Tuesday, April 05, 2016

Tuesday Top Ten: NCAA Tournament Championship Games Since 1978

In case you missed it, last night's NCAA Tournament championship game between Villanova and North Carolina was one for the ages.  UNC's Marcus Paige made an insane acrobatic three with 4.7 seconds left to tie the game at 74.  Villanova then called a timeout to draw up a play.  They went with something nearly identical to the play Indiana ran in December 2011 to beat Kentucky on Christian Watford's game-winning three.  The Wildcats' senior guard Ryan Arcidiacono brought the ball up the court, before dropping it off to Kris Jenkins, who buried a 25-footer as time expired, giving Villanova its second NCAA title in school history.

It was a hell of a finish to a hell of a tournament.  The first weekend of this year's tournament was the most exciting in recent memory.  After a less-than-thrilling Sweet 16, Elite Eight, and national semifinals, Villanova and North Carolina put on a show in the title game, going back and forth until the thrilling end.  With the win, Villanova becomes the first Catholic school to win the title since, well, Villanova in 1985.

But the question immediately became:  where does this rank amongst the great NCAA championship games?  That seems like a tall task, so I'm just going to try to tackle that question as it relates to games in my lifetime.  The 1978 NCAA Tournament was the first of my lifetime, so apologies to those of you who witnessed the epic three-overtime game in the 1957 championship, or Loyola's overtime upset of two-time defending champ Cincinnati in the 1963 championship game, or even IU's "perfect half," outscoring Michigan by 26 in the second half of the 1976 title game to finish off Division 1's last undefeated season.

Save for the 1988 "Danny and the Miracles" championship game, I have watched every NCAA Championship game in its entirety since the 1987 title game, and I have seen the highlights of just about all of the other ones in my lifetime.  There have been a lot of good ones and a lot of bad ones.  Here are what I think are the ten best NCAA Tournament championship games of my lifetime:

10.  1979:  Michigan State 75 Indiana State 64
The game itself wasn't as good as the other ones on this list, but this game was probably the most important NCAA title game in history.  It was Magic vs. Bird, Round 1.  Indiana State came into the game undefeated –- the last school to make it as far as the NCAA championship game without a loss -– but they were still seen as somewhat of an underdog.  This game is still the highest-rated NCAA basketball game in history, and it is credited not only with increasing interest in the Final Four and NCAA Tournament, but also with revitalizing the NBA, as two of the league's biggest stars over the next decade battled on a national stage for the first of many times.

9.  2008:  Kansas 75 Memphis 68 (OT)
In the 2008 final, both Kansas and Memphis were stacked 1-seeds, and the game played out just as everyone college basketball fan had hoped.  Memphis was looking to become the first team from a non "Big Six" conference (ACC, Big 8/Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Pac-10/Pac-12, or SEC) since UNLV in 1990, while Kansas was gunning to throw off the "always a bridesmaid" label and win its 3rd NCAA title.  It was a close game throughout, although Kansas was down nine with a little over two minutes left, but stormed back.  After Memphis's Derrick Rose made one of two free throws with 10 seconds left in regulation to put the Tigers up 63-60.  Then, the Jayhawks' Mario Chalmers hit a step-back three from the top of the key with 2.1 seconds left to force overtime, where the Tigers just couldn't quite make the shots they needed to make.

8.  1993:  North Carolina 77 Michigan 71
Just so we're clear, I hated Michigan in the early '90s.  Even though my mom and nearly her entire side of the family went to Michigan, I never liked the Wolverines.  My hatred grew to a rolling boil in the early '90s with Fab Five because, out of nowhere, everyone was suddenly a Michigan fan and felt the need to talk shit to me, knowing that I was an Indiana fan, even though none of these clowns had any connection to Michigan.  (By the way, IU went 3-1 against the Fab Five, and Michigan's sole win has since been vacated.)  Anyway, you can imagine that I was particularly livid in 1993, when IU was the #1 team in the country and beat Michigan twice, but then lost Alan Henderson for the rest of the year due to a late-season injury.  The Hoosiers lost in the Elite Eight and were the only #1 seed that didn't make it to the Final Four.  I was rooting hard for North Carolina against Michigan, and my spite paid off.  With 20 seconds left in the game, Michigan was down two and inbounded the ball to Chris Webber, who promptly traveled, but the referees were the only three people in the universe who didn't see it.  But as the kids say, ball don't lie.  After bringing the ball past the half-court line, Webber got trapped by UNC's defenders and called a timeout.  The thing was, Michigan didn't have any timeouts left, so that was a technical foul.  Carolina hit its free throws to ice the game and send the Fab Five packing.

7.  1985:  Villanova 66 Georgetown 64
Lead by future NBA Hall of Famer Patrick Ewing, Georgetown was a 10-point favorite and had beaten Villanova, an unranked 8-seed, twice that season already.  The Wildcats' head coach Rollie Massimino said before the game that his team needed to play a perfect game to beat Georgetown, and they did, shooting an astounding 78.6% from the field for the game and missing only one shot in the second half.  Even with those stats, the game still came down to the final seconds, with Villanova hitting free throws over the last minute to complete the biggest upset in NCAA title game history.

6.  2010:  Duke 61 Butler 59
Played in Butler's hometown of Indianapolis, this was a David vs. Goliath game.  Duke, a 1-seed, was playing in its 15th Final Four and its 10th NCAA title game.  Butler, a 5-seed, made it past the Sweet 16 for the first time in school history.  But the Bulldogs were scrappy, keeping pace with the Blue Devils throughout the game.  No team led by more than 5 or 6 points.  After Duke's Brian Zoubek missed the second of two free throws with 3.6 seconds left, with Butler down two, Gordon Hayward -- the Baby-Faced Assassin -- put up a half-court shot that bounced off the backboard and rim, nearly making the greatest shot in NCAA title game history.

5.  1989:  Michigan 80 Seton Hall 79 (OT)
This was the first NCAA championship game I watched live in its entirety, and it was a great game, but first, let's talk about how we got there.  Just before the NCAA Tournament started, Michigan head coach Bill Frieder announced that he was accepting the job at Arizona State.  Rather than let Frieder coach the Wolverines in the NCAA Tournament, Michigan AD Bo Schembechler fired Frieder and promoted assistant Steve Fisher to the head coaching position.  All Fisher did was take the Wolverines to the title game, where they faced Seton Hall.  The game went into overtime.  With Michigan trailing by three with less than a minute left, Wolverine Terry Mills hit a jumper to cut the lead to one.  Seton Hall then failed to score on its possession and fouled Michigan guard Rumeal Robinson with three seconds left.  Robinson coolly sank both free throws, and the Pirates missed what would have been the game-winning shot, giving Michigan its first and only NCAA title.

4.  1982:  North Carolina 63 Georgetown 62
This was the game in which a UNC freshman named Mike Jordan hit the game-winning shot with 15 seconds left to become Michael Jordan.  Then, Georgetown guard Fred Brown had a brain fart and accidentally passed the ball right to UNC's James Worthy, who missed both free throws, giving the Hoyas one last chance.  However, Sleepy Floyd missed the would-be game winner from half court, and His Airness was born.

3.  2016:  Villanova 77 North Carolina 74
Every time one team would get ahead by 6 or 7 points, the other team would claw its way back.  Villanova got up by ten with 5:29 left and was up six with less than two minutes left before UNC hit a couple big shots, including Marcus Paige's Jordan-eqsue three with 4.7 seconds left to tie it up.  And then Kris Jenkins etched his name in NCAA Tournament lore, sinking the game winner and sending the Wildcats into pandemonium and the Tar Heels into tears.  I'm putting this ahead of the Jordan game because MJ hit his game winner with 15 seconds left, while Jenkins hit is as time expired.

2.  1987:  Indiana 74 Syracuse 73
Clearly, I'm biased, but this was a great game.  It was the first NCAA title game I remember watching.  We were on vacation out of the country, so my dad asked a fellow IU grad to tape the game for him, should the Hoosiers make it that far.  Of course, we didn't have a VCR, so we had to borrower the friend's VCR to watch the tape of the game that he had recorded for us.  The game itself was fantastic.  Trailing 73-70 in the final minute, the Hoosiers' Keith Smart made two baskets, including the now-famous 18-foot fall-away jumper from the corner with five seconds left to give IU its fifth NCAA championship.

1.  1983:  NC State 54 Houston 52
There was no way #1 ranked Houston, a 7.5-point favorite featuring three future NBA first-round picks (Clyde Drexler, Akeem Olajuwon, and Michael Young) and a team that hadn't lost since mid-December, was going to lose to 6-seeded NC State, a team that had to win the ACC Tournament just to get into the Big Dance.  But that is why they play the game.  One of the most enduring sequences in college basketball history occurred in the final seconds.  With the game tied at 52, Wolfpack guard Dereck Whittenburg -- after nearly getting the ball stolen from him -- chucked up an air ball from 35 feet out with a couple seconds left.  As it came down, center Lorenzo Charles grabbed it out of the air and dunked it home for the winning basket and one of the biggest upsets in NCAA history.  And then, of course, NC State head coach Jim Valvano ran around the court frantically just looking for someone to hug.  That sequence could not have been scripted better if Angelo Pizzo had written it.

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