The Tigers of Conference USA certainly didn’t play the toughest of schedules, but led by freshman star Derrick Rose (pictured) and Chris Douglas-Roberts, they reached 38-1 on the way to the NCAA title game and seemed to have done everything needed to win it all. Then, in 2 minutes and 12 seconds, John Calipari’s team threw it all away. Leading Kansas 60-51, the Tigers — one of the nation’s poorest free-throw shooting teams — missed four of five free throws that would have iced the game and allowed the Jayhawks to rally before winning in OT. It all became moot in 2009, when Memphis was found guilty of recruiting violations and forced to vacate the 2007-08 season.
Even the best fall short
The best team doesn’t always win the NCAA tournament. One mistake, one bad shooting game — and it can be curtains for even the most talented squad.
While a player can single-handedly lead a team to the title (we’re looking at you, Danny Manning), a team with the best player — such as Virginia with three-time national player of the year Ralph Sampson (pictured) — isn’t always the tourney's best team.
Here, we take a look at 15 powerhouse squads that fell short in their chase for a championship.
Led by the incomparable Oscar Robertson, the Bearcats were The Associated Press No. 1 team all season after reaching the Final Four in 1959. For the second year running, however, “The Big O” and Cincy were derailed in the national semifinals by Pete Newell’s Cal. The Bears held Robertson, who averaged 33.7 points per game that season, to just 18 points on 4-for-16 shooting in a 77-69 victory. Cal lost to Ohio State in the title game, while Cincy finished 28-2 and again was left to wonder what might have been.
Adolph Rupp’s Runts also carried the No. 1 ranking into the NCAA tournament. Led by Pat Riley and Louie Dampier, the run-and-gun Wildcats — who had no starter taller than 6 feet 5 — had lost just one game (at Tennessee) all season and reached the title game. There, they were expected to roll past upstart Texas Western. But Rupp, who won four NCAA titles, and Kentucky lost to the Miners’ all-black starting five in what has become perhaps college basketball’s most significant game.
All streaks have to end sometime, right? For John Wooden and the Bruins, this season saw the end of two momentous ones: an 88-game winning streak — ended by Notre Dame — and a run of seven consecutive national titles. With stars Bill Walton and Keith (later “Jamaal”) Wilkes, UCLA did reach the national semifinals, but the Bruins were ousted there in overtime by David Thompson and NC State. Not to fear, though, Wooden and UCLA returned to the pinnacle the following season.
We know all about the 1975-76 Hoosiers, the last Division I men’s team to complete an unbeaten season with an NCAA title. But Bob Knight’s 1974-75 team may have been just as strong. Led by Steve Green, Scott May, Kent Benson and Quinn Buckner, the Hoosiers swept through the regular season unbeaten. Consensus All-American May (42 in photo), however, broke his left arm in a late-season win over Purdue. In the tournament, with May limited, Indiana fell 92-90 in the Mideast Regional Final to Kentucky — a team it had beaten by 20 points earlier in the season.
Indiana State, 1978-79
The team will be remembered for Larry Bird (pictured, defended by Greg Kelser). The NCAA title game will be remembered for the titanic battle between Bird and Magic Johnson — whose Michigan State team came out on top 75-64. But the Sycamores were more than just Bird (amazing as he was). Indiana State carried a 33-0 record into the title game and also featured future NBA player Carl Nicks.
Future Hall of Fame coach Ray Meyer had a powerful team led by future NBA stars Mark Aguirre and Terry Cummings. The Blue Demons entered the NCAA tournament with a No. 1 seed and a 26-1 record. The tourney was 48 teams at that point, so DePaul got a bye into the second round. There, however, it lost, 77-71 to UCLA. That started an amazing run of three consecutive seasons in which DePaul was a No. 1 seed and lost its first tourney game.
Akeem Olajuwon. Clyde Drexler. Michael Young. Phi Slama Jama. Considered by some the very best team not to win the title, the Cougars stormed through the season and the tournament to reach the final against Jim Valvano’s unsung and sixth-seeded NC State. In one of the greatest moments of one of the greatest upsets in college basketball history, the Wolfpack stunned high-flying Houston 54-52 on Lorenzo Charles' famous dunk.
Coached by future Hall of Famer John Thompson and led by superstar Patrick Ewing (pictured defending Ed Pinckney), the Hoyas had defeated Houston to win the 1984 championship. They looked to be a cinch to defend that crown, especially when matched with surprising No. 8 seed Villanova in the title game. In another incredible upset, however, the Wildcats shot a tournament-record 79 percent from the field and shocked both the Hoyas and a full house at Rupp Arena, 66-64. It certainly was a rough end to Ewing’s college career.
Another defending champion, led by future NBA mainstays Larry Johnson (pictured), Stacey Augmon and Greg Anthony. Another stunning NCAA tourney upset. The Runnin’ Rebels had demolished all comers in reaching the Final Four with a 34-0 record. There, they faced a Duke team they had wiped the court with 103-73 to win the 1990 title. Did UNLV look past the Blue Devils? Was Duke simply fired up to get revenge? Whatever the reason, the Devils upset UNLV 79-77 and went on to win the title — Mike Krzyzewski’s first.
Led by phenom Chris Webber, the Fab Five had stunned the nation in reaching the NCAA title game in 1992 before losing to Duke. The Wolverines’ return to the title game the following season, however, was expected — as was a coronation for the Fab Five. But UNC and Donald Williams had other ideas. The Tar Heels’ 77-71 victory was memorable for Webber’s infamous “time out.” Later, Webber's infamy grew, after it emerged that he took payments from a booster. In response, Michigan vacated its schedule for the season.
Led by Paul Pierce (pictured) and featuring three other future NBA mainstays in Raef LaFrentz, Scot Pollard and Jacque Vaughn, the Jayhawks had it all: depth, inside power, outside shooting. Coach Roy Williams’ team lost just once in the regular season. In the tournament, however, they ran into destiny — otherwise known as Arizona — in the regional semifinals. The Wildcats stunned the top-seeded Jayhawks 85-82 and went on to win the national title, becoming the first squad in the 64-team era to defeat three No. 1 seeds in the tournament.
A dynamic, above-the-rim star in Vince Carter (pictured). Fellow future NBA first-round draft picks in Antawn Jamison, Shammond Williams and Brendan Haywood. This battle-tested group finished second behind Duke in the ACC before beating the Blue Devils in the ACC tournament and entering the NCAA tourney on a high. After getting a second-round scare, these Heels powered into the Final Four before inexplicably falling to Utah in the national semifinals. What was missing? Perhaps it was Hall of Fame coach Dean Smith, who’d retired and been succeeded by Bill Guthridge.
Put simply, this team was stacked. Five future NBA first-round picks: Elton Brand (No. 1 overall), Trajan Langdon (No. 11), Corey Maggette (No. 13) and William Avery (No. 14) were selected in 1999, while Shane Battier was taken No. 6 in 2001. With Coach K leading the way, the Devils powered through the ACC with a 16-0 mark, won the ACC tourney and had little trouble reaching the NCAA title game at 37-1. There, however, poor shooting (41 percent from the field) doomed them in a 77-74 defeat to Rip Hamilton and UConn.
Bruce Weber’s second season as coach of the Illini was clearly his best. Another team filled with talent, Illinois featured four future NBA Draft picks in 2005 first-rounders Deron Williams (pictured, guarded by Raymond Felton) and Luther Head and 2006 second-rounders Dee Brown and James Augustine. The team’s only regular-season loss came by one point at Ohio State. After sweeping the Big Ten titles, Illinois reached the NCAA championship game against a skilled UNC team led by Felton, Sean May and Rashad McCants. Poor shooting again brought a powerhouse down — Illinois shot just 39 percent from the field in a 75-70 loss.