Saturday, March 28, 2020

March Sadness and The List

I have documented in this space my love of college basketball and my annual trip to the Final Four with a great group of friends. Over the past thirty-eight years, I have been fortunate to attend 115 Final Four basketball games (semifinals and finals) since my first one in 1982. Needless to say, some of those games have been blowouts, some have been very competitive and some have been classics

Since there aren't any games this year, a lot of lists are being created. Twitter is full of them.  This is MY list. A list of the best games I've seen. 

When I think about what makes a classic college basketball game, I think of story lines, buzzer beaters, stakes and upsets. The stakes for all of these games couldn't be higher. All of these games are for a berth in the National Championship game or for the title so that almost eliminates that factor. But I have broken these down into semifinal games and championship tilts. While there have been some great semifinal games, there is a special place for games played with a title on the line.

A few years ago, I wrote a post about some of the great title games that we have been able to witness. That was an "off the top of my head" ranking and there have been a few great games since then. The list below includes a bit deeper look with the above considerations factored in.

Here is the pool of games that I have witnessed and from which these lists are compiled. The games in red were one possession games. Click on year and date for full tournament bracket.

North Carolina 68 Houston 63
Georgetown 50 Louisville 46
North Carolina 63 Georgetown 62
Houston 94 Louisville 81
North Carolina State 67 Georgia 60
North Carolina State 54 Houston 52
Georgetown 53 Kentucky 40
Houston 49 Virginia 47 (OT)
Georgetown 84 Houston 75
Georgetown 77 St. John's 59
Villanova 52 Memphis State 45
Villanova 66 Georgetown 64
Louisville 88 LSU77
Duke 71 Kansas 67
Louisville 72 Duke 69
Indiana 97 UNLV 93
Syracuse 77 Providence 63
Indiana 74 Syracuse 73
Kansas 66 Duke 59
Oklahoma 86 Arizona 78
Kansas 83 Oklahoma 79
Michigan 83 Illinois 81
Seton Hall 95 Duke 78
Michigan 80 Seton Hall 79 (OT)
UNLV 90 Georgia Tech 81
Duke 93 Arkansas 83
UNLV 103 Duke 73

Duke 79 UNLV 77
Kansas 79 North Carolina 73
Duke 72 Kansas 65
Michigan 76 Cincinnati 72
Duke 81 Indiana 78
Duke 71 Michigan 51
Michigan 81 Kentucku 78 (OT)
North Carolina 78 Kansas 68
North Carolina 77 Michigan 71
Arkansas 91 Arizona 82
Duke 70 Florida 65
Arkansas 76 Duke 72
Arkansas 75 North Carolina 68
UCLA 74 Okalahoma State 61
UCLA 89 Arkansas 78

Syracuse 77 Mississippi State 69
Kentucky 81 Massachusetts 74
Kentucky 76 Syracuse 67
Kentucky 78 Minnesota 69
Arizona 66 North Carolina 58
Arizona 84 Kentucky 79 (OT)
Utah 65 North Carolina 59
Kentucky 86 Stanford 85 (OT)
Kentucky 78 Utah 69

Duke 68 Michigan State 62
Connecticut 64 Ohio State 58
Connecticut 77 Duke 74

Michigan State 53 Wisconsin 41
Florida 71 North Carolina 59
Michgan State 89 Florida 76

Arizona 80 Michigan State 61
Duke 95 Maryland 84
Duke 82 Arizona 72

Indiana 73 Oklahoma 64
Maryland 97 Kansas 88
Maryland 64 Indiana 52

Kansas 94 Marquette 61
Syracuse 95 Texas 84
Syracuse 81 Kansas 78

Georgia Tech 67 Oklahoma State 65
Connecticut 79 Duke 78
Connecticut 82 Georgia 73
Illinois 72 Louisville 57
North Carolina 87 Michigan State 71
North Carolina 75 Illinois 70

UCLA 59 LSU 45
Florida 73 George Mason 58
Florida 73 UCLA 57

Florida 76 UCLA 66
Ohio State 67 Georgetown 60
Florida 84 Ohio State 75

Kansas 84 North Carolina 66
Memphis 78 UCLA 63
Kansas 75 Memphis 68 (OT)

Michigan State 82 Connecticut 73
North Carolina 83 Villanova 69
North Carolina 89 Michigan State 72

Butler 52 Michigan State 50
Duke 78 West Virginia 57
Duke 61 Butler 59

Connecticut 56 Kentucky 55
Butler 70 VCU 62
Connecticut 53 Butler 41

Kentucky 69 Louisville 61
Kansas 64 Ohio State 62
Kentucky 67 Kansas 59

Louisville 72 Wichita State 68
Michigan 61 Syracuse 56
Louisville 82 Michigan 76

Connecticut 63 Florida 53
Kentucky 74 Wisconsin 73
Connecticut 60 Kentucky 54

Wisconsin 71 Kentucky 64
Duke 81 Michigan State 61
Duke 68 Wisconsin 63

Villanova 95 Oklahoma 51
North Carolina 83 Syracuse 66
Villanova 77 North Carolina 74

Gonzaga 77 South Carolina 73
North Carolina 77 Oregon 76
North Carolina 71 Gonzaga 65

Michigan 69 Loyola-Chicago 57
Villanova 95 Kansas 79
Villanova 79 Michigan 62

Texas Tech 61  Michigan St. 51
Virginia 63 Auburn 62

Virginia 85 Texas Tech 77 (OT)

Top Semifinal Games

Honorable Mention

1993 National Semifinal
Michigan 81 Kentucky 78 (OT)

Michigan's Fab Five take out Jamal Mashburn led Wildcats in overtime.

Story line factor: 3
Buzzer beater factor: 9
David vs. Goliath factor: 3

1984 National Semifinal
Houston 49 Virginia 47 (OT)

Phi Slamma Jamma Coogs outgrind one year post-Ralph Sampson Cavaliers in overtime.

Story line factor: 6
Buzzer beater factor: 9
David vs. Goliath factor: 1

1987 National Semifinal
Indiana 97 UNLV 93

Bob Knight's Hoosiers led by Steve Alford's 33 points as they take out top ranked UNLV in contrast of styles.

Story line factor: 4
Buzzer beater factor: 10
David vs. Goliath factor: 3

Top 5

1983 National Semifinal
Houston 94 Louisville 81

The game was billed as Phi Slamma Jamma vs. The Doctors of Dunk and was considered the de facto national championship at the time. Louisville had won the 1980 title and had gone to the 1982 Final Four. Denny Crum's Cardinals were very athletic. The Cards came into the game 31-3. 

Guy Lewis' Cougars came in 30-2 and were one of the most athletic teams in college basketball history. They were led by Basketball Hall of Famers Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler. 

Houston’s Phi Slamma Jamma dunked 11 times in the second half, as both teams played above the rim. Akeem (later Hakeem) Olajuwon threw in 21 points and grabbed 22 rebounds to lead the top ranked Cougars into the championship game (and another college basketball classic - see below).

Story line factor: 9
Buzzer beater factor: 3
David vs. Goliath factor: 3

2004 National Semifinal
Connecticut 79 Duke 78

The Connecticut Huskies were the best team in college basketball in 2004. UConn cruised to a 24-6 regular season record and steamrolled their first four NCAA Tournament opponents by an average of 17.5 points per game.

Krzyzewski and Calhoun had squared off only three times before, but nearly every game was high stakes. Their first meeting, in the 1990 East Regional final, ended with Christian Laettner sinking a classic overtime buzzer-beater to win 79-78. The following year Laettner and the Blue Devils eliminated UConn again in the Sweet 16. Calhoun beat Duke in an unforgettable upset in the 1999 title game

The Blue Devils, led by every college basketball fan's favorite player to hate, J.J. Redick, were up eight points with less than three minutes left when they went cold. Connecticut center Emeka Okafor, who had no points and one rebound in the first half, had 18 points and six boards in the second half to lead the Huskies to a 79-78 comeback win.

Connecticut beat Georgia Tech 82-73 in the championship becoming the first school ever in Division I to win NCAA titles in men's and women's basketball in the same season.

Story line factor: 7
Buzzer beater factor: 7
David vs. Goliath factor: 5

2001 National Semifinal
Duke 95 Maryland 84

Matching up for the fourth time in the 2001-02 season, Maryland and Duke clashed for a spot in the title game. Duke had won two of the early three games, one in overtime and the other by two points. Each involved a comeback from a double-digit deficit, but they were not anywhere near this one.

Maryland, in its first ever Final Four appearance, ran out to a 39-17 lead with 6:57 to play in the first half led by Juan Dixon who scored 16 of his 19 points in the first half. Duke missed their first eight 3-point attempts.  I remember sitting next to a Maryland student and his father and I thought they were going to have strokes they were so excited.

Duke cut Maryland’s lead to 11 at the half and then blitzed the Terrapins 57-35 in the second half. The Blue Devils were led by Shane Battier's 25 points and eight rebounds. Duke advanced to the final where they were crushed 103-73 by UNLV.

Duke’s 22-point comeback remains the biggest in Final Four history.

Story line factor: 9
Buzzer beater factor: 4
David vs. Goliath factor: 6

2015 National Semifinal
Wisconsin 71 Kentucky 64

John Calipari's Kentucky team came in 38-0 and just two victories away from becoming the first men's college basketball team to go undefeated in almost forty years. But Bo Ryan's tough, physical Badgers stood in the way and they were trying to avenge a bitter 74-73 loss to the Wildcats in the national semifinal a year earlier.

The Badgers opened up an early nine-point lead and stayed ahead for most of the first half, but Kentucky pulled back to a reasonable deficit with a 6-2 run in the final two minutes. The game was tied at halftime at 36, and the Badgers had an eight-point second-half lead before the Wildcats rallied to go back in front. But the Badgers, led by national player of the year Frank Kaminsky's 20 points, made all the big shots down the stretch.

Wisconsin went on to lose the title game to Duke 68-63 in Bo Ryan's final game at the helm of the Wisconsin Badgers.

Story line factor: 9
Buzzer beater factor: 6
David vs. Goliath factor: 7

1991 National Semifinal
Duke 79 UNLV 77

It's hard to imagine that a Duke team with Christian Laettner, Bobby Hurley and Grant Hill was an underdog or in any way could invoke the "David" factor. They were making their their fourth consecutive Final Four trip and were the closest thing to a dynasty that college basketball had seen since the John Wooden coached UCLA teams twenty plus years earlier.

But the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels, coached by Jerry Tarkanian and led by future NBA first rounders Larry Johnson, Stacey Augmon, and Greg Anthony finished off a perfect regular season. The Runnin’ Rebels had easily won the 1990 national championship and pasted Duke in the final 103-73 (largest margin of victory in championship game history). They looked even better in 1991.

UNLV was 34-0 entering the matchup with Duke. Thirty-two of those wins were by double digits, so no one was even giving UNLV much of a challenge at that point. UNLV came in as 8-point favorites. They were the polar opposite of Duke. UNLV wore black hats and Duke wore white ones. 

Duke controlled the pace, maintained their poise and discipline and secured a 79-77 upset win on their way to the first of Mike Krzyzewski’s five national championships.

Story line factor: 10
Buzzer beater factor: 7
David vs. Goliath factor: 7

Top Championship Games

Honorable Mention

1987 Championship
Indiana 74  Syracuse 73

Keith Smart's 16-foot base-line jumper swished with four seconds securing a 74-73 Hoosier victory over Syracuse and the national championship for Indiana at the Superdome.

Story line factor: 5
Buzzer beater factor: 10

David vs. Goliath factor: 5

1988 Championship
Kansas 83  Oklahoma 79

Danny and the Miracles take the crown. The first half, which ended 50-50, was the most furious offensive half of basketball I ever saw.

Story line factor: 8
Buzzer beater factor: 6

David vs. Goliath factor: 8

1999 Championship
Connecticut 77  Duke 74

Connecticut knocked off Duke 77-74, earning the school's first NCAA men's basketball title in a game starring the only teams to hold the country's top ranking that season.

Story line factor: 7
Buzzer beater factor: 8

David vs. Goliath factor: 8

2019 Championship
Virginia 85  Texas Tech 77 (OT)

This one needs to cook just a bit longer before I can determine where it fits in this list. Virginia's loss as a top seed to #16 seed UMBC the year before started their run to this championship. They survived thrilling wins over Purdue in the regional final and Auburn in the national semifinal before this overtime win over Texas Tech.

Story line factor: 7
Buzzer beater factor: 10

David vs. Goliath factor: 6

1989 Championship
Michigan 80  Seton Hall 79 (OT)

Rumeal Robinson makes a pair of free throws with three seconds left in overtime capping off coach Steve Fisher's 6-0 start to his college coaching career.

Story line factor: 9
Buzzer beater factor: 10

David vs. Goliath factor: 4

1997 Championship
Arizona 84  Kentucky 79 (OT)

My Dad, who was wintering in Sun City, AZ, had made a flight reservation that forced him to leave this overtime thriller at the end of regulation! It was the first overtime championship game we saw.

Arizona to become the first team in NCAA history to beat three No. 1 seeds, including this title game victory over Kentucky, on its way to the championship.

Story line factor: 5
Buzzer beater factor: 10

David vs. Goliath factor: 8

Top 5

2008 Championship
Kansas 75  Memphis 68 (OT)

Several of my Final Four buddies are from Kansas. Like all Kansans, they like to remind me that the game was invented there. That makes me relish every agonizing Jayhawk March Madness loss; and Kansas knows how to choke and drop the heart-breakers in March.

It looked like we were headed for another one in San Antonio in the 2008 title game. The Jayhawks were down nine to Memphis with just over two minutes left. Their crazy rally was capped by Mario Chalmers launching a three-pointer with two seconds left. It swished, buying the Jayhawks five more minutes.

The overtime was a coronation for Kansas. Memphis' heart had been ripped from their collective chest on Chalmers' shot. Kansas won the for ever Final Four featuring all the top seeds.

Story line factor: 8
Buzzer beater factor: 10
David vs. Goliath factor: 5

2016 Championship
Villanova 77  North Carolina 74

Games are like a fine wine - they tend to get better with age. The memories and details soften so the mind can tell the story the like you wanted it to be more than it was. This one, however, was an INSTANT classic.

A couple of us owned Villanova in the March Madness auction and we stood to win a little over $5,000 if they won which helped raise the personal story line factor on this one.

North Carolina built a 39-34 halftime lead on the strength of a 12-5 run over the last four minutes. Villanova flipped the script in the second half after tying it 14 minutes left in the game, they built a  five-point lead by the under-eight media timeout. It was six at the under four minute media break, and it looked like the Wildcats were in control.

The Tar Heels responded to cut the lead to 70-69 with exactly a minute on the clock. Marcus Paige hit a preposterous, off-balance three-pointer to tie the game with five seconds left. Paige's shot shot so unlikely that it would have made a great signature play for this game had the final 4.7 seconds not unfolded as they did.

Instead, it set up Kris Jenkins' game-winning response, giving Villanova the sort of win that true college basketball fans always hope for!

Story line factor: 8
Buzzer beater factor: 10
David vs. Goliath factor: 7

2010 Championship
Duke 61  Butler 59

When Gordon Hayward launched his half-court shot as time expired, I swear that time stood still. Players began moving in slow motion and the 70,000 fans in Lucas Oil Stadium went silent. We were sitting at an angle that allowed us to see the shot was online as it arched toward the bucket. Everything returned to normal when the shot hit the backboard and rim and then bounded away.

I have said that I was a little concerned about what kind of mayhem would have ensued had that shot gone in. EVERY fan in the house not wearing a Duke shirt was cheering enthusiastically for Butler. But David's stone just missed its mark.

Butler was the perfect David to Duke's Goliath. Butler's trip to that title game began a couple miles up the road at Hinkle Fieldhouse, which was full of Butler fans that April night watching Hayward's shot. The season would have made a perfect sequel to the movie "Hoosiers" had that shot found the bottom of the net.

Butler was coached by a homegrown Hoosier who had given up a job in the corporate world to come back to his true love - basketball- ten years earlier. He found himself matching wits with Mike Krzyzewski, perhaps the greatest college basketball coach of all time.

Had Hayward's shot gone in, this game would sit alone at the top of this list. As it is, It's still one of the best I've been fortunate enough to see.

Story line factor: 7
Buzzer beater factor: 9

David vs. Goliath factor: 10

1985 Championship
Villanova 66  Georgetown 64

Several significant story lines here make this game special. There were three Big East (St. John's) teams at this Final Four. John Thompson's Georgetown, the Evil Empire of college basketball at that time, were working on their second consecutive national championship and a mini-dynasty. Georgetown’s image was summed up as “Hoya Paranoia”.

My wife, Judy, attended the Final Four with me that year. I remember that we sat by a Villanova student for that game and helped him hold up his home made Wildcat banner.

The Hoyas had beaten Villanova 52-50 in overtime Philly and 57-50 in Landover, MD. Both games had been typical mid-eighties Big East clashes - tense, grinding, physical battles. Georgetown was the better team.

We, like the vast majority of the 23,000 fans at Rupp Arena, were cheering for the underdog against "Hoya Paranoia". We watched as the "perfect game" played by Villanova unfolded before us. We expected that the Hoyas would make that run at any time.

Instead, Villanova made 22 of 29 field goal attempts, a mind-boggling 78.6%, including nine of 10 in the second half. It took all of that to beat Georgetown.

Story line factor: 8
Buzzer beater factor: 8
David vs. Goliath factor: 10

1983 Championship
North Carolina State 54  Houston 52

I remember when we got ticket for this Final Four in the NCAA lottery, we saw the "Row 7" and were ecstatic!. We were a bit disappointed when we got to Albuquerque's "Pit" and realized that they number the rows from the top of the arena because street level is the top row. But even from the seventh row from the top, this was the most unbelievable college basketball game I have ever witnessed.

What it looked like from the seventh row (from the top!)
North Carolina State's unlikely run to the title was punctuated by the thrilling title game victory over Houston's Phi Slamma Jama. It was a storyline you could not make up! They had survived a 69-67 double overtime win over Pepperdine in which they had rallied from six points back in the last 30 seconds of the first OT. Then they won 71-70 on a tip-in in the final seconds over UNLV when the Rebels blew a 12-point lead by missing several free throws. Then they won 63-62 in the Elite Eight over Ralph Sampson and Virginia. The Cavaliers out shot the Wolfpack 63.4-47.3 percent but suffered a crucial miss from the line.

Everyone has seen the video of "the tip" and then Coach Jim Valvano's mad scramble around the court looking for someone to hug. I distinctly remember how The Pit got silent for a split second when Lorenzo Charles took Dereck Whittenburg's 30 footer that was short and flushed it - as if to let it sink in!

It was my second Final Four and after that one, I vowed to never miss another!

Story line factor: 10
Buzzer beater factor: 10
David vs. Goliath factor: 10

I've been very fortunate to see some classic college basketball games. I look forward to college basketball (and life) getting back to normal. And I look forward to updating this list!

April 6, 2020 update: On April 6, 2020, NBC Sports published their list of best national title games in college basketball history. Sports Illustrated published their list of the the best Final Four games of all-time on April 4. Both of these lists have the game above on their lists.

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