Who can really say what those 10 are? How do you determine the best? Are they the most dramatic? The most historically significant? Those packed with the biggest stars? It all depends on your criteria. Top 10 lists are as subjective as figure-skating scores. Anyway, taking into account all the above categories, here’s one man’s point of view:
1. 1957, NORTH CAROLINA 54, KANSAS 53 (3 OTs)
Three overtimes and Wilt Chamberlain. That alone should be enough to put this game at the top of any list, but there’s more. North Carolina had played another triple-overtime game the night before, beating Michigan State in the national semifinals. Next came Kansas and the unstoppable Chamberlain.
UNC was made up of New York kids, brought to Chapel Hill by coach Frank McGuire when New York City schools de-emphasized the sport in the wake of point-shaving scandals.
With no player over 6?5?, McGuire had 5?11? Tommy Kearns jump center for the opening tap. Unbeaten NC wrapped three players and a zone around Chamberlain, who got just 13 shots, and led most of the way. But Lennie Rosenbluth, the Tar Heels’ best and biggest player, fouled out with 1:45 left in regulation and Chamberlain sparked a Kansas comeback.
Each team scored just two points in the first overtime and none in the second. (How does a team with Chamberlain score just two points in 10 crucial minutes?) Finally, with three seconds left in the third overtime, N.C.’s Joe Quigg hit two free throws that decided the outcome.
2. 1966, TEXAS WESTERN 72, KENTUCKY 65
A relatively dull and uneventful game on the surface, no title matchup has ever been as important.
Until that season, no college team had consistently started five black players. The in-vogue racist thinking was that teams needed at least one white player to provide calm and intellect.
But Texas Western’s Don Haskins, a pool-hustling pragmatist, thought that was bunk and, despite the objections of his own college president, started five African-Americans. Kentucky, meanwhile, coached by scowling Adolph Rupp, had never had a black player and wouldn’t for another few years, even after the Deep South schools in the Southeastern Conference integrated.
This perfect little morality tale, with both a compelling villain and hero, changed collegiate sports. A year later, there were no more segregated leagues and very few all-white teams. By midway through the next decade, the changes the game had sparked, would change the face of college basketball.
3. 1985, VILLANOVA 66, GEORGETOWN 64
Probably the title-game’s biggest upset. Villanova had 10 regular-season losses, was an eighth seed, and opened up the tourney on its opponent’s home court. Georgetown, meanwhile, was the overall No. 1 seed, the defending champion and making its third title-game appearance in Patrick Ewing’s four seasons.
The Hoyas’ intimidating in-your-face defense had held opponents to 39 percent shooting. But in the last title game without a shot clock or a three-point line, Villanova played miraculously.
Rollie Massimino’s Wildcats shot 79 percent, made nine of 10 in the second half and defeated John Thompson’s Hoyas, still the lowest seed ever to win the tournament.
4. 2008, KANSAS 75, MEMPHIS 68 (OT)
Any time John Calipari loses a game he should have won-no, make that any time John Calipari loses-is a great day for college basketball. And the way Memphis lost made this matchup of No. 1 seeds memorable.
Calipari’s Tigers led Kansas by nine with just 2:12 to play, but Memphis’ Achilles heel was its free-throw shooting and four late misses from the line allowed Kansas to fight back. The Jayhawks’ Mario Chalmers buried a three with two seconds remaining to force OT. Memphis was done at that point. Kansas went on to a 75-68 victory.
5. 1979, MICHIGAN STATE 75, INDIANA STATE 64
Another example where the historical significance and the identities of its key players superseded the game itself. State’s Larry Bird and Michigan State’s Magic Johnson were the two best players in college basketball, as they soon would be in the NBA. Their matchup intrigued America, even those who had never seen an NCAA Tournament game before. The stars starred, the ratings soared and March Madness was born.
6. 1983, NORTH CAROLINA STATE 54, HOUSTON 52
The last-second victory by sixth-seeded North Carolina State has grown even more dramatic in the years since their charismatic coach Jim Valvano died of cancer at age 47 ten years later.
Phi Slamma Jamma Houston, with Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon, was a big favorite. But the lack of a shot clock allowed the Wolpack to hang with the Cougars. It was tied at 52-52 with seconds left when N.C. State’s Derek Whittenburg threw up a 30-footer.
The shot was woefully short but teammate Lorenzo Charles caught it and put the ball in as the buzzer sounded. Valvano’s reaction-running back and forth as he searched for someone to embrace-contributed to its legend.
7. 1982, NORTH CAROLINA 63, GEORGETOWN 62
A year before, Georgetown, with freshman center Patrick Ewing, seemed headed for the title everyone had virtually conceded it. Carolina, whose widely admired coach, Dean Smith, had a team filled with future NBA stars-James Worthy, Sam Perkins, and a freshman named Michael Jordan-was a huge sentimental favorite.
Jordan hit what proved to be the game-winner, a jumper from the corner that put NC up, 63-62, with 15 seconds left. Georgetown didn’t call a timeout, but with seven seconds remaining Hoyas guard Freddie Brown inexplicably passed the ball to Worthy, the bizarre turnover clinching Smith’s first title and igniting Jordan’s legend.
8. 1963 LOYOLA OF CHICAGO 60, CINCINNATI 58 (OT)
Cincinnati, which had failed to win a title during the spectacular career of Oscar Robertson, was going for a third straight NCAA title since his graduation. Little Loyola trailed by as many 15 points in the second half, but guard Jerry Harkness hit a jumper with four seconds left to force overtime.
With the score knotted at 58-58, and seconds remaining in the extra session, Harkness’ shot was tipped. But, with everyone else standing flat-footed, Loyola’s Jerry Rouse re-directed it into the basket as time expired. Loyola shot 27 percent for the game, but counterbalanced that by turning the ball over only three times.
9. 1944, UTAH 44, DARTMOUTH 42 (OT)
Utah had been invited to both the NCAA and NIT. Difficult as it is to fathom today, the latter was the bigger event then and the Utes opted to play in it. They were beaten in the first round by Rupp’s Kentucky, but before they could return home from New York, fate intervened.
An automobile accident had injured several Arkansas starters and the Razorbacks were forced to withdraw from the NCAA. The Utes were re-invited and this time accepted. They made it to the title game against Dartmouth, where the two teams traded the lead six times in the final two minutes. It went to overtime where, with three seconds remaining, a long one-hander by Herb Wilkinson gave Utah a 44-42 win and the championship.
10. 1987, INDIANA 74, SYRACUSE 73
Indiana’s Keith Smart, a junior-college transfer, scored 12 of the Hoosiers’ final 15 points including the game-winner with five seconds remaining to give Bobby Knight his third and final National Championship.