Ranking the Best Men's NCAA Tournaments Since 2000

David KenyonFeatured ColumnistMarch 19, 2021

Ranking the Best Men's NCAA Tournaments Since 2000

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    Kris Jenkins won the 2016 national title for Villanova at the buzzer.
    Kris Jenkins won the 2016 national title for Villanova at the buzzer.David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    Every March has its share of madness. But once in a while, the men's NCAA tournament can get completely out of control.

    And that's why we love it.

    Looking back at the last two decades, several stand out as the most entertaining editions. From buzzer-beating shots and close finishes to major upsets and Cinderella runs, these NCAA tournaments are loaded with memorable moments, highlights and teams.

    The order is subjective but considers the depth of competitive games, especially factoring in margins of victory and the number of clutch late-game shots. Notable storylines, such as a massive upset, historic feat or Cinderella team, are also factors.

8. 2004

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    During the first weekend, 18 matchups had a margin of five points or fewer. That included both eighth-seeded Alabama and ninth-seeded UAB knocking off No. 1 seeds Stanford and Kentucky, respectively.

    And the results kept staying close.

    Three of the four Elite Eight matchups fit a similar mold or went to overtime, highlighted by John Lucas III's clutch shot in Oklahoma State's epic victory over Jameer Nelson, Delonte West and No. 1 seed St. Joe's.

    During the national semifinals, Will Bynum's late layup allowed Georgia Tech to clip OSU 67-65. Emeka Okafor helped Connecticut pull off an incredible comeback to beat Duke, ripping off a 12-0 run in the closing minutes for a 79-78 win.

    UConn toppled Georgia Tech 82-73 in the championship, securing the program's second national title in six years.

7. 2008

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    Ty Rogers drilled a buzzer-beating three to give No. 12 Western Kentucky a first-round victory over No. 5 Drake, and De'Jon Jackson hit a last-second winner for No. 13 San Diego against No. 4 UConn. Both are legendary moments for those programs.

    However, the 2008 tournament is most remembered for a certain future NBA star and a rare feat of high-level success.

    Stephen Curry became a household name for basketball fans in 2008, leading 10th-seeded Davidson to the Elite Eight. He averaged 32.0 points and 3.5 assists in four contests before Kansas eliminated the scrappy Wildcats 59-57.

    Plus, since the field expanded to 64 teams in 1985, it's the only year all four No. 1 seedsNorth Carolina, Kansas, Memphis and UCLA—have reached the Final Four.

    During the national championship, Kansas guard Mario Chalmers buried a clutch three to force overtime with Derrick Rose-led Memphis. Kansas capitalized in the extra session and won 75-68.

6. 2011

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    In the modern era, no single player has assembled a more incredible March than Kemba Walker. The hot streak began in the Big East tournament and carried No. 3 UConn to a national title.

    The underdogs had a great run in 2011.

    Since 2000, it's the only tournament in which at least four double-digit seeds reached the Sweet 16. Most notably, No. 11 VCU beat top-seeded Kansas to win the Southwest Region, which also included No. 10 Florida State and No. 12 Richmond in the Sweet 16. VCU became the third No. 11 seed to make the Final Four.

    Additionally, eighth-seeded Butler made it all the way to the national championship. Matt Howard hit last-second shots in both of Butler's first two games, one of which bounced No. 1 seed Pitt.

    Overall, 25 games had a final margin of five points or less or went to overtime, which trails only 2004, 2006 and 2018.

5. 2019

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    One year after its historic and devastating first-round lossmore on that shortlyVirginia earned the ultimate redemption. But the Cavaliers definitely tested some nerves.

    Virginia needed a Mamadi Diakite buzzer-beater to force overtime and beat Purdue in the Elite Eight. Kyle Guy's heroics saved the Cavs in the national semifinal, and De'Andre Hunter's clutch three led to an overtime win over Texas Tech in the championship.

    That alone was enough for an amazing tournament, but it was simply the conclusion to an entertaining year.

    New Mexico State missed a buzzer-beater to upset Auburn in the first round, and that could've changed the tournament. Instead, fifth-seeded Auburn went to the Final Four.

    Among the other big storylines, Zion Williamson and Duke somehow survived UCF and Virginia Tech before a one-point loss to Michigan State. Purdue guard Carsen Edwards racked up 34.8 points per game in four appearances and guided the Boilermakers to an exhilarating overtime win over Tennessee. LSU's Tremont Waters hit a last-second winner to beat Maryland in the Round of 32, too.

4. 2006

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    In the first round, 12 matchups ended with a margin of five points or less or a trip to overtime. No. 13 Bradley shocked No. 4 Kansas, and No. 14 Northwestern State's Jermaine Wallace drained a last-second triple to stun No. 3 Iowa. Six teams seeded 11th or lower advanced to the Round of 32.

    That trend of close games continued throughout the 2006 tournament, and George Mason landed a place in history, too.

    Top-seeded UConn and Villanova both needed overtime wins to escape the Sweet 16. Also in that round, Texas guard Kenton Paulino knocked down a buzzer-beating three to beat West Virginia. During the Elite Eight, George Mason derailed UConn in overtime and became the second No. 11 seed to make the Final Four in a field of 64-plus teams.

    Florida, which had future NBA standouts Al Horford and Joakim Noah, won its first of two straight national titles.

3. 2018

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    In a word: upsets.

    UMBC kicked off the festivities with a 20-point triumph over Virginia, becoming the first No. 16 seed to ever defeat a top seed. In the same region, No. 11 Loyola-Chicago celebrated a pair of last-second wins on the way to the Final Four.

    Two No. 13 seeds won a first-round game for the first time in a decade. More impressively, two No. 9 seedsNevada and Florida Statereached the Elite Eight. They account for two of only four No. 9 seeds to advance that far in a field of 64-plus teams.

    Plus, Houston experienced the highs and lows of March Madness, edging San Diego State on a buzzer-beater in the first round but falling to Michigan at the horn in the second round. Michigan then built on Jordan Poole's heroics, ending Loyola's Cinderella run before losing to Villanova in the national championship.

    For good measure, top-seeded Kansas survived three straight four-point victoriesincluding an overtime win against Duke in the Elite Eightto make the Final Four.

    The 2018 tournament matched the 2004 and 2006 editions with 26 games featuring a five-point margin or overtime.

2. 2010

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    Literal inches separated Gordon Hayward from the most incredible winning shot in NCAA tournament history. Instead, his half-court heave clanged off the rim at the buzzer, and Duke clipped Butler 61-59 for the national title.

    The dramatic championship game provided a fitting end to a March Madness loaded with clutch moments.

    Murray State's Danero Thomas and Michigan State's Korie Lucious both hit game-winning buzzer-beaters. Texas' Ish Smith, Washington's Quincy Pondexter, Northern Iowa's Ali Farokhmanesh and MSU's Raymar Morgan all buried clutch buckets.

    Multiple matchups went to double overtime, including the sensational Sweet 16 duel between Kansas State and Xavier. And overall, 24 games finished within the sub-five margin or in overtime.

1. 2016

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    The saying "it's not over until the buzzer sounds" is mostly correct. However, the 2016 tournament offered a constant reminder that it's not over until the buzzer sounds and the ball hits the floor.

    Indisputably, the iconic shot is Kris Jenkins' winner in the national championship against North Carolina.

    Before then, though, Iowa's Adam Woodbury, Northern Iowa's Paul Jesperson (from half court!) and Wisconsin's Bronson Koenig all drilled buzzer-beaters. Providence's Rodney Bullock and Notre Dame's Rex Pflueger each hit late winners.

    And the list goes on and on.

    Second-seeded Michigan State lost to No. 15 Middle Tennessee. Syracuse capitalized on that loss, becoming the first No. 10 seed to reach the Final Four in a field of 64-plus teams. Texas A&M completed an absurd 12-point comeback in the final minute of its second-round win over Northern Iowa.

    Arkansas-Little Rock's Josh Hagins' clutch shot forced overtime in an eventual upset of Purdue. Cincinnati's Octavius Ellis seemed to hit an overtime-forcing buzzer-beater but missed releasing the ball by a 10th of a second, which allowed a late triple from St. Joe's Isaiah Miles to stand as the winner.

    The 2016 tournament had everything.