NCAA Tournament's Best Elite Eight Games in the Last 10 Years
It's fitting that the best games of the men's NCAA tournament often come during the Elite Eight.
The sad thing is—aside from the Christian Laettner shot we see a thousand times every March—those are the games we tend to forget about shortly after the fact.
The unforgettable, bracket-busting upsets happen in the first two rounds, and we generally remember even the not-that-entertaining Final Four and national championship games because there's so much fanfare surrounding them. But the Elite Eight gets sort of the middle child treatment, even when it's awesome.
But on what was supposed to be the first day of the 2020 Elite Eight, we've got nothing but time to reminisce about some of those recent gems.
As a testament to my opening assertion about the Elite Eight having the best games, in my first pass of research through the 40 Elite Eight games from the past decade, I put a "definitely include" next to 17 games and a "probably include" by six others. And, I mean, No. 11 seed VCU beating No. 1 seed Kansas in 2011 wasn't even one of those 23 games, so the bar is quite high.
After begrudgingly eliminating three of the "probably" candidates, the remaining 20 were ranked based on a combination of competitiveness throughout, closing drama, memorable moments and unexpectedness.
On that last factor, it's no surprise that No. 1 North Carolina vs. No. 2 Kansas in 2012 or No. 1 Kansas vs. No. 2 Duke in 2018 was a great game. But Notre Dame almost upsetting 37-0 Kentucky or No. 10 seed Syracuse actually upsetting No. 1 seed Virginia were unexpected and received a little extra consideration because of it.
20. Butler 63, Kansas State 56 (2010)
Nine days prior to the Gordon Hayward half-court heave that almost changed college basketball history as we know it, the Bulldogs first needed to knock off a Jacob Pullen-led Kansas State team that just kept coming back.
The Wildcats rallied from an 11-point deficit late in the first half, fell into another hole and stormed back to take a one-point lead in the final five minutes. But Hayward and Shelvin Mack kept their calm and paced Butler to its first Final Four in program history.
19. Louisville 72, Florida 68 (2012)
Florida seemed to have the upper hand all night, keeping Louisville at bay from midway through the first half until midway through the second half. With about eight minutes to go, the Gators were up by 11, and the Cardinals had yet to put together any sort of run to make things interesting.
Out of nowhere, Bradley Beal's Gators went ice cold and Russ Smith—then a high-volume, inefficient backup —and Chane Behanan couldn't miss. Louisville finished the game on an 18-3 run while Florida wilted under the pressure. (The Cardinals were unable to pull off a similar comeback in the subsequent round against loathed foe Kentucky.)
18. South Carolina 77, Florida 70 (2017)
Apologies to Gators fans for putting these two games back-to-back. And sorry that there will be another painful loss for you later in the list.
South Carolina's more memorable upset came in the second round against No. 2 seed Duke, but Sindarius Thornwell's run to the Final Four would have been incomplete without this come-from-behind victory over the Gamecocks' conference rivals.
Neither side led by more than eight at any point in this physical, back-and-forth affair, but South Carolina—which had been dreadfully inefficient on offense throughout the regular season—scored at least one point on each of its final 10 possessions to reach the Final Four for the first time. Thornwell finished with 26 points, giving him 103 through the first four rounds.
17. Michigan State 70, Tennessee 69 (2010)
If you don't remember this one, it might be because it was a decade ago, or it's more likely because the last two minutes of the game legitimately lasted almost half an hour, even though nothing happened.
There were five timeouts called, plus there was a lengthy monitor review to check the clock in the final seconds. There were four field-goal attempts, only one of which even hit the rim. And the Volunteers and Spartans combined to shoot 2-of-5 from the free-throw line.
It was a tight, entertaining affair up until that point, but crunch time was a disaster. Hard to rank it any higher than this because of that.
16. Duke 78, Baylor 71 (2010)
There were points throughout the most recent season in which bracketologists were projecting Baylor as the No. 1 seed and Duke as the No. 2 seed in the South Region, which would have meant a projected Elite Eight matchup in Houston. In theory, it would've been a huge advantage for the Bears. But that theory didn't work out so well in 2010 when the Blue Devils beat Baylor in Houston's NRG Stadium.
The Bears sure did give the eventual national champions a run for their money, though.
Baylor led by three at the intermission and it was a nail-biter for the next 16 minutes. LaceDarius Dunn poured in 22 points and Ekpe Udoh (18 points, 10 rebounds, six assists and five blocks) was absolutely everywhere. But Duke scored 10 points in the span of three possessions following the final media timeout, from which the Bears were unable to recover.
15. Texas Tech 75, Gonzaga 69 (2019)
The classic "unstoppable force vs. immovable object" debate went to the defense in this one. Chris Beard's top-notch D locked down Mark Few's sensational offense, holding the Zags below 70, which has been an extremely rare sight over the past few years.
It was hardly a definitive victory for the immovable object, though. Neither side led by more than five at any point in the first 38 minutes, and it wasn't until Gonzaga couldn't buy a bucket for about five minutes in the middle of the second half that it actually started to feel like the Red Raiders would be able to pull off the slight upset. They went 6-of-6 from the free-throw line in the final 30 seconds to seal the deal.
14. Villanova 64, Kansas 59 (2016)
We had asked all season: What happens if Villanova has an off night from three-point range in the tournament?
In this case, the answer was the Wildcats buckled down on defense, completely shut down Perry Ellis and shot a near-perfect 18-of-19 from the free-throw line, including eight straight in the final 35 seconds.
They didn't miss all their threes, though. There was a pivotal juncture midway through the second half when a five-point deficit turned into a five-point lead in a hurry thanks to back-to-back triples by Ryan Arcidiacono and Josh Hart. KU was unable to regain the lead after that.
13. Kentucky 76, North Carolina 69 (2011)
Even during Kentucky's "forgotten" year between the John Wall and Anthony Davis seasons, the Wildcats made it to the Final Four with back-to-back upsets over No. 1 overall seed Ohio State and No. 2 seed North Carolina.
Brandon Knight, Josh "Jorts" Harrellson and Co. led the Tar Heels for pretty much the entire game, but Kentucky never put them away. UNC scrapped and clawed its way back to tie it up at 67 with a little over three minutes remaining. Knight hit a three to take back the lead, but it was still a 70-69 game in the final minute when a blocked shot eventually led to a dagger three by DeAndre Liggins.
12. Syracuse 68, Virginia 62 (2016)
The first 30 minutes of this game were boring. Syracuse's improbable run as a No. 10 seed appeared to have finally run out of gas. The Orange couldn't crack Virginia's elite defense, trailing 21-8 midway through the first half and 54-39 midway through the second. Because it was the Sunday night game, most of us had already moved on to working on our previews for the impending Virginia vs. North Carolina Final Four game.
Then, out of nowhere, Syracuse couldn't miss. One of the most impenetrable defenses of the past decade suddenly parted like the Red Sea. Only, instead of Moses, it was a dude named Malachi (Richardson) leading the miracle. Syracuse scored on 12 consecutive possessions, putting up 27 points in six minutes and 20 seconds while Virginia couldn't get anything to fall.
While it wasn't deemed one of the 10 best Elite Eight games of the past decade, it was easily one of the most unforgettable seven-minute stretches in a long time.
11. Kansas 80, North Carolina 67 (2012)
One of the biggest, oft-forgotten what-if scenarios in recent college basketball history is: What if Kendall Marshall hadn't suffered a broken wrist in the second round of the 2012 NCAA tournament?
Those Tar Heels had one heck of a season, including a one-point loss at Rupp Arena against the eventual national champions (Kentucky). Had they been at full strength, maybe they beat Kansas and maybe they exact some revenge against Anthony Davis and Co. in the title game.
Even without Marshall, UNC darn near messed around and won this game. Don't let the final margin fool you. Roy Williams' current and former teams battled tooth and nail for 37 minutes before the Jayhawks closed out on a 12-0 run. The Tar Heels simply couldn't get anything to work in the clutch without their point guard.
10. Auburn 77, Kentucky 71 (OT) (2019)
Putting an overtime game at No. 10 is a bit absurd. However, all four games from 2019 were obvious choices for the top 20, and we've got Kentucky on this list a ton. Those external factors kind of tamped down the retrospective excitement about this particular game.
More importantly, though, free basketball doesn't always mean good basketball. Auburn got layup after layup in overtime, but these teams sputtered to a 60-60 draw at the end of regulation. They shot a combined 27.3 percent from three-point range and Kentucky missed what felt like a thousand free throws. (It was only nine.) By the end, it just felt like P.J. Washington was playing 1-on-2 against Bryce Brown and Jared Harper, because no one else played that well from either side.
Still, overtime for a spot in the Final Four—in a battle between conference foes, no less—is always a crowd-pleaser.
9. Butler 74, Florida 71 (OT) (2011)
Speaking of less-than-stellar bonus basketball, Butler and Florida also entered overtime knotted up at 60 with neither team able to do much of anything from three-point range. (They shot a combined 12-of-47, which is 25.5 percent.)
But this one had a little more excitement than Auburn-Kentucky because—despite reaching the national championship game the previous year—Butler was a considerable underdog as a No. 8 seed that had suffered nine regular-season losses. Shelvin Mack was awesome, though, finishing with 27 points, and Florida's Chandler Parsons had a rare off night (five points) in the final game of his college career.
8. Wisconsin 64, Arizona 63 (OT) (2014)
This game had so much drama, but it was also a comedy of late errors.
Down by two with about 30 seconds remaining in regulation, Arizona's Nick Johnson tossed up an air ball that ended up turning into an alley-oop pass to Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. Wisconsin proceeded to dribble out the clock before settling for a contested Traevon Jackson jumper from just inside the three-point line. It never had a prayer of going in.
Then, at the end of overtime, you had Wisconsin forgetting to box out with 10 seconds left in a one-point game, Johnson committed a controversial offensive foul, Wisconsin failing to get the ball in bounds and Johnson taking one too many dribbles and not even getting a shot off before the buzzer.
Frank Kaminsky had 28 points and 11 rebounds, but a lack of highlights hurt this one a bit in the rankings.
7. Michigan State 76, Louisville 70 (OT) (2015)
While the other three regions each had either a No. 1 vs. No. 2 or No. 1 vs. No. 3 battle for a spot in the 2015 Final Four, the East got a little messy with No. 4 Louisville facing No. 7 Michigan State.
It ended up being arguably the most entertaining of the four games that weekend, though.
Behind a Herculean effort from Wayne Blackshear (28 points), Louisville held a slight edge for most of the afternoon. Michigan State reeled off a 10-0 run in less than two minutes to take a 57-51 lead, but the Cardinals clawed back to force overtime.
Up 72-70 with less than a minute remaining, MSU senior Branden Dawson had a great dish into the corner to Bryn Forbes for an open three. Forbes missed it, but Dawson grabbed the offensive rebound and put it back up and in all in one motion to more or less seal the deal.
6. Kentucky 75, Michigan 72 (2014)
Most of us remember how this thing ended, considering the 2014 NCAA tournament was unofficially the Aaron Harrison Invitational. The freshman hit a dagger three-pointer with less than five seconds remaining to send the Wildcats to the Final Four.
But this game went back and forth and back again just to get to that point.
Michigan opened up a 32-22 lead with about five minutes remaining in the first half, but Kentucky went on a 23-7 run to take a six-point lead of its own shortly after halftime. Then the Wolverines had a 16-6 spurt followed by an 11-0 Wildcats run. It felt like each team was in control several different times, but it was Kentucky up by three at the only juncture that matters.
5. Kentucky 68, Notre Dame 66 (2015)
I won't pretend to know how "Excitement" is calculated on KenPom, but every game in our top four had a score of at least 2.5. Most of the games in the top 20 at least received a grade of 2.0. This one only checks in at a mediocre 1.64.
But, Ken, buddy, are you freaking kidding me?
Save for one road game against Georgia in early March that Kentucky ended up winning by eight points, the undefeated Wildcats hadn't even been challenged in more than six weeks. Two days prior to facing Notre Dame, they doubled up West Virginia in a 78-39 laugher in the Sweet 16. It looked like a foregone conclusion that they would at least reach the Final Four, and it seemed more likely than not that they would go 40-0.
Someone forgot to tell the Fighting Irish to just roll over and die, though.
A few teams had hung with the big blue juggernaut for 30 minutes, maybe even 35. But Notre Dame was right there for the full 40 minutes and frankly looked like the better team for most of the night.
There were 12 ties and 20 lead changes. Notre Dame briefly took a 59-53 lead with about six minutes remaining, which was the largest margin in either direction. Jerian Grant came oh so close to what would have been the game-winning 21st lead change at the buzzer, but his off-balance runner was just a little strong.
It was far from a vintage night for Kentucky's dominant platoons, but Notre Dame had no answer for Karl-Anthony Towns. (Most NBA teams don't have that answer, either, so no shame in that.) The Wildcats went to their big man over and over again down the stretch as he finished with a career-high 25 points.
4. Michigan State 68, Duke 67 (2019)
The first 32 minutes of this game were plenty entertaining. Duke had a little 12-0 run late in the first half. Michigan State responded with a 15-0 spurt of its own. And they more or less traded baskets the rest of the way.
But it was an acrobatic bucket made by Matt McQuaid with about eight minutes remaining that unofficially signaled we were watching an instant classic.
Normally known for his three-point shooting, McQuaid got the ball on the perimeter in transition. The senior pump-faked to get around the baseline side of Cam Reddish. He encountered help defender Javin DeLaurier before spinning 180 degrees and throwing up a blind shot that went in to give the Spartans a 58-56 lead.
The legendary Bill Raftery called it: "That is unbelievable. H-O-R-S...E! And you're out!"
There were four more lead changes in the next few minutes before it all came down to Duke's biggest Achilles' heel: free-throw shooting.
Zion Williamson and RJ Barrett were incredible players all season, and this night was no exception. The former had 24 points, 14 rebounds, three blocks and three steals. The latter went for 21 points, six assists and six boards. But they both struggled mightily from the free-throw line throughout the year, each shooting around 65 percent.
It was Barrett at the line in a 68-66 game with five seconds remaining. If he hit both free throws, there was a good chance of overtime. However, the eventual No. 3 pick in the 2019 NBA draft bricked the first one, and then he accidentally made the second one while trying to intentionally miss.
Cassius Winston was able to dribble out the clock on a one-point win.
3. North Carolina 75, Kentucky 73 (2017)
Ladies and gentlemen: The Luke Maye Game.
North Carolina's stretch 5 ended up having a sensational second half to his college career, but Maye was a nobody until the weekend of March 24-26, 2017. After scoring a career-high 16 points in the Sweet 16 against Butler, he came back two days later with 17 off the bench in the win over Kentucky.
Of course, he didn't get those 16th and 17th points until the final second.
Kentucky's Malik Monk had just hit a wild three-pointer with seven seconds remaining to tie the game at 73. Though he had a timeout in his pocket, no one who has ever watched a Roy Williams-coached game expected him to use it at that moment. Instead, he let his guys capitalize on the lanes in transition. Theo Pinson dribbled the length of the floor before handing it off to an open Maye for the game-winning jumper.
It's hard to believe North Carolina even had that opportunity, though.
Kentucky led by five with five minutes remaining and had scored on 12 consecutive possessions. Then the Wildcats went ice cold and needed three three-pointers in the final 50 seconds to tie it back up. And this all came after North Carolina gave away an early 38-30 lead by failing to score on 12 straight possessions.
The swings in momentum in this game were massive, so it was only fitting that there were two such swings in quick succession in the closing moments.
The Tar Heels went on to win the national championship—with Maye scoring a combined total of two points in those final two games.
2. Kansas 85, Duke 81 (OT) (2018)
How did Grayson Allen's shot not fall?
Neither Duke nor Kansas led by more than four at any point in the first 23 minutes, and even when the Jayhawks pulled ahead by seven early in the second half, the Blue Devils were able to tie it up again a few minutes later.
It wasn't until the final minute of regulation when Duke was up by three with the ball that either side seemed to have an insurmountable lead. But an empty possession was followed by bad transition defense that left Svi Mykhailiuk wide-open for a three-pointer—which was basically a layup for that dude.
Still, Duke was able to hold for the last shot in a tie game. The Blue Devils got the ball to Allen, who had Malik Newman all over him. He stutter-stepped and spun his way into an off-balance shot, but it looked good. It hit off the backboard, went halfway down, rolled around the rim, rolled around again and fell out.
It just was not Allen's night. He finished with just 12 points, three of which came on a meaningless shot with three seconds remaining in overtime.
Speaking of overtime, that's when Newman completely took over.
Not only did he score all 13 of Kansas' points in overtime, but he had a pair of steals and fouled out Wendell Carter Jr. on a pivotal (and highly questionable) block/charge call.
In eight games between the Big 12 and NCAA tournaments that year, Newman averaged 22.5 points and felt like a guy who could surge into the lottery conversation. If only because of this ridiculous individual effort against Duke, it's hard to believe he didn't get drafted and has only played four minutes in the NBA in his career.
1. Virginia 80, Purdue 75 (OT) (2019)
It has been an entire year, and I still can't comprehend how this game got into overtime.
Holding a three-point lead with six seconds remaining, Purdue fouled Ty Jerome. Most would agree it was the smart decision. He was a 39 percent three-point shooter in his career, meaning there was a reasonable likelihood he would send the game into overtime if the Boilermakers didn't foul. And to get it into OT with the foul, Virginia needed some wild sequence.
The Cavaliers got it.
After Jerome hit the first free throw, he intentionally (we think?) missed the second one. Mamadi Diakite batted it out beyond half court. Kihei Clark tracked it down and threw an absolute missile back to Diakite. In one fluid motion, he caught it and tossed up a floater over 7'3" Matt Haarms and into the basket at the buzzer.
It was Christian Laettner-esque, aside from the part where Laettner was already a four-year legend at Duke and Diakite wasn't even a starter in the weeks leading up to the tournament.
Diakite's shot merely extended the game, though, and Purdue was up by one with 30 seconds remaining in overtime. De'Andre Hunter put the Cavaliers ahead with a strong drive, and then Virginia hit four late free throws to ice it.
And the shame of the matter is that six-second sequence at the end of regulation overshadowed and effectively nullified a 42-point effort by Purdue's Carsen Edwards.
There were multiple entire teams that didn't score 42 points against Virginia that season. The only other individuals to score at least 24 in a single game against the Cavaliers were RJ Barrett (twice) and Zion Williamson. Neither of those phenoms went for more than 30. But Edwards was unconscious, draining 10 three-pointers against what previously had been the best three-point defense in the country.
Edwards had already scored 97 points in Purdue's first three tournament games, so that brought his total to 139. When Kemba Walker did his thing in 2011, he had 141 points in the entire tournament. Glen Rice's 1989 record of 184 in a single tournament was extremely in jeopardy of falling were it not for Diakite's miracle.
But it's because of that shot that Virginia was able to stick around and win the national championship, one year after infamously becoming the first No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 seed.
We miss you dearly, March Madness.
Kerry Miller covers men's college basketball and college football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @kerrancejames.