When you think of great Final Four national semifinals, a few answers immediately rise to the front of the list.
1983 Louisville-Houston, the game which in many ways took college basketball to a much higher level — literally. That aerial circus fully announced the arrival of an above-the-rim game.
1974 UCLA-North Carolina State was, quite simply, an epic. Two overtimes. Two transcendent stars, Bill Walton (Bruins) and David Thompson (Wolfpack). One earth-shaking event (UCLA’s streak of seven straight national titles coming to an end).
1991 Duke-UNLV gave the sport one of its greatest upsets, denying Vegas an unbeaten season while launching the (elevated portion of the) career of college basketball’s greatest post-Wooden coach, Mike Krzyzewski.
2015 Wisconsin-Kentucky matched 1991 Duke-UNLV in terms of derailing an unbeaten season, even though the Badgers couldn’t win the national title two nights later the way Duke did in 1991. The team responsible for denying Wisconsin? Duke, of course… still with Coach K on the night of his fifth national championship, topping Adolph Rupp of Kentucky for outright possession of second place on the all-time list behind that Wooden fella.
Other semifinals were hyped or anticipated beyond measurement: 1968 Houston-UCLA was the rematch of the regular season game which transformed college sports television and many other aspects of sports as a commercial product.
1996 Kentucky-Massachusetts was a heavyweight semifinal between two teams which had lost a combined total of only three games entering the matchup in the Meadowlands, the site of the last non-dome Final Four.
2007 UCLA-Florida and Georgetown-Ohio State did not live up to the advance billing, but both games were hugely hyped. UCLA-Florida was a rematch of the previous year’s title game. Hoyas-Buckeyes was the Roy Hibbert-Greg Oden clash which never materialized due to foul trouble and a tight whistle.
2008 UCLA-Memphis and Kansas-North Carolina gave us the only Final Four to date (since seeding of the NCAA tournament began in 1979) with four No. 1 seeds. Neither game matched the potential of that Semifinal Saturday.
2012 Louisville-Kentucky put two bitter rivals on the sport’s grandest stage. The game was close and contentious, but hardly a classic.
1993 Kansas-North Carolina and Michigan-Kentucky created a Final Four with a 2 seed and three 1s. Michigan and Kentucky was highly dramatic, but not particularly artful. Kentucky really struggled in that game, part of what enabled Michigan to win a slugfest.
We remember the games that soared. We also remember how big certain semifinals were built up to become.
Some games didn’t receive as much through-the-roof hype, however, and became highly gripping contests with enough quality to make them worthy of a second look.
The main purpose of this piece is to give you a chance to watch these games, but we’ll add a brief note about each below:
1979: DEPAUL-INDIANA STATE
This game was significant for two reasons, the more important one being that Indiana State managed to win and set up the Larry Bird-Magic Johnson showdown which had such a lasting impact on both college and pro basketball in the decades to come. Had DePaul won, who knows how different the NCAA tournament, the Final Four, and the Celtics-Lakers rivalry would have become?
Second, this game marked Ray Meyer’s return to the Final Four for the first time in 36 years (1943). Meyer’s 36-year gap between Final Fours is the largest in history. Lon Kruger of Oklahoma (1994-2016) has the second-largest gap.
This game was hugely significant in the larger life of college basketball, but it was also thrilling. Everyone remembers Bird and Magic when Indiana State played Michigan State. This game gets forgotten. It shouldn’t be.
Big Ten teams dream of going to the West Coast on New Year’s Day… in football. In 1989, two Big Ten teams went to Seattle on an early-spring weekend and created a thoroughly entertaining game won by Sean Higgins. Listen to Brent Musburger and Billy Packer call a superb semifinal:
Four years after Nolan Richardson became the second African-American head coach to win a national title, and 14 years after John Thompson became the first, Tubby Smith won a national title at the school which stood against Texas Western in that iconic and seismic 1966 title game shown earlier this week on ESPN. In order to win his only naitonal title at Kentucky, Tubby Smith had to beat Duke in an Elite Eight game which was cathartic for all of Big Blue Nation. He then had to orchestrate a comeback against Utah in the national championship game.
Lodged in between those more memorable wins — Duke before, Utah after — was this overtime semifinal escape against the only Stanford team Mike Montgomery was able to lead to the Final Four:
We mention this game not because it was Lon Kruger’s first Final Four, 22 years ago, but because Kruger’s team — with far less NBA-level talent than Duke — gave the Blue Devils a real battle in their own backyard of Charlotte. (Yes, Charlotte is a pro-Tar Heel city, but Duke still didn’t have to go far from home…)
Florida led for much of this game, but Duke steadily reeled in the Gators with Grant Hill and Cherokee Parks guiding Duke to its fourth national title game in five seasons.
CBS took over the Final Four this year after NBC’s run ended in 1981. Billy Packer came over from the Peacock to join Black Rock. He called this one of the fiercest defensive battles in the history of the Final Four, and a rewatch of this game suggests that impression is not inaccurate. Louisville and Georgetown played a game akin to the Villanova-Kansas Elite Eight game this past Saturday, with fewer egregious mistakes by each side.
This was mortal combat at its finest in the Final Four which truly ushered in the era of dome-based April weekends in college basketball.