The Best NCAA Basketball Teams Who Didn't Win It All
History has a way of making us forget about the teams that don't win a championship.
Some, however, were just so dominant in the lead-up to it all that they survive the passage of time. No sport has a more famous list of great teams that did not win a championship than college basketball.
The NCAA tournament is the greatest three weeks in sports, but it has also been a cruel beast to many. One injury, one bad shooting night or one call that doesn't go your way and that's it. No seven-game series to crown a champ. No second chances.
Who are the greatest non-champs?
This is our list of the best 10 to not cut down the nets.
Honorable Mention: Michigan (1993), UCLA (1974), Indiana State (1979) and North Carolina (1998).
10. Duke (2002)
What Made Them Great: Jason Williams (now, Jay Williams) will not be looked at as kindly in history as time moves on because of his motorcycle accident that took away his shot from a great career in the NBA.
Many times it's the NBA career that reminds us, "Oh yeah, that guy was a great college player too." That's too bad, because Williams was unreal at Duke. He had the ability to attack the rim similar to a Derrick Rose, but he could also pull up and drill a three.
Williams, who was the consensus player of the year in 2002, helped lead Duke to the 2001 title. Mike Krzyzewski returned a loaded roster for the 2001-02 season that included six players who would go on to play in the NBA.
The Blue Devils averaged 90.7 points per game, led by Williams (21.3 ppg), Carlos Boozer (18.2 ppg) and Mike Dunleavy Jr. (17.3 ppg).
Why They Didn't Win the Title: Duke lost 74-73 to fifth-seeded Indiana in the Sweet 16 in a game that Duke led by 17 early.
The Blue Devils picked the wrong time to go cold—they made only 18 of 43 twos that day—and they got killed on the boards. Indiana came away with 20 of its own misses—a ridiculous 60.6 offensive rebounding percentage—and Jared Jeffries also burned the Blue Devils, scoring 24 points and grabbing 15 rebounds.
Indiana would go on to lose in the championship to Maryland, which had split its regular-season series with Duke.
9. Memphis (2008)
What Made Them Great: The Tigers overwhelmed with speed, size and athleticism. Offensively, Derrick Rose was impossible to keep out of the paint, and Chris Douglas-Roberts was a crafty scorer who could just get buckets whenever his team needed them.
Memphis also had an enforcer in Joey Dorsey who would have fit right in with the Bad Boy Pistons of the late '80s. Both Dorsey and Robert Dozier were also good shot-blockers. Memphis opponents shot only 39.1 percent from the field.
The Tigers breezed through the regular season with the only setback coming in a four-point loss to Tennessee in an odd nonconference game in late February. It took the pressure off the team to go undefeated, and Memphis cruised through the NCAA tournament on the way to the title game, winning four of its five games by at least 14.
The 2008 Final Four was the only year since the field expanded in 1985 that all four No. 1 seeds made it to the national semifinals.
Why They Didn't Win the Title: The one weakness for the Tigers that season was free-throw shooting. They made only 61.4 percent, which ranked 329th in the NCAA, and it would finally come back to bite them in the end.
The Tigers led by nine with two minutes left when Kansas would start a storybook comeback. The Jayhawks went on a quick 5-0 run, which Douglas-Roberts ended with two made free throws. The Tigers would then miss their next four at the line until Derrick Rose made the second of two to put Memphis ahead by three.
The rest is history. Mario Chalmers would sink "Mario's Miracle" and Memphis went on to lose, 75-68, in overtime.
8. Illinois (2005)
What Made Them Great: Bill Self had recruited arguably the best backcourt of the 2000s to Champaign, and Bruce Weber brought the perfect offense with him when Self left for Kansas.
Weber's motion was fun to watch that season on such a balanced team that saw all five starters average double figures. The backcourt of Deron Williams, Luther Head and Dee Brown could all pass, shoot and dribble, and they ran circles around the Big Ten.
Head and Brown, the team's two leading scorers, both shot better than 41 percent from three. It was obvious years later how unselfish this team was when Williams would become one of the NBA's best point guards yet was this team's third-leading scorer.
The Illini nearly had a perfect regular season. They blew a 12-point lead at Ohio State and lost, 65-64, when Ohio State's Matt Sylvester hit a three with 5.1 seconds left.
Why They Didn't Win the Title: The Illini had an amazing backcourt, but they just didn't have anyone who could match up with North Carolina's Sean May in the championship game.
May would pour in 26 points in UNC's 75-70 win and also kept one of the Illini's most important players out of the contest. James Augustine spent the entire game in foul trouble and eventually fouled out, going scoreless in only nine minutes.
7. Georgetown (1985)
What Made Them Great: Georgetown played the role of bully in the Big East.
The Hoyas had slipped up in one stretch that season—losing back-to-back games to St. John's and Syracuse in late January—and they would come back to avenge those losses by finishing the regular season with a 16-point win against St. John's and a 27-point win against Syracuse. For good measure, the Hoyas beat both teams again in the Big East tournament.
Georgetown, which had gone to three title games in four seasons, led the country in field-goal percentage defense (39.5 percent), helped by Ewing's 128 blocked shots.
"They're one of the best defensive teams that I've ever seen," former Villanova guard Harold Pressley told Rivals.com in 2007. "I still look back and think, 'wow, those guys were truly amazing.' We'd sit and watch film and watch them on TV and were in awe of how quick they were and how they could trap you. They always seemed to have everybody covered."
Why They Didn't Win the Title: Villanova utilized the lack of a shot clock and played what is considered the perfect game in the 1985 championship.
The Wildcats, who had made it as a No. 8 seed, lost twice that season to the Hoyas, but both games were close and one went to overtime.
"We completely knew them inside and out," Pressley told Rivals. "There was not a play they could run that we didn't know. We heard them call the play, and we knew what they'd try to get out of it. Defensively we were set. Offensively we knew what their tendencies were—when they would trap and double and pick up the tempo. We didn't fall for all of that. We had chances in both regular-season games to beat them. Unfortunately we hadn't, but we absolutely knew we could."
The Hoyas led late in the game and were holding onto the ball when Billy Martin threw a pass off the shin of Horace Broadnax, and Villanova would go on to win, 66-64, in a loss that evidently still stings Ewing.
"We made a mistake, turned the ball over, and the better team did not win the game," Ewing told Sports Illustrated in 2004. "I said it then, and I'll say it now."
6. Kansas (1997)
What Made Them Great: This is arguably the best team Roy Williams ever coached.
Bill James, an expert in stats known more for his baseball knowledge, told sportswriter Joe Posnanski in a podcast in 2011 that this Kansas team was "maybe the best college team" ever. (James is a Lawrence resident and a KU fan, but he does not just throw around outlandish claims like that without solid analytical support.)
The Jayhawks had four players in their starting lineup (Paul Pierce, Raef LaFrentz, Jacque Vaughn and Scott Pollard) who played 10-plus seasons in the NBA. Reserve sharpshooter Billy Thomas also had a cup of coffee or two in the league.
Pierce, a potential future Hall of Famer, has been the most successful pro and was the best wing scorer Williams had at Kansas. LaFrentz, who averaged 18.5 points per game that season, was the team's star and a first-team All-American twice.
With Vaughn running Williams' patented secondary break, the Jayhawks were a high-scoring team averaging 84.9 points per game and topping 100 points five times, including 134 against Niagara and 114 against Colorado. Their only loss in the regular season was in double overtime at Missouri and the Jayhawks were without starting center Pollard in that game.
Why They Didn't Win the Title: Kansas lost, 85-82, in the Sweet 16 to a talented Arizona squad that would go on to beat two more No. 1 seeds en route to their NCAA title. The Wildcats were loaded on the perimeter with Mike Bibby, Miles Simon, Jason Terry and Michael Dickerson.
Another injury didn't help KU's cause in this one. Starting shooting guard Jerod Haase, who had a nagging wrist injury throughout the season, had re-injured his shooting wrist. He played only 14 minutes, made 1-of-3 shots and had three turnovers.
5. Houston (1983)
What Made Them Great: The Cougars were the epitome of cool. They had nicknames like "Akeem the Dream," "Clyde the Glide" and "Mr. Mean," and they had the game to back it up.
If this team had assembled in the '90s, you could imagine that Phi Slama Jama would have brought us baggy shorts. Instead, they irked the basketball purists with their free-styling dunking ways.
Hakeem Olajuwon (he would later add the "H") and Clyde Drexler went on to become two of the greatest players in the history of the NBA and win an NBA title in Houston together in 1995. Michael Young, who led the team in scoring, also had a solid NBA career.
The Cougars played with swagger before the word really entered our basketball vocabulary.
"We can go all the way this time," Drexler told Sports Illustrated at the time. "You've never seen such a confident team as this one."
Why They Didn't Win the Title: The Cougars were a great collection of talent that preferred to play fast and was finally slowed down on April 4, 1983.
Jim Valvano was able to come up with a game plan that slowed the team's two star wings, Drexler and Young. Drexler scored only four points on 1-of-5 shooting and Young scored only six, going 3-of-10 from the field.
With the game tied in the final seconds, Dereck Whittenburg shot the most famous air ball in NCAA history, and Lorenzo Charles just happened to be at the right place at the right time to give the Wolfpack the 54-52 win.
4. Indiana (1975)
What Made Them Great: Perfection.
That's what the 1976 Hoosiers are known for, but it likely would have been a two-year run if star big man Scott May had not broken his arm late in the season against Purdue.
This team was just as accomplished as the 1976 team, going undefeated in the regular season. They had four players average double figures running Bob Knight's patented motion offense and arguably had the stronger front line, as May teamed with senior Steve Green, who averaged 16.6 points per game.
Why They Didn't Win the Title: Without May at full strength, Indiana lost, 92-90, to Kentucky in the regional final. Just a few months earlier in December, the Hoosiers had beaten the Wildcats, 98-74, at Assembly Hall.
Kentucky would go on to lose to UCLA in the championship game, and IU would beat UCLA in the Final Four the following year.
When Indiana finished off its perfect season in 1976, Knight told the Herald-Times in Bloomington that it had been "a two-year quest."
3. North Carolina State (1973)
What Made Them Great: It's scary to think what this team could have done with a shot clock.
North Carolina State averaged 92.9 points per game and won by an average margin of 21.8 in a season in which the team had nothing to play for but the ACC championship, as it was under an NCAA tournament ban for recruiting violations.
The Wolfpack had one of the best one-two combos in college basketball history with "Skywalker" David Thompson on the perimeter and 7'2" center Tom Burleson in the post. Thompson averaged 24.7 points a contest in his first collegiate season and Burleson averaged 17.9 points and 12.0 rebounds.
Why They Didn't Win the Title: This article has the NCAA findings that banned the 1973 Wolfpack from competing in the NCAA tournament, and it's pretty comical to read now. These pesky rule-breakers allowed for soon-to-be players on the team to be counselors at a summer camp, stay in the dorms when they were not allowed, and gave out a few rides that were also not allowed.
When the Wolfpack were reinstated the following year, Thompson and Burleson led the team to a 30-1 record and the 1974 NCAA championship, ending UCLA's historic run of seven straight titles. UCLA was the only team to beat NC State that season.
2. Duke (1999)
What Made Them Great: The Blue Devils demolished people, winning 34 of their 37 games by double digits. The ACC tournament championship game, for instance, was a 96-73 beatdown of North Carolina.
Duke's starting lineup included four players who would be first-team All-Americans at some point in Durham—Elton Brand and Trajan Langdon in 1999, Chris Carrawell in 2000 and Shane Battier in 2001.
Duke was close to going undefeated in the regular season, losing on a last-second play to Cincinnati in the Great Alaskan Shootout. Point guard William Avery had tied the game with three seconds left, and then Bob Huggins drew up an awesome play that included a length of the floor pass to Kenyon Martin, who caught the ball and passed in one motion to Melvin Levett for the game-winning dunk (watch here.) Avery would actually hit the miraculous game-tying shot, but the basket was waved off after it was determined the shot had not beat the buzzer.
After that game, the Blue Devils won 32 straight on their way to the title game.
Why They Didn't Win the Title: Duke lost, 77-74, to a two-loss Connecticut squad starring Richard Hamilton and point guard Khalid El-Amin.
UConn shot 52.5 percent in the championship game, but the Blue Devils still had their chances in the final minute. Trailing by one point, Duke gave the ball to Langdon to go one-on-one against Ricky Moore. Langdon tried a spin move from about 15 feet, lost his balance and traveled.
After El-Amin made two free throws with five seconds left, Duke went back to Langdon for the tie. He dribbled up the left sideline into traffic and lost his dribble, unable to get up a shot.
"We lost to a great basketball team. We were beaten tonight, we didn't lose," said Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski (via Sports Illustrated) after the game.
1. UNLV (1991)
What Made Them Great: UNLV was as close to a lock to win the NCAA title as there has ever been.
The Runnin' Rebels were the defending champs, having smoked Duke by 30 in the 1990 final. That team had lost five games, but all five losses occurred with at least one regular suspended at the time.
"Every guy got suspended, literally, on our team," Greg Anthony told ESPN.com in 2010. "That's really disruptive from a chemistry standpoint."
The Runnin' Rebels never ran short of controversies, whether it was Jerry Tarkanian's battles with the NCAA or players in a hot tub.
In 1991, it didn't matter what rumors were whirling—this team simply ran everyone out of the gym.
UNLV put up 97.7 points a game and outscored opponents by an average of 26.8 points. If you wanted to play slow, Larry Johnson, the team's leading scorer at 22.8 PPG and eventual No. 1 overall pick in the 1991 NBA draft, could abuse you in the post.
Play fast and it was no contest with Greg Anthony running the break alongside Stacey Augmon and Anderson Hunt. The Runnin' Rebels scored 100-plus points 14 times that year.
UNLV entered the Final Four on a 45-game winning streak and amidst the inevitable greatest-of-all-time discussions. And then...
Why They Didn't Win the Title: Duke somehow pulled off the 79-77 win in the Final Four.
"What if...?" was the headline in the Las Vegas Sun two days later, and in typical Tarkanian fashion, it just felt like UNLV had been jobbed.
Anthony fouled out for the first time all season with 3:51 and that was a huge blow. The Runnin' Rebels also had two buckets taken away on controversial charges and were called for two "questionable" goaltends.
"Another team played well. We didn't," Anthony said. "They made the last shot and we didn’t. That's all."
For a team that was so dominant for two seasons, it was tough to comprehend. But if there's one feather in the cap of Tarkanian's Runnin' Rebels, it's that they're still considered one of the best teams of all time, even with the loss.
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