March Madness has given us almost infinite material for columns, books, and barroom debates. In fact, the 2021 NCAA Tournament provided us with one of the craziest finishes we've ever seen, with an unlikely No. 11 UCLA team finally seeing its Cinderella journey come to an end against Jalen Suggs and the No. 1 Gonzaga Bulldogs.
But what about the epic matchups that game before 2021's finest clash? It’s a Herculean task to type out the 10 best college games of all time, so rather than just considering the final score, we consider the quality of competition and the pressure on the teams and the importance of the particular game. Here are 10 of the best college basketball games ever played.
10. Villanova vs North Carolina
April 4, 2016
NCAA Championship / Houston
This was an instant classic before the cinematic ending. It featured two top-tier programs run by two iconic coaches, in Villanova's Jay Wright and UNC's legendary head man Roy Williams, who was an assistant for over a decade under Dean Smith decades earlier. The two teams combined to shoot 19-of-31 from beyond the three-point line, so it was rather fitting that the Tar Heels' Marcus Paige would set up the classic by sinking an off-balanced three-pointer with 4.7 seconds left in the game. Then, Kris Jenkins, showing all the calmness of someone buying a train ticket, squared up from the top of the key and drilled perhaps the biggest three-pointer in tournament history. The ball sailed through the bucket as time expired, giving Villanova their first title since their 1985 ancestors tamed that Georgetown dragon. Perhaps the most indelible image was that of coach Wright not even flinching or blinking as the ball sunk through the net and walking to shake coach Williams's hand as if he were strolling to his mailbox.
9. Michigan State vs Indiana State
March 26, 1979
NCAA Championship / Salt Lake City
Even now, 42 years later, this is still the most-watched college basketball game ever played. Why? Consider the best player on each team. Michigan State had a 6-foot-9 guard named Ervin Johnson. Later he would just be known as "Magic." Indiana State also had a 6-foot-9 star, a power forward named Larry Bird. The two teams — and their two shooting stars — were on a collision course all year. Bird and the Sycamores entered the game at a perfect 33-0. Bird was so good that he not only lifted the lowly Sycamores but was drafted by the Boston Celtics the year before just so they could have rights to him. But on this night, the Magic Man had too much talent with him, and they smothered Bird all night, keeping him from taking over the game. The Spartans would cruise to a 75-64 win, but the Bird-Magic rivalry was only beginning. You can watch the whole game here.
8. NC State vs Houston
April 4, 1983
NCAA Championship / Albuquerque
From the legendary upsets file, NC State, who had to win the ACC Tournament just to qualify for NCAA Tournament, was a 25-1 long shot to win March Madness. In serious contrast, the Houston Cougars, were given the greatest nickname in college basketball history - Phi Slama Jama - in honor of all the acrobatic dunks delivered by their myriad studs. NC State was led by no one of note. Houston was littered with All-Americans and led by two future Hall of Famers - forward Clyde "the Glide" Drexler and center Hakeem "the Dream" Olajuwon. Houston had just beaten a very dangerous Louisville team in the Final Four to get to the finals, and most figured the last game was a formality. Houston won their first five tournament games by wide margins, while the Wolfpack won four games by one or two points. NC State shot just 39% from the field but held Houston to 38% from the field. Aside from Olajuwon who had 20 points and 18 rebounds, NC State stifled Houston's potent lineup, holding Drexler to two points on 1-of-5 shooting. The play of the game, the tournament, and the season came at the end, when Dereck Whittenburg shot the ball from long range with the clock about to expire. The ball fell short of the rim, and Lorenzo Charles snuck inside, quickly jumped, and dunked the airball to win the game, 54-52.
7. Houston vs UCLA
Jan 20, 1968
Regular Season / Houston
Before Kareem Abdul-Jabbar became a household name and basketball deity, he was a rather tall, lanky kid from uptown Manhattan named Lew Alcindor. You could argue that Alcindor/Abdul-Jabbar had the greatest overall career (high school, college, professional) of anyone in history. When Alcindor got to UCLA he made a name for himself immediately by leading the freshman team to beat the varsity. Freshmen, who weren't allowed to play back then, had to scrimmage against the upperclassmen. In this case, they whipped the national champions. It was often said that the best team in America is UCLA, and the next-best team is UCLA's freshman squad. But Houston had a nice team of their own, and a rather dominant college player named Elvin Hayes, who went on to the NBA and the Hall of Fame. When they met on Jan 20, both teams were undefeated, with the contest billed as the, "Game of the Century." It was so big they played it in the new Houston Astrodome, before a record crowd of 52,693. Alcindor played the game with a scratched cornea, and Elvin Hayes pounced, leading the Cougars to a huge upset of the Bruins, ending UCLA's 47-game winning streak. UCLA would get revenge in the Final Four, crushing the Cougars by 32 points. But for one night, the Game of the Century lived up to its billing, and we learned that no team is invincible.
6. Villanova vs Georgetown
April 1, 1985
NCAA Championship / Rupp Arena / Kentucky
If you wonder why Georgetown was such a heavy favorite, consider that they laid waste to college basketball in 1985, and won the Big East, which was by far the best conference in the sport. Indeed, three teams from the Big East - St. John's, Villanova, and Georgetown - all made the Final Four. The Hoyas, led by coach John Thompson, were stacked, with Billy Martin, Reggie Lewis, Michael Graham, and a senior center named Patrick Ewing, playing the last game of his legendary college career. Georgetown entered the game 35-2; Villanova was 24-10. Everything and everyone pointed toward Georgetown winning handily after they just crushed the second-best team in America, St, John's, 77-59. But that, of course, is not how things played out. Villanova somehow forgot how to miss a shot, nailing 22 of 29 shots, good for 79% of their field goal attempts. They played just enough defense to frustrate the Hoyas, and Wildcats forward Ed Pinckney played out of his mind (second on the team in scoring and first in rebounds and assists). With both teams playing slow-deliberate-defensive games, this one was low-scoring, which gave 'Nova the edge. Add to that a masterful coaching job by Villanova's rotund, avuncular coach, Rollie Massimino, and you've got a 66-64 shocker that still ranks among the biggest upsets in hardwood history.
5. UCLA vs Memphis State 1973
March 26, 1973
UCLA rolled into the Final Four with a 28-0 record, two wins short of an undefeated season. This will be hard to absorb, but this game was UCLA's seventh straight trip to the national championship game, and they had won the prior six. They handled Indiana in the semifinal. And for the finale, they let Bill Walton loose. The legendary center scored 44 points. It's rather impressive until you learn he did it by making 21 of 22 shots, which, considering the stakes, is the best game a college player ever had. The game, played in St. Louis, was a romp, with UCLA running away, 87-66 over the Tigers.
4. North Carolina vs Georgetown
March 29, 1982
NCAA Championship / New Orleans
Most of the games on this list feature a powerhouse basketball club. Georgetown, coached by the towering John Thompson, was new to the national title game, while Dean Smith's UNC Tar heels had been sniffing around a national title for years. Thompson had an obscenely dominant center in Patrick Ewing (who would go on to have a Hall of Fame NBA career). That should've been enough to win... except Dean Smith had the Cheat Code Club, featuring All-American players Sam Perkins and James Worthy. If that weren't unfair enough, Smith slipped in a little-known freshman, a bony 18-year-old named Michael Jordan. For all of the All-Americans on his squad, Smith watched the neophyte Jordan take the game-winning shot, which he nailed, to deliver Dean Smith's first national championship, 63-62, before 61, 612 in the cavernous New Orleans Superdome.
3. Duke vs UNLV
March 30, 1991
Final Four / Indianapolis
One year prior to this memorable showdown, the UNLV Runnin Rebels took a doomsday machine to the Final Four - with Larry Johnson, Greg Anthony, Anderson Hunt, and Stacy Augmon - and vaporized Duke by 30 points in the 1990 National Championship game. Duke got one shot at revenge, in the 1991 Final Four game, but this time they added a secret weapon: future superstar Grant Hill. Even with Hill, it took a sloppy effort from UNLV and a supreme effort from the Blue Devils to take a two-point lead, 79-77, with a few seconds left. Larry Johnson couldn't find the hoop as time expired, and Duke took the torch from one of the great teams in NCAA history, leaving the lovable coach Jerry Tarkanian to chomp on his famous towel a little harder. Coach K would go on to win his first NCAA title, and has since won four more.
2. Notre Dame vs UCLA
Jan 19, 1974
There's no team, current or ancient, to compare to the UCLA behemoth under the most revered coach in basketball history - John Wooden. But even for the Bruins, it was surreal to have won 88 games in a row, before losing a regular season game to Digger Phelps and Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish seem to relish this role in basketball and football, as perhaps the first truly great power in college athletics. UCLA won 75 straight and were 13-0 heading into the game at South Bend, IN. UCLA had arguably the greatest college player ever in center Bill Walton. Overall, the Bruins' roster had eight (yes, eight!) future NBA players. Plus — and this feels odd just to type — UCLA had won the last seven national championships, from 1967 through 1973. But for one night, Notre Dame summoned the ghosts and slipped past the mighty Bruins, 71-70.
1. Duke vs Kentucky
March 28, 1992
NCAA Tournament / East Regional Final
A game lathered with legends. Two Hall of Fame coaches, Coach K and Rick Pitino, emptying their bags of tricks. Duke was going for its second straight national championship and were absolutely loaded, with Christian Laettner, Bobby Hurley, and Grant Hill, just to name a few luminaries. Despite being underdogs, Kentucky kept it close all game and hit a crazy running bank shot from 12 feet out to slip ahead, 103-102, with just over two seconds left. Grant Hill took the ball out from under the far rim, 90 feet away from his rim, darting side to side and before heaving the ball down court like a Hail Mary. The pass found Laettner's hands at the peak of his jump, at which point he landed with his back to the rim, dribbled once to the right, then to the left, turned to face the basket, and shot a perfect ball from 18 feet, which swished right through the net as the clock expired. The stunned elation of the Duke players scrambling across the court to hug each other was quite a contrast to the zombie-state of the Kentucky kids, who could not believe they lost. Duke went on to win its second straight title against a young group of stars from Michigan, called the Fab Five.
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