This weekend, for the 75th time, the NCAA will determine its National Champion in men’s basketball.
Which of the previous 74 title games should be considered among the best and most memorable??
The following top-20 list ranks the best championship games played and is admittedly biased towards the modern era. This is not a ranking of best tournament games or even national semi-final games. Only games where a trophy was handed out at the end qualify.
It is not an easy list to crack. The Chris Webber timeout game are among those that are left on the cutting room floor – and I am slightly biased in some of my selections.
Seeds are listed where applicable (NCAA seeding system began in 1979).
20. 1998 – (2)Kentucky 78, (3) Utah 69
I snuck this onto the list because Rick Majerus was involved. Michael Doleac and Andre Miller were the stars of the Utes, and held a lead midway through the second half before UK rallied to win its second championship in three consecutive game appearances. This one was with Tubby Smith who had taken over for the departed Rick Pitino.
See, Tubby hasn’t ALWAYS been a bad coach!!!
19. 1999 – (1) Connecticut 77, (1) Duke 74
During the 1990s, Jim Calhoun had turned the UConn program from being Big East also-rans into a national power. But before 1999, Calhoun had not led the Huskies to a Final Four, much less a national championship.
UConn came into the game as underdogs as the Dukies were riding a 32-game winning streak. Rip Hamilton scored 27 points leading his team to victory.
This is the only tournament in which I won some swag off my brackets. I had UConn winning and also had three of the Final Four participants, including fourth-seeded Ohio State – even though the Buckeyes results were later vacated.
18. 1990 – (1) UNLV 103, (3) Duke 73
The 1990 tournament itself is remembered for Loyola Marymount’s memorable and courageous run to the Elite Eight following the passing of star player Hank Gathers.
However, the Final Four is remembered for the coronation of the Running Rebels as one of the finest college basketball machines of its time with its 30-point rout over Duke.
With the blowout loss, Duke reinforced its status at the time as the ‘Denver Broncos of the sport,’ as it was their third straight Final Four appearance without winning it all.
An upset win over UNLV in the 1991 Final Four, leading to national championships in both 1991 and ’92, changed that perception of Duke and Mike Krzyzewski, and cemented the program as the juggernaut that many fans remain jealous of to this day.
17. 1997 – (4) Arizona 84, (1) Kentucky 79 (OT)
‘Simon Says, Championship…’
1997 marked the 13th of an incredible 23 consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances for Lute Olson and the Arizona Wildcats. But by this point many basketball experts were wondering if Lute would ever be able to win it all. U of A often found themselves as a high seed, only to bow out early.
The Wildcats took down three No. 1 seeds on its way to the title, culminating with the overtime win at the RCA Dome that ended Rick Pitino’s bid for consecutive titles for Kentucky.
16. 1957 – North Carolina 54, Kansas 53 (3OT)
Good thing the Tar Heels took home the trophy considering no one was being paid by the clock. UNC took down Michigan State in triple-overtime in the National Semifinal before defeating Kansas in 3 OT’s in the title game.
KU had a center named Wilt Chamberlain, who by all accounts was pretty good.
This is the earliest title game that made the list, occurring during a timeframe when the NCAA Tourney was still competing with the NIT in regards to determining a true national champion.
But more than a half-century later, North Carolina and Kansas have solidified their statuses as being among the gold standard in college hoops.
15. 1978 – Kentucky 94, Duke 88
Trivia: On which universities floor was the 1978 Final Four played on??
Admittedly, this is a curveball. Finding the warped floor of the St. Louis Checkerdome (then home of the NHL St. Louis Blues) unacceptable, the NCAA had the floor of Indiana’s Assembly Hall trucked in for the weekend. In showing highlights of the title game, NCAA Productions tries its best to hide center court and the (already) iconic Indiana outline with the NCAA logo covering where the ‘I’ would be.
This would be the Jack Givens game, going off for 41 points on 18-27 shooting, the most prolific scoring outburst of Goose’s Kentucky career, and not the last time Kentucky and Duke would clash in the month of March.
When the brackets came out that year, a Sweet 16 matchup between defending champion Marquette and Kentucky was anticipated, but the Warriors were caught looking ahead and wound up bowing out in the first round to Miami of Ohio following a late-game meltdown.
14. 1975 – UCLA 92, Kentucky 85
Having the advantage of playing close to home at the San Diego Sports Arena, John Wooden goes out in style with the Bruins winning their 10th championship in 12 years after Wooden announced his retirement following UCLA’s semi-final win.
Wooden’s final 12 teams went a ridiculous 297-22 (including an off-18-8 campaign where the Bruins missed the tournament entirely), a level of dominance that will never be seen again in college basketball or probably any other sport.
13. 1966 – Texas Western 72, Kentucky 65
Perhaps the game out of this group that bears the most historical significance, as the all-black starting five of Texas Western defeated the all-white University of Kentucky squad. The achievement has been chronicled in the 2006 film Glory Road, and the entire Texas Western team was ultimately enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame.
It would be the only Final Four appearance in the 39-year tenure of Don Haskins at the school that would soon become known as Texas-El Paso. One memorable moment in Haskins’ later coaching career came when Bob Knight playfully yanked off his clip-on tie following an Indiana/UTEP tourney game.
12. 1976 – Indiana 86, Michigan 68
Whatever happens in this year’s Final Four, the 2013 NCAA basketball tourney will no doubt be forever remembered for the University of Louisville rallying around fallen teammate Kevin Ware (or was it Ware rallying the team before leaving the floor?) in the Regional Final.
Early in the 1976 Championship game, the Indiana Hoosiers had to overcome their own distraction and concern for a teammate Bobby Wilkerson was knocked out after a fall 2 ½ minutes into their title game with Michigan.
But the Hoosiers would recover, and would roll over their Big Ten rivals to complete the last undefeated season in college basketball. The ’76 IU squad ranks as arguably one of the best Five Guys in NCAA history, featuring Wilkerson, Quinn Buckner, Scott May, and Kent Benson.
Indiana State would reach the title game undefeated three years later, but no one in the college game has seriously threatened an undefeated season since.
Bob Knight and Indiana would win another national championship in Philadelphia five years later. The Isiah Thomas/Landon Turner-led 1981 win over North Carolina was marred somewhat by the assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan which had occurred earlier that day.
11. 2008 – (1) Kansas 75, (1) Memphis 68 (OT)
The 2008 tourney was a snoozer if you enjoy seeing brackets busted, all four No. 1 seeds wound up in the Final Four, the lone occurrence since the 64-team bracket began in 1985.
Memphis was unable to lock up the title game with its shaky shooting from the charity stripe late, and a late three-pointer from Mario Chalmers would send the game into overtime and lead to the KU victory.
Memphis’ appearance in this game, and the tourney, would be later vacated after star guard Derrick Rose was declared ineligible.