NCAA Tournament 2013: 50 Most Exciting Tournaments in March Madness History
The NCAA Tournament is celebrating 75 years of March Madness in 2013.
In the spirit of that accomplishment, now is a good time to look back at the tournaments that have made this event one of the most anticipated sports events on every fan's calendar.
ESPN has already given us a list of the 75 best college basketball players in the history of the sport, and there's no doubt many of those athletes will be listed here for their efforts in making March Madness memorable for all of us.
For sports history junkies, the NCAA has also released a timeline feature for all 75 years of great shots, upsets and thrilling finishes—a tool that was heavily used in compiling this list of the 50 best tournaments heading into this year's 2013 tournament.
While this isn't a list of the most exciting tournament finals of all time, that's certainly a deciding factor in ranking each year collectively, and it will make some fans smile to look at the videos and plays that made those years special.
It isn't easy to put a label on 75 years of collectively great moments in sports history, and even harder to do so on a year-by-year basis. That being said—we're sure going to try.
We all remember Christian Laettner's shot in 1992, Lorenzo Charles' put-back dunk in 1983 and John Wooden's 10th and final championship, but where will those moments land in making the collective year an exciting one?
Click below to find out.
No. 50 — 1939
There would be no March Madness without 1939.
The first-ever tournament final was between Oregon and Ohio State, and the Ducks will forever be remembered as the opening champion of the NCAA tournament.
While the two teams totaled just 79 points in the final, it deserves plenty of mention as a monumental turning point in college basketball history. Without it, the NIT might still be the premier tournament of the land. That's not a bad thing, but think of all the memories we might have missed out on if that was the case.
1939 will take its place in this list at No. 50, but in terms of importance it's clearly No. 1.
No. 49 — 1961
The video above chronicles Cincinnati's 1962 NCAA Tournament Championship win, but that game wouldn't have been possible without the 1961 one.
As noted by UC Magazine, the Bearcats weren't given much chance against in-state rival Ohio State and future NBA stars John Havlicek and Jerry Lucas, and that fueled what turned into a dominating performance in the tournament final.
Despite not having Oscar Robertson (who graduated in 1960), the Bearcats had the talented and team-first attitude to beat one of the greatest teams in tournament history—who were coming off the 1960 championship themselves.
Havlicek had just four points in the game, and Ron Bonham and Bob Wiesenhahn led the way for Cincinnati. It doesn't get much press because it's been over 50 years, but 1961 was a great year for the state of Ohio (especially Cincinnati fans).
No. 48 — 1955
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Bill Russell starred in the NBA for over 10 years. He finished as one of the greatest players in league history, and his accomplishments are well documented.
He led the San Francisco Dons to two championships in the NCAA tournament, too.
Russell's Dons had a one-point win over Oregon State that's one of the best games in that era, and finished off the effort with a 14-point win over LaSalle in the tournament final. Russell and K.C. Jones made history for the Dons, and followed it up with a 1956 championship—a feat that will also wind up on this list.
No. 47 — 1948
From Adolph Rupp to Bob Cousy, the 1948 NCAA tournament had plenty of star power.
Rupp won his first of a then-record four championships in 1948, behind most outstanding player Alex Groza and a star-studded Kentucky lineup. Although Groza would be reprimanded and later forgotten about in a Pete Rose way before there was ever a Pete Rose, he was clearly one of the best players in his era.
To win the title, Kentucky had to face Holy Cross and future Boston Celtic Bob Cousy in the semifinals. Although there were only eight teams in the tournament at this time, the Wildcats beat two very good teams (Holy Cross and Baylor) en route to Rupp's career mission of winning.
1948 was also the first year there was ever an AP poll for teams, a nice note for making this No. 47 on our list of most exciting tournaments.
No. 46 — 1978
Seeding first began in 1978, but Kentucky and Jack Givens made sure it wasn't of much value after a dispatching every lower seed in their path en route to a title.
Cal State Fullerton and Miami (Ohio) had surprising upsets (mainly CSF's win over top-ranked New Mexico) that precluded more obvious ones over the next 25 years, but Kentucky's high-flying offense made sure that the rest of the field went home empty during this playoff.
Givens had 41 of Kentucky's 94 points in the final over Duke, and the high-scoring affair made for must-see TV after defending champion Marquette went home in the first round.
No. 45 — 1952
1952 was the first ever "Final Four" format, and the results didn't disappoint.
It was also the first tournament to feature regional television coverage, and featured a powerhouse Kansas squad take out Santa Clara and St. John's en route to a title for head coach Phog Allen (now the namesake of Kansas' current gym).
Check out the video above for some extremely old school basketball action—still one of the most exciting in tournament history.
No. 44 — 1972
1972 was another ho-hum season for star UCLA center Bill Walton, head coach John Wooden and the rest of the Bruins.
After another stellar regular season campaign, UCLA cruised through the early rounds of the tournament and managed to get to the final against Florida State. The Bruins actually were challenged—they won by just five—but in a way '72 is a season that will go down as somewhat forgotten because of how good Wooden's teams really were.
Long Beach state made a short run before falling to UCLA, and Florida State's dash to the finals was also quite impressive. They were no match for the Bruins, though—and that in and of itself is exciting to basketball historians everywhere.
No. 43 — 1970
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Artis Gilmore and Austin Carr helped make 1970 one of the most prolific scoring playoffs the NCAA has ever seen.
Jacksonville's Gilmore had all sorts of memorable moments in this tournament, reaching the final before bowing out against Sidney Wicks and the UCLA Bruins. However, his shining moment came in the regional finals against Kentucky, when he collected 24 points and 20 rebounds en route to a takedown of the nation's best team at the time.
Carr set an NCAA record for the Notre Dame Irish with his performance against Ohio, totaling 61 points—a mark that's yet to be broken in tournament play. His Irish lost to Kentucky, but Carr's scoring average of 50 points per game in seven NCAA tournament games will likely never be broken.
Yet again, UCLA also dominated the field. Behind Wicks and yet another top Wooden team, the Bruins collected the title over the high-flying Jacksonville squad—limited to 69 points in the final.
No. 42 — 1956
If one was good, two was better for the San Francisco Dons.
As noted by the video to the side, the Dons are credited with more than just their two tournament wins in the 1950s. They are also credited for changing the game of basketball.
Not only did the Dons dominate yet again, but a relatively unknown Canisius squad made history with a first-round knockoff of North Carolina State. Taking four overtimes, the game is widely considered one of the biggest upsets of all time and has only been matched in OTs once.
Temple's Hal Lear had a big tournament as his team made the Final Four, but San Francisco came through again behind Russell and an inspired effort. 1956 was one of those tournaments you might not have heard about, but should research with great intrigue—it's worth it.
No. 41 — 1996
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Chronicled by the scandal of UMass and Kentucky having to play each other in the Final Four, 1996 is credited with spreading out the No. 1 seeds evenly so the nation's two top (regular season) teams don't have the misfortune of facing each other in the final.
Tony Delk led the Wildcats to yet another championship over their future coach—John Calipari—in another failed attempt for Syracuse and head coach Jim Boeheim.
Although Connecticut and Massachusetts later vacated wins from this tournament, it's one that had plenty of NBA star power and a few surprise along the way. It's interesting to look back and see how coaches gained notoriety, and that's the case for Calipari in 1996.
No. 40 — 2007
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Unfortunately for fans outside of Florida, the Gators took most of the excitement out of 2007's tournament.
The Gators cruised through the early rounds and managed to beat UCLA and Ohio State en route to the championship. The Gators also used the exact same starting lineup they did in 2006—the first and last time that has ever happened in the history of the tournament.
For the first time since 1995, there also weren't any double-digit seeds that made the Sweet 16. A thriller between No. 2 Memphis and No. 3 Texas A&M added a level of intrigue to these games, but end the end, Florida took care of business over Greg Oden, Mike Conley and Ohio State.
While that makes for a great story, it doesn't make for great excitement, putting the Gators' second straight championship down on the list in this category.
No. 39 — 1980
Dr. Dunkenstein and the Louisville Cardinals had an improbable run in 1980, denying the UCLA Bruins an 11th NCAA Championship and a place in the all-time history books.
While Darrell Griffith was lighting up rims with his ferocious dunks, the rest of the team proved it could hang with the big boys. The Cards blew out No. 1 LSU en route to the Final Four, and then took out Iowa and UCLA for the title.
It was the first time no No. 1 seed made the Final Four, a feat that would be repeated again in 2006 and 2011. However, it's significant because 1980 was just the second year that the field was officially numbered, and yet it did not produce one of the bracket's top seeds.
No. 38 — 1986
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"Never Nervous" Pervis Ellison and the Louisville Cardinals ousted top-seeded Duke to take home the 1986 crown, and deny Mike Krzyzewski his first-ever title at the school (not that it would matter in later years).
LSU, the No. 11 seed, also made the Final Four, a feat that has only been matched twice (VCU in 2011 and George Mason in 2006) since being accomplished. 1986 was also a series of firsts for other accomplishments, including two No. 14 seeds getting out of the first round, a No. 14 seed reaching the Sweet Sixteen and Navy (behind All-American David Robinson) reaching the Elite Eight.
Although not heavily publicized, the '86 tourney was one of the most under-the-radar ones for upsets and big moments from teams we didn't expect to reach the late part of the event. After '86, the excitement level went way up, because teams like Jacksonville State made it seem possible for a No. 14 to rise above.
Thank you, 1986.
No. 37 — 1997
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Coppin State made the biggest dent in the upset pool during the '97 tourney, knocking off No. 2 South Carolina as the No. 15 seed.
However, it was Arizona that had a flair for the upset.
The Wildcats and Lute Olsen defeated three No. 1 seeds to capture the tournament's crown jewel, downing North Carolina, Kansas and Kentucky in the process. Arizona is also the only team to ever win the tournament after finishing fifth place or lower in a conference.
UT-Chattanooga also had an inspiring run, making it all the way to the Sweet Sixteen as a No. 14 seed before losing by six points to No. 10 Providence—a team Arizona would beat in OT in the Elite Eight in one of the best games of the entire tournament.
No. 36 — 1994
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Duke had a chance to win three titles in the Grant Hill era, but little did it know that the Arkansas reign was just starting. The Razorbacks managed to win a close game by just four points in the final, and also now have one of the tournament's most memorable plays that got the job done.
With 53 seconds on the clock, Arkansas' Scotty Thurman adjusted his shot for the oncoming defender and released a high-arcing three that gave the Hogs the lead for good. Little did he know he would be entering all-time territory with that shot, but it ended up producing the school's one and only title so far.
Bill Clinton was in attendance (current President at the time) and his Arkansas background was a special motivation factor for Nolan Richardson's team.
No. 9 seed Boston College had a nice run to the Elite Eight, but for the most part this tournament was lacking in a clear upset. Arkansas made sure of that in the final, too, knocking off No. 2 Duke and setting the bar high for an appearance in the 1995 final.
No. 35 — 1973
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Before Villanova played "The Perfect Game" in 1985, Bill Walton nearly had one of his own for UCLA in 1973. Walton only missed one shot en route to a 21-of-22 performance from the field and 44 points (a title game record) in the '73 tournament title game.
It would be John Wooden's ninth title with the Bruins. Though mundane because he did it so many times, it's still an accomplishment that deserves all the mention it can get—especially with Walton's individual performance tacked on top.
The only controversy from 1973's tournament was the exclusion of North Carolina State, which finished the season with a 93.3 points-per-game mark and a 27-0 record. Facing an NCAA probation, the Wolfpack had to watch from home as Walton and UCLA breezed through the tournament ranks—and a 21-point win in the championship.
That's something to remember when we get to 1974 on this list.
No. 34 — 2005
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Simply put, 2005 was a doozy.
We all remember the talent-laden North Carolina squad that one the national championship, but between the 65 teams there were a number of upsets, big moments and overtime games that captivated a national audience for most of March.
For example: West Virginia and Wake Forest (led by sophomore Chris Paul) played a thrilling double overtime game in the second round. WVU played another one in an Elite Eight loss to the Louisville Cardinals, Illinois played one in the Elite Eight en route to the title game and Michigan State played a double OT game against Kentucky to reach the Final Four.
North Carolina came out on top, but this tournament could be categorized as the Tourney of the OT.
It also turned out to be a potential hotbed for NBA prospects. Raymond Felton and Deron Williams led their squads in the title games, while Sean May, Rashad McCants, Luther Head and Dee Brown also all had NBA stints after college.
2005 isn't exactly the most notable season for happenings, but it's a good one, and deserves its spot in the Top 50.
No. 33 — 1984
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John Thompson's Georgetown Hoyas made history in more ways than one in 1984.
Behind big man Patrick Ewing and his precision offense, Thompson became the first African-American coach to ever with an NCAA Championship in basketball. Georgetown took out No. 1 Kentucky in the Final Four before ousting Houston in the final, a game many will remember as Hakeem Olajuwon's last game for the Cougars.
Despite the Phi Slama Jama billing, he would never win a title with Houston in college (he did OK for himself in the pros, though).
This 1984 game belonged to Ewing and the Hoyas, a team that many would come to fear and respect for not only their return to greatness in 1985, but all-time. At the time, it seemed like only a "perfect game" would be the right recipe to knock Georgetown off of its throne.
No. 32 — 1976
Bob Knight's Hoosiers went 32-0 en route to best team honors. Unlike Florida in 2007, there was plenty of excitement circulating around what North Carolina State and the rest of the field accomplished during the United States' 200th anniversary year.
Indiana won by 20, 18, 14, nine and five points during its title run, breezing through the competition in the process. Although their title run was exciting it was also expected, and somewhat of a vengeance play after losing out on a title and a perfect record in a similar situation in 1975.
Rutgers also entered the championship game, ensuring that one of the two teams would hold a perfect mark that has not been matched since.
32-0. While not as exciting as a buzzer-beater or a team that completely embarrasses its competition, it falls somewhere in between. Knight and the '76 Hoosiers certainly have a case as one of the greatest NCAA basketball teams of all time.
No. 31 — 2003
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Syracuse had been unsuccessful in Jim Boeheim's first two attempts at a title game win (and unsuccessful since 2003), but made sure this star-studded lineup would not disappoint on a national stage.
The Orange took out several top teams, including Texas in the Final Four, that they were supposed to lose to en route to a title game appearance. Syracuse knocked out No. 1 Oklahoma, No. 1 Texas and No. 2 Kansas (all three highly-touted Big 12 teams) during their title path, and became a legendary team in the process.
From Carmelo Anthony's heroics to Hakim Warrick's rim-rattling dunks, this one a fun tournament to take in. Kansas' Kirk Hinrich and Nick Collison showed they were future NBA stars in the process, as did Texas' T.J. Ford and young man named Dwyane Wade from Marquette.
One of the other memorable moments from 2003 belongs to defending champion Maryland, who needed some late-game heroics to get out of the first round.
No. 30 — 2012
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Kentucky took home the title with its assortment of first-round NBA talent (Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Terrence Jones), but there were plenty of surprises to make this a memorable event.
The No. 10, 11, 12 and 13 seeds all reached the second round in the Midwest region, and two of those (Ohio and North Carolina State) both reached the Sweet 16.
Elsewhere, two No. 15 seeds (Lehigh and Norfolk State) knocked off Duke and Missouri in two of the most shocking upsets in tournament history. It was only the fifth and sixth time that a No. 15 seed has defeated a No. 2 seed in tournament history.
But this tournament was about Kentucky, and glorifies the new "one-and-done" age of the NCAA today. All of Kentucky's top six players bolted for the NBA, and John Calipari had to start from scratch in recruiting. He's feeling the hurt from that model this season, as the Wildcats didn't have anywhere near the dominating season they did in 2012.
Either way, this tournament was one of the good ones.
No. 29 — 1988
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Big Eight Conference rivals Kansas and Oklahoma met in the final in 1988, but the No. 6 Jayhawks were never supposed to get that far in the tournament.
Kansas beat in-state rival Kansas State and Duke en route to the championship game, and Jayhawks forward Danny Manning's performance (31 points) has led many to dub team "Danny and the Miracles." Kansas lost twice to the Sooners in the regular season, but won by four in one of the higher-scoring finals in tournament history.
Elsewhere, Rhode Island had a memorable tournament run. As the No. 11 seed, it beat Missouri and Syracuse before falling by just one point to Duke in the Sweet Sixteen. We also saw a little bit of a precursor to the Loyola Marymount initiative, as the squad put up 119 points in the opening round before falling to North Carolina in the second round with a total that went over 200 points.
The story of this one was the rematch of conference rivals, and Manning made sure the location (the final was just 40 miles from Kansas) and his play resulted in one of the bigger upsets in tournament final history.
No. 28 — 2004
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Connecticut took most of the excitement out of 2004's tourney with a big win over Georgia Tech, but there were plenty of upsets to go around.
No. 9 UAB knocked off No. 1 Kentucky, No. 2 Oklahoma State beat an undefeated No. 1 St. Joseph's squad (led by Jameer Nelson and Delonte West) and No. 8 Alabama made it all the way to the Elite Eight after wins over No. 1 Stanford and No. 5 Syracuse.
But this tournament was a story of three guys—Jim Calhoun, Emeka Okafor and Ben Gordon.
The latter two haven't been as wildly successful as they were in this tournament, but that won't stop them from a having a firm grip on one of the NCAA's all-time great teams. UConn won every game (except a thriller against Duke in the semis) by at least nine points, and had a slew of NBA talent.
Gordon, Okafor, Charlie Villanueva, Hilton Armstrong, Josh Boone and Marcus Williams would all be drafted into the NBA. In a weird turn of events, all could be considered busts based on where they were drafted and what they did in college.
No matter—they brought plenty of excitement to the game in the '04 playoffs.
No. 27 — 1989
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1989 was a scary season for No. 1 seeds in the first round, probably a good indicator that things weren't going to work out for their Final Four chances.
Both Oklahoma and Georgetown won by one point over East Tennessee State and Princeton, the latter of which had a real shot to knock off the Hoyas until center Alonzo Mourning saved the day with a game-winning block (indicative of his NBA career, no doubt).
Illinois also won by just six, and was the only No. 1 seed to make the Final Four. The upstart Michigan team—led by high-scorer Glen Rice and Rumeal Robinson—made sure the Illini didn't reach the Finals.
Seton Hall also had an improbable surge that carried the team to the 1989 title game, culminating in a pair of free-throws with no time remaining on the clock. Robinson wasn't the biggest name on the team, but he was as cool as a cucumber and knocked down both of his foul-line shots (despite being just a 64.2 percent shooter at the line) to give his team an 80-79 win.
Talk about clutch.
Talk about excitement.
No. 26 — 1974
David Thompson and North Carolina State had unfinished business in 1974.
After being ineligible for postseason play during UCLA's title run in 1973, the Wolfpack would not be denied during an absolutely dominant 1973-74 campaign.
The biggest upset of the year belonged to Marquette behind head coach Al McGuire, which managed to escape several games against higher-touted foes (including Kansas and Michigan) before getting all the way to the tournament final. Oral Roberts also made a surprise run to the Elite Eight.
No matter which way you slice it, this tournament belonged to NC State.
Thompson took home Most Outstanding Player honors, and the Wolfpack's biggest test came in the Final Four, when the sent home UCLA in true showing of all the vengeance they harbored after having to watch the Bruins cruise to a championship in '73.
NC State's first title was also its most dominant, but the second one is the one we remember the most after all these years. There's a good chance it will be extremely low on this list.
No. 25 — 2002
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Juan Dixon—the man, the legend.
Maryland's biggest hero from 2002 rode a wave of emotion and a hot streak alongside fellow Terp Steve Blake to earn his school its first-ever NCAA title.
No. 11 Kent State and No. 12 Missouri also made improbable runs to the Elite Eight, but this tournament belonged to the No.1 seeds. Even so, it had plenty of excitement to go around.
Maryland and Kansas rode a major wave to the Final Four on one side, while Indiana faced off against underrated OU star Hollis Price and the Sooners in the other. The Terps and the Hoosiers reached the final, and as they say—the rest is history.
No. 24 — 1977
If you haven't seen this video—check it out right now. It's what makes Marquette's 1977 National Championship raise eyebrows amongst some people.
But at then end of the day, Al McGuire deserved a bounce or two to go his way after his 13-year stint in turning Marquette into a basketball powerhouse. After 12 years of futility in the NCAA tournament, McGuire publicly announced during the middle of the 1976-77 that he would retire at the end of the year.
The Warriors then played like a team with nothing to lose.
After a runner-up finish to North Carolina State in 1974 and an Elite Eight loss to undefeated Indiana in 1976, the Warriors dispatched several top teams before knocking off Dean Smith and North Carolina in the final. The run included a win over Charlotte and future NBA star Cedric Maxwell; the attached video shows a little bit of controversy on the game-winning basket.
It added a level of excitement to the games that made Marquette fans ecstatic and Charlotte fans weary of the final outcome.
To make things even more interesting, powerhouse UCLA lost to Idaho State in a shocking upset, and Michigan outlasted Detroit in a battle of in-state rivals.
However, when it comes down to it—this one was about McGuire. He retired following his only NCAA championship, leaving the game on top.
No. 23 — 2000
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Michigan State's heroic run to the title was the highlight of the 2000 NCAA tournament, but it wasn't the only moment that drew our attention.
An improbable run from a number of low seeds captivated national audiences. No. 10 Gonzaga crashed the party with another Sweet Sixteen appearance, and two No. 8 seeds (Wisconsin and North Carolina) made it all the way to the Final Four before losing to tournament finalists Florida and Michigan State.
The South region had a Sweet Sixteen field of No. 4 Tennessee, No. 6 Miami, No. 7 Tulsa and No. 8 North Carolina, virtually unheard of at this stage of the tournament's existence. Who can forget Mike Miller's game-winner over Butler, a shot that sparked his No. 5 Florida Gators all the way to the final.
When it came down to it, though, No. 1 Michigan State made sure none of these Cinderella schools got a slipper at the end.
Behind Mateen Cleaves, Morris Peterson and Charlie Bell, the Spartans grabbed Tom Izzo his first-ever NCAA championship and the school's second. The first, of course, came in 1979 via some guy named Magic.
After an ankle injury threatened to keep Cleaves out of the second half and severely damage Sparty's title chances, the point guard returned to spark a late run to make sure his injured foot wasn't a long-lasting excuse. In one of the toughest individual performances of the NCAA Tournament final, Cleaves was named Most Outstanding Player, and the Spartans captivated us all in the process.
No. 22 — 1975
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The 10th and final run of UCLA great John Wooden would be the big story at the 1975 tournament.
It was also littered with close games amongst bitter rivals and a few that went into overtime to decide the victor. Syracuse played two overtimes to get to the Final Four while Kentucky and Indiana had a classic battle in the Elite Eight that sent the unbeaten Hoosiers home.
UCLA even skated by with a first-round win in OT before a Final Four OT win over Louisville. It took a last-second shot from Richard Washington, but the Bruins held on and would win Wooden's 10th championship in the Final.
It's clear that there is plenty of history and prestige surrounding all of Wooden's 10 rings at UCLA, but this one was his crown jewel, and put him in a category clear of any NCAA coach that has ever lived.
No. 21 — 1987
Long before Keith Smart was roaming the NBA sidelines, he was knocking down shots to win Indiana national championships.
That was the case in 1987, when Bob Knight's Hoosiers outlasted Jim Boeheim's Syracuse squad by one point in the tournament final. That was all thanks to Smart, who drilled a baseline jumper that we still remember today.
Not only was the tournament final one of the best ever, it also featured plenty of other surprises. Providence College (coached by Rick Pitino) made the Final Four as a Cinderella team, and four seeds higher than No. 12 reached the second round.
Additionally, this was the first tournament to utilize the three-point shot, making every three that has been made in tournaments post-87 possible. That kind of achievement is nothing but exciting, and it helps make 1987 a sneaky choice for one of the all-time greats.
No. 20 — 1999
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1999 was the coming out party for Gonzaga—a school we now know as a perennial mid-major threat to make and win in the tournament. They've made it each year since their magical run in 1999, and even though the Zags lost to eventual champion Connecticut, most remember the loser above the champ.
Gonzaga breezed through the first three rounds, knocking off Stanford and Florida in the process before reaching Connecticut—the eventual champion—in the Elite Eight. After a hard-fought battle, the Zags were within reach in the final minute of the game before bowing out late to Jim Calhoun's squad.
Call it a calling card of every other mid-major team (Butler, VCU) that has made a big impact in March Madness without having the pedigree of a big conference.
UConn's win over Duke in the final was also a shocking upset. Behind 27 points from Richard Hamilton, the Huskies took home Calhoun's first of three titles, and they took out 37-win Duke despite being nearly a 10-point underdog when the game tipped off.
No. 19 — 1982
1982 was somewhat devoid of upsets (No. 3 Villanova's triple overtime thriller against No. 11 Northeastern was as close as we got), but the championship game between Georgetown and North Carolina provided us with enough excitement for all 48 teams in play.
No. 6 Houston also made a thrilling run to the Final Four behind the early days of Phi Slama Jama, but North Carolina dispatched the Cougars before facing the Hoyas in the final.
Freshman Michael Jordan of North Carolina and freshman Patrick Ewing of Georgetown duked it out on a national stage. The young guard had 16 points and the game-winner in what would be his lone collegiate championship appearance, while Ewing and the Hoyas would return twice more (winning in 1984, losing in 1985).
The big-time names in this game were ridiculous. Jordan, Ewing, James Worthy, Sam Perkins and Eric Floyd all played in the '82 final, and the first three ended up in the NBA Hall of Fame. In what would turn out to be a precursor to the Chicago Bulls-New York Knicks games of the 1990s, Jordan got the best of Ewing on this day, and provided us with one of his best game-winners that we rarely see.
No. 18 — 1957
If you like triple overtime games, the 1957 Final Four and Championship game are for. They featured two—both including eventual champion North Carolina.
That's right—it took the Tar Heels 14 quarters to play two games in both the Final Four and the title game. Ask them today, and I'll bet you they say it was completely worth it.
In the semifinal, UNC outlasted Michigan State in one of the all-time great games of the era. It was a game that featured 31 lead changes and 21 ties, but UNC managed to take advantage of MSU hitting a buzzer beater just after regulation in the 4th quarter and a few Spartan missed free throws to move on the championship.
Little did we know it would be more of the same.
Facing Wilt Chamberlain and Kansas, the Tar Heels didn't make life easy on themselves after a three-OT thriller the previous game. Instead of letting him have free reign in one-on-one situations, UNC dug deep and sent two and sometimes three players at Chamberlain, limiting him to just 23 points and the Jayhawks to just 53.
Lucky for the Tar Heels, they put 54 on the board after the last OT period. The game will go down as one of the best in tournament history, and single-handedly puts 1957 on the map as one of the best.
Unfortunately, a lot more action has occurred since then.
No. 17 — 2009
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Villanova's Scottie Reynolds had the most memorable shot of the 2009 tournament, but his heroics weren't the only ones that are recognized in tournament lore.
Blake Griffin of Oklahoma was also doing his thing, putting on a dunk show each game before his Sooners bowed out to the eventual champion North Carolina Tar Heels in the Elite Eight.
This tournament was littered with big moments.
Kalin Lucas' clutch shot helped the Michigan State Spartans get out of the Sweet Sixteen against Kansas, and Durrell Summers made sure Griffin wasn't the only dunker that got above the rim with shots like this one in a rim-rocking Final Four win over Connecticut.
North Carolina's tournament win, while unexciting at times, was also a dominant display of NBA talent and cohesiveness on all levels. Roy Williams' Tar Heels won ever game by at least 12 points, and dispatched Griffin's Sooners, Reynolds' Wildcats and all of the Spartans en route to a dominant NCAA tournament.
No. 16 — 1995
UCLA was expected to breeze through the 1995 tournament. They did for the most part, but wouldn't have won the championship game without one of the most improbable buzzer-beaters of all-time.
Tyus Edney went the length of the court in 4.8 seconds to help No. 1-seeded UCLA shock No. 8 seed Missouri in the second round. It's a shot that many remember to this day, and reminds some of Danny Ainge's similar brilliance in 1981.
Edney and UCLA commanded the tournament, but those weren't the only moments that made this event great. A pair of No. 14s (Old Dominion and Weber St.) got out of the first round in two thrilling upsets, and No. 4 Oklahoma State made an improbable run to the Final Four.
No. 2 Arkansas and UCLA squared off in the final, and the Bruins made sure the Razorbacks didn't repeat as champion. Arkansas also had a gamely path to the championship, escaping in three straight games (No. 15 Texas Southern, No. 7 Syracuse and No. 6 Memphis) before lucking out and facing Virginia instead of Kansas in the Elite 8.
Overall, this was a great tournament—full of excitement. Edney's shot is the most memorable of the bunch, but UCLA's 11th title brought plenty of excitement to the table and denied Arkansas back-to-back championships with one of the most talented squads of the 1990s.
No. 15 — 2001
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While 2001 featured No. 11 Temple making an improbable run to the Elite Eight, this tournament was categorized by a remarkable couple of games in the Final Four and National Championship.
Starting in the first round, 2001 was crazy.
Indiana State (No. 13) upset Oklahoma in overtime. Temple (No. 11) beat Texas. Gonzaga (No. 12) got out of the first round for a third-straight season after beating Virginia by one. Three teams (Hampton, Georgetown and Missouri) all won with less than seven seconds to play.
Want more intrigue? Temple rode that momentum all the way to the Elite Eight, while Georgetown's upset plans fell short in the Sweet Sixteen. However, this tournament was characterized by Duke and Maryland in the Final Four.
Through 13 minutes, the Blue Devils had just 17 points. They would finish with 95. After being down by as many as 22 points in the first half, the Devils would go on to win by 11, capping the biggest comeback in Final Four history. Lute Olsen and Arizona didn't stand a chance in the final, as Shane Battier took home player of the year honors and Coach K added another title with his stellar squad.
If you think 2001 was crazy, just wait—we've got 16 more tournaments that rank higher and with more excitement.
No. 14 — 1993
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The ill-fated Michigan timeout called by Chris Webber kept the "Fab Five" from winning an NCAA title. While it's the moment that lives on forever both personally for Webber and publicly in tournament history, it doesn't define what was an amazing tournament.
Looking back to the early rounds, special moments were at hand.
How about No. 15 Santa Clara—led by a young Canadian guard named Steve Nash—knocking off No. 2 Arizona? Any George Washington fans reading? Your team made a nice run as the No. 12 seed before falling to the Fab Five.
For the NBA fans out there, No. 6 California and No. 3 Duke turned out to be a battle for the ages. Jason Kidd (Cal) and Bobby Hurley (Duke) were two of the best players in the nation that went head-to-head, as did Grant Hill (Duke) and Lamond Murray (Cal). The game was a hotbed for what was to come for both Kidd and Hill.
North Carolina cruised as the No. 1 seed. Kentucky and Michigan did, too. No. 2 Kansas also made the Final Four, meaning that all that was left was a battle of four of the nation's top teams. However, per the picture of Webber, this tournament was exciting largely because of his classic mistake.
The Fab Five took the world by storm, but Dean Smith's Tar Heels had them on the ropes. Down 73-71, Webber called the timeout that would haunt him for the rest of his professional career, and we're left to wonder what Michigan would have done with one final possession.
Without that timeout, 1993 might be even higher on this list.
No. 13 — 1998
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Bryce Drew and Valparaiso's epic win over Ole Miss took the 1998 tournament by storm. It's known as one of the best shots in the history of college basketball, and put the team on the map for the next 15 years.
Without it, 1998 wouldn't have much pull, but that's the nature of how exciting this shot was at the time. Still, 1998 did feature four double-digit seeds making the second round in the Midwest region, and No. 8 Rhode Island again shocking the world en route to the Elite Eight.
Elsewhere, Kentucky made sure a no-name wasn't going to win the championship.
The Wildcats were the comeback kids in 1998, finding a way to hang on and beat North Carolina in the Final Four before dispatching Utah in similar fashion in the final. However, 1998 will always be remembered for Valpo and Ole Miss.
With less than three seconds to play, the Cinderella squad ran the perfect play. Drew hit the shot, hit the deck and the celebration is history. As is 1998, which will go down as one of the most exciting tournaments in history because of just one shot.
No. 12 — 2008
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Make your free-throws, kids.
Memphis found out just how bad it hurts when you give away points down the stretch in a big game in 2008, and it made for one of the most improbable overtime games in tournament history.
After Memphis controlled the pace for most of the game against Kansas in the final, it had several chances to put the game away late. Joey Dorsey and Derrick Rose both missed free throws that would have likely put the game out of reach, but Mario Chalmers hit a game-tying three with 2.1 seconds left that sent the game to overtime in San Antonio and took all the air out of the Memphis title balloon.
Elsewhere, a young kid named Stephen Curry captivated national audiences after his stellar season at Davidson. His team made a run to the Elite Eight and almost found a way to knock of Kansas en route to the Final Four, but the Jayhawks won by two and the rest is history.
2008 also marked the first time that two No. 12-13 games took place, and featured all four No. 1 seeds in the Final Four. That might not sound like exciting based on some of the other tournaments that have taken place over the years, but the final and Davidson's big run proved to put the '08 tourney in the elite category.
No. 11 — 2010
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Where do you even begin with 2010?
Gordon Hayward, Shelvin Mack and Matt Howard drove Butler all the way to the title game, but the Bulldogs weren't the only thing happening during this tournament that drew eyebrows.
Baylor arrived on the scene behind Ekpe Udoh and a talented, athletic roster that included future rim-rocker Quincy Acy. Cornell also had a deep run as a 12-seed, eventually losing to No. 1 Kentucky in the Sweet Sixteen.
If you're missing the buzzer beaters from this tournament, we've got the best ones teed up for you. Michigan State's Korie Lucious versus Maryland. Murray State's Danero Thomas versus Vanderbilt. Ohio State's Evan Turner versus Big Ten rival Michigan.
Northern Iowa also completed a classic tournament run by knocking No. 1 Kansas and the Morris twins, who would bow out early.
The big story, however, was No. 5 Butler's run to the title game. In a stunning back-and-forth contest, Butler and Duke battled it out for the championship, and came within a Hayward half-court shot of hoisting the trophy. The Blue Devils completed a beautiful tournament run with the win, and escaped what would have been likely the best buzzer-beater in tournament history by just inches.
Talk about exciting.
No. 10 — 1981
1981 was full of surprises and upsets.
Danny Ainge and U.S. Reed grabbed our attention and our hearts with their efforts in the tournament that year, two of the biggest moments in tournament history at the time. Since usurped some by other game-winning shots, the BYU and Arkansas wins are still widely considered two of the best of all-time.
Ainge took the ball coast-to-coast to give BYU a win with a little less than 10 seconds to play. His shot lost some notoriety after Tyus Edney did the same thing in 1995—with less time on the clock—but it was still a remarkable feat of skill and grace.
Reed's game winner was of far more luck than skill, but it's nonetheless a crowd-pleaser. Reed dribbled back and forth for a few seconds before launching a 49-foot bomb that landed right in the net, downing Louisville and helping the Razorbacks to move on to the Sweet Sixteen.
Another buzzer-beater that doesn't receive much press is Rolando Blackman's baseline jumper to down Oregon State. Ro had plenty of shots like that in the pros with the Dallas Mavericks, one of the reasons his No. 22 is retired at the American Airlines Center.
From a tournament standpoint, St. Joseph's knocked off No. 1 DePaul en route to an Elite Eight berth. It was shocking for several reasons, partially because of the missed free-throw from DePaul's Skip Dillard (a man labeled "Money" for his great shooting percentage) and partially because National Player of the Year Mark Aguirre had his lowest point output (eight) of his college career.
Aguirre won two NBA championships with the Detroit Pistons, but there's no doubt his last collegiate loss still stings. It sent shock waves throughout college basketball at the time.
But it was No. 3 Indiana that stood the test of time in 1981. Knocking off two No. 2 seeds and No. 1 LSU in the process, Indiana took home Bob Knight title No. 2 over Dean Smith and North Carolina. Indiana made it look easy, but the rest of the field provided us with moments that we'll never forget.
No. 9 — 1985
"The Perfect Game" made for outstanding basketball in 1985.
In addition to one of the most exciting and thrilling championship games in NCAA history, 1985 was also the first year that the tournament was expanded to 64 teams. In another twist (that would prove profitable for Villanova later on), this was the last tournament that didn't feature a shot clock.
It was a Big East party in the Final Four that year, as Georgetown, Villanova (a No. 8 seed) and St. John's all starred opposite Memphis State (who would later vacate all wins from 1982-85). After a relatively uneventful first few rounds, Villanova's Round 2 win over No. 1 Michigan allowed the Wildcats to make a push to the big dance.
St. John's had a good tournament, characterized by star Chris Mullin's tournament-leading 110 points. It would fall to the Hoyas in the Final Four, though, and Villanova's win over Memphis State set up what was supposed to be a Georgetown slaughter in the final.
Instead, Ed Pickeney and the Wildcats shot an unbelievable 78.6 percent from the field (22-of-28), and used one of the most "perfect" second halves in the history of basketball to down Patrick Ewing and the methodical Hoyas by a 66-64 score.
The game ranks as one of the biggest upsets of all time, and Villanova is still the lowest seed to ever win a championship. Georgetown had one of the best basketball teams of the 1980s, but came away with just one championship. It should show you how competitive this period of basketball was, and how disappointing Houston's (zero championships) 1980s run ended up being.
No. 8 — 1991
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Duke arrived on the scene in 1991.
Freshman Grant Hill and tournament Most Outstanding Player Christian Laettner led a brilliant charge through the different rounds of the big dance, and took care of two of the best schools in the country (undefeated UNLV and Kansas) in the process.
For starters, though, 1991 was upset central in the first round.
It all started with No. 15 Richmond, which made history by being the first seed of its kind to ever beat a No. 2 seed. Jim Boeheim's Syracuse squad was the victim, and it's a game that's credited with opening up the field to potential upsets in that spot for the next 20 years.
Richmond wasn't the only team that made history. A striking number of upsets all happened in 1991. A No. 9, 10, two 11s, 12, 13, two 14s and a 15 made it out of the first round, making for an interesting situation in which there were no upsets in the second round.
Because most of the higher seeds had been eliminated, it cleared a path for some interesting matchups (No. 11 Connecticut versus No. 14 Xavier and No. 10 Temple versus No. 15 Richmond) in the second round. However, most of the upset bids were out of the picture by the Final Four, when Kansas, North Carolina, UNLV and Duke were the only teams that remained.
The biggest game of the year occurred in the Final Four. Undefeated UNLV was coming off of a tournament championship in 1990, and had an undefeated mark before facing off against Duke in the Final Four. Looking to be the first team since Indiana to go undefeated since 1976, the Runnin' Rebels couldn't get it done.
In the other Final Four matchup, Dean Smith and Roy Williams squared off. The latter was still at Kansas, and he beat his mentor in a game in which Smith was ejected. It was first and the only game of his illustrious coaching career in which that happened.
Duke went on to beat Kansas in the '91 final, and capped off a great season with what turned out to be one of the most impressive runs in tournament history. Littered with NBA talent and a young Hill, the Blue Devils survived the gauntlet and it made for must-see TV in the process.
No. 7 — 2006
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Florida started its dynasty in 2006 by winning the tournament, but it was George Mason that folks remember most.
Jim Larranaga's first big moment (before his success this year at Miami, anyway) was with the George Mason Patriots. The No. 11 seed beat four-straight seeds that were rated higher than it on its way to the Final Four before losing out to the eventual champion-Gators.
In a way, George Mason overshadowed a large group of underrated teams that made a big dent on the upset pool. No. 13 Bradley made it to the Sweet Sixteen. No. 12 Texas A&M came within one point of making it that far, and No. 14 Northwestern State shocked No. 3 Iowa in the first round.
Along the way, there were also a fair amount of jaw-dropping moments. Kenton Paulino and Texas downed West Virginia to reach the Elite Eight with this buzzer beater, while LSU took care of the Longhorns the next round in overtime.
The real story was George Mason. The Patriots continued to get hot as the tournament went on, picking up key shots and defensive plays that made ESPN's SportsCenter during the entire month of March. That included a huge win over top-seeded Connecticut in overtime in a game that will go down in tournament lore.
Although the Patriots couldn't get it done, they took basketball by storm in 2006. It made for must-see TV, and put Larranaga on the map as a hot head coach candidate.
No. 6 — 2011
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One Cinderella team in 2011 would have been tantalizing enough.
Lucky for us, the basketball gods shined and gave us two.
Both Butler (No. 8) and VCU (No. 11) made the Final Four in a thrilling matchup between two of the most unlikely teams to reach that plateau in tournament history. The Elite Eight was full of intrigue too, as Richmond (No. 12), Marquette (No. 11) and Florida State (No. 10) all made it to that stage of the tournament.
Want buzzer beaters? Butler's Matt Howard has you covered. Big-time defensive plays? Indiana's win over Kansas State and Arizona's win over Memphis had plenty of those. Want upsets? Check out Richmond, Marquette and Florida State.
Want a mixture of all three? Morehead State (and a young Kenneth Faried) took care of that.
All the No. 1 seeds went home early, a feat that is certainly rare in nature even by March Madness standards. It made for exciting TV, and officially put Butler on the map as an automatic upset alert candidate and a basketball school.
And in one of the most tantalizing 10-game spans in college basketball history (from the Big East tournament to the NCAA tourney), who can forget about Connecticut guard Kemba Walker's efforts?
Walker put the Huskies on his back and gave head coach Jim Calhoun his final title with a Final Four win over the upstart Kentucky Wildcats and a championship game win over Butler. From buzzer-beaters to upsets, 2011 is one of those tournaments we'll remember for a long time.
No. 5 — 1966
1966 was so good they made a movie about it.
Texas Western's journey from little-known school to NCAA Champion was one of the best stories of the entire Civil Rights movement, and Disney Pictures managed to secure movie rights to chronicle the events of this tournament with the movie "Glory Road".
For coach Don Haskins and the Miners, it was almost unheard of to start African-American players. As told by the movie, he recruited several for his 1966 team after becoming the head coach, and started all five in the championship game against Adolph Rupp and the Kentucky Wildcats.
Only two other times (Loyola and Cincinnati in 1963 were the others) that a majority of African-Americans started an NCAA tournament game. In a thrilling game in the middle rounds, Western Kentucky came within one point of knocking off Michigan and making it to the Elite Eight. In a controversial game all around, a late 50-50 ball was called a foul, and Michigan sealed it at the line.
As far as the tournament profile goes, the 1966 games largely didn't feature many upsets. Texas Western was the exception, getting past Cincinnati by two, Kansas by one and Utah by seven before meeting Rupp and the legendary Kentucky team that was favored by a wide margin.
Guard Bobby Joe Hill led a squad of under-recruited and under-valued players, a few of who made it to the NBA in following seasons.
Want another level of intrigue? Pat Riley (yes, THE Pat Riley) was a member of the Kentucky squad that tasted defeat. In all fashions, this was one of the most thrilling tournaments of all time and went down as a turning point for both sports and college basketball in the process.
It certainly deserves a Top 5 spot on this list—even if games were broadcast in black and white back then.
No. 4 — 1979
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We all knew Larry Bird and Magic Johnson were destined for a bitter rivalry after their showcase in the 1979 NCAA tournament final. In a heartwarming turn of events, they also ended up to be the best of friends.
You wouldn't know that from watching Indiana State and Michigan State square off in 1979, as Bird and Magic put on the first of many classic duels in an effort to bring home an NCAA championship to the college at which they did their studies.
Michigan State outlasted the previously undefeated Indiana State squad, marking the school's first-ever NCAA championship and sparking a battle between the two stars that would define the NBA for the next decade. It remains the highest-rated game in the history of televised college basketball, and we haven't seen that kind of one-on-one battle in the past thirty years.
It was a once in a lifetime thing, it seems.
Other memorable games included a young DePaul squad (led by freshman Mark Aguirre) narrowly missing out on a championship game appearance after losing to Indiana State and a No. 9 Penn team (led by high-point man Tony Price) making it to the Final Four before getting blown out by the Spartans.
Johnson's dunk in the waning minutes might have categorized this year the best.
No. 3 — 1990
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The 1990 NCAA Tournament was filled with tons of offense, tons of buzzer beaters and tons of heart-warming moments.
What started with a Bo Kimble left-handed free-throw turned into a UNLV win over Duke in the 1990 final, and the Rebels sealed their place in history with one of the best offensive performances in a single tournament.
Long before Larry Johnson was an NBA star (or his own grandmother), he was a key cog on the UNLV team that was scoring 100 points on a nightly basis. In 1990, it was a shame if the Runnin' Rebels didn't put up 100. However, Johnson, Greg Anthony, Stacey Augmon and the rest of Las Vegas' best wasn't the only team mentioned when you talked about offensive basketball.
Loyola Marymount staked claim to the nation's best offense, too, and if not for the tragic passing of Hank Gathers, the Sweet Sixteen matchup between the two juggernauts might have been different in another lifetime. Kimble payed honor to his fallen teammate by shooting his first free-throw left handed in all of LMU's tournament games that season.
It was an emotional moment each time he stepped to the line.
Another big storyline in 1990, of course, was the game-winning shots. Tate George's baseline heave as time expired downed Clemson (albeit it with some controversy) and but the Connecticut Huskies into the next round.
Duke and Christian Laettner would return the favor in a later matchup in a precursor to his 1992 miracle shot against Kentucky. We wouldn't know it at the time, but in just two years Laettner's next big shot would turn out to be the greatest of all time.
No. 2 — 1983
Phi Slama Jama breezed through the opening rounds of the 1983 tournament. North Carolina State—not so much, but that didn't stop the Wolfpack from completing one of the biggest upsets in tournament history.
Heck, the whole tournament was an upset for NC State and head coach Jim Valvano.
Many people remember Lorenzo Charles' put-back dunk to seal the title against the highly-touted Houston squad, but North Carolina State almost didn't get to the Final (or out of their current game) after a series of close matchups.
It helped coin the phrase—the "Cardiac Pack."
NC State won seven of its last nine games after trailing in the final minute, including several games in the NCAA tournament—culminating in an NCAA tournament win and the Valvano clip that graces the tournament precursor videos today.
The 1983 tournament was also full of buzzer beaters. This little-seen clip from the 1983 Ohio-Illinois State game isn't heavily publicized, but it's one of the most creative/craziest buzzer-beaters in tournament history. The Bobcats would lose in the second round.
Kentucky and Louisville also sparked their rivalry in the Elite Eight, giving each other fits down the stretch until Louisville pulled away in the OT period. The game featured a buzzer-beater and plenty of intense moments, and helped make the rivalry into the Battle for the Bluegrass that we now enjoy today.
However, this tournament was clearly about NC State's second title. After so many heart-wrenching moments and comebacks in big spots, the Wolfpack had one more in their repertoire—and it just so happened to make national headlines for years to come.
No. 2 — 1992
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What's remembered as the greatest moment in NCAA history by many historians also winds up front and center on this list of the 50 greatest years in tournament history.
It's mentioned as such because of Chris Farley's—err Christian Laettner's—big-time shot in a see-saw game between storied programs Kentucky and Duke.
For the sake of brevity, we'll try only mention Laettner's game-winning shot over Kentucky in the Final Four once (although it never gets old). It's a moment that continues to top "greatest" lists everywhere, and gave Duke back-to-back championships after a win over Michigan in the final.
In similar fashion, there were plenty of good upsets in '92.
Cincinnati and Michigan made improbable runs to the Final Four, facing off in a memorable game that the Wolverines had to vacate following the "Fab Five" scandal. Still, the young group of Michigan ballers captivated the nation with their story and cohesiveness together, and had a good chance at winning a national championship in consecutive seasons.
One of the most memorable upsets came in the second round, when UTEP knocked off No. 1 Kansas.
No matter how hard you try, though, you just can't forget Laettner's shot. He, Bobby Hurley, Tony and Grant Hill and the rest of the Blue Devils categorized dominance during this time period in basketball, and the big-time shot was just a small part of that excitement.
However, it's what we remember most, and for that—it deserves the top spot amongst a very deserving field. It was hard to come up with a clear-cut No. 1 on this list, but there isn't a better choice than the '92 tournament.
It's one we'll get excited about forever.