The NCAA tournament is officially here and millions will be tuned in while their brackets crumble. NBA prospects like Duke’s Zion Williamson and Murray State’s Ja Morant will have the chance to showcase why they are considered the best potential pros in the country—while under-the-radar players could make a name for themselves with a crazy tourney run.
While some NBA stars never had the chance to experience the madness, guys like Stephen Curry, Gordon Hayward and Kemba Walker became household names for their feats during the tournament.
In the spirit of March Madness, The Crossover reflects on iconic moments from current NBA players in the NCAA tournament.
Matt Dollinger: Gordon Hayward on the 2010 Butler Bulldogs
When you think of Cinderella stories, the Butler Bulldogs have to be one of the first teams that come to mind. How did a private school from central Indiana find a way to make back-to-back NCAA championship games? I lived in Indiana during the time and it still feels surreal looking back. It was the beginning of the Brad Stevens Hype Train. Everyone considered him a coaching prodigy already at this point, but no one thought he’d be jumping to the Celtics. Shelvin Mack was the team’s scrappy floor general and a shaggy bruiser named Matt Howard was the heart of the team. But the centerpiece of Butler’s squad was a tall skinny former tennis player named Gordon Hayward. Hayward looked like he was a middle schooler, but there was nothing awkward about his game. With Stevens manning the controls, Butler put together two of the most impressive NCAA tournament runs in history—in back-to-back years.
While Hayward and Butler will go down in history for their accomplishments, the most profound memory is their near-miss in 2010. I covered the Butler-Duke NCAA title game from the press box atop Lucas Oil Stadium before sneaking down to courtside and stealing an empty media seat (thank you, Joe Posnanski). It happened to be in the front row right at center court, and that’s where I watched Gordon Hayward almost hit the most amazing shot in basketball history. That sounds like hyperbole, but it’s true. Playing for the championship, against a Duke team loaded with NBA talent, Hayward almost capped the most amazing upset in NCAA history with a halfcourt shot to win the title—in Butler’s own backyard! The shot hit off the backboard and rimmed out and you could physically feel 50,000 fans gasp in disappointment. It was an electric atmosphere, a thrilling game, and it’ll always be the first memory that comes to mind when I think abut the NCAA tournament.
Jake Fischer: C.J. McCollum Takes Down Duke
One of the greatest sporting experiences of my life was watching Lehigh dispatch Duke at the ESPN Zone in Disney World. There is no honest human cohabitation quite like a room full of hundreds of strangers rooting against a mainstream, juggernaut villain like the Blue Devils. McCollum was terrific in that game, hanging 30 and dishing six assists. I remember how relentlessly he got to the foul line (16 free throw attempts!) and the growing momentum building within the bar during each of his trips to the stripe. He flashed the potential of the lethal pro scorer he has become. McCollum and Lehigh, forever.
Jarrel Harris: Kemba Walker leads UConn to title
I went to high school with Kemba and witnessed up close his progress from an unknown prospect to a McDonald’s All-American. He is truly a workhorse and his 11 straight elimination game stretch in 2011 is without a doubt one of the most impressive March Madness moments in history. The Huskies finished ninth in the Big East and was kind of written off after winning the Maui Invitational months beforehand. Walker led the Huskies to five wins in five days to win the Big East championship and earned the nickname “Cardiac Kemba” after dropping Pitts’ Gary McGhee.
The Huskies were named a No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament—where they defeated Bucknell, Cincinnati, San Diego State, Arizona, Kentucky and Butler in the title game. The legend of Kemba originated in the Bronx but he became a national star during UConn's championship run.
Alaa Abdeldaiem: Stephen Curry becomes a star
It's been 11 years since he exploded into the national spotlight while playing for a little speck of a college in North Carolina, but Stephen Curry's 2008 NCAA tournament run is still as legendary as ever.
For the first half of their tournament opener against No. 7 Gonzaga, Curry and his Davidson Wildcats looked like they would follow the script that had already been written for them. Another mid-major school just lucky to be at the tournament.
And then Curry had his coming-out-party.
First, it was the 30-point second-half performance against the Bulldogs that gave Davidson their first NCAA tournament win since 1969. Then it was his 25 second-half points to bring the Wildcats back from 17 points down against Georgetown. Curry erupted for another 33 points against third-seeded Wisconsin to the Elite Eight before falling to Kansas, who went on to win the title.
Curry made it look so effortless even then, as a sophomore who had barely even thought at that point about having an NBA career at all. Never before had a No. 10 seed advanced all the way to the Elite Eight before Curry willed his way there. He'll end up being better known for his two NBA MVPs and his three (and counting) NBA Championships, but the legend of Stephen Curry started during that Davidson run.
Michael Shapiro: Trey Burke’s game winner
Trey Burke’s NBA career has been largely forgettable, but his 2013 tournament with Michigan will long be remembered in Ann Arbor. Burke’s greatest moment came in Sweet 16 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, TX, leading the Wolverines as they stormed back and erased a six-point halftime deficit against No. 1 Kansas.
Michigan trailed 76-73 with 10 seconds remaining, crossing half-court with its tournament life in the balance. Burke dribbled up the right side then ambled to the left wing. He pulled up from well behind the NBA three-point line, heaving a triple over forward Kevin Young. Burke swished the 30-footer as Michigan’s bench rose from the bench to the elevated court. As a graduate and lifelong fan of a different Big 12 school, seeing Kansas go down in the tournament is always a treat. Burke’s miracle rainbow added some serious icing on the cake.
The Wolverines ultimately lost to Louisville in the national final. But Burke’s shot will live on among the greatest March Madness moments of the 21st century.