On the final day of the 2015 NCAA Tournament, we’re looking at great teams that never won it all. In one article, we looked at clusters of teams (the Phi Slama Jama Houston Cougars, for instance) that never won a title in a multiple-year window.
In this article, we identify the 10 best single-season teams that never cut down the nets. For purposes of differentiation, we’re separating the clusters from the single-season teams. In other words, 1983 Houston or 1993 Michigan are not eligible for consideration. They’re part of the clustered teams and are better seen in that light.
10 – 1988 OKLAHOMA
By far the best single-season team in Oklahoma history, the Sooners were packed with talent: Mookie Blaylock was a high-quality pro player, and Harvey Grant and Stacey King enjoyed reasonably productive NBA careers. Ricky Grace was a speed demon in the backcourt, Dave Sieger a formidable knockdown shooter.
Had the 1988 national title game been played in a non-campus building other than Kemper Arena — say Reunion Arena in Dallas (1986 Final Four) or McNichols Arena in Denver (1990 Final Four) — Oklahoma probably beats Kansas. However, Danny and the Miracles had that game in their neck of the woods. They took advantage of it and played a phenomenal game. KU won that game more than OU lost it.
9 – 2015 KENTUCKY
The Wildcats’ place in history might change over time, but right now, it seems a little premature to put them higher on this list. What’s somewhat counterintuitive about this team is that its offense actually played better in its lone loss (to Wisconsin) than it did in several of its wins. The sometimes-ordinary quality of this team’s offense is what keeps it out of the top five.
This team still does belong in the top 10, though — the Wildcats’ size throughout their roster and their quality depth made them one of the greatest defensive teams in the sport’s history. Wisconsin was just uniquely built to beat them.
8 – 1984 NORTH CAROLINA
The Tar Heels had three starters from their 1982 championship team — Michael Jordan, Matt Doherty, and Sam Perkins — in their starting five. The new additions? Brad Daugherty and Kenny Smith.
Woo-wee, this team was loaded.
The main reason North Carolina’s not higher on this list? The Heels played before the advent of the shot clock. In a more modern context, this team probably would have been even more imposing than it actually was… which is a scary thing to contemplate.
7 – 2002 DUKE
The Blue Devils won it all in 2001, and the heart of their lineup came back for 2002. Carlos Boozer, Mike Dunleavy Jr., Jay Williams, and Chris Duhon formed a nasty collection of top-tier talent. Heading into the Sweet 16, it was hard to see anyone knocking off Coach K’s experienced crew. Yet, Indiana got hot and overcame a big deficit to beat Duke in Rupp Arena. Had Duke escaped that game, Kent State would have awaited in the final. Had Duke made it to the Final Four, Oklahoma would have been its semifinal opponent. It’s a wonder that 2002 Duke didn’t celebrate a second repeat.
6 – 2010 KENTUCKY
This is John Calipari’s second-best Kentucky team, not the 2015 squad (with the 2012 edition being the best).
DeMarcus Cousins. Patrick Patterson. Eric Bledsoe. John Wall (pictured, above). On the same team.
Too many three-point shots against West Virginia, guys, but of course, everyone knows that by now.
5 – 1999 DUKE
Our look at this team was bundled into a retrospective on the 1999 Final Four. With Kentucky’s loss to Wisconsin on Saturday, it can be said that the best team at the 2015 Final Four did not win… as was the case in 1999.
Langdon, Brand, Maggette, Battier, Avery… and it didn’t win. Talk about a “Conn job.” Connecticut did something very special on that Monday night 16 years ago. The Huskies have continued to be college basketball’s best March (or early April) closer ever since.
4 – 1991 UNLV
On Saturday, the 2015 Final Four most closely resembled the 1991 Final Four, also held in Indianapolis. The unbeaten team back then was UNLV, led by Larry Johnson, Stacey Augmon, and Greg Anthony, all above-average pros in their best years in the league. George Ackles and Anderson Hunt were seasoned, proven supporting players.
What is striking about 1991 UNLV is that it’s not even in the top three of this list. The top three had to be pretty darn special to keep the Runnin’ Rebels out.
3 – 1985 GEORGETOWN
The reason why the ’85 Hoyas are rated higher than 1991 Vegas is that Villanova — with a number any college basketball fan at least 40 years old knows about — took down Georgetown in what is essentially the best college basketball game ever played by one team.
Villanova shot 78.6 percent from the field to beat a defending national champion with an all-time great center (Patrick Ewing) playing in the final game of his senior season… by a margin of two points. Honoring Georgetown is an extension of honoring how well Villanova played that night. Period.
2 – 1975 INDIANA
The Hoosiers, of course, went unbeaten in 1976, marking the last time any team has turned the trick in college hoops. Yet, many will tell you that if Scott May had not suffered an injury, the Hoosiers — who lost their only game of the season in the Elite Eight — would have run the table a year earlier. Yes, that deserves to be viewed as better than every other team on this list, except one.
1 – 1974 UCLA
Seven straight national titles.
Bill Walton, holding court as one of the great players in the history of college basketball.
The nucleus of a team good enough to win the 1975 title without Walton on the roster.
John Wooden, coaching on the bench.
The 1974 UCLA Bruins were legitimately great, but so were the 1974 North Carolina State Wolfpack, a team that fended off Maryland in one of the greatest college basketball games ever played, the 1974 ACC Tournament final. UCLA and N.C. State played 50 minutes on even terms, but the Wolfpack were able to squeeze out an 80-77 double-overtime win, stopping UCLA’s run of dominance near the end of Wooden’s career.
What was said about Oklahoma-Kansas in 1988 could be said about UCLA-North Carolina State 14 years earlier. If this game had not been in the Greensboro Coliseum, or in any location within the state of North Carolina, the Bruins might have enjoyed a different outcome. Even with a natural partisan-crowd advantage, the Wolfpack still needed two extra periods to finally subdue the Bruins. UCLA’s legacy in the Wooden years rightly puts the Bruins at the top of a list they’d rather not have occupied.