As much as March Madness loves its Cinderella stories, the upset-laden nature of the NCAA Tournament means that some of college basketball’s best teams are sent home without a national title. One bad matchup or one red-hot underdog can leave even the most high-powered college teams wondering what might have been.
Sometimes, even when the championship does go to the nation’s best team, there’s another top-flight squad that gets left out in the cold. Greg Oden led Ohio State to 35 wins in his lone collegiate season, but the Buckeyes fell to one of history’s most impressive champions, a group of Florida Gators winning the second of back-to-back titles.
Herein, a closer look at Oden’s Buckeyes and the rest of the most impressive teams to come up short of a title over the last two decades.
When George Mason made its electrifying run to the 2006 Final Four, the most impressive upset the Patriots scored was an overtime thriller over UConn.
The Huskies finished 30-4 that season, but it was their personnel as much as their performance that earns them a place on this list.
Of the top six scorers in Jim Calhoun’s rotation, five were selected in the 2006 NBA draft, with four of those going in the first round.
The star of that group—and the only one to enjoy any kind of success as a pro—was high-flying Rudy Gay, but stalwart big men Hilton Armstrong and Josh Boone also played major roles in the Huskies’ success.
Two of the greatest players in Kansas history came that close to ending their careers with a national title.
However, a title-game matchup with Carmelo Anthony and Syracuse—not to mention a last-second blocked shot by Hakim Warrick—meant that Kirk Hinrich and Nick Collison were left as runners-up rather than champions.
Hinrich and Collison combined for 35.8 points a game to lead one of the country’s most prolific offenses, but their young supporting cast had plenty to contribute as well.
Sophomores Wayne Simien and Keith Langford added another 30.7 points a night, and classmate Aaron Miles dished out 6.4 assists a game running the point.
Kendall Marshall’s wrist injury in the Round of 32 might have cost college hoops fans one of the all-time great NCAA title games.
Without their star point guard, the Tar Heels fell to Kansas in the Elite Eight rather than having a chance to earn a rematch with mighty Kentucky for the championship.
Early exit notwithstanding, it’s hard to miss the talent level on a team whose five starters included four top-17 NBA draft picks and three All-Americans (even if only on the second or third teams).
If Marshall, Harrison Barnes, Tyler Zeller and John Henson go on to live up to their potential at the NBA level, this group could climb even higher on future versions of this list.
John Calipari’s Kentucky debut featured a talent level on a par with his two Final Four teams in Lexington, even if the 2010 tournament run ended with a “mere” Elite Eight finish.
Although they were eliminated by West Virginia in a foul-plagued contest (three Wildcats and two Mountaineers fouled out), UK had already won 35 games on the year.
Current Wizards standout John Wall was the headliner on a roster led (unsurprisingly) by freshman star power, but the Wildcats also featured overwhelming size.
6’11” DeMarcus Cousins and 6’9” Patrick Patterson combined for 29.4 points and 17.2 rebounds a night, and that’s not even mentioning 6’11” Daniel Orton or 6’8” Darius Miller off the bench.
As in so many seasons under Coach K, the 2003-04 Duke squad had outstanding guard play (and depth) and bales of scoring options.
What it didn’t have—with apologies to Shelden Williams and Shavlik Randolph—was a big man who could stand up to Emeka Okafor, who led eventual champion UConn past the Blue Devils in an epic 79-78 Final Four showdown.
The backcourt star power started with J.J. Redick, well on his way to becoming the college game’s greatest three-point shooter even as a sophomore.
The best of his co-stars was future NBA All-Star Luol Deng, but Deng’s future Bulls teammate, Chris Duhon, also provided plenty of help from his point guard spot.
Despite losing Walter McCarty, Tony Delk and Antoine Walker from the 1996 national champs, Rick Pitino still had an ample supply of future pros on his roster the following season.
Only a sensational performance from Arizona’s Miles Simon (30 points in an overtime win in the title game) kept Kentucky from winning three consecutive national championships.
The 1997 runners-up were led by future NBA swingmen Ron Mercer and Derek Anderson, who combined for 35.8 points per game.
They had plenty of help down low from Jamaal Magloire, Nazr Mohammed and Scott Padgett, to say nothing of pass-first senior Anthony Epps at point guard.
Lute Olson’s best rosters often came up short in the postseason, and the 1999-00 Wildcats—loaded with potential, but featuring one junior and zero seniors in their rotation—were no exception.
The Pac-10 champs earned a No. 1 seed but got bounced in the second round by a stellar defensive performance from the Wisconsin Badgers (en route to their first Final Four in six decades).
Freshman Gilbert Arenas and sophomore Richard Jefferson highlighted a lineup that could run the fast break as well as any team in school history.
Versatile Luke Walton added to the roster’s eventual NBA success, but the selection of college stars who didn’t make it as pros—shot-blocker Loren Woods, PG Jason Gardner, tweener forward Michael Wright—was just as impressive.
The only thing that kept this Ohio State team from winning the program’s first national title since 1960 was running into a buzzsaw in the title game: Billy Donovan’s Florida Gators, returning the entire starting lineup from a team that had won the national title the year before too.
Put them in blue and white uniforms, and the 2006-07 Buckeyes could’ve done a pretty good impression of last season’s national champion Kentucky squad.
Like those Wildcats, the Buckeyes were led by an overpowering shot-blocker who would go No. 1 in the NBA draft (7’0” Greg Oden) and several other star-caliber freshmen.
With three-point gunners Daequan Cook (now of the Thunder) and Ron Lewis supporting slick point guard Mike Conley, Jr., the Buckeyes offense was nearly as daunting as their Oden-led defense.
Even by UNC standards, the 1997-98 Tar Heels were loaded with scoring punch. That made it all the more remarkable when their offense deserted them in the Final Four, as Utah held them 23 points below their season average to earn a 65-59 win.
Naismith and Wooden Award winner Antawn Jamison led the pack, but he wasn’t the only future NBA All-Star in this lineup.
Vince Carter was the third-leading scorer on a roster that also featured three-point specialist Shammond Williams and distributor extraordinaire Ed Cota (third in NCAA history in career assists) in the backcourt.
Entering the national title game with a 37-1 record, the 1998-99 Blue Devils were all set to take their place among the greatest champions in recent history.
Unfortunately for them, UConn rewrote the ending of that story, with defensive whiz Ricky Moore forcing Duke scoring ace Trajan Langdon into a pair of crucial turnovers to finish off a 77-74 upset.
The inside-outside tandem of Langdon and Elton Brand combined for 35 points a game, and Duke had plenty of other star power to go with them.
Sixth man Corey Maggette and SF Shane Battier both went on to terrific NBA careers, and PG William Avery (who couldn’t cut it as a pro) turned in a brilliant season of his own.
Behind one of the most effective three-guard lineups in college history, Illinois tied a then-NCAA record with 37 wins on its way to the national championship game.
Once the Illini got there, though, they learned that no amount of guards can stop a dominant big man, and North Carolina’s Sean May (26 points on 10-for-11 shooting) demolished an undermanned frontcourt to secure the title for the Tar Heels.
The biggest name in that great Illini backcourt was Deron Williams, who certainly looked the part of a future NBA All-Star in running the point for Bruce Weber.
Combo guard Dee Brown was too small to find a home in the NBA, but fellow three-point sniper Luther Head parlayed his long-range stroke into a solid career as a role player in the pros.
After setting an NCAA record (later vacated) with 38 victories, John Calipari’s Tigers appeared to have the national title in hand before their free-throw woes came back to bite them.
Unable to close out the championship game, Memphis saw Kansas’ Mario Chalmers hit a buzzer-beating three-pointer to tie it, setting up a Jayhawks win in OT.
Although future NBA MVP, Derrick Rose, was obviously the main man for this squad, the Tigers had plenty of weapons around him.
Chris Douglas-Roberts and Joey Dorsey led a supporting cast loaded with athleticism and length (the starting five averaged 6’7”).
Of all Roy Williams’ near-misses as Kansas head coach, the 1996-97 squad had to hurt the most.
With one of the most awe-inspiring collections of sheer talent in NCAA history, the Jayhawks fell in the Sweet 16—albeit to eventual champion Arizona, which would knock off a record three No. 1 seeds that March.
Future NBA superstar Paul Pierce was only the second-leading scorer on this roster, taking a backseat to junior center Raef LaFrentz.
PF Scot Pollard and PG Jacque Vaughn—both of whom also went on to productive NBA careers—added two more double-digit scoring averages to the mix.
For the second time in as many tries, Michigan’s legendary Fab Five made it to the national championship game in 1993.
Of course, for the second time in as many tries, they came up empty, with Chris Webber’s ill-fated timeout call becoming the defining image of what had been a hard-fought title game.
Even without a championship, though, these Wolverines belong among the greatest college rosters ever assembled, led by NBA All-Stars Webber and Juwan Howard down low.
Point guard Jalen Rose went on to an outstanding pro career of his own, and even defensive specialist Jimmy King got a cup of coffee with the Raptors at the next level.