The NCAA men’s basketball tournament is a beautiful spectacle of drama and unforgettable moments.
And while the upsets and great performances for three weeks create memories for fans and players, the event isn’t necessarily the best way to determine a national champion.
A single-elimination tournament with 68 teams is going to lead to chaos where brackets are imperfect and some teams get easier paths to the Final Four. The pressure of performing every game also leads to some favorites getting knocked off by a great night from an unexpected opponent.
So while the nets are cut down every April and a champion is crowned, that doesn’t mean the best team won. There are many great teams that have fallen short.
LOOKING AHEAD:College basketball’s way-too-early men’s preseason top 25 for 2021-22
DESERVES RESPECT:Don’t let loss to Baylor detract from what coach Mark Few has done at Gonzaga
A look at the seven best not to win a championship since the tournament expanded to 48 teams in 1980:
Phi Slama Jama. Those three words are enough to conjure up memories of the Cougars and their rare athletic talent. Clyde Drexler on the outside and Hakeem Olajuwon on the inside drew most of the attention, but it was lefty forward Michael Young that led the team in scoring. Houston only lost to Syracuse and Virginia early in the season before running off a 25-game win streak entering the Final Four. The Cougars’ high-flying performance against No. 1 Louisville in their national semifinal left no doubt what would happen to what seemed to be an overmatched North Carolina State team. Except the Wolfpack somehow stayed close and stunned the Cougars on a last-second dunk by Lorenzo Charles. You may have seen that highlight once or twice before.
Patrick Ewing was a senior and the Hoyas returned much of the team that won the national title in the previous season. Reggie Williams, Bill Martin and David Wingate helped supplement the offense. The defense of the Hoyas was equally difficult to solve. John Thompson’s pressure system was helped by having Ewing as an eraser down low. Consecutive losses to St. John’s and Syracuse were the only two defeats during the regular season as they navigated a difficult Big East schedule. The league would place three teams in the Final Four. Georgetown would beat St. John’s handily in the semifinal before facing Villanova in the championship game. The Hoyas had won the two regular-season meetings, but the Wildcats would pull a huge upset by shooting 22-for-28 from the field in a near-perfect performance that was clinched by late free throws.
As feared as Houston and Georgetown were, the Runnin’ Rebels may have had the biggest intimidation factor of any college basketball team in this era. Already champions from the previous season when it beat Duke by 30 in the title game, UNLV was perfect during its 30 games of the regular season and riding an overall 41-game winning streak before the tournament. Only Arkansas had played within 10 points of the Rebels in the regular season. It wasn’t a question of if they would repeat, but by how much. Larry Johnson was a dominant inside presence with the backcourt of Greg Anthony and Anderson Hunt providing outside threats. Stacey Augmon was an elite defender in Jerry Tarkanian’s amoeba defense. Four opponents were dispatched with relative ease as UNLV reached the Final Four, which set up a rematch with Duke in the national semifinals. The Blue Devils would frustrate the Rebels by largely nullifying Johnson. A late run capped by two Christian Laettner free throws gave the Blue Devils a shocking win after Hunt’s potential game-winning 3-pointer missed badly at the buzzer.
Eight years later, it was the Blue Devils that were the overwhelming favorite in the tournament. Their only loss in the regular season was a two-point defeat to Cincinnati in November. What followed was an unprecedented 16-0 run through the ACC where only Georgia Tech would stay within 10 points of the Blue Devils. Their three wins in the conference tournament were by a combined 75 points. Sophomore forward Elton Brad was the star with Trajan Langdon and William Avery providing the scoring from the backcourt. The depth was so great Corey Maggette would come off the bench in his only college season and future national player of the year Shane Battier was the sixth-leading scorer as a sophomore. All five were taken in the first 14 picks of their respective NBA drafts. The Blue Devils would roll into the championship game against Connecticut, but the Huskies stayed close and made the key plays late to win by three and end Duke’s 32-game win streak.
A three-guard lineup of Deron Williams, Dee Brown and Luther Head powered the Fighting Illini to 29 consecutive wins to start the season. They were first ranked No. 1 in December and held that spot in the final 15 polls. Only a one-point loss to Ohio State in the regular-season finale spoiled an unbeaten Big Ten campaign. It was smooth sailing in the tournament until the Elite Eight when Arizona was close to pulling off a major upset with a 15-point lead with just more than four minutes left. Illinois rallied and tied the game when Williams hit a three and would go on to win in overtime. The first step at the Final Four was a rout of Louisville, which led to a showdown with North Carolina. The size of the Tar Heels caused trouble, especially with big man James Augustine playing just nine minutes due to foul trouble. Still, the Illini had a chance to tie in the final seconds but Head’s three missed.
John Calipari built this team with one-and-done talents Karl-Anthony Towns, Devin Booker, and Trey Lyles – all future first-round picks – teaming with twin guards Aaron and Andrew Harrison, who were veterans as sophomores, and junior Willie Cauley-Stein, another first-round NBA draft pick. The Wildcats reeled off 34 wins ahead of Selection Sunday with only a few scares in their unbeaten run through the SEC. But like the 1991 UNLV team, Kentucky got to the Final Four and were facing a team looking for revenge from the previous season. Wisconsin had lost to the Wildcats in the 2014 national semifinals and got another opportunity in Indianapolis. Frank Kaminsky’s 20 points and a go-ahead, 3-pointer by Sam Dekker with less than two minutes left keyed the upset as the Wildcats went home two wins short of the championship.
The second unbeaten to reach the title game since Indiana had its perfect season in 1976, the Bulldogs were dominant in the regular season and topped the nation in scoring with All-Americans Drew Timme and Corey Kispert leading the way. While they played in the West Coast Conference, they supplemented that less-challenging schedule with non-conference games against Kansas, Virginia, Iowa and West Virginia. The Mountaineers were the only team to stay within 10 points of them before the Final Four. That’s where things got challenging. Gonzaga survived an overtime thriller against UCLA when freshman Jalen Suggs banked in a 3-pointer at the buzzer. In the title game against Baylor, the Bulldogs appeared to lack energy and the cohesiveness they had all season. The Bears jumped on them early and rolled to a convincing win.