Georgetown Highlights (1981-1985)

Patrick Ewing ๐Ÿ˜ค Georgetown Highlights (1981-1985)

6) Artis Gilmore, Jacksonville

During his career at Jacksonville, he averaged 23.3 points, and an NCAA-record 22.7 rebounds each night.

The Dolphins joined Division I for the 1966-67 season, and Gilmore had them int the national title game against UCLA by 1970.

At 7’2″, 240 pounds, A-Train was an overwhelming athlete – even more challenging to defend had his slam dunking been legal during his career.

Video: Artis Gilmore

Artis Gilmore

5) Wilt Chamberlin, Kansas

How did a native of Philadelphia arrive in Kansas? Because he had become disenchanted with East Coast life and didn’t wish to play in segregated regions in the South, and was welcomed by Kansas coach Phog Allen. In a preseason scrimmage between freshmen and upperclassmen, he scored 42 points and grabbed 28 rebounds; in his varsity debut, he scored 52 points and grabbed 31 rebounds – both all-time records at his university debut. After losing in the NCAA final game, his sophomore year was marked by numerous stall techniques and triple teams.

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Video: WiltMixTape - Wilt Chamberlain Kansas Highlights

WiltMixTape – Wilt Chamberlain Kansas Highlights

4) Elvin Hayes, Houston

He averaged 31 points and 17.2 rebounds per game during his NCAA career.

1967-68 Cougars went 31-0 before losing to UCLA in National Semifinals.

In 1968, The Big E won national player of the year as a senior and was remembered for outperforming Lew Alcindor to defeat UCLA in one of the most significant regular-season matchups ever seen at the Houston Astrodome.

Video: 1968 Game of the Century

1968 Game of the Century

3) Bill Walton, UCLA

Walton amassed 20.3 points and 15.7 rebounds a night over his career at UCLA. Walton achieved an NCAA-record 88-game winning streak that included winning national championships without ever dropping a game during his initial two seasons on varsity. Nothing Walton accomplished during three consecutive Naismith Award-winning seasons could match his 21-for-22 shooting night (for 44 points total) in the 1973 national title game.

Video: Bill Walton Greatest Games: 44 Points vs Memphis State (1973 NCAA FInal)

Bill Walton Greatest Games: 44 Points vs Memphis State (1973 NCAA FInal)

2) Bill Russell, San Fransisco

John Wooden described him as one of the greatest defensive men he’d ever seen and considered him the greatest defensive center ever. USF’s 55 straight victories, two NCAA titles, and an average 20.7 points and 20.3 rebounds per game performance, shows the greatness of Russell.

Video: Bill Russell 26pts 27reb 20blks 3stl 1a Double-Triple-Double his final NCAA Championship

Bill Russell 26pts 27reb 20blks 3stl 1a Double-Triple-Double his final NCAA Championship

1) Lew Alcindor, UCLA

Alcindor revolutionized the game like Wilt Chamberlain did before him. As a sophomore at UCLA, he averaged 29 points and 15.5 rebounds per game while shooting an impressive 63% from the floor for his entire career – helping lead them to three undefeated seasons with dominating performances! As such, his dominance resulted in dunking being banned temporarily until further notice!

Make sure you check out our March Madness betting guide.

Video: Lew Alcindor at UCLA

Lew Alcindor at UCLA

Honorable Mentions

Kent Benson, Indiana

Benson was the perfect center for Bob Knight’s offense and he was a two-time all-American and was named the Big Ten Player of the Year in 1977.

I know he seems out of place on this list, but Benson was a winner and routinely scored 30 points and added ten rebounds a game.

Video: Undefeated with Kent Benson

Undefeated with Kent Benson

George Mikan, Depaul

Mikan used his size to his advantage during his career at DePaul. DePaul coach Pete Fratello trained him aggressively while discovering an athlete within. Goaltending was legal at that time, and Mikan capitalized on that opportunity by scoring 53 points equaling Rhode Island’s entire score total in a Depaul win 97-53 against them in the NIT Championship game.

Video: George Mikan | Rare 1940s Highlights

George Mikan | Rare 1940s Highlights

Jerry Lucas, Ohio State

He averaged 24.3 points and 17.2 rebounds a night during his career at Ohio State and achieved school-record totals of 78 double-doubles (tied with Lew Alcindor for seventh in Division I history) and 1,411 rebounds in total. Lucas won a National Title in his sophomore year but came up short, losing back-to-back to Cincinnati in the next two title games. Lucas had an unmatched long-range jumper decades before the three-point line existed and would’ve made any three-point shooter proud with its efficiency and strength.

Video: Jerry Lucas | Big Ten Icons

Jerry Lucas | Big Ten Icons

Shaquille O’Neal, LSU

O’Neal played 90 college basketball games and averaged 21 points and 14 rebounds a game. He was a dominant player at LSU, but the team lacked tournament success.

Video: Shaquille O'Neal - LSU Highlights

Shaquille O’Neal – LSU Highlights

Bob Lanier, St. Bonaventure

Career Averages of 27.6 Points and 15. 7 Rebounds per Game are off-the-charts impressive.

Lanier was instrumental in four of Bonnies’ six NCAA tournament victories all-time and their only Final Four appearance in 1970.

Three-time All-American was also an exceptional shot blocker, but those official records were not kept then.

Video: Bob Lanier St. Bonaventure Tribute

Bob Lanier St. Bonaventure Tribute

Ralph Sampson, Virginia

Sampson became one of the faces of college basketball during the early ’80s, captivating fans and opponents alike with his incredible athleticism and winning three consecutive Player of the Year awards for the Virginia Cavaliers. As a freshman, he averaged an incredible 4.6 blocks per game while finishing with a career field shooting percentage of 57%. What hurts him on this list is that he had only one Final Four appearance in 1981.

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