As “Selection Sunday” and “bracketology” infiltrate our everyday vocabulary, from serious gamblers, to casual sports fans, to your buddy’s wife who always seems to win the contest because she picked teams with colors she liked, March Madness is here. Which means we’re about to embark on a 3-week journey of buzzer beaters, Cinderella’s, and top teams losing to much smaller programs. The beauty of the NCAA tournament is that any team can win (except maybe a 16 seed, but at least they get a game out of it). Historically, some legendary teams were assumed to plow through to the title and fell short. Here are the Top 5 teams since 1980 who DIDN’T win it all.
Number 5: 1993 Michigan
Regular Season Record: 26-4
Coach: Steve Fisher
Notable Players: Chris Webber, Juwon Howard, Jalen Rose, Jimmy King, Ray Jackson
Nemesis: North Carolina
Their Waterloo: The “Fab Five” as they were called took the NCAA by storm. They came in with swagger, style (credited for the advent of really baggy pants), and talent. The team lost an early contest to Duke, then suffered only an occasional loss in the rough and tumble Big 10 before entering the tournament as a #1 seed. But in the tournament they did struggle, requiring overtime twice to make it through to the Final against a formidable North Carolina team. In the title game, Michigan had a lead late in the 2nd half, UNC surged, and Michigan had one final chance to win it, but with no timeouts, Chris Webber (strategically left alone to force him to bring it up the court) goofed and tried to call one, resulting in a technical foul and essentially icing the game for the Heels. Had Webber stayed for a second year, this team might have run the table in 1994. As it was, the era was over before it took hold.
Number 4: 1983 Houston
Regular Season Record: 26-2
Coach: Guy V. Lewis
Notable Players: Akeem Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler, Michael Young, Larry Micheaux
Nemesis: North Carolina State
Their Waterloo: Phi Slamma Jamma as the team was known, was loaded with talent and an above the rim style of play that was fun to watch. With Nigerian Akeem (the “H” wasn’t added until later) “The Dream” Olajuwon at the center, and Clyde “The Glide” Drexler at guard, you’re talking two of the NBA’s Top 50 players of all time on the same college team. Around them were several other future NBA players. On a 22-game winning streak, the Cougars figured to roll over Cinderella North Carolina State who didn’t expect to make the run to the Final. Enter the miracle Whittenburg heave and Lorenzo Charles dunk, and the late Jim Valvano running around aimlessly as the Wolfpack won 54-52.
Number 3: 1999 Duke
Regular Season Record: 32-1
Coach: Mike Krzyzewski
Notable Players: Elton Brand, William Avery, Corey Maggette, Trajan Langdon, Shane Battier
Their Waterloo: The Blue Devils only loss on the season was early out of conference to Cincinnati. Duke had run the ACC regular season and tournament without a blemish (almost unheard of). Loaded with NBA talent, this seemed like it was going to be the first of a series of titles for Coach K. But a veteran UConn club wouldn’t back down, matching the talent of Duke with effort, and behind 27 points from Rip Hamilton, defeated the 10-point favorites 77-74. Brand, Maggette and others turned pro early (a rarity for Duke) thus ending the dynasty before it began.
Number 2: 2008 Memphis
Regular Season Record: 33-1
Coach: John Calipari
Notable Players: Derrick Rose, Chris Douglas-Roberts, Joey Dorsey
Their Waterloo: The Tigers seemed unbeatable as the freshman Rose was coming into his own and a clear top NBA pick. Playing in a relatively weak conference, there were some questions about Memphis ability to slug with the big boys (their one regular season loss was out of conference at Tennessee). Kansas was stacked as well and looking for their first title in 20 years. As the game went back and forth, a near impossible 3-point shot by Kansas Mario Chalmers was nailed to send the game to overtime, in which Kansas distanced themselves from the Tigers.
Number 1: 1991 UNLV
Regular Season Record: 30-0
Coach: Jerry Tarkanian
Notable Players: Stacey Augmon, Larry Johnson, Greg Anthony, Anderson Hunt
Their Waterloo: In one of the most epic battles in tournament history, the two teams met in the Final Four in a rematch of the previous years’ final in which UNLV destroyed the Blue Devils by 30 points (and hadn’t lost since). The teams went back and forth, but the Christian Laettner and Bobby Hurley-led Dookies were a year more experienced and cut down the Rebels 79-77 (on their way to the title). Many people forget this was Duke’s first (of four) National Championship. UNLV has not made a Final Four since.
A side note, Michigan and Memphis both admitted to violations leading to the forfeiture of this season’s wins.
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