NCAA Final Four: Top 5 Championship Runners-Up
Winning isn't everything, right?
Try telling that to the teams that came oh-so close to obtaining NCAA basketball glory. Each year a champion is crowned, and each year one team walks back to the locker room wondering what could have been.
To capture the NCAA tournament title, a team has to string together six straight victories. Winning the title separates the "great" from the "very good" teams. Some of the best teams in college basketball history suffered just one or two losses all year, but they failed to seize the NCAA championship plaque. One of these teams even set the national record for wins in a season (the record has since been vacated—hint, hint), but each one of them failed to come away victorious on that magical Monday night that wraps up March Madness.
This list ranks the best teams that reached the finale of the Big Dance but failed to come out on top. If Kentucky were to lose to Kansas on Monday night in New Orleans, you could make a strong argument that the Wildcats would crack this list—perhaps as the top team.
Winning may not be everything, but it sure as hell doesn't make losing any easier.
No. 5 -- 1997 Kentucky
Championship: Lost 84-79 in OT to No. 4 seed Arizona.
Arizona stunned the college basketball world by knocking off the defending national champions in a thrilling overtime game. Kentucky rolled through most of the tournament and decisively defeated another No. 1 seed in its Final Four matchup (78-69 over Minnesota). The Wildcats were led by two lottery picks (Ron Mercer - sixth overall, Derek Anderson - 13th). The 1996 Kentucky team was considered by some to be the best college basketball team ever, and many Wildcat faithful continue to relish upon the fact that they probably were the best team in the '97 Final Four—but they didn't get the job done. Although three No. 1 seeds reached the Final Four that season, it was No. 4 Arizona that captured the title.
No. 4 -- 2008 Memphis*
Championship: Lost 75-68 in OT to No. 1 seed Kansas
Notice the asterisk. Although Memphis notched an NCAA record 38 wins during the 2007-08 season, each and every win was vacated for violation of NCAA rules. Perhaps the Tigers were the closest of these teams to grasping the title, but missed free throws down the stretch in the championship game left the door open for Kansas—and Mario Chalmers made history with his shot to send the game to overtime.
Memphis started the season 26-0 before losing to No. 2 Tennessee. The Tigers had little trouble reaching the Final Four. All four No. 1 seeds reached the national semifinals, and the Tigers thrashed UCLA 78-63 to reach the championship. With a talented roster led by No. 1 overall pick and NBA MVP Derrick Rose, the Tigers were too good not to include on this list—even if the NCAA does not recognize their accomplishments.
No. 3 -- 2005 Illinois
Championship: Lost 75-70 to No. 1 seed North Carolina
The top two teams in 2005 survived the field and reached the championship game in a highly anticipated matchup. In this battle between juggernauts, the No. 2 Tar Heels came out on top. The Illini featured some of the best perimeter passing that college basketball had ever seen, but the Tar Heels and their four lottery picks proved too much. The No. 3 overall draft pick Deron Williams led a trio of guards that kept the Illini undefeated until they lost at the buzzer in the last game of the regular season. Dee Brown was the Big Ten Player of the Year, and Luther Head was also a first-round draft pick. Illinois won 29 straight games before suffering its first loss.
Williams' best performance came in a memorable Elite Eight win against No. 3 seed Arizona. Illinois erased a 15-point deficit with four minutes left and won 90-89 in overtime to reach the Final Four.
No. 2 -- 1985 Georgetown
Championship: Lost 66-64 to No. 8 seed Villanova
Villanova pulled off one of the biggest upsets in NCAA history to capture the title over its Big East rival. The Wildcats had to play a perfect game (they shot 90 percent in the second half) to defeat a Hoyas squad that had six future NBA players, including the 1985 No. 1 overall pick in Patrick Ewing. Georgetown was the defending national champion, had won the Big East tournament and had rolled into the Final Four. Many considered Georgetown's 77-59 semifinal win over St. John's to be the actual national championship, but Villanova had other ideas. Georgetown was ranked No. 1 in the Associated Press and Coaches' polls throughout most of the season.
No. 1 -- 1999 Duke
Championship: Lost 77-74 to No. 1 seed Connecticut
Rip Hamilton shocked the world and led UConn past arguably the greatest Duke team ever. This Blue Devil squad stormed to the Final Four, winning its first and second round games by a combined 82 points. The smallest margin of victory that Duke had before its Final Four win over Michigan State was 17 points. The Blue Devil roster featured five NBA players, four of which were lottery picks that same year. Elton Brand was the No. 1 overall pick, and Shane Battier and Corey Maggette were two other notable players that led Duke.
Duke lost its sixth game of the season to Cincinnati by two points and then reeled off 32 straight wins to reach the national championship. The Blue Devils crushed North Carolina by 23 points in the ACC tournament championship.