Best 20 NCAA Basketball Title Games Ever

10. 1963 – Loyola 60, Cincinnati 58 (OT)

You may have read/seen some retrospectives this March regarding the 50th anniversary of the all-white Mississippi State squad flying out of town under cover of the night (against orders from the governor) to play a Loyola team that featured four black starters.

Mississippi St. may have lost the game, but the historic matchup did much to break down racial barriers that existed in college athletics at the time.

Out of 10 starters in the classic Loyola/Cincinnati title game, seven were African-American. However, this game would also be remembered as one of the most exciting NCAA Championship games to that date, a late put-back in overtime gave the Ramblers the title over UC, who had won the 1961 and 1962 titles.

*****

9. 1977 – Marquette 67, North Carolina 59

‘Anyone who wears Golden Eagles apparel is a HOSER!!!’

The words of someone at my job regarding Marquette University’s current handle. The change from Warriors is now 20 years old. Most of the current students at MU were just being born at the time of the attempted image change.

It just goes to show just how unpopular that Golden Eagles name is, and I’m admittedly biased putting the team I grew up watching on TV this high on this list.

Early in the 1976-77 season, Coach Al McGuire shocked the school by announcing that this would be his final year as coach. After several devastating February losses, it appeared that Al’s last campaign would not result in a NCAA tourney bid.

But Marquette did squeeze into the 32-team field. MU thumped Cincinnati (whom they had lost to regular season) before a buzzer-beating nail-biter over Kansas State.

The Warriors then went to work on the entire state of North Carolina, defeating Wake Forest in the regional final.

Next was Cinderella UNC-Charlotte, who had downed tourney favorite Michigan previously. With the game tied with three seconds left in regulation, a ’72 USSR-style length of court pass (after Coach Al checked the height of the overhanging arena scoreboard) resulted in a game-winning score after game officials deliberated for several moments on whether the shot went off in time.

Butch Lee and company would storm to an early lead in the title game, but Carolina came back to take the lead. Coach Dean Smith ordered his vaunted Four Corners stall in an effort to shorten the game, but Marquette would pull away late to send McGuire to an emotional sendoff.

The ’77 tourney was also remembered for a new power which emerged out west. The UNLV Running Rebels under Jerry Tarkanian routinely put up triple-digit numbers in a pre-shot clock era en route to earning its initial Final Four trip.

8. 1989 – (3) Michigan 80, (3) Seton Hall 79

Note the abundance of games taking place in the 1980s near the top of this list of the best 20 NCAA basketball title games. This was when the Final Four established itself as a marquee sports event at a time when other championships such as the Super Bowl were falling short on drama.

Following the regular season, Coach Bill Frieder announced that he had accepted the head coaching position at Arizona State University but would coach the Wolverines in the tourney.

Not so fast, said athletic director/head football coach Bo Schembechler, who now famously exclaimed he wanted ‘a Michigan Man’ on the job and replaced Frieder with then-interim Steve Fisher for the tournament.

The rest they say, was history.

I would like to say that star guard Rumeal Robinson is currently living a great life watching Michigan’s current Final Four run after sinking two clutch free throws late in the ’89 title game. Unfortunately, Robinson is currently doing time at a federal facility after being convicted of bank fraud in 2010.

Even though Seton Hall lost, the championship game appearance capped a remarkable turnaround by P.J. Carlesimo’s program, which was at the bottom of the Big East ladder in the early part of the decade.

7. 1988 – (6) Kansas 83, (1) Oklahoma 79

Larry Brown’s ’88 KU team is just one of a number of long-shots to win it all during this era. ‘Danny Manning and the Miracles’ prevailed in the 50th installment of the NCAA Championship.

To this date, this is the last time conference rivals have played for the title. The Sooners had routed the Jayhawks in the two regular season meetings. Obviously there is a good shot that Big East (soon ACC foes) Louisville and Syracuse could play for the 2013 crown.

6. 2010 – (1) Duke 61, (5) Butler 59

If you keep watching and replaying Gordon Hayward’s last-second half-court heave, it is bound to find the bottom of the net eventually, and this game zooms up to at least No. 2 on this list. It sure looked good until it clanged harmlessly (at least for Duke) off the back iron.

*****

In the three years since, Brad Stevens and the Bulldogs have proven not to be a one-hit wonder, migrating from the Horizon League to the Atlantic 10 and soon, the re-branded Big East, in the process.

5. 1979 – (2) Michigan St. 75, (1) Indiana St. 64

If you watched the game in real time, it was not near the best title game ever – the Spartans were in control throughout.

But the hype going into the game was considerable, and changed college basketball and basketball period.

It was the first installment of Bird v. Magic, a rivalry that would eventually migrate to the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers, and would transform the National Basketball Association throughout the 1980’s.

The Larry Bird emergence that year was a storyline in general. Indiana State would down Arkansas (Sydney Moncrief) and DePaul (Mark Aguirre/Coach Ray Meyer) en route to their date with Magic and Sparty.

A couple of lost nuggets from ’79: The Sycamores would become the last Missouri Valley Conference team to reach the Final Four until Wichita State this year; Louisville was actually a MVC member when they made the ’75 Final Four. Also ninth-seeded Penn (out of a 10-team regional) crashed the Final Four. They are the most recent Ivy League team to make it to the final weekend.

Then there was the venue at what is now known as the Huntsman Center at the University of Utah. It would mark one of the last campus venues to host the championship, a far cry from the domed football stadiums that now host the event, which grew up fast in a relatively short amount of time.

4. 1985 – (8) Villanova 66, (1) Georgetown 64

The height of vintage Big East dominance: Villanova, St. John’s, Georgetown.

Philly, New York, DC, joined by Memphis State – four city private schools. Enormous State University with a football program need not apply.

The story of the ’85 college hoops season was the fierce rivalry between St. John’s/Georgetown, or Patrick Ewing/Chris Mullin, or John Thompson/Louie Carnesecca (and his lucky sweater).

Then Rollie Massimino and Villanova crashed the party, coming out as a No. 8 seed in the first year of the 64-team bracket we have since come to know and love.

Nova would shoot lights out in the title game, shooting an incredible 22 for 28 from the field.

Incidentally, as was the case in 2008, Memphis State’s appearance in this tourney was later vacated for non-compliance with the NCAA, as well as all their tourney appearances from 1982 through 1986.

Notice a trend with that program??

3. 1987 – (1) Indiana 74, (2) Syracuse 73

‘Indiana wins the championship, Keith Smart is the hero…’

It was amazing to see Smart come up money in the closing seconds from virtually the same spot of the Louisiana Superdome as Michael Jordan did five years earlier.

This was also the last time Indiana and Syracuse would meet in tourney play until Syracuse’s Sweet 16 upset this year.

The actual CBS telecast became memorable as it closed for the first time with its ‘One Shining Moment’ montage, which has put a bow on the tournament coverage ever since.

2. 1983 (6) North Carolina St. 54, (1) Houston 52

Thirty years later about all that is shown is Dereck Whittenburg in sheer panic hoisting up a shot from another area code that falls woefully short, only to be captured by Lorenzo Charles for the game-winning dunk as the clock hits :00, and Jim Valvano is running all over the court desperately trying to find someone to hug.

At the beginning of March that year, NC State looked like a good bet to make noise, in the NIT.

Then the Wolfpack won the ACC tourney, then a double-overtime first-round victory over Pepperdine where NC State was left for dead. Then Ralph Sampson and Virginia were shockingly downed in the regional final before the original glass slipper story of March Madness ended with the win over Houston.

Fittingly, Duran Duran’s ‘Hungry Like a Wolf’ was a chart-buster endlessly played on the radio during those days.

The de-facto National Championship game was supposed to be Houston’s 94-81 rout over Louisivlle in the semi-final. That was supposed to be the final hurdle for Hakeem Olajuwon and Phi Slamma Jamma over a Louisville squad that was in the middle of five Final Four appearances (and two titles) in a 12-year span.

No one told Valvano or his team that was supposed to be the script.

1. (1) North Carolina 63, (1) Georgetown 62

James Worthy, Patrick Ewing, Sam Perkins, Sleepy Floyd, Fred Brown…

And then a freshman just cutting his teeth, scoring the game-winning bucket.

The 1982 Georgetown/North Carolina game featured the greatest collection of talent ever in a NCAA title game, and the contest lived up to all billing.

*****

Just three years after the famed Bird/Magic final, and 14 years after UCLA/Houston decided to play a game putting up a makeshift floor in the middle of the Astrodome, the Final Four took its show to a stadium venue for the first time, playing before 60,000+ at the Louisiana Superdome.

The Tar Heels came out shaky, their only five baskets early on coming on Patrick Ewing goaltending calls. But Carolina slowly fought back, and then, that other freshman, the third wheel to Worthy/Perkins, comes up huge in the end before Fred Brown’s ill-fated turnover sealed the deal.

Little did we know we had just witnessed the first echo of one of the largest legends ever in sports history with Michael Jeffrey Jordan.

It was also the first year of CBS’s investment in televising the college game, and quickly became one of the network’s biggest sports offerings.

There have been a lot of great NCAA tourney games through the years, but it was that Hoyas/Heels epic was as responsible as any game in making the Final Four what it is today.

About the Author

Kurt Allen

Have written/blogged about sports since 2000, along with starting my popular Twitter feed in 2009. I also closely follow fantasy sports developments, along with events such as the NFL Draft.