College Basketball: Greatest NCAA Tournament Champions of the Last 20 Years
Greatness defines itself in many different ways.
It can mean complete domination, shutting an opponent down and leaving no doubt about who was the better team.
Or it can show itself in team chemistry, with many different players succeeding together with no star to be found.
Greatness can also be defined in just a single game, cementing two teams’ places in history with the victor being remembered for life.
In the last 20 years there have been many good NCAA Tournament champions, but few great ones.
A list of those great teams includes dominant teams, well-rounded teams with a different star player each night and teams that play one amazing game and will forever be remembered for it.
So without further ado, here are the greatest NCAA Tournament champions of the last 20 years.
Honorable Mention: 2003 Syracuse Orange
In 2003, college basketball had not become overrun with one-and-done prospects as it is today.
High school graduates were still allowed to declare for the draft, so for the most part, teams relied on veteran players while highly skilled 18-year-olds went to the NBA without ever playing a college basketball game.
But in 2003, Carmelo Anthony and the Syracuse Orange paved the way for the current one-and-done trend as Anthony and Gerry McNamara (joined by sophomore Hakim Warrick) won a national championship.
The Orangemen's starting lineup consisted of two freshman, two sophomores and a senior.
Despite starting the season unranked and with a loss, Anthony quickly established himself as the team’s go-to player.
Syracuse finished the season with a 30-5 record and entered the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament as a No. 3 seed, moving higher up the national rankings as the season progressed.
Unfortunately for the rest of the field, the Orangemen were on a roll. The team had overcome the growing pains of relying on young players and were rewarded by reaching the championship game.
Warrick sealed the deal against the Kansas Jayhawks, blocking the potential tying shot to preserve Syracuse’s run from unranked to national champion.
Honorable Mention: 2008 Kansas Jayhawks
The 2007-08 Kansas Jayhawks make this list simply because of their amazing performance in the national championship game.
The team relied on sixth man Sherron Collins, the heart and soul of the team, as well as Brandon Rush, Darrell Arthur and Mario Chalmers.
Kansas lost just three games all season, beginning the year with 20 straight wins, then reaching the national championship game thanks to a 13-game winning streak.
Coach Bill Self was also able to finally best former Kansas coach Roy Williams in the team’s Final Four win over the North Carolina Tar Heels.
But of course, the most memorable of the Jayhawks' wins came against the Memphis Tigers in the national championship game.
Memphis opened up a nine-point lead with just over two minutes to play and it appeared that the game was over. But Kansas began to foul, and the Tigers simply could not hit their free throws.
Chalmers’ three-point basket with 2.1 seconds left sent the game into overtime where Kansas eventually prevailed 75-68.
Honorable Mention: 2012 Kentucky Wildcats
John Calipari had lured three straight No. 1 recruiting classes to Lexington, Kentucky.
He had coached great teams filled with NBA draft picks, but had not yet tasted a national championship.
All that changed in the 2011-12 season.
The Kentucky Wildcats, led by freshman phenom Anthony Davis, dominated just about everyone. Kentucky finished 38-2, winning an SEC regular season title and a national championship.
The team went undefeated in the SEC and lost just one regular season game on a last-second shot by the Indiana Hoosiers.
In the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, Kentucky steamrolled through their competition. The Wildcats won their first four games by at least 12 points.
When Kentucky beat Indiana in the Sweet Sixteen, the team managed to avenge every loss on their resume, beating both the Hoosiers and the Vanderbilt Commodores.
The Wildcats were clearly the best team in the NCAA Tournament field and in beating the Kansas Jayhawks 67-59, the team cemented its place in tournament lore.
Calipari proved he could win a national championship and also proved that a starting lineup consisting of only freshman and sophomores could beat more veteran-laden teams.
5. 2006 and 2007 Florida Gators
The Florida Gators are great simply because the team relied on the exact same core group of players to win two straight national championships.
Led by future NBA players Joakim Noah, Al Horford and Corey Brewer, the Gators had talent on their roster, but no true star.
The team set numerous school records including the longest winning streak (17 games), most wins in a season (35) and the first championship in school history (followed shortly thereafter by the second).
After winning an NCAA championship in 2005-06, all five Gators starters decided to come back to school and chase a second consecutive championship. Only the 1991-92 Duke Blue Devils and great UCLA Bruins teams had been able to accomplish that feat.
But coach Billy Donovan led his team to three straight SEC Tournament championships and two straight national championships.
Florida’s greatness stems from the fact that the team was able to overcome losses in the regular season (including three straight near the end of the 2005-06 season) and come together as a team for the NCAA Tournament.
Florida had three players selected in the top nine picks in the 2007 NBA draft, speaking to their lack of star power but overall talent of the team.
4. 1995 UCLA Bruins
Sometimes flashy, star-studded teams are simply not as good as grind-it-out, find-a-way-to-win teams.
Just take the 1994-95 UCLA Bruins as an example. Somehow, the team only lost one game all season—an early January setback to the unranked Oregon Ducks.
In the regular season, UCLA was not especially dominant. Rarely did the team blow their opponent out of the building with their talent and athleticism.
Instead the Bruins, led by Ed O’Bannon and 5’10” Tyus Edney, refused to let anyone beat them.
In the second round of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, UCLA was trailing the Missouri Tigers by one point with 4.8 seconds left. Cue Edney, who took the inbound pass and dribbled the length of the court for the winning basket.
While the Bruins may not have had the star power or overwhelming dominance of many of the other teams on this list, their 32-1 record speaks for itself.
A team that refuses to lose is a different kind of great, and UCLA exemplified that greatness.
3. 2009 North Carolina Tar Heels
The 2008-09 North Carolina Tar Heels became the first team to receive a unanimous preseason No. 1 ranking in both the ESPN/USA Today poll and the Associated Press poll.
The Tar Heels were led be returning National Player of the Year Tyler Hansborough, Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington and Danny Green. The team’s recruiting class included Tyler Zeller and Ed Davis.
North Carolina started off the season 13-0. After a brief slip up in which the Heels lost their first two ACC games, the team responded to win 10 straight and lose just one more regular season game.
In the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, the Tar Heels stormed through the field, looking exactly like the dominant team everyone expected them to be to start the season.
The team won all six of their tournament games by double digits, including an 89-72 win over the Michigan State Spartans in the championship game.
While North Carolina may have had a few bumps in the road, the team also had an enormous target on its back for the entire season.
And in the end, when it mattered, the Tar Heels proved that they were, in fact, the best team in the country.
2. 1996 Kentucky Wildcats
The 1995-96 Kentucky Wildcats team began a streak in which Kentucky reached the national championship game three years in a row, winning twice.
The Wildcats were led by Tony Delk, who won the NCAA Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player honor.
In addition to Delk, the team had nine players who eventually made it to the NBA including Walter McCarty, Antoine Walker, Derek Anderson, Ron Mercer and Nazr Mohammed.
Known as one of the most dominant championship teams ever, Kentucky finished the season with a 34-2 record, avenging their early-season loss to the Massachusetts Minutemen in the Final Four.
The Wildcats also won their first four NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament games by at least 20 points and won every game by at least seven points.
During the regular season, the team’s average point differential was 22 points, and their only two losses came to Final Four teams in Massachusetts and the Mississippi State Bulldogs.
The team was even given the nickname "The Untouchables" because they had such a deep bench, were able to blitz opponents on a regular basis and had virtually no setbacks on their way to a national championship.
1. 1992 Duke Blue Devils
The Duke Blue Devils finished the 1991-92 season with a 34-2 record, with their two losses coming by a combined six points.
The team was ranked No. 1 in the Associated Press poll for the entire season.
Duke became the first team since the UCLA Bruins’ historic run in the 1960s and 70s to win back-to-back national championships.
Led by National Player of the Year Christian Laettner, Grant Hill, Bobby Hurley and Thomas Hill, the Blue Devils were virtually unbeatable.
Of course, Duke should have lost to the Kentucky Wildcats in the Elite Eight, which would have made them one of the most underachieving teams of all time, but that’s just my opinion.
Just know that I would have put the video of “The Shot” as the image for this slide, but the Kentucky fan in me was physically unable to do so.
In addition to their national championship, the Blue Devils did fairly well in winning end of the year awards, with Mike Krzyzewski being honored as Coach of the Year as well.