Ranking the Most Exciting Final Fours in NCAA Tournament History

Jake Curtis@jakecurtis53Featured ColumnistApril 4, 2014

Ranking the Most Exciting Final Fours in NCAA Tournament History

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    Each Final Four writes its own story, and a few have produced unforgettable tales. Will the three games in this year's Final Four, which features Wisconsin, Florida, Connecticut and Kentucky, combine to create an indelible mark?

    Although many Final Fours have produced a single memorable game, only occasionally does the three-game weekend series provide enough excitement to merit mention as a group.

    Multiple thrilling games, standout individual performances, emotional moments and unexpected results make some Final Fours more stirring than others. We have considered those factors in ranking the 12 most exciting Final Fours in history.

    We excluded NCAA tournaments before 1951, the year the field was expanded from eight to 16 teams, and we took some liberties by having two Final Fours tied for the final spot on our list.

11. 1992/1993 Final Fours

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    Paul Sancya

    1992 Final Four teams: Duke, Michigan, Cincinnati, Indiana

    1993 Finals Four teams: North Carolina, Michigan, Kansas, Kentucky

    Admittedly, it is a bit of cop-out to have Final Fours in consecutive years tie for the final spot on our list. But a major factor in the excitement of both was the presence of Michigan's Fab Five.

    The swagger and baggy pants introduced by the Wolverines' five freshman starters in 1992 polarized and intrigued fans, even though they were soundly beaten 71-51 by a veteran Duke team, which won its second straight national title behind Grant Hill, Christian Laettner and Bobby Hurley.

    Duke had rallied from a 12-point first-half deficit to beat Indiana in a semifinal clash of coaching mentor (Indiana's Bob Knight) against coaching protege (Duke's Mike Krzyzewski). The Blue Devils then dominated a Michigan team that overcame a halftime deficit to beat Cincinnati 76-72 in the other semifinal matchup.

    Michigan had the same five starters (Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson) when it reached the 1993 championship game.

    The Wolverines got there with an entertaining 81-78 overtime win in the semifinals against Kentucky. The Wildcats overcame a 10-point deficit in regulation and led most of the overtime, but Webber's basket with 41 seconds left in the extra period gave Michigan the lead for good.

    Webber unwittingly produced the most memorable moment of the 1993 Final Four in the title game against North Carolina, a 78-68 semifinal victor over Kansas and former Tar Heel assistant Roy Williams.

    With Michigan trailing North Carolina by two points, Webber brought the ball into the frontcourt and called a timeout with 11 seconds left when the Wolverines had no timeouts left. It resulted in technical free throws and an emotional 77-71 loss in Webber's final college game.

10. 1982 Final Four

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    Associated Press

    1982 Final Four teams: North Carolina, Georgetown, Houston, Louisville

    Memorable plays by two players made the 1982 championship game great theater, for very different reasons.

    The semifinal games were not bad either.

    No. 1-ranked North Carolina used its four-corners offense in the closing minutes to finish off a 68-63 victory over Houston, which featured Clyde Drexler and a raw—but talented—freshman center named Akeem (later Hakeem) Olajuwon.

    The Tar Heels opponent in the title game was Georgetown, which had a raw, talented freshman center of its own in Patrick Ewing.

    Georgetown was an outstanding defensive team. Although it did not mount much offense in its 50-46 victory over Louisville in the other semifinal game, it throttled the Cardinals, whose 46 points were the most scored by any Hoyas' opponent in the tournament to that point.

    Whether Georgetown could do the same in the finals against a North Carolina team that featured James Worthy, Sam Perkins and a freshman named Michael Jordan was the question.

    The Hoyas nearly pulled it off.

    Eric "Sleepy" Floyd gave Georgetown a one-point lead with 57 seconds left, and the Tar Heels called a timeout with 37 seconds remaining. With his star-studded lineup, coach Dean Smith had plenty of options.

    However, it was the freshman, Jordan, who hinted at his future greatness by hitting a 16-foot shot from the left wing to give the Tar Heels a one-point lead with 16 seconds remaining.

    On the Hoyas' ensuing possession, Georgetown guard Fred Brown produced an embarrassing and memorable moment much like Chris Webber's timeout in 1993. Looking for a passing outlet from the top of the key with the seconds ticking away, Brown mistakenly passed the ball directly to Worthy, thinking for a split second that he was a teammate. 

    Georgetown eventually fouled Worthy with two seconds left, and although he missed both foul shots, the Hoyas could not get off a decent shot in the 63-62 North Carolina victory.

9. 1975 Final Four

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    John Wooden and Louisville coach Denny Crum
    John Wooden and Louisville coach Denny CrumAnonymous

    1975 Final Four teams: UCLA, Kentucky, Louisville, Syracuse

    UCLA won its 10th national title in 12 years by beating Kentucky 92-85 in John Wooden's final game as coach.

    However, it was the events of the Bruins' semifinal game against Louisville that made Wooden's farewell victory so memorable.

    Louisville, coached by former Wooden assistant Denny Crum, led UCLA by a point in overtime and had possession with less than a minute remaining. With no shot clock in those days, UCLA was forced to foul. That's why Louisville guard Terry Howard, who had not played the entire game, was inserted into the lineup.  

    He was 28-of-28 from the foul line for the season and was immediately given the ball and fouled by UCLA with 20 seconds left.  His two free throws would have virtually sealed the win in an era lacking the three-point shot. But Howard missed the front end of a one-and-one, and Richard Washington's basket won it for the Bruins.

    After that game Wooden announced that the championship game would be his final game as the Bruins' head coach.

    The title-game opponent, Kentucky, had crushed Syracuse 95-79 in its semifinal and had beaten No. 1-ranked, unbeaten Indiana earlier in the tournament.

    The Wildcats got 34 points from Kevin Grevey in the championship game, but Grevey missed a chance to do more. Kentucky had rallied from a 10-point, second-half deficit to get within a point with 6:42 left.

    At that point, Grevey went to the foul line to shoot a technical free throw and a one-and-one. He missed the technical foul shot and the first shot of the one-and-one, and Kentucky committed a turnover on the ensuring possession resulting from the technical.

    UCLA controlled the game from that point on in what ended up being a 92-85 victory.

8. 1987 Final Four

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    1987 Final Four teams: Indiana, Syracuse, UNLV, Providence

    Indiana's high-scoring semifinal win over the No. 1-ranked team and Keith Smart's game-winning shot in the finals made the Hoosiers' victory in the 1987 Final Four great theater.

    The contrasting images of the coaches highlighted the semifinal game between Indiana and UNLV. Despite their stark differences in approach and style, Indiana's Bob Knight and UNLV's Jerry Tarkanian were friends, according to a Los Angeles Times story.

    Freddie Banks scored 38 points, and Armen Gilliam added 32 points for No. 1-ranked UNLV, which also got 18 assists from Mark Wade. But Indiana, in an interesting strategy, simply refused to guard Wade on the perimeter. For his part, Wade simply refused to shoot.

    UNLV took 38 three-point shots in the game; Indiana attempted four. Indiana All-American Steve Alford scored 33 points for Indiana, which hung on for a 97-93 victory.

    Indiana had a tougher time in the finals against Syracuse, which rolled past Rick Pitino's Providence team 77-63 in the other semifinal.

    Alford was the show for much of the title game. He was 7-of-10 on three-point shots and collected 21 points in the first 29 minutes. He was the key player in a 10-0 Indiana run that overcame an eight-point deficit and gave the Hoosiers a 54-52 lead with 9:48 left.

    But Syracuse put the clamps on Alford after that, using a box-and-one defense to limit his touches.

    Syracuse bounced back to take a three-point lead with 38 seconds remaining. Indiana cut it to one on Smart's transition basket with 30 seconds left, and the Hoosiers had a final possession with 28 seconds remaining after Syracuse freshman Derrick Coleman missed the first free throw of a one-and-one situation.

    Down by one, Smart ended up with the ball along the left baseline. He took an off-balance 14-foot shot while fading to his left. The ball fell through with four seconds left to give the Hoosiers the 74-73 victory.

7. 2010 Final Four

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    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    2010 Final Four teams: Duke, Butler, Michigan State, West Virginia

    The "Hoosiers" story came to life with Butler, which nearly did what tiny Milan High School had done when it won the 1954 Indiana state championship and inspired the movie.

    Butler, an Indiana school that played in the underpublicized Horizon League, was a mere No. 5 seed and nearly lost to Murray State in the second round. But it then upset No. 1-seeded Syracuse and No. 2-seeded Kansas State in succession to reach the Final Four played in Indianapolis, which is where Butler is located.

    Butler's home court, Hinkle Fieldhouse, had been the venue for the 1954 state high school championship game won by Milan and was where the state-title-game scenes for "Hoosiers" were filmed.

    When Butler knocked off another powerhouse, Michigan State, with a riveting, 52-50 semifinal victory, the captivating story was nearly complete. The only thing standing in the Bulldogs' way was Duke, a No. 1 seed that had rolled through the tournament and had routed West Virginia 78-57 in the other semifinal.

    Butler almost pulled it off with a storybook ending. When Butler star Gordon Hayward launched a desperation shot from beyond half court at the buzzer, with Duke leading by two points, it seemed the long-distance three-point shot might go in. It was on-line and could provide a perfect ending to the perfect tale.

    "There was no doubt that I thought that ball was going to drop," Butler guard Ronald Nored said, according to an ESPN.com story. "I was just sitting down waiting for it to go in."

    It was close. Very close. But the shot bounced off the rim, and Duke won 61-59.

6. 1985 Final Four

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    Associated Press

    1985 Final Four teams: Villanova, Georgetown, St. John's, Memphis

    Villanova's near-perfect game in its historic upset of Georgetown in the 1985 championship game made it one of college basketball's most memorable games.

    It also completely overshadowed the Hoyas' impressive performance in the semifinals against St. John's, the third Big East team in that Final Four and the one expected to give the Hoyas the most trouble.

    St. John's had won one of the three previous meetings with Georgetown that season, but it was no match for the Hoyas in the NCAA tournament, losing 77-59. St. John's star Chris Mullin was limited to eight points.

    Villanova, meanwhile, sneaked into the title game by beating Memphis 52-45, the fourth time in five tournament games the Wildcats' opponent had failed to reach the 50-point level.

    This was the last season the NCAA tournament was played without a shot clock, although most conferences had used a shot clock during the 1984-85 regular season. It was a major factor in the success of Villanova, which, as a No. 8 seed, is the lowest seed to win a national championship.

    But the Wildcats, who had lost to the Hoyas twice during the season, had to do almost everything perfectly to beat Georgetown, which featured Patrick Ewing and a number of key players from the Hoyas team that won the 1984 NCAA title.

    The Wildcats shot an amazing 22-of-28 from the field (78.6 percent) and made 22 free throws to just six for the Hoyas.

    Harold Jensen came off the bench to have the game of his life. He scored 14 points and hit all five shots he attempted, including a 16-footer that gave Villanova a one-point lead with 2:37 left.

    Leading by two with two seconds left, Villanova needed only to get the ball inbounds to pull off the upset. Jensen inbounded the ball to Dwayne McClain, who ran into Georgetown's David Wingate. Both players fell to the floor, but McClain held on and covered the ball with his body as he raised his hand in celebration of the 66-64 victory.

5. 1966 Final Four

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    1966 Final Four teams: Texas Western, Kentucky, Duke, Utah

    The social significance of Texas Western’s victory over Kentucky in the finals continues to give that game lasting historical importance. But all three Final Four games were intriguing.

    The semifinal between No. 1-ranked Kentucky and No. 2 Duke was seen as an unofficial championship game, with the winner of that game expected to take the title the next night. Duke guard Bob Verga, a second-team Associated Press All-American, had been hospitalized with strep throat the week before the game and managed just four points in 28 minutes in the Blue Devils’ 83-79 loss.

    Meanwhile, Texas Western (now known as UTEP) got by Utah in the other semifinal 85-78, but the individual star of the game was Utah’s Jerry Chambers, who scored 38 points and averaged 35.8 points in the Utes’ four tournament games.

    In the title game, the Miners’ quickness on the perimeter and power inside were too much for favored Kentucky in Texas Western’s 72-65 victory. The lasting memory is Bobby Joe Hill stealing the ball from Kentucky All-American Louie Dampier twice in a one-minute span, resulting in a pair of layups that put the Miners in control.

    Virtually none of the reports of the game mentioned the fact that Texas Western was the first team to field an all-black starting five in the NCAA tournament title game. The social significance of the win, which was accomplished against an Adolph Rupp team that had never had an African American on its roster, was not a major media topic until years later.

    The 1966 Final Four is more exciting in retrospect now than it was then.

4. 1977 Final Four

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    Associated Press

    1977 Final Four teams: Marquette, North Carolina, UNLV, North Carolina-Charlotte

    This Final Four produced two riveting semifinal games topped off by an emotional victory for Al McGuire in his final game as Marquette's coach.

    McGuire had announced in December that the 1976-77 season would be his final season as Marquette's coach. So he and everyone else knew that any Marquette game in the NCAA tournament could be his last.

    His coaching career nearly ended in the semifinals against Cedric Maxwell and North Carolina-Charlotte (these days known only as Charlotte). Maxwell scored on a 10-footer to tie the score at 49-49 with three seconds left. Butch Lee then hurled a full-court inbounds pass that Marquette's Bo Ellis and Maxwell touched before Marquette's Jerome Whitehead gathered it in about 12 feet from the basket.

    Whitehead turned and laid the ball in at the buzzer. To add to the drama, both teams and a frantic McGuire had to wait until the lead official went to the scorer's table to check the game clock to see if the basket should count. It did, and Marquette won 51-49 to earn a matchup against North Carolina, which also survived a close semifinal game.

    Jerry Tarkanian's fast-paced, high-scoring UNLV team had scored more than 100 points 23 times that season, including twice in its three tournament games coming into the semifinal against Dean Smith's Tar Heels. The Runnin' Rebels looked like they might reach the century mark again when they led 49-43 at halftime, and they increased their lead to 10 points early in the second half.

    But when North Carolina surged ahead by a basket with 15:40 to go, it went to its famed four-corners offense, slowing the game to a crawl. The Tar Heels held off UNLV the rest of the way for an 83-82 victory.

    North Carolina followed a similar strategy in the title game. The Tar Heels overcame a 39-27 deficit to take a 45-43 lead with 13:48 left. The Tar Heels again went into its four-corners offense, but this time it was less successful. 

    Marquette regained the lead, went into its own stall, and with eight seconds left in what would be a 67-59 Marquette victory, McGuire started crying.

3. 1957 Final Four

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    Kansas' Wilt Chamberlan (left) and North Carolina's Lennie Rosenbluth (second from left) were Associated Press All-Americans in 1957.
    Kansas' Wilt Chamberlan (left) and North Carolina's Lennie Rosenbluth (second from left) were Associated Press All-Americans in 1957.Associated Press

    1957 Final Four teams: North Carolina, Kansas, San Francisco, Michigan State

    No. 1-ranked, unbeaten North Carolina had to play six overtimes in two days' time to win the 1957 title.

    The Tar Heels beat Michigan State 74-70 in triple overtime in one semifinal, a game in which the lead changed hands 31 times. Michigan State's Jack Quiggle made a half-court shot that came just after the final buzzer in regulation, and the Spartans' Johnny Green missed a free throw with 11 seconds remaining in the first overtime that would have given Michigan State a three-point lead.

    North Carolina's Pete Brennan grabbed Green's miss and hit a game-tying jumper at the buzzer to force a second overtime.

    Kansas clobbered defending national champion San Francisco 80-56 in the other semifinal, setting up a title game the next night between the No. 1- and No. 2-ranked teams. (There was no off day between the semifinals and finals then.)

    Carolina featured Associated Press player of the year Lennie Rosenbluth, and Kansas had an All-American of its own in 7'1" Wilt Chamberlain.

    Again the Tar Heels would play three overtimes.

    Chamberlain had scored 36, 30 and 32 points in Kansas' first three tournament wins, and North Carolina coach Dick McGuire sent 5'11" Tommy Kearns to jump center against Chamberlain to start the game. Meanwhile, the other four Tar Heels set up in a zone defense prior to the tip, demonstrating the defense they would play throughout the game, limiting Chamberlain to 23 points.

    In the third overtime, Kansas took a 53-52 lead into the closing seconds, and Chamberlain blocked a shot to keep the Jayhawks ahead. But North Carolina's Joe Quigg gathered up the loose ball following the block, drove to the basket and was fouled with six seconds left.

    He made both free throws as North Carolina wrapped up a perfect season with a 54-53 victory.

2. 1983 Final Four

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    1983 Final Four teams: North Carolina State, Houston, Louisville, Georgia

    North Carolina State's stunning last-second victory over powerful Houston in the title game ranks as one of the most exciting games in history. It overshadowed what had been an outstanding semifinal game involving two talented, athletic teams: Houston and Louisville.

    Known as "Phi Slama Jama" for its high-flying dunking, No. 1-ranked Houston featured Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler. The Cougars dumped No. 2-ranked Louisville 94-81 in the semifinals in what was seen as the key Final Four game.

    The Wolfpack, meanwhile, had been far from dominant in the tournament, having to go two overtimes to get past first-round opponent Pepperdine, a No. 11 seed, and then winning one-point games in upsets of UNLV and Virginia, the latter featuring national player of the year Ralph Sampson.

    North Carolina State, a No. 6 seed with 10 losses, would not even have been in the 48-team NCAA tournament if it had not won the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament. But coach Jim Valvano had the Wolfpack looking like a team of destiny with its series of close wins and a convincing 67-60 victory over Georgia in the semifinals.

    In the title game, North Carolina State led by eight points at halftime, but a 17-2 Houston run in the second half gave the Cougars a seven-point lead. At that point, Houston coach Guy Lewis ordered the Cougars to go into a slowdown, even though they had used a fast-paced game and their athletic superiority to take the lead.

    The Wolfpack caught up, and with the score tied 52-52 with 1:08 left, Valvano ordered his team to foul to take advantage of the Cougars' poor free-throw shooting. Houston freshman Alvin Franklin went to the line and missed the front end of a one-and-one.

    The Wolfpack held the ball for a final shot, but the play broke down, and Dereck Whittenburg was forced to throw up a hurried 30-footer that was well short. However, North Carolina State forward Lorenzo Charles, who had scored just two points to that point, grabbed the air ball as it neared the rim and stuffed it home as the buzzer sounded.

    The play gave North Carolina State a 54-52 victory and one of the biggest upsets in NCAA tournament history.

1. 1979 Final Four

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    Associated Press

    1979 Final Four teams: Michigan State, Indiana State, Penn, DePaul

    The intriguing title-game matchup of Michigan State's charismatic, pass-happy 6'9" Earvin Johnson and Indiana State's folksy, 6'10" Larry Bird, the national player of the year, created television's highest-rated NCAA tournament game in history.

    The Spartans won that championship game rather convincingly 75-64, with Johnson outscoring Bird 24-19. But the appeal of those two players and their varied skills helped turn the NCAA tournament into the mammoth event it has become. They continued that rivalry for years in the NBA.

    The resumes of the two stars were enhanced in their semifinal games. 

    Johnson had a triple-double (29 points on 9-of-10 shooting, 10 rebounds, 10 assists) in Michigan State's 101-67 rout of Penn.

    Bird had 35 points on 13-of-16 shooting to go along with 14 points and nine assists in Indiana State's 76-74 victory over DePaul in a riveting semifinals. It was the Sycamores' second straight two-point win over a national power, and it proved unbeaten Indiana State deserved its No. 1 ranking, despite its status as a mid-major-type program.

    The Sycamores' David-among-Goliaths story added to the appeal of the 1979 Final Four. So did the fact that Indiana coach Bill Hodges was an Indiana State assistant before being promoted to head coach when head coach Bob King suffered a stroke less than a week before preseason practice for the 1978-79 season began.

    However, it was the presence of Bird and Johnson and their singular talents that pushed the 1979 Final Four to the No. 1 spot.


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