Ranking the Greatest NCAA Basketball Tournament Champions Ever
The Kentucky Wildcats are currently 28-1, while the Syracuse Orange are 29-1. If either team is able to run the table the rest of the way, it would surely go down as one of the greatest college basketball teams of all time.
But who is already in that discussion? Who has dominated March (and April) on their way to becoming the greatest Final Four champion ever?
The UCLA Bruins had a few good teams in the 1960s and 1970s.
NBA legends such as Michael Jordan, Bill Russell and Patrick Ewing all led pretty solid teams in college, too.
There are lots of solid candidates, but we can only pick 10.
When compiling the list, I didn't include multiple teams. For example, UCLA won 10 National Championships in 12 years, and I probably could have used every one of those squads, but I only used one Lew Alcindor team and one Bill Walton team.
With that in mind, here's a look at the 10 greatest champions in college basketball history.
10. 1983-84 Georgetown Hoyas
The 1984 Georgetown Hoyas, mostly on the back of seven-footer Patrick Ewing, finished off a 34-3 season with a convincing 84-75 victory over Hakeem Olajuwon's Houston team to win the National Championship.
Not only did the Hoyas have Ewing, who averaged 16.4 points and 10.0 rebounds per game, but they also had several key role-players such as David Wingate, Michael Jackson, Reggie Williams and Bill Martin.
After escaping against SMU in the first round (37-36, what happened there?), Georgetown went on to beat the rest of its opponents by an average of 12 points.
If Georgetown didn't suffer a one-point loss against North Carolina in the 1982 final and a two-point loss against Villanova in the 1985 final, we would be talking about how this team had one of the best dynasties of all time.
Instead, we'll just talk about how the '84 squad is one of the best teams of all time.
9. 1989-90 UNLV Runnin' Rebels
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Jerry Tarkanian's 1991 UNLV squad was probably the better team, but the Runnin' Rebels were beat that season—their only loss—by Duke in the Final Four.
UNLV's two-year run was so remarkable, though, that the 1990 team—which had the same core players—needs to be included despite the fact that they lost five games.
The 35-5 Runnin' Rebels, led by a trio of Larry Johnson, Stacey Augmon and Greg Anthony, scored 93.5 points per game in 1990. They lived up to their Runnin' Rebels nickname, as they ran everyone they faced out of the gym.
UNLV started off the tournament beating Arkansas-Little Rock by 30, then later beating Loyola Marymount in the regional final by 30 and finishing the season by beating Duke in the National Championship by—you guessed it—30. It was the biggest blowout in National Championship history.
Throw in a nine-point victory over Georgia Tech in the Final Four, and the Runnin' Rebels won the last three games of the tournament against the country's best by an average of 23 points.
The five losses were apparently a product of UNLV just breezing through the regular season, but they proved in postseason play that they were one of the greatest and most dominating teams of all time.
8. 1991-92 Duke Blue Devils
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With guys such as Christian Laettner, Grant Hill and Bobby Hurley, the 1992 Duke Blue Devils certainly had talent, but they combined that with quite a bit of magic, too.
What we're talking about, of course, is the regional final against Kentucky, arguably the greatest game of all time.
You know all about it. Hill threw a 75-foot assist to Laettner, who seemingly moved in slow motion to make the free-throw line jumper at the buzzer and capped off a 104-103 win in overtime to move on to the Final Four.
That amazing, hard-fought battle might make you think the 34-2 Blue Devils weren't as dominating as other teams on this list, but what they did to Michigan in the National Championship should change those feelings.
Although seemingly everyone was backing Michigan's Fab Five team, Duke handled the Wolverines with ease, beating them 71-51 to win a second straight championship.
Duke wasn't everyone's favorite team, but guard Marty Clark summed it up best:
"Certainly that team flew under the wings of Christian Laettner and Brian Davis. They took all of the negative attention and used it to fuel everyone’s tank. Christian could step out and make posts play him as perimeter player—he made Shaquille O’Neal look silly sometimes in the victory over LSU."
7. 1981-82 North Carolina Tar Heels
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Sam Perkins, James Worthy and Michael Jordan.
Although Jordan was a mere freshman, that was a trio unlike any other.
Perkins went on to have a terrific NBA career, while Worthy and Jordan became part of the NBA's 50 Greatest Players of All Time, with Jordan undoubtedly topping that list.
They produced pretty well in the college, too.
In just his second year, Perkins averaged 14.3 points, 7.8 rebounds, and more than a steal and a block per game for the champion Tar Heels.
Worthy was the obvious leader. He led the team in scoring with 15.6 points per game while chipping in more than six rebounds, two assists, a block and a steal. In the National Championship, he out-ran Georgetown's Patrick Ewing on his way to 28 points and was "the most explosive he's ever been," according to Perkins.
As a freshman, Jordan averaged 13.5 points per game, but it was his magical, game-winning shot against Georgetown that truly put him on the map.
And in case that wasn't enough, the Tar Heels were coached by the legendary Dean Smith, who won his first National Championship that year.
6. 1973-74 N.C. State Wolfpack
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In 1974 the UCLA Bruins were on their way to what looked like an unprecedented eighth straight National Championship. UCLA was set to face the N.C. State Wolfpack—a team the Bruins had already beaten—in the Final Four.
But the Wolfpack—led by David Thompson (arguably the best player in ACC history), Tom Burleson (a 7'3" monster) and a slew of role-players—knocked off the powerful Bruins by three points.
N.C. State proceeded to roll over Marquette in the final by a score of 76-64.
As the talented point guard of that team, Monte Towe later said the Wolfpack weren't the most talented team, but it didn't matter.
"Winning was everything. Nobody would let the other guys down. There may have been more talented teams—Maryland stands out to me—but we were the toughest. It started with Norm Sloan and with David, who was so humble and talented but wanted to win like no player I’d ever seen."
Nonetheless, they went 30-1, absolutely rolled through the NCAA tournament and beat the mighty UCLA, so the Wolfpack easily earn a spot on this list.
5. 1975-76 Indiana Hoosiers
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Led by head coach Bob Knight, the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers silenced all doubters as they put together a perfect 32-0 season, the last time that was ever done.
The Hoosiers had three All-Americans: Scott May, Kent Benson and Quinn Buckner.
They had four players who would be drafted into the NBA that same year: May, Buckner, Bob Wilkerson and Tom Abernathy.
They had another three who would be drafted in the next three years: Benson, Wayne Radford and Bob Bender.
This team doesn't have a marquee name like Alcindor or Walton, but it was insanely talented and deep.
In the Final Four, Indiana rolled over defending champion and powerhouse UCLA by a score of 65-51. It was the second time that season the Hoosiers had defeated the Bruins, with the first coming by a margin of 20 points.
That first win was a "blast that shattered a dynasty," as SI's Barry McDermott put it.
Then, in the National Championship, Indiana once again proved it was the better squad than Michigan, as the Hoosiers beat UM for the third time that season.
What's more, they won the title game without Wilkerson, their lanky starting guard, who was knocked out cold in the opening minutes and was forced to miss the entire game.
It was a season of accomplishment after accomplishment for Bob Knight's underrated—underrated in history, I mean—squad.
4. 1971-72 UCLA Bruins
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The 1972 UCLA Bruins, led by Bill Walton, Henry Bibby and Swen Nater, went 30-0 and won by an average margin of 32 points per game.
Walton was just a freshman, but played like a senior. The Big Red-Head averaged 21.1 points and 15.5 rebounds en route to his first of three National Player of the Year awards.
Having one of the most dominating players in college basketball history is one thing.
Adding future NBAers Bibby, Nater and Keith Wilkes on top of that just makes it unfair.
But that's pretty much what all those UCLA teams were—unfair.
Usually, when a team wins the National Championship, its players are happy. Not Walton, though.
"'I'm really embarrassed,' Walton said. 'I can't believe how bad I played. I'd have to say it was one of my worst games. We should have beat these guys with ease. I guess I should be happy that we won, but, in all honesty, I'm not.'"
That just goes to show how dominating this team really was.
3. 1955-56 San Francisco Dons
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The 1956 San Francisco Dons won the national title for the second year in a row. They make this list over the '55 team because, well, Bill Russell and K.C. Jones were a year older.
The 6'10" Russell led a suffocating San Francisco defense, as the Dons went 29-0 and pushed their winning streak to 55 games. The big man was dominant on the offensive end as well, averaging 20.6 points and 21 rebounds game. He was the unquestioned leader and easily the best player in America.
Russell was a rockstar.
But what makes this team so special is what it did during the tourney that year.
Jones, an Olympic champion and future Hall of Famer, was ineligible for the entire tournament. He may have been lost in the shadow of Russell, but as this SI article from 1956 pointed out, his worth shouldn't have been understated.
"Jones is still recognized as All-America timber in his own right by those inside the game. With his brilliant speed, deadly set shot from outside and dogged defensive ability, he has been the perfect foil for the elongated Russell, who operates entirely from close under the basket. In addition, Jones is also captain of the Dons, their play-maker and spark, and the friend as well as teammate upon whom the sometimes diffident Russell leans for support."
And without all that, the Dons still steamrolled through the tournament. Just imagine what they would have done with Jones in the lineup.
2. 1995-96 Kentucky Wildcats
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The '96 Kentucky Wildcats were so dominating it's hard to describe.
Where exactly would you start with The Untouchables?
Do you point to the fact that they went 34-2, rolled off 27 straight wins and absolutely ran circles around everyone in the NCAA tournament, winning six games by an average of 21 points?
Or do you talk about how they featured Antoine Walker, Tony Delk and Walter McCarty, three first-round picks in 1996, and Mark Pope, a second-rounder?
Or how they also had guys such as Derek Anderson, Ron Mercer, Nazr Mohammed, Jeff Sheppard and Wayne Turner, who all made it to the NBA?
Or do you just let Walker explain it all for you?
"We would go out and force 20, 30 turnovers, and you’d look up and we’d have 70 points in the first half and we’d take it easy and still wind up with 100. Those UMass games—they were the only guys who could keep up with us, but we got them in the tournament."
Look at it this way: The '96 Kentucky team had as much NBA talent as this year or last year's Kentucky team had, but it wasn't a bunch of freshmen who had lottery pick status. Walker was a sophomore, Delk was a senior, and McCarty and Anderson were juniors.
Talent plus experience is something most teams don't have these days, but Kentucky had it in bunches in 1996.
1. 1967-68 UCLA Bruins
Photo courtesy of USA Today
It's hard to pick just one of the five UCLA teams that won a National Championship in the 1960s, so we'll defer to the great John Wooden:
"'I've never come out and said it, but it would be hard to pick a team over the 1968 team.'"
And that is a tough statement to argue against.
The Bruins went 29-1 that season with their only loss coming at Houston, a game in which Player of the Year Lew Alcindor was injured. No worries, though, because UCLA got a chance to avenge that two-point loss as they matched up with Houston again in the Final Four.
And avenge, they did.
UCLA thrashed Elvin Hayes' Houston team by 32 points with a 101-69 victory. The Bruins then went on to beat North Carolina in the final by a "mere" 23 points. Alcindor had 34 points and 16 rebounds in the title game to cap off a season in which he averaged 26.2 points and 16.5 rebounds.
It's hard to find a player who was more dominating in college than Alcindor, and it's hard to find a greater team than his '68 squad, although his '67 and '69 teams weren't too shabby, either.