Ranking college basketball’s national champions since 1985

The 1992 Duke Blue Devils arguably are the ultimate champion of champions of March Madness since 1985.
Manny Millan /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images

By David Fox

Not all national champions are created equal, especially in college basketball.

With 64 teams — and now 68 — competing for a national title, the odds for a random result in the postseason is almost certain.

In some ways, that makes sustained greatness through the course of the season even more impressive. Only one team since the field expanded has gone wire-to-wire as a No. 1 team in the country, far fewer than the number of great teams that didn’t win a title.

Thanks to the three weeks of the NCAA Tournament, a handful of teams that won a national title might not end up on a list of the top 40 or 50 teams of the era. Instead, they got hot that the right time, caught the right matchups or got lucky that upsets in the bracket helped clear the way for a title.

In ranking the top national champions of the 64-team era, starting in 1985, we attempted to look at the entire picture — chiefly, how the team performed from beginning to end during the season, who each team had to beat in the Tournament and the overall talent on the roster.

Check back after Monday’s title game to find where this year’s winner ranks — and if that team is able to claim the No. 1 spot.

1. 1992 Duke

Record: 34-2, 14-2 ACC

Championship game: Defeated Michigan 71-51

Coach: Mike Krzyzewski

Duke won the national title a year earlier, vanquishing undefeated UNLV in the Final Four. That was only the beginning. The Blue Devils went wire-to-wire as the No. 1 team in the country, ending the season with a rout of the Fab Five in the championship game. Before that, national player of the year Christian Laettner hit the the greatest shot in NCAA history for the Blue Devils to defeat Kentucky in overtime in the Elite Eight. In the next game, Mike Krzyzewski had to out-duel mentor Bob Knight in an 81-78 win over Indiana in the Final Four. 

2. 1996 Kentucky

Record: 34-2, 16-0 SEC

Championship game: Defeated Syracuse 76-67

Coach: Rick Pitino

“The Untouchables” outscored opponents by 22 points, and their only regular season losses came to teams that reached the Final Four. Kentucky atoned for one of those losses by defeating UMass, national player of the year Marcus Camby and coach John Calipari in the national semifinal. Led by Tony Delk, Ron Mercer and Antoine Walker, Kentucky finished off Syracuse in the title game for the Wildcats’ first national title since 1978. 

3. 2001 Duke

Record: 35-4, 13-3 ACC

Championship game: Defeated Arizona 82-72

Coach: Mike Krzyzewski

The Blue Devils featured two national players of the year in Shane Battier and Jay Williams, who won the award a year earlier. Duke spent the entire season in the top five but needed the biggest comeback in Final Four history to that point to advance to the title game. Duke trailed Maryland by 22 in the first half before rallying for a 95-84 win to face Glibert Arenas and Richard Jefferson for Arizona in the title game. 

4. 2012 Kentucky

Record: 38-2, 16-0 SEC

Championship game: Defeated Kansas 67-59 

Coach: John Calipari

Perhaps the Kentucky team with John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Eric Bledsoe a year earlier was more talented, but this squad was pretty darn close. Anthony Davis won pretty much every award in the sport before being the No. 1 overall draft pick. Despite the two losses, Kentucky defeated every team it faced — the Wildcats lost in the SEC tournament to Vanderbilt, a team it had defeated twice during the regular season, and then atoned for its one-point loss to Indiana in December with a 102-90 win over the Hoosiers in the Sweet 16. Teammates Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist were the top two picks in the following NBA draft.

5. 2009 North Carolina

Record: 34-4, 13-3 ACC

Championship game: Defeated Michigan State 89-72

Coach: Roy Williams

Led by national player of the year Tyler Hansbrough, Ty Lawson and Wayne Ellington, North Carolina was a dominant team for most of the season but especially in the postseason. The Heels’ 72-60 win over Blake Griffin and Oklahoma was their closest game in the NCAA Tournament. 

6. 1990 UNLV

Record: 35-5, 16-2 Big West

Championship game: Defeated Duke 103-73

Coach: Jerry Tarkanian

The 1991 team that went to the Final Four with a 34-0 record was the better UNLV team of the two during this stretch, but the 1990 squad won the national title behind the play of Larry Johnson, Stacey Augmon and Greg Anthony. The Rebels stunned Duke 103-73, setting the stage for the Blue Devils’ win over UNLV the following year in the Final Four. 

7. 2005 North Carolina

Record: 33-4, 14-2 ACC

Championship game: Defeated Illinois 75-70

Coach: Roy Williams

North Carolina’s first championship team since 1993 and Roy Williams’ first title-winning team spent most of the season in the shadow of 37-2 Illinois. The Tar Heels settled that once and for all with a 75-70 win over the Illini in the national title game. In the following NBA draft, four Tar Heels (Marvin Williams, Raymond Felton, Sean May and Rashad McCants) were lottery picks. 

8. 2008 Kansas

Record: 37-3, 13-3 Big 12

Championship game: Defeated Memphis 75-68 (OT)

Coach: Bill Self

Kansas’ first championship team in 20 years wasn’t quite a sure thing, even though the Jayhawks spent all but one week of the season ranked in the top five. To reach a Final Four that included all No. 1 seeds, Kansas had to survive Stephen Curry-led Davidson with a 59-57 win in the Elite Eight and then needed a Mario Chalmers miracle shot and missed free throws from Memphis to clinch the title.

9. 1999 UConn

Record: 34-2, 16-2 Big East

Championship game: Defeated Duke 77-74 

Coach: Jim Calhoun

After knocking on the door several times, UConn won the national title in its first trip to the Final Four. Led by Rip Hamilton and Kahlid El-Amin, the Huskies spent the entire season ranked in the top four before defeating Elton Brand, Shane Battier and Duke in the national title game.

10. 2004 UConn

Record: 33-6, 12-4 Big East

Championship game: Defeated Georgia Tech 82-73

Coach: Jim Calhoun

Calhoun’s second national title team was loaded with NBA Draft picks. Emeka Okafor and Ben Gordon were selected second and third overall, respectively, in the 2004 draft, and Charlie Villanueva followed as a first-round pick in the 2005 draft. Josh Boone and Marcus Williams, late first-rounders in 2006, were both freshmen on this team.

11. 1987 Indiana

Record: 30-4, 15-3 Big Ten

Championship game: Defeated Syracuse 74-73

Coach: Bob Knight

The first season with the 3-point shot was indeed a game-changer as this Final Four was marked more by run Rick Pitino’s Providence team made to the national semifinal. Knight’s team, led by Steve Alford, showed plenty of ability to adjust, defeating UNLV 97-93 in the semifinals and Syracuse 74-73 in the title game. 

12. 1991 Duke

Record: 32-7, 11-3 ACC

Championship game: Defeated Kansas 72-65

Coach: Mike Krzyzewski

The Blue Devils made up for a 30-point loss to UNLV in the title game a year earlier by spoiling UNLV’s undefeated season in the Final Four. Though this was a team amid a run of five Final Fours and on the front end of back-to-back titles, this Duke team spent most of 1990-91 chasing UNLV, Ohio State, Arkansas and Indiana in the rankings.

13. 2007 Florida

Record: 35-5, 13-3 SEC

Championship game: Defeated Ohio State 84-75

Coach: Billy Donovan

The second of Florida’s back-to-back champions had the tougher mountain to climb, not just because the Gators were the preseason No. 1. This Florida team needed to defeat Aaron Brooks-led Oregon in the Elite Eight, UCLA in the Final Four and then a Greg Oden/Mike Conley Ohio State team in the championship game.

14. 1994 Arkansas

Record: 31-3, 14-2 SEC

Championship game: Defeated Duke 76-72

Coach: Nolan Richardson

Arkansas and the 40 Minutes of Hell won the first title for the SEC since 1978, going through Michigan (with four of the Fab Five still remaining), Arizona and Duke (led by Grant Hill).

15. 1993 North Carolina

Record: 34-3, 14-2 ACC

Championship game: Defeated Michigan 77-71

Coach: Dean Smith

Smith’s final national championship run had to go through four coaches who would finish their careers with national titles or Hall of Fame inclusion or both: Nolan Richardson, Bob Huggins, Roy Williams and Steve Fisher. The title game would end on Chris Webber’s infamous timeout blunder. 

16. 2002 Maryland

Record: 32-4, 15-1 ACC

Championship game: Defeated Indiana 64-52

Coach: Gary Williams

This might not be the most memorable national champion for a handful of reasons. Juan Dixon lost out on national player of the year to Duke’s Jay Williams, and the team had few other prominent players (Steve Blake ended up as this team’s best pro). The Terrapins lost only one ACC game (at Duke) during the regular season before defeating Kentucky, UConn, Kansas and Indiana in the Tournament.

17. 1995 UCLA

Record: 31-2, 16-2 Pac-12

Championship game: Defeated Arkansas 89-78

Coach: Jim Harrick

UCLA’s championship team and the only Bruins title team not coached by John Wooden was saved in the second round by a layup from Tyus Edney for a come-from-behind win over Missouri. 

18. 2013 Louisville

Record: 35-5, 14-4 Big East

Championship game: Defeated Michigan 82-76

Coach: Rick Pitino

The 2013 Cardinals were the rare national champion to endure a three-game losing streak at some point during its championship season (to Syracuse, Villanova and Georgetown in January). The Cards also faced only one top-three seed (No. 2 Duke in the Elite Eight) in its Tourney run. 

19. 1998 Kentucky 

Record: 35-4, 14-2 SEC

Championship game: Defeated Utah 78-69

Coach: Tubby Smith

For Kentucky’s second title in three seasons, the Wildcats needed to overcome double-digit deficits in each of their final three games. 

20. 2010 Duke

Record: 35-5, 13-3 ACC

Championship game: Defeated Butler 61-59

Coach: Mike Krzyzewski

Duke has had better championships teams and better teams that didn’t win a title. That said, Jon Scheyer, Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler gave us a classic title game that was also one of the sport’s great what-if moments when Gordon Hayward’s final shot attempt fell short.

21. 1989 Michigan

Record: 30-7, 12-6 Big Ten

Championship game: Defeated Seton Hall 80-79

Coach: Steve Fisher

One of the truly bizarre national championship runs in the history of the sport. Michigan was a preseason top-three team and then went through a 5-5 stretch in the conference season. All of that was before athletic director Bo Schembechler replaced coach Bill Frieder, who had accepted the job at Arizona State, with Steve Fisher for the NCAA Tournament. 

22. 2003 Syracuse

Record: 30-5, 13-3 Big East

Championship game: Defeated Kansas 81-78

Coach: Jim Boeheim

One may ask why a Syracuse team led by Carmelo Anthony, Hakim Warrick and Gerry McNamara is this low. Before the Tournament, this was was not one of Boeheim’s best teams. Those three great players lost to Rutgers in January and spent the first two months of the season unranked.

23. 1997 Arizona

Record: 25-9, 11-7 Pac-10

Championship game: Defeated Kentucky 84-79 (OT)

Coach: Lute Olson

Even with Mike Bibby and Michael Dickerson, Arizona didn’t have many guarantees entering the 1997 Tournament. They lost seven conference games during the regular season but defeated three No. 1 seeds and a handful of future pros on the way to the title — Kansas (with Paul Piece and Raef LaFrentz), North Carolina (with Vince Carter and Antawn Jamison) and Kentucky (with Scott Padgett, Ron Mercer and Nazr Mohammed)

24. 2000 Michigan State

Record: 32-7, 13-3 Big Ten

Championship game: Defeated Florida 89-76

Coach: Tom Izzo

This was the high point of Izzo’s magic touch in March. The Spartans won the Big Ten and earned a No. 1 seed, but they were hardly a dominant team all season. They also had a draw that included a No. 8 seed and a No. 5 in the Final Four.

25. 2006 Florida

Record: 33-6, 10-6 SEC

Championship game: Defeated UCLA 73-57

Coach: Billy Donovan

Between his first Final Four and his first national title, Donovan was snakebit for several years in the first weekend of the Tournament. This run from a team that lost six games in the SEC was a major surprise. 

26. 1988 Kansas

Record: 27-11, 9-5 Big 8

Championship game: Defeated Oklahoma 83-79

Coach: Larry Brown

How can a team coached by a Hall of Famer and led by a national player of the year, Danny Manning, be this low? Danny and the Miracles were 18-11 and unranked entering the NCAA Tournament.

27. 1986 Louisville

Record: 32-7, 10-2 Metro

Championship game: Defeated Duke 72-69

Coach: Denny Crum

A great nickname (“Never Nervous” Pervis Ellison) and an upset of Duke in the title game made this Tournament run memorable. Otherwise, Louisville spent only three weeks of the season ranked in the top 10. 

28. 2011 UConn

Record: 32-9, 9-9 Big East

Championship game: Defeated Butler 53-41

Coach: Jim Calhoun

The Big East was loaded in 2010-11, so that .500 league record has to be taken in context. Still, UConn went 4-7 in its last 11 games before the Big East Tournament. Kemba Walker caught fire in the postseason before a dud of a national title game against Butler.

29. 2014 UConn

Record: 32-8, 12-6 American

Championship game: Defeated Kentucky 60-54

Coach: Kevin Ollie

A pedestrian regular season became special when Shabazz Napier led UConn to wins over No. 2 Villanova, No. 3 Iowa State, No. 4 Michigan State, No. 1 Florida and No. 8 Kentucky. The latter was the last time the Wildcats lost a game.

30. 1985 Villanova

Record: 25-10, 9-7 Big East

Championship game: Defeated Georgetown 66-64

Coach: Rollie Massimino

A Big East team winning a title wasn’t a surprise in a year when Georgetown and St. John’s spent time as the No. 1 team in the rankings. Villanova, led by top-10 draft pick Ed Pinckney, remains the lowest-seeded team to win the national championship (eighth).

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