Top 10: Best NCAA championship games

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As college basketball fans gear up for tonight’s NCAA championship game between Villanova and Michigan, here’s a little history lesson.

Since the NCAA basketball tournament began in 1939, there have been great dynasties like UCLA, which won 10 titles in 12 years beginning in 1964. There have been great players like Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson and Jerry West, Lew Alcindor and Bill Walton,  Larry Bird and Magic Johnson,  Michael Jordan and Christian Laettner.

There have been watershed games that changed the sociological face of America and enhanced the popularity of the college game, bringing words like March Madness and Final Four into the American lexicon.

There have been seven overtime games, including a triple overtime classic between North Carolina and Kansas in 1957.  Six games have been decided by a single point.

UCLA has won the most titles with 11, followed by Kentucky with 8, North Carolina with 6 and Indiana and Duke with five apiece.

Here are the 10 most memorable championship games in NCAA basketball history:

1. 1979 — Michigan State 75, Indiana State 64 — Many call this the most important college basketball game ever played; with a 24.1 Nielsen rating it is the highest rated basketball game ever. It was the game that put college basketball, March Madness and the Final Four on the map. Oh yes, and Magic Johnson, shown right, outscored Larry Bird 24 to 19 in Michigan State’s win.

2. 1966 — Texas Western 72, Kentucky 65 — Another watershed game, as an all-black Texas Western starting five surprised Kentucky. Soon after, Kentucky coach Adolph Rupp. the Baron, began recruiting black players, breaking down barriers throughout the South. In 2006, the film “Glory Road” dramatized the game and Texas Western coach Don Haskins.

3. 2016: Villanova 77, North Carolina 74 – Kris Jenkins hits a dramatic three pointer at the buzzer on a feed from Ryan Arcidiacono to give the Wildcats the win and their first championship in 31 years. UNC’s Marcus Paige had tied the game on a three with just 4.7 seconds left

4. 1957 — North Carolina 54, Kansas 53 (3OT) — The unbeaten Tar Heels outlasted Wilt Chamberlain and the Jayhawks in the longest game in NCAA championship game history. Two free throws by Joe Quigg with six seconds left made the difference. UNC also played three overtimes in the semis, beating Michigan State.

5. 1983 — NC State 54, Houston 52 — The Wolfpack, sixth seeded with 10 losses during the season, won when it mattered most as Lorenzo Charles putback dunk at the final buzzer upset Houston’s heavily favored Phi Slama Jama. Few will ever forget  the site of NC State coach Jim Valvano racing around the court looking for somebody to hug after the final buzzer.

6. 1985 — Villanova 66, Georgetown 64 — In a shocker, the Wildcats shot a tournament record .786 percent. They attempted 10 field goals in the second half and made nine. Georgetown was defending champion and the top seed, but fell short against eighth-seeded Villanova after beating another Big East foe, St. John’s, in the semis.

7. 1982 — North Carolina 63, Georgetown 62 –– This was Michael Jordan’s coming out party,  and the freshman hit the game-winning shot, a 16-foot jumper with 15 seconds left, to give Tar Heel coach Dean Smith his first national championship. “I was all kinds of nervous,” Jordan said, “but I didn’t have time to think about doubts. I had a feeling it was going to go in.”

8. 1950 — CCNY 71, Bradley 68 — City College of New York (CCNY) legendary coach Nat Holman, a New York native and a star with the Original Celtics,  led the Beavers to wins against Bradley in both the NCAA and the NIT, both at Madison Square Garden. CCNY remains the only team to win both the NCAA and the NIT in the same season.

1987 — Indiana 74, Syracuse 73 — Keith Smart’s 16-foot baseline jumper with five seconds remaining gave the Hoosiers a victory in a matchup of Hall of Fame coaches, Indiana’s Bob Knights versus Jim Boeheim of Syracuse. Seven three-point baskets by IU’s Steve Alford combined with the Orangemen’s futility from the foul line were just enough to give Indiana the win.

10. 1973 — UCLA 87, Memphis State 66 — UCLA won its seventh NCAA championship  behind center Bill Walton, shown right, who made 21 of 22 shots for 44 points as the Bruins waltzed to another victory. Overall, the UCLA dynasty would capture 10 crowns in 12 years under coach John Wooden, the Wizard of Westwood.

Overtime…5 More Minutes, 6 More Classics

2008 — Kansas 75, Memphis 68 (OT) — Kansas was down with 2:12 left in regulation but missed Memphis free throws left the door open, and the Jayhawks finally tied  the score on Mario Chalmers three-pointer with 2.1 seconds remaining. Kansas then dominated the overtime to win its first championship in 20 years.

1997 – Arizona 84, Kentucky 79 (OT) – Guards Miles Simon and Mike Bibby combined for 49 points to give Arizona the championship. Coach Lute Olson’s fourth-seeded Wildcats became the first team to beat three No. 1 seeds en route to a title.

1989 — Michigan 80, Seton Hall 79 (OT) — Rumeal Robinson made a pair of free throws with three seconds left following a controversial foul call to give the Wolverines the win in the NCAAs first overtime game since 1963. Seton Hall rallied from a 12-point deficit to send the game into overtime on John Morton’s three-pointer with 24 seconds left in regulation.

1963 – Loyola of Chicago 60, Cincinnati 58 (OT) – Down 15 with 12 minutes to play, the Ramblers scrambled back to force overtime. Then Vic Rouse’s rebound basket with one second left gave Loyola the championship.

1961 — Cincinnati 70, Ohio State 65 (OT) — In an all-Ohio finale, Cincinnati, minus the great Oscar Robertson, who had graduated, beat defending champion Ohio State. The Buckeyes roster included Jerry Lucas and John Havlicek. The Bearcats would go on to repeat in 1962, once again beating OSU.

1944 — Utah 42, Dartmouth 40 (OT) — Utah originally turned down an invitation to the NCAA tournament, but was given a second chance after losing in the NIT, and after Arkansas pulled out of the tourney after two players were injured in an automobile accident.  The Utes were the youngest NCAA champion in history; the team’s average age was 18 years, six months.

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Jesuit All-Stars: A team for the ages

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It was a battle for Jesuit supremacy when Marquette and Xavier met in the West Regional Final of the NCAAs last week. Marquette and Xavier are two of the 28 Jesuit universities in the United States, many of whom boast a proud and rich basketball heritage.

Jesuit schools have fared well in the tournament, winning six championships since the NCAAs began in 1939. In fact, five of the previous six Jesuit entrants in the Final Four wound up winning titles. The University of San Francisco, centered by Bill Russell, above, took back-to-back championships in 1955 and 1956. Holy Cross won in 1947, Loyola of Chicago in 1963, Marquette in 1977 and Georgetown in 1984. Santa Clara made the tournament in 1952, but failed to reach the finals.

Gonzaga became the seventh Jesuit Final Four entry by beating Xavier, and could become the first Jesuit school to win the championship in 23 years.

The list of outstanding Jesuit college basketball players, many of whom went on to win the NCAAs, would stack up well against any competition.

All-Time Jesuit All-Star Five:

C – Bill Russell, San Francisco

F – Patrick Ewing, Georgetown

F – Elgin Baylor, Seatle

G – Bob Cousy, Holy Cross

G – John Stockton, Gonzaga

Jesuit Reserves:

C – Alonzo Mourning, Georgetown

C – Dikembe Mutombo, Georgetown

F – Tommy Heinsohn, Holy Cross

F – Maurice Lucas, Marquette

F – David West, Xavier

G – Allen Iverson, Georgetown

G – KC Jones, San Francisco

G – Dwayne Wade, Marquette

G – Sleepy Floyd, Georgetown

G – Dana Barros, Boston College


Five still seeking first NCAA Tournament berth

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There are plenty of NIT banners in Army’s West Point gym, but not a single NCAA pelt.

In the NCAA Tournament, there are the haves and the have nots. Although there are more than 40 Division I schools that have never qualified for the tournament, many of them are relative newcomers to Division I. However there are five schools that have been around since March Madness began in 1939 and yet never played in the NCAA Tournament.

The hardly fabulous five features Army, Northwestern, St. Francis of Brooklyn, The Citadel and William & Mary. Always a bridesmaid, never a bride. All of them.

Despite being led by two of the greatest in history – legendary coaches Bobby Knight and Mike Krzyzewski – the Cadets have never made it. Army turned down an NCAA berth in 1968 because Coach Knight thought his team was better suited to the NIT. That decision still haunts the Black Knights of the Hudson.

Northwestern has won 20 games twice in its history, in 2010 and 2011. But the Wildcats finished well back in the Big Ten both seasons. Ironically, Bill Carmody, who coached those teams during a 13-year tenure at Northwestern, made this year’s tournament in his first year at Holy Cross. Carmody, who twice led Princeton to the NCAAs, is the second winningest coach in Northwestern history.

St. Francis and William & Mary both had close calls, but lost the automatic NAA bid in heartbreaking conference tournament finals losses. Just last year, St. Francis won the Northeast regular season title but lost at home by three points to Robert Morris in the finals. William & Mary was beaten by one point by Delaware in the 2014 Colonial championship final. The Citadel won 20 games in 2009, but is generally considered one of the weaker teams in the Southern Conference.

Other notables in the never made the tournament club include Bethune-Cookman, Maine, New Hampshire, Stetson and Youngstown State


Cinderella Holy Cross on magic NCAA run

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Holy Cross celebrates win over Army at West Point en route to NCAA Tournament berth.

Like most Holy Cross fans, I never saw this coming. During a dreadful regular season the Crusaders finished ninth in the 10-team Patriot League, wound up 10-19 overall, and failed to win a single league game on the road.

Then Holy Cross then beat Loyola of Maryland 72-67 in the first round of the Patriot League tournament. Things started to get interesting when HC knocked off top-seeded Bucknell 77-72 in double overtime in the quarterfinals.

Looking for a bandwagon, I hopped on for the ride – namely a visit to West Point to see the Purple face Army in the semifinals. There the Crusaders jumped out to a 10-0 lead and never trailed, whipping the Cadets 60-38.

Miraculously, Holy Cross culminated its run through the Patriot League with a 59-56 win over second-seeded Lehigh. Again the Crusaders led wire-to-wire, and held on as Lehigh missed four straight three-pointers in the last 20 seconds.

Holy Cross became the first team in conference history to win four tournament games – all on the road – as well as knocking off the top two seeds in the tournament. The Cross has now won six Patriot League championships.

The Cinderella Saders are going to the Big Dance for the 13th time in their history. Bracketologists are speculating that they will face either Austin Peay or Farleigh Dickinson in a first round game, aka First Four, next week in Dayton, Ohio.

Holy Cross has had success in the NCAAs in the past.HC, led by a freshman point guard name of Bob Cousy, won the NCAA Championship in 1947, the school’s first appearance in the tournament. The Crusaders advanced to the Final Four in 1948, and made the Elite Eight in 1950 and 1953. In 1977 the Crusaders upset eighth-ranked Providence in an Eastern playoff before bowing out to top-ranked Michigan.

In recent years, Holy Cross suffered close, first-round losses to Kentucky in 2001, Kansas in 2002 and Marquette in 2003. HC dropped a first-round match to Southern Illinois in 2007.

Related Blog: Once upon a time, Holy Cross was king of hoops.


Wallflowers missing out on the ‘Big Dance’

Fans storm the court after Albany buzzer-beater denied Stony Brook its first NCAA ticket.

For dozens of big-time programs, an invitation to the NCAA Tournament is all but presumed every year. Failure to make the tournament is considered a huge disappointment. Coaches have been fired for less.

But not so for the vast majority of teams, some who have played Cinderella and many others who have never made the cut. Perfect example, Stony Brook. The Seawolves were literally less than a second away from the first NCAA berth in the team’s history when Albany State crushed their dreams with a dagger three-pointer at the buzzer in the American East championship game.Oh my.

Only five of the original 160 NCAA schools have never made the tournament, which began in 1939. They are Army, The Citadel, Northwestern, St. Francis (NY) and William & Mary. St. Francis came close this year, advancing to the championship game of the Northeast Conference tournament this week, only to bow out to Robert (Bob) Morris, 66-63, on their home court in Brooklyn.

Army never made it despite being coached by two all-time greats, Bob Knight and Mike Krzyzewski. But Northwestern may be the most puzzling of all the NCAA wallflowers. Northwestern began men’s basketball in 1901, was retro-picked as national champion in 1931, and even hosted the first NCAA championship game in 1939 and the Final Four in 1956. Playing in the Big Ten, the Wildcats have not had a winning record in conference play since 1968, when LBJ was President. They finally managed their first 20-win season in 2009.

All told, there are 44 Division 1 teams that have never tasted March Madness. Some notables beyond the five originals mentioned above are Maine, New Hampshire, Hartford, Bryant College, Youngstown State, Grambling and Presbyterian.

Finally

Meanwhile North Florida, UC Irvine and Buffalo are going to the tournament for the first time. North Florida’s Ospreys got the automatic bid after knocking off another NCAA virgin, the South Carolina Upstate Spartans, 63-57 in the Atlantic Sun championship game. And the University of California-Irvine punched its ticket after beating Hawaii, 67-58, in the Big West title game. For the Anteaters, it’s the first tournament appearance in the 38-year history of the school’s basketball program. And Buffalo cracked the brackets with ts first Mid-American Conference Tournament championship, an 89-84 win over top-seeded Central Michigan

In 2013, Florida Gulf Coast, the 15th seed in the East, won the Atlantic Sun title, and ran off two straight wins in its first NCAA, beating second-seed Georgetown and seventh-seed San Diego State before losing to Florida in the round of 16.

Last year, both Cal Poly and North Carolina Central cracked the NCAA code with first-time tournament appearances.


Bucks vs. Ducks: Déjà vu all over again

This isn’t the first time Oregon and Ohio State have met in a history-making playoff.

Back in 1939, more than 75 years before Monday night’s first-ever football playoff, the Ducks beat the Bucks, 46-33, in the championship game of the first NCAA basketball tournament. FDR was President, Europe was on the verge of WWII and Lou Gehrig made his farewell speech in 1939.

Take a look at a picture from that game, notice the tight shorts, sneakers, knee pads, and especially the wooden backboard – that’s how long ago it was.

Oregon had the “Tall Firs” with center Slim Wintermute, Laddie Gale and John Dick,who led all scorers in the title game with 13 points. Bobby Ante and Gale had 10 apiece. Jimmy Hull had 12 points for Ohio State and was named the Most Outstanding Player (MOP) of the first NCAA tournament, which was held at Northwestern University’s gym in Evanston, IL. Here’s the box score.

The NCAA tournament had an eight-team field in 1939. Ohio State beat Villanova to win the East and Oregon beat Oklahoma in the West in what amounts to the first Final Four. Those games were held in Philadelphia and San Francisco respectively.

Oregon was coached by Howard Hobson and Ohio State was coached by Harold Olsen. Long Island University, which was undefeated that year, opted to play in the NIT instead and won that tournament. Temple won the first NIT in 1938.

PIGSKIN PICK: Oh yes, almost forgot. My pick in the first true playoff championship in NCAA big-time football? What else. Oregon 46, Ohio State 33. Just like 1939, Oregon takes a 21-16 lead at the half and then pulls away in the second half to win.