NCAA Men's Tournament's Best Final Four Games in the Last 10 Years
While we mourn what would have been Final Four weekend for the 2020 men's college basketball season, there's no time like the present to reflect on some of the best 2010s installments of this great event.
Even if they weren't all great games, all Final Four matchups feel special.
It's what every team dreams about, the pinnacle of the season. Case in point: Think about how often you hear analysts talking about teams being "good enough to reach the Final Four" compared to "good enough to reach the national championship." It's at least a 10-1 ratio, right? That's because in a weird way, the Final Four feels like an even bigger stage than the subsequent title game.
So rather than just picking 10 of the past 20, we've ranked all 20 Final Four games in the last decade.
They were ranked based on a combination of competitiveness throughout, closing drama, memorable moments and unexpectedness.
One example of that last factor: No. 7 seed Connecticut's defeat of No. 1 overall seed Florida in 2014 was unexpected. It wasn't a particularly great game, but it received a little extra consideration because it was an upset.
One more quick note before we dive in: There have been six Elite Eight games that went to overtime in the past decade, but the last Final Four game* to require extra time was Kentucky vs. Stanford in 1998. There have been plenty of national semifinals decided by one possession in the past decade but strangely no overtime.
*Just the semifinals, not the finals. I'm well aware last year's championship game went to overtime.
20. Villanova 95, Oklahoma 51 (2016)
19. North Carolina 83, Syracuse 66 (2016)
Thank goodness the 2016 national final was amazing because these two semifinals were unwatchable snoozefests.
Each one was at least competitive until midway through the first half. Tenth-seeded Syracuse led 16-14, and second-seeded Oklahoma was up 17-16 at roughly the same juncture.
By halftime, though, it was no longer a question of who would win but rather how mercilessly.
Syracuse stayed within shouting distance, going on a 10-0 run to cut the deficit to seven with about 10 minutes remaining. However, at no point in the final 23 minutes were the Orange within a two-possession margin of No. 1 seed North Carolina. And the poor Sooners were hopeless while enduring a 36-5 run by No. 2 seed Villanova in the span of less than 10 minutes.
18. Villanova 95, Kansas 79 (2018)
Villanova's Final Four games in the past decade haven't exactly been barnburners.
Frankly, this one between No. 1 seeds may have been less competitive than the aforementioned 44-point blowout of Oklahoma. In 2016, at least there were times in the first 28 minutes when the Sooners had a sliver of hope. Against Kansas, the Wildcats jumped out to a 22-4 lead and never allowed the Jayhawks to get back within single digits.
The funny thing (unless you're a Kansas fan) is that the Jayhawks had a mighty fine offensive performance, scoring 79 points in a 71-possession game against one of the better defenses in the tournament. The problem is Villanova shot 72 percent inside the arc and 18-of-40 (45 percent) beyond it. It's almost impossible to lose when you shoot like that.
17. Duke 81, Michigan State 61 (2015)
16. Duke 78, West Virginia 57 (2010)
Just like Villanova, Duke faced no resistance in the penultimate game of its last two championship runs.
In the 2015 Final Four, Michigan State was the odd man out; a No. 7 seed in a Final Four otherwise full of No. 1 seeds (Duke, Kentucky and Wisconsin). And after the Blue Devils jumped out to an early 14-6 lead, the Spartans began to look like they didn't belong.
Denzel Valentine played well, finishing with 22 points and 11 rebounds. But Duke's short rotation—remember, this was the year the team dismissed Rasheed Sulaimon in late January—was just too much. The Blue Devils led by double digits for the entire second half.
The 2010 game ended up being a slightly wider margin at the final buzzer, but that one didn't start to get out of hand until there were about 13 minutes remaining. It was a seven-point game then, but Duke's big three (Nolan Smith, Jon Scheyer and Kyle Singler) couldn't be stopped, combining for 63 points.
15. Kentucky 69, Louisville 61 (2012)
You would think a Final Four showdown between bitter in-state rivals would be an instant classic, but this was, by far, the least entertaining of Kentucky's four national semifinals in the 2010s.
There were long stretches in which No. 4 seed Louisville was helpless to score in the battle between two of the best defenses in the nation, the most damning of which was the drought of almost five minutes late in the second half. The Cardinals finally clawed back to tie the game at 49 apiece, but an 11-2 Kentucky spurt all but ensured there would be no last-second drama.
Louisville's Russ Smith (4-of-15), Chris Smith (3-of-11) and Gorgui Dieng (3-of-10) combined for 24 points on 36 field-goal attempts. Meanwhile, Kentucky's Anthony Davis had 18 points on eight shots, along with 14 rebounds and five blocks. Even when Louisville made things interesting, it always felt like AD was going to carry the No. 1 seed Wildcats to victory.
14. Gonzaga 77, South Carolina 73 (2017)
It feels a little weird to put a game with a four-point margin this far down the list, but this matchup only got interesting when South Carolina went on a huge run midway through the second half. For the first 29 minutes, No. 1 seed Gonzaga was well in control.
After an incredible run through the first four rounds, Sindarius Thornwell had an off night. But the Gamecocks still managed to score 26 points in the span of seven minutes. During the latter three-plus minutes, they scored 16 unanswered and took a 67-65 lead.
And even though they went cold again after that, they had several chances in the final two minutes to win. They missed each of their final five field-goal attempts.
Zach Collins was the star for Gonzaga, contributing 14 points, 13 rebounds and six blocks off the bench. Przemek Karnowski and Johnathan Williams III combined for 20 points as South Carolina had no answer for the Bulldogs' frontcourt prowess.
13. Michigan 69, Loyola of Chicago 57 (2018)
Sort of the inverse of Gonzaga vs. South Carolina, this one was a gem until a big run midway through the second half.
Loyola of Chicago—aka the Fightin' Sister Jeans—had played outstanding defense throughout its improbable run to the Final Four as a No. 11 seed, and it continued to thrive on that end of the floor for the first two-thirds of this game. The Ramblers led 29-22 at halftime and expanded that lead slightly to 41-31 six minutes into the second half.
It looked like they were going to become the first team seeded lower than eighth to play in a national championship.
But then the wheels fell off this lovable bandwagon. Led by Moritz Wagner and Charles Matthews, No. 3 Michigan went on a 23-6 run, turning a 10-point deficit into a seven-point lead in about eight minutes. The Ramblers never got it back to within five.
12. Connecticut 63, Florida 53 (2014)
This was a much less entertaining version of Rocky Balboa vs. Ivan Drago, in which No. 7 seed Connecticut was the plucky underdog and No. 1 overall seed Florida was the seemingly unbreakable favorite.
The Gators jumped out to a 16-4 lead when the Huskies suddenly showed up with a flurry of jabs to the ribs. They reeled off 11 points in four possessions to get back to within one, and then they went on a 16-2 run (spanning halftime) to take a 31-22 lead.
Florida fought back and got the deficit down to three in the final 10 minutes, but Connecticut scored on five straight possessions to put the game out of reach.
Florida's Scottie Wilbekin had a great senior year, but going for four points on nine shots with three turnovers and only one assist might have been the most forgettable performance of his career.
11. Michigan 61, Syracuse 56 (2013)
Just like in 2018, Michigan ran into a defensive specialist in the 2013 Final Four. Syracuse held Montana to 34 points in its NCAA tournament opener and beat Marquette 55-39 in the Elite Eight. Even though Michigan had arguably the best offense in the nation that year, no one was anticipating an 83-79 type of affair.
Michigan seemed to have cracked the code in the first half, opening up a 36-25 lead on its follow fourth seed before the intermission. But a comfortable 43-32 advantage with 15 minutes to go turned into a 53-49 nail-biter in the final two minutes as the vaunted 2-3 zone dug in its heels.
Fortunately for the Wolverines, Syracuse never got into an offensive groove of its own. Michael Carter-Williams finished with two points, two assists and five turnovers, and James Southerland couldn't buy a bucket. As a result, Michigan was able to advance, despite Trey Burke and Nik Stauskas shooting a combined 1-of-13 from the field.
10. Texas Tech 61, Michigan State 51 (2019)
Both the Red Raiders and the Spartans played in awesome Elite Eight games, and No. 3 seed Texas Tech taking No. 1 seed Virginia to overtime was a highly entertaining national championship.
This game was good but not that good. And the "second quarter" was a nightmare to watch. These teams had two of the best defenses in the tournament, but they shot a combined 4-of-26 from the field and scored 12 points over the final 9:55 of the first half. Texas Tech led 23-21 at the intermission of a brickfest.
The second half was much better. The Red Raiders scored 27 points in the first 11 minutes to open up a 50-38 lead before the Spartans offense finally woke up and got to within 52-51 in the final three minutes. They were unable to score again, though.
9. Butler 70, VCU 62 (2011)
There's no question this was the undercard of the 2011 Final Four. No. 3 seed Connecticut vs. No. 4 seed Kentucky felt like the fight for the national championship, while No. 8 Butler vs. No. 11 VCU was merely meant to determine who finished in second place.
But these Cinderellas gave it their all in a back-and-forth battle.
Led by big man Jamie Skeen—who finished with 27 points and six rebounds—VCU jumped out to an early 15-7 lead. Butler tied it up at 15-15 a few minutes later, and the teams spent the majority of the next 20 minutes within a bucket of each other. There were eight lead changes in the first eight minutes of the second half, although the eighth one was the final one.
Shelvin Mack hit a couple of dagger threes and scored 10 straight Butler points as the Bulldogs opened up a 52-45 lead. VCU stayed within shouting distance but never got it back to a one-possession margin. And Butler went to the national championship for the second consecutive year.
8. Butler 52, Michigan State 50 (2010)
It wasn't pretty, especially toward the end, but it was at least a close game throughout.
Neither Butler nor Michigan State was able to get into any sort of offensive rhythm. Michigan State shot better from the field—42.9 percent to Butler's 30.6—but the Spartans also committed twice as many turnovers (16) as Butler (eight). As a result, neither of the fifth-seeded squads led by more than seven at any point, and they combined to score just 17 points in the final 10-plus minutes.
Despite being a rock fight, the final few seconds were heart-stopping.
Michigan State trailed 50-49 with the ball and less than 15 seconds on the clock. Draymond Green got it inside and forced up a contested shot, drawing nothing but air. After Butler hit its ensuing free throws, head coach Brad Stevens went with the "Foul up three" approach with two seconds left.
Korie Lucious hit the first but was unable to execute the low percentage "intentional miss, offensive rebound, putback bucket for the tie" sequence, and Butler advanced to the national championship.
7. North Carolina 77, Oregon 76 (2017)
The final margin originally made this game a candidate for the top three. Can't get much closer than a single point, right?
In reality, it wasn't that close.
No. 3 seed Oregon just kept hanging around, but in the final 18 minutes, there was only one time that the Ducks had the ball with the chance to either tie or take the lead. It just so happened to come in the final 20 seconds. And instead of going for a game-tying three in a 77-74 affair, Oregon settled for a layup with six seconds left on the clock.
The Ducks didn't get the ball back, though. They fouled Kennedy Meeks, who missed both of his free throws, but Theo Pinson tapped it out for an offensive rebound. Then Joel Berry II missed both of his free throws, and it was Meeks' turn to capitalize on a failed box out. After their 17th offensive rebound of the night, the No. 1-seeded Tar Heels were able to run out the clock.
6. Louisville 72, Wichita State 68 (2013)
Led by Cleanthony Early, Carl Hall and a freshman Ron Baker, No. 9 seed Wichita State was the only team to legitimately threaten to beat No. 1-seeded Louisville during the 2013 NCAA tournament. Michigan had a healthy lead in the first half of the championship game, but there was almost no drama in the final few minutes.
The Shockers, on the other hand, led by a dozen midway through the second frame before Louisville gradually dug itself out of that hole.
They were knotted up at 60 with three minutes to go. Wichita State was within two points on multiple occasions in the final minute. The Shockers even had the ball down three with under 10 seconds to go, but they turned it over before getting a shot off.
Wichita State did an OK job of keeping Russ Smith in check (21 points), but it wasn't prepared to deal with Cool Hand Luke Hancock, who scored 20 points off the bench—13 of them in the final 12 minutes.
5. Connecticut 56, Kentucky 55 (2011)
Who among us will ever forget the Kemba Walker experience of 2011?
This might have been Walker's worst performance of that amazing 11-game March/April run, but he still put up 18 points, seven assists and six rebounds, leading all players in both points and assists.
Despite his usual heroics, No. 4 seed Kentucky erased a 10-point halftime deficit in the blink of an eye, and the game went back and forth for most of the second half. There was a 14-minute stretch during which neither side led by more than four. No. 3 seed Connecticut briefly took a 54-48 lead, but Kentucky got it back to within two and had the ball with 16 seconds remaining.
The Wildcats were one of the best three-point shooting teams in the country that year, finishing just a couple of tenths below 40 percent. It was almost a foregone conclusion they would go for the win. It was just a question of whether Doron Lamb, Brandon Knight or DeAndre Liggins would take the shot. Liggins ended up being the guy who left it short for one of the most painful-sounding thuds off the rim that you'll ever hear.
Three years before he would go on to do a mighty fine Kemba impression of his own, freshman Shabazz Napier corralled the rebound and made both of his free throws to give Connecticut a 56-52 lead with two seconds remaining. Good thing he hit them both too, because Knight made a meaningless three at the buzzer to make the final score 56-55.
4. Kansas 64, Ohio State 62 (2012)
Remember when back-to-the-basket big men were valuable?
Both Ohio State's Jared Sullinger and Kansas' Thomas Robinson did have a little bit of perimeter game. But they were bruisers down low, and everyone was excited to watch two of the best in the country go toe-to-toe in the post.
They kind of played to a stalemate, though. Robinson had 19 points and eight rebounds. Sullinger went for 13 and 11 with three blocks. Neither one shot well, going a combined 13-of-37 from the field.
Despite that push between the stars, the Buckeyes were the better of the two second seeds for most of the evening. They led by double digits for the vast majority of the "second quarter," holding a 13-point edge on five different occasions. Kansas came back and tied it at 38-38 six minutes into the second half, but Ohio State surged back ahead by six several times.
It wasn't until the final two minutes that Kansas finally took control, doing so mostly in transition against an Ohio State team that looked absolutely gassed.
Control is a relative term, though, because the final 30 seconds were bonkers.
Kansas led 62-59 when Jeff Withey was called for traveling. Ohio State came down, and Deshaun Thomas jacked up two wild three-point attempts that were nowhere close to going in. But William Buford came flying in for a putback slam to make it a one-point game with 10 seconds left.
Tyshawn Taylor made two free throws and then got a steal that should have sealed the game, except he threw the ball out of bounds and gave the Buckeyes one last chance in a 64-61 contest.
The Jayhawks fouled Aaron Craft with three seconds left. He made the first free throw and then committed a lane violation while intentionally missing the second one. Ballgame.
3. Wisconsin 71, Kentucky 64 (2015)
Kentucky drew Wisconsin in the Final Four in both 2014 and 2015, and both games were instant classics.
This rematch was an incredible game between No. 1 seeds pretty much from the opening tip. Wisconsin opened up an early 23-14 lead, but Kentucky stormed back in short order.
It was a one-possession game from the time the Wildcats got it back to within 30-27 with more than four minutes remaining in the first half until Wisconsin took a 49-44 lead a little over four minutes into the second frame.
The Badgers were up by two possessions with 10 minutes to go, but a Kentucky win still felt inevitable.
Throughout their 38-game winning streak to begin the 2014-15 season, the Wildcats almost always found a way to dominate the final 10 minutes. Oftentimes it wasn't necessary, but any time it seemed like they might finally let one slip away, they took over in the clutch.
So when Wisconsin led 56-52 with 10 minutes remaining and subsequently trailed 60-56 less than four minutes later, it merely felt like the fourth act of a play we had seen many times.
However, the Badgers refused to go away.
Sam Dekker scored six of their eight points during a run to reclaim a four-point lead. From there, they made their free throws (seven of eight) and managed to avoid the dagger bucket that had buried so many Kentucky foes before Wisconsin.
The seemingly unbeatable Wildcats beat themselves by not getting Karl-Anthony Towns a single field-goal attempt in the final six minutes and 30 seconds, during which they were outscored 15-4.
2. Kentucky 74, Wisconsin 73 (2014)
Sometimes the sequel is better than the original but not in this case. 2014 Kentucky-Wisconsin edges out 2015 Kentucky-Wisconsin.
If nothing else, this was a more entertaining game from an offensive perspective. It was 40-36 by halftime, and with help from a 15-0 Kentucky surge early in the second half, both teams eclipsed 60 prior to the second-to-last media timeout. They each barely made it to 60 in 2015.
It was the ending that set this one apart, though.
They were tied at 71-71 with less than 20 seconds remaining when Traevon Jackson got a bail-out foul on a no-hope three-point attempt with the shot clock about to expire.
But he only made two out of three, which left the door open for Mr. Ice In His Veins.
By this point in the 2014 NCAA tournament, opponents were quite aware of Aaron Harrison's late-game heroics. He hit a huge three late in the Sweet 16 win over Louisville. He hit the dagger at the end of the Elite Eight game against Michigan. And No. 2-seeded Wisconsin put its best defender on him in a two-point game with less than 10 seconds remaining.
It didn't matter. Even with Josh Gasser right in his face, Harrison drained another triple—his only three-point attempt of this game.
Wisconsin still had 5.7 seconds left to try to hit an unforgettable shot of its own. Jackson dribbled up the court and got some space on a mid-range jumper, but the bank was not open. No. 8 seed Kentucky advanced to the title game.
1. Virginia 63, Auburn 62 (2019)
Virginia was good during the 2018-19 season, but it also might have been the luckiest national champion ever.
After needing to erase a 14-point deficit in the first round against No. 16 seed Gardner-Webb—a terrifying proposition, considering what had happened against UMBC the previous year—the No. 1 seed Cavaliers had a survive-and-advance game against Oregon in the Sweet 16, won the Elite Eight game against Purdue in overtime after a preposterous finish to regulation and needed overtime (with help from a bad call) to win the title game against Texas Tech.
But this win over No. 5 seed Auburn was the most improbable of them all.
Virginia led for most of the night and was even up by double digits with about five minutes to go. That's when Auburn went on a 14-0 run.
Per KenPom.com, Auburn had a 94.5 percent win probability when it led 61-57 with 17 seconds remaining. At no other point in the tournament did Virginia have a win probability below 12.2 percent, but the Cavaliers appeared to be in a world of trouble.
Kyle Guy drained a three, and then Jared Harper went 1-of-2 from the free-throw line. Auburn then led 62-60 and was still heavily favored to win, thanks in part to several fouls to give. However, it was a foul the Tigers didn't mean to give that cost them a spot in the national championship.
Samir Doughty was whistled for a highly controversial foul on Guy's three-point attempt with less than a second remaining. He didn't actually jump to contest the shot, but he entered Guy's "cylinder" and made contact with his legs while he was in the air.
By the letter of the law, it was the right call. But in situations like that, most fans seem to feel the referees should swallow their whistles unless it's something super blatant.
Nevertheless, the foul was called, and Guy calmly sank all three of his free-throw attempts to win the game.
Kerry Miller covers men's college basketball and college football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @kerrancejames.