There are no fluke winners of the annual NCAA men's basketball tournament. Whoever wins does so only after winning six games over teams from all over the country, teams that all won at least 20 games and belong in the Big Dance. Every champion in the past quarter-century has deserved to win.
Inevitably, though, there are lesser and greater champions. Some teams truly dominate all season and all through the tournament; others surge unexpectedly beginning in mid-March. Still others never seem all that impressive, but find ways to win anyway.
Let's try to find the true gems, the teams that will be remembered fondly all month and throughout the years, and the ones who made us all shake our heads. Here are power rankings for the last 25 winners of the most exciting tournament in major American sports.
That Kansas team rolled to the title on the strength of Danny Manning, and just about nothing else. Manning won every major Player of the Year award that year, but the Jayhawks still were just 21-11 entering the NCAA tournament. Manning really took over on that stage. He would go on to score 31 points, grab 18 rebounds, record five steals and block two shots in the title game against Oklahoma. The team's nickname says it all: "Danny and the Miracles."
This team might have been much better than we ever knew: The Spartans certainly looked that way once they reached the tournament, getting fully healthy for the first time all season and cruising to the title. Still, Mateen Cleaves and Morris Peterson were almost the sole engines of that machine. Younger players, especially freshman Jason Richardson, brought excitement, but it's hard to contend that this team would beat most of the other champions of this era.
Jon Scheyer played out of his mind during the tournament last year, and Kyle Singler is a solid player. Still, Duke struggled a bit more that season than in any of the other three years that they have won the national title. One cannot help but think that Duke lucked out on not facing some teams in the tournament that could have beaten the Blue Devils.
Glen Rice could shoot and in fact he was a terrific and well-rounded scorer in college. Still, this Michigan crew was not yet at its actual peak, even as it won the title in a down year. Rice broke records but Chris Webber, Jalen Rose and Juwan Howard were still in high school. The Wolverines entered the tournament as a third seed, which reflects the struggle they had along the way.
Led by the versatile Corliss Williamson, the Razorbacks went 31-3 en route to the 1994 title. That looks better than it really is, though: The SEC was not then what it is now. Arkansas snuck by with very tough wins over (frankly) better teams from Michigan, Arizona and Duke during the tournament. Kudos to them for upsetting those squads, but they are not a champion among champions.
Arizona had some really terrific teams in those years. It was always fun to watch highly-skilled young guards play in the system Lute Olson built just for them. Mike Bibby, Jason Terry and Miles Simon were the keys to the team during their championship year.
As much fun as they were, though, those teams tended to be a bit one-dimensional, and 1997 was no exception. They lost nine games in the regular season. If they had run into a team whose guards could even contain them and that had a superior big man who could score, they might have gone down early.
Pervis Ellison was great that year, but Louisville lost seven games and seemed awfully vulnerable at times even during the tournament. Teams that come out of almost nowhere to reach or even get within reach of the national title game make the Big Dance fun, but those teams are not remembered as all-time greats, and rightfully so.
Ben Gordon and Emeka Okafor dominated the tournament for that 2004 UConn team, and the Huskies sometimes looked truly dominant in general. At other times, though, they got a little bit listless on offense and could be beaten, as evidenced by their seven losses.
George Lynch and Eric Montross were tough customers on a Carolina team whose identity was much more centered upon paint presence and physicality than most Tar Heels teams. They lost just three games that year, finding ways to win even without looking especially dominant. They won ugly, but they won enough.
Larry Johnson was an all-around monster that year, and every other year he spent at UNLV. That team was electrifying because of all the things Johnson did well. Still, the team won in perhaps the last year before a golden era of college hoops began, and then only after losing a handful of games.
The first of back-to-back championship Florida teams surprised people by winning it all. No one yet knew just how good Al Horford, Joakim Noah and Corey Brewer were. They had all kinds of raw talent, but the Gators still needed time to coalesce and were in the midst of maturing when they won their first title in a year without a supremely dominant team.
In keeping with the theme of teams winning the first of back-to-back titles, the Blue Devils, which took the 1991 title, still had not realized their full potential. The talent was clearly there with Christian Laettner, Grant Hill and Bobby Hurley, but they did not really and truly hit their stride en route to that first championship together.
Everyone already knew Tyler Hansbrough was the best player in the country when the 2009 tournament started. Still, he had never yet won a national title, and he proved how badly he wanted one that March and early April. North Carolina has had better teams, but few better collegiate players than big No. 50.
The anchors of the 1998 champion Wildcats had been around two years earlier, when the team won more convincingly and had more varied talents. Scott Padgett and Nazr Mohammed were big players with skills and were defensive wizards. Still, this squad was more one-dimensional and won mostly because no team exploited its slowness.
Carmelo Anthony and Hakim Warrick did not share the floor in orange for very long, but while they were together at Syracuse under Jim Boeheim, they were a spectacle. Anthony was unstoppable as a scorer and Warrick added a second threat from the inside, also grabbing a ton of rebounds and generally shutting down opponents on defense.
Richard Hamilton did it all in college. He shot the lights out, and scored so creatively on penetration plays that no one could really slow him down. If a team did manage to adjust and contain Hamilton, they still had to deal with now-forgotten spark plug Khalid El-Amin. The team went 34-2 and Hamilton was one of the best guards of the decade.
Kansas had terrific depth that year, beating Memphis in a heart-stopping title game and going 37-3 on the season. Mario Chalmers played like a true star in that game, though overall the strength of that group was depth and not standout studs.
In 2007, the Gators were not going to sneak up on anybody. Joakim Noah, Al Horford and Taurean Green mauled teams into submission, and for the amount of size they brought to the table, they could really run the floor.
Steve Alford had a tremendous season that year. Bob Knight won his third national title as Indiana's head coach when Alford's 24 points per game carried right over into the tournament.
This was the real juggernaut from the Bluegrass State. Ron Mercer, Tony Delk, Walter McCarty and Antoine Walker made the Wildcats deep, gave them terrific length on defense and still left them with plenty of shooting prowess from the outside. They went 34-2 and hardly got a real challenge in the tournament.
If any team has ever embodied Mike Krzyzewski's methodical, tactical basketball philosophy, this was it. Jay Williams was a fantastic passer who could shoot and showed occasional explosion toward the basket. Shane Battier was the fundamental anchor, boxing people out on one end and shooting smoothly even from the outside on the other.
This team was outrageously talented. Juan Dixon was the Most Outstanding Player and leader, but absolutely everyone on the team had spectacular skills. Chris Wilcox and Lonnie Baxter dominated down low, while Steve Blake distributed the ball masterfully and Drew Nicholas could score from the outside if teams lost track of him.
Ironically, though they rank near the top of the list, the Tar Heels might not have been the best team in the country that year. Both they and Illinois had dominant teams loaded with versatile talents. North Carolina placed four players in the lottery segment of the first round in that year's NBA draft. Marvin Williams went in the top five despite not having started for UNC. That was a great season and a great game between two incredible teams.
Only one team has won the title in the past 25 years with just one loss, so even though Ed O'Bannon and Tyus Edney are not inspiring figures, UCLA floats nearly to the top. That squad was deep and Edney made a huge difference for the Bruins. UCLA may have a long list of more illustrious teams in its annals, but this one was a strong team in its own right.
These guys were special. Laettner had his miraculous shot, Hill polished his grossly well-rounded skill set and Hurley proved he was a legitimate elite point guard. Krzyzewski is a great coach, but that team was too talented to go wrong.