It takes a special team, and often a lot of luck to win an NCAA championship. The best team doesn’t always win. Even at the best programs, their best team isn’t necessarily the one that won a title. Often, the team that wins is the one that perseveres, survives, advances and wins along the way.
Sometimes an injury can derail a special season. A turnover at an inopportune time, a poor shooting night or missed free throws can end a dream season. Here are 25 teams that had dreams seasons end short of expectations.
The Huskies were still searching for the schools' first Final Four appearance in '96. They were 32-2 and the Southeast region’s top seed entering their Sweet 16 match-up with Mississippi State.
They went 17-1 in the Big East, and won the tournament title as well. The Rebels ended UConn’s dream season 60-55. The Huskies star backcourt of Ray Allen and Doron Sheffer made just 12 of 39 field goals, as UConn shot just 32.1 percent in the loss.
In a season considered by many to be the greatest in the history of the Big East, the Cardinals won the regular season title with a 16-2 record. They followed that up with the Big East Tournament title.
After winning their first three tournament games by an average of 22 points, the Cardinals were stymied by Michigan State 64-52 in the Regional Final in Indianapolis. Louisville lost star forwards Terrence Williams and Earl Clark to the NBA following the season, and went the following two seasons without an NCAA Tournament win.
South Carolina was 14-0 in the ACC and 25-3 overall in 1970. A heartbreaking 42-39 loss in double overtime to NC State in the ACC Tournament championship game prevented the Gamecocks from securing an NCAA Tournament bid. In those days, only one team from each conference advanced.
Southern Cal was ranked No. 2 in 1971. USC finished the 1971 season 24-2 and ranked No. 3 in the country before the NCAA Tournament began. Their only two losses that season were to eventual national champion UCLA.
At that time, only conference champions were invited to the NCAA tournament. UCLA’s stranglehold on the then Pac-8 prevented any other Pac teams from receiving invites to the tournament.
Arizona and Duke entered the 2001 season as the top two teams. After losing five of its first 13 games, the Wildcats won 20 of their next 22 games before losing to Duke in the National Championship game.
Arizona won four of its first five tournament games by double digits, including a win over defending national champion Michigan State in the National Semifinal. 4 players from Arizona's 2001 team and five from Duke's went on to play in the NBA.
Bradley went 32-5 in 1950 with two of those losses coming to CCNY in the NCAA and NIT Championship games.
The NCAA Championship game was especially heartbreaking. Bradley guard Gene Melchiorre wasn’t able to convert a shot that would have given the Braves the title. Both games were played at Madison Square Garden.
The fighting Illini have had their share of disappointments during many NCAA Tournaments runs. Their 2005 season was magical. They almost missed the Final Four, but a miracle run against Arizona put them in their first Final Four in 16 years. In just his second season, Bruce Weber led the Illini to a 32-2 regular season record including a Big Ten Tournament title.
The Illini went to the school’s first NCAA Championship game before losing 75-70 to North Carolina.
Arizona was coming off a miracle run to a National Championship from the year before. The Wildcats returned all five starters from their championship team. After winning their first three rounds by an average of nearly 27 points per game, no one could have imagined Utah ending Arizona’s season. Rick Majerus employed a triangle and two against Miles Simon and Mike Bibby to perfection.
Arizona’s big three of Simon, Bibby and Michael Dickerson shot just 6-36. Andre Miller had a triple double, Alex Jensen and Michael Doleac had double-doubles and five Utes scored in double figures to shock the top-seeded Wildcats.
Utah would advance to the National Championship game before losing to Kentucky, the team Arizona defeated in the 1997 final to capture the National Championship.
Michigan and the Fab Five took the college basketball world by storm when they advanced the National Championship with five freshmen starters in 1992.
The Wolverines were 31-4 entering the 1993 National Championship game. Trailing by one with 11 seconds remaining, Chris Webber called the infamous timeout not realizing Michigan didn’t have any. North Carolina converted their free throws to clinch Dean Smith’s second title in the same venue he won his first 11 years earlier.
Webber left for the NBA after the season, and Michigan has not been back to the Final Four since.
Connecticut finished the 2006 season 30-3, and had six players drafted in the NBA. They were the overwhelming favorites to win the National Championship. They needed a late Denham Brown basket to force overtime in the regional final. Playing George Mason just 20 miles from its campus, The Huskies lost to the Cinderella Patriots.
Duke’s 2002 team was the defending National Champion and had been the National runner-up in 1999. They Blue Devils scored 84 points in each of their first two Tournament games, including an 84-37 romp over Winthrop in the first round. Five players off of the 2002 roster would turn play in the NBA.
They raced to a 29-12 lead in the first half before Indiana was slowly able to comeback. The Hoosiers eventually had a four point lead with four seconds remaining when Duke’s Jay Williams was fouled after hitting a three point field goal. He missed the free throw that would’ve tied the game. Duke finished the season 31-4.
Memphis finished the 2008 season 38-2 with Derrick Rose and Chris Douglas-Roberts behind them.The Tigers had a nine point lead on Kansas with just over two minutes left in the National Championship game.
Rose and CDR missed four of five free throws in the last minute and a half of regulation. Their season long 61.4 free throw percentage had been talked about as to whether or not it would cost the Tigers eventually.
KU’s Mario Chalmers’ three pointer with two seconds left in regulation tied it and Jayhawks controlled overtime for their first title in 20 years.
Rose and CDR went to the NBA after the season and John Calipari lasted only one more year before leaving for Kentucky.
Some schools continuously turn out great teams, while others ride great players into magical seasons.
Indiana State won its first 33 games during the 1979 season. Larry Bird averaged 28.6 PPG, 14.9 RPG and 5.5 assists per game. Carl Nicks supported Bird with 19.3 PPG.
The Sycamores fell short of their dream losing to Michigan State and Magic Johnson 76-64 in the National Championship game.
The 1979 NCAA Championship game was the most watched game ever. It propelled college basketball into their golden age in the 1980’s.
DePaul entered three straight tournaments as a number one seed and failed to one win game in each year. This was before the NCAA expanded to 64 teams, so the Blue Demons had a first-round bye.
After advancing to the school’s first Final Four in 1979, Ray Meyer built the Blue Demons into a national powerhouse. Behind Mark Aguirre and then Terry Cummings DePaul built a three year record of 79-6.
They would lose to UCLA, St. Joseph’s and Boston College in successive years.
Following an NIT appearance in 1983, the Blue Demons went back to the NCAA Tournament in 1984 with a 27-3 record. They advanced to the Sweet 16 before losing in a heartbreaking match to Wake Forest in Meyer’s final game in a 42-year career. His son Joey succeeded him, but DePaul basketball has never been the same since.
Duke brought a 37-1 record into the 1999 NCAA Championship game against Connecticut. Led by a stellar sophomore class, the Blue Devils boasted five future NBA Players. UConn upset the Blue Devils behind Richard Hamilton and Khalid El-Amin.
Elton Brand, William Avery and Corey Maggette all left after the season. Shane Battier remained at Duke and led the Blue Devils to their third National Championship two seasons later.
Big things were expected during the Patrick Ewing era at Georgetown. John Thompson and Ewing spawned Hoya paranoia during that era.
The Hoyas advanced the National Championship game during Ewing’s freshman year, only to lose one of the most memorable games in NCAA Tournament history. Georgetown’s Fred Brown threw an errant pass to North Carolina’s James Worthy. The steal sealed a 63-62 win for North Carolina to give Dean Smith his first National title.
The 1985 Georgetown team was one of the most dominant in the history of college basketball. They won their first five tournament games by an average of nearly 16 points per game. The Hoyas carried a 35-2 record entering the national championship game. That was added onto a 34-3 1984 National Championship season.
It took a nearly perfect game plan by Villanova and Rollie Massimino to beat Georgetown. The Wildcats had to connect on 22 out of 28 shots in order to pull off one of the biggest upsets in NCAA Tournament history.
Kansas won its first three NCAA Tournament games by a combined 62 points behind Wilt Chamberlain. Wilt averaged 29.6 PPG and 18.9 RPG in his first season in Lawrence.
In the only multiple overtime game in Championship game history, North Carolina completed an undefeated season by defeating Kansas 52-50. Kansas finished the season 23-5.
Maryland finished the 1974 season ranked number three in the country. The Terrapins had six future NBA draftees. Primarily because of the Terrapins loss to North Carolina State in the ACC Tournament championship game that season, the NCAA agreed to expand the tournament field from 32 to 48 teams. They finished the season 23-5.
Houston was making its second of three straight Final Four appearances in 1983. Most considered the Cougars victory over Louisville in the National Semifinal as the defacto National Championship game. The other National Semifinal between North Carolina State and Georgia.
Slowing the game down gave NC State a better chance to win. It took an errant shot by the Wolfpack’s Dereck Whittenberg and Lorenzo Charles grabbing it for the most unlikely alley-oop to end Houston’s dream of a championship season and give Jim Valvano and NCST an improbable 54-52 National Championship.
Houston had two future Hall of Famers, Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon on that team, yet neither of them was the leading scorer. Michael Young who played in the NBA, paced the Cougars in scoring at 17.3 PPG.
The Bearcats entered the 1963 NCAA Championship game with a 26-1 record and attempted becoming the first team to win three straight NCAA Championships. Cincinnati opened up a 15 point second half lead, before Loyola (Ill) staged a furious rally.
The Ramblers got a last second put back in overtime from Vic Rouse to upset the heavily favored Bearcats. Loyola’s title remains the only one ever won by a team from Illinois. Cincinnati’s consensus All-Americans Tom Thacker and Ron Bonham were not enough to overcome the Ramblers frontcourt of Les Hunter, Jerry Harkness and Rouse.
After winning the National Championship in Jerry Lucas and John Havlicek’s sophomore season in 1960, more titles titles appeared likely in Columbus. The Buckeyes finished 53-3 over the next two seasons, only to lose to intrastate rival Cincinnati in the National Championship game in Lucas and Havlicek’s senior seasons.
UCLA entered the 1974 NCAA Tournament as the seven-time defending national champions. Led by Bill Walton, the Bruins built an 88 game winning streak that was ended earlier that season at Notre Dame.
Behind David Thompson’s 21 points and ten rebounds, North Carolina State ended UCLA’s 38 game NCAA Tournament winning streak 80-77 in double overtime in the National Semifinals in Greensboro, North Carolina.
The Jayhawks entered the 1997 NCAA Tournament as the overwhelming favorite to win the national championship, which would give Roy Williams his first title. They cruised through their first two NCAA Tournament games.
The brought a 34-1 record to the Sweet 16 in Birmingham against Arizona. Not many people gave Arizona much of a chance to win. Behind future NBA players Miles Simon, Michael Dickerson and Mike Bibby, the Wildcats pulled off one of the biggest upsets in NCAA Tournament history.
Kansas also boasted four future pros including Paul Pierce.
Kentucky was banned from playing a competitive schedule in 1953 following a point shaving scandal. The following year, Frank Ramsey, Cliff Hagan and Lou Tsioropoulos were banned from playing in the NCAA Tournament because they had graduated. Adolph Rupp chose not to play in the Tournament without three starters and the Wildcats finished the season 25-0.
A year before winning the National Championship, North Carolina State went 27-0. The Wolfpack didn’t play in the NCAA Tournament, because they were on probation. David Thompson and Tom Burleson returned the next season and the Wolfpack went 30-1
A year before completing the last undefeated season in college basketball, the Hoosiers entered the NCAA Tournament 29-0. Their hopes took a big blow when All-American forward Scott May broke his arm in the season finale against Purdue.
IU won its first two tournament games by a combined 35 points. Kentucky ended a chance at a dream season 92-90 in Mideast Regional Final. Center Kent Benson had 33 points and 23 rebounds. Hoosier guards Quinn Buckner and Bobby Wilkerson combined for only 22 points to Kentucky’s starting backcourt of Jimmy Dan Connor and Mike Flynn’s 39.
The Defending champion Runnin’ Rebels brought a 45 game winning steak to the 1991 Final Four in Indianapolis. They faced off with Duke in the national semifinal. The Rebels crushed Duke by 30 in the National Championship in 1990, the largest margin of victory in a Championship game—ever.
Anderson Hunt scored 29 points in the victory. National player of the year Larry Johnson managed just 13 points and 13 rebounds. UNLV failed to become the first team since UCLA in 1972 and ‘73b to repeat. Ironically, Duke would accomplish that a year later.