Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Where Does Butler-Duke Rank Among The Best Title Games?

Moments after his team staved off Butler's inspiring upset bid and ended a nine-year championship drought, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski tried to assess how Monday night's national title game would be remembered.

"I think it will become a historic game," he said. "It's the best one that I've been involved in."
Krzyzewski's right that it's probably the most memorable of Duke's eight title game appearances, however the Blue Devils winning certainly damages the legacy of the title game itself, as does the likely lack of future NBA stars on either side.

Had either of Gordon Hayward's potential game-winning shots gone in during the final seconds, a historic Butler upset would have vaulted this game into the conversation for the best in championship history. Instead it sneaks into my list of the 10 best national title games at No. 9, a fun game with a thrilling finish that will ultimately be remembered as a near-miss.  

1. Texas Western 72, Kentucky 65, 1966
Although it lacked the game-winning shots and back-and-forth lead changes of other memorable title matchups on this list, no championship game is more historically significant. That all-black Texas Western upset Adolph Rupp's all-white, No. 1 ranked Kentucky team stunned college basketball and shattered the myth for good that teams needed at least one white player on the floor at all times to maintain discipline.

2. Michigan State 75, Indiana State 64, 1979
The great irony of the 1979 title game is that the basketball itself wasn't that entertaining, but the importance of the matchup cannot be overstated. A quarter of all American TV viewers tuned in to see a shy Indiana country kid named Larry Bird take on a wildly charismatic Michigan city player named Magic Johnson, a matchup that became one of basketball's great rivalries and increased interest in college hoops to previously unimaginable levels. 
3. NC State 54, Houston 52, 1983
The sixth-seeded Wolfpack pulled off probably the biggest upset in national title game history, denying the "Phi Slamma Jamma" Houston team that featured Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon. Sophomore Lorenzo Charles clinched the victory at the buzzer when he converted guard Dereck Whittenburg's off-line desperation shot into a game-winning alley-oop dunk, sending coach Jim Valvano into a memorable euphoria.

4. Villanova 66, Georgetown 64, 1985
Not only did the eighth-seeded Wildcats become the lowest seed ever to win the championship, they also did it against a Patrick Ewing-led Georgetown team playing in its third championship game in four years. The Hoyas had beaten Villanova twice in the regular season and were clearly the best team in the nation all year, but the Wildcats shot 22 of 28 in the last pre-shot clock title game to pull the monumental upset.

5. North Carolina 54, Kansas 53 (3 OTs)
The best of the early national title games is remembered as such not for the pedigree of the teams or for the three overtimes but because of the odds North Carolina had to overcome to beat Wilt Chamberlain and Kansas. The Tar Heels had just played another triple overtime game the previous night and they had no player taller than 6-foot-5, but they harassed Chamberlain with double and triple teams, doing just enough to eke out a memorable victory.

6. North Carolina 63, Georgetown 62, 1982
It's hard to believe a North Carolina team featuring Michael Jordan, Sam Perkins and James Worthy could assume the role of sentimental underdog, but that's how dominant Patrick Ewing and the Hoyas were in this era. Jordan sank the game-winning baseline jumper and then Freddie Brown inexplicably passed the ball right to Worthy on Georgetown's final possession, a bizarre turnover that capped the upset and gave Dean Smith his first championship.

7. Indiana 74, Syracuse 73, 1987
In a back-and-forth game featuring stars Derrick Coleman and Steve Alford and legendary coaches Bobby Knight and Jim Boeheim, it was a little-known junior college transfer who made the biggest bucket. Guard Keith Smart, Indiana's fifth-leading scorer for the season, tallied 12 of the Hoosiers' last 15 points, including a 15-foot jumper from the left baseline with five seconds remaining to give Knight his third and final championship.
8. Kansas 75, Memphis 68 (OT), 2008
Just when it seemed Memphis was on the verge of silencing critics who said it was untested and capturing its first championship, Kansas roared back from a nine-point deficit with less than two minutes to go. Mario Chalmers sank a memorable 3-pointer with 2.1 seconds left in regulation to send the game to overtime, and the Jayhawks pulled away for a 75-68 victory, ending a 20-year title drought that included numerous early flame outs.

9. Duke 61, Butler 59, 2010
Butler star Gordon Hayward had two opportunities to give his team's Hoosiers-esque run the storybook finish everyone wanted to see, but top-seeded Duke escaped because neither would fall. Hayward missed a go-ahead baseline fallaway jumper with less than five seconds remaining and then had a half-court shot at the buzzer go off glass and off the rim, sucking the life out of hometown Lucas Oil Stadium.

10. Michigan 80, Seton Hall 79, 1989
A Michigan team accused of underachieving in previous years won college basketball's biggest prize with an interim coach. Rumeal Robinson sank a pair of free throws with three seconds left in overtime, spoiling a spectacular 35-point effort from Seton Hall's John Morton and giving Steve Fisher the championship a mere three weeks after he'd taken over for Bill Frieder.   

Honorable mention: Kansas 83, Oklahoma 79, 1988; North Carolina 77, Michigan 71, 1993; Loyola Chicago 60, Cincinnati 58 (OT), 1963; Arizona 84, Kentucky 79 (OT), 1997; UConn 77, Duke 74, 1999

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