If you watched the NCAA tournament this past weekend, you had the chance to witness that the best teams do not always win. We saw Duke lose to a 14-seeded Mercer team that destroyed all of our brackets, while also witnessing Kansas, Ohio State, Syracuse, North Carolina and Wichita State all fall early.
Having the best talent can only get you so far when it comes to tournament time. In a tournament where anything can happen, it takes a great team that plays together to win the NCAA title–not just a group of individuals.
Over the past 25 years, we have seen some of the greatest college basketball teams not live up to their hype and fall when it mattered most. Today we are looking at the best teams to never win an NCAA title in the past 25 years.
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20. Connecticut Huskies (2005-06)
How far did they go? Lost in the Elite 8 to George Mason
Key players: Rudy Gay, Marcus Williams, Rashad Anderson, Hilton Armstrong, Denham Brown and Josh Boone
Two years removed from a championship that was led by Ben Gordon and Emeka Okafor, the ’06 Huskies ran through the Big East during the regular season. The team featured five future NBA Draft picks, and were stacked from the starting five to the bench. With a star in the making in Rudy Gay and a clutch point guard in Marcus Williams, the Huskies were bound to go to the championship until they ran into Cinderella George Mason in the Elite 8, losing 86-84. This is one the greatest upsets in tourney history.
19. Illinois Fighting Illini (1988-89)
How far did they go? Lost in the Final Four against Michigan
Key players: Kendall Gill, Nick Anderson, Kenny Battle and Stephen Bardo
Dubbed the “Flyin Illini” for their up-tempo style and vicious dunks, this Illinois team brought excitement to every game. During the season, the team put up over 100 points in eight games and were so deep that no one on the team averaged more than 25 minutes a game. They also won 12 games against ranked opponents and defeated five top-10 ranked teams. They would eventually lose to Glen Rice and Michigan in the Final Four.
18. Kentucky Wildcats (2009-10)
How far did they go? Lost in the Elite 8 to West Virginia
Key players: John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Eric Bledsoe and Patrick Patterson
In the inaugural season of the John Calipari era in Lexington, the Wildcats led the NCAA in wins and started the season 19-0. Calipari brought in one of the most elite recruiting classes in recent memory, featuring John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Eric Bledsoe. The team made history by becoming the first squad in history to produce five first-round draft picks. On the court there were not a lot of teams able to matchup with the inside and out game of Wall and Cousins. They cruised during the first three rounds of the tournament until they met a veteran-stacked West Virginia team that got the best of them in the Elite 8.
17. Cincinnati Bearcats (1999-00)
How far did they go? Lost in the second round to Tulsa
Key players: Kenyon Martin, DerMarr Johnson and Kenny Satterfield
Led by a future first pick in the NBA Draft, Kenyon Martin, the Bob Huggins-coached Bearcats were a tough bunch to handle. Martin won every major player of the year award that year and the Bearcats were No. 1 for the majority of the season. As they entered the postseason with National Championship hopes, Kenyon Martin went down with a leg fracture during the Conference USA conference tournament and their championship hopes demolished when they were upset by Tulsa in the second round of the tournament.
16. Wichita State Shockers (2013-14)
How far did they go? They lost in the third round to Kentucky
Key players: Cleanthony Early, Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker
You have to give credit when credit is due and Wichita State belongs on this list. The Shockers broke records this season, becoming the first team to go undefeated during the regular season since St. Joseph’s in 2003-04 (another team that could have made this list) and surpassed the 1990-91 UNLV Runnin’ Rebels’ 34-0 start. Led by Cleanthony Early, the Shockers proved they were not a fluke, despite losing their third-round matchup in the tournament against Kentucky… which is an instant classic.
15. Villanova Wildcats (2004-05 and 2005-06)
How far did they go? Lost in the Sweet Sixteen to UNC in 2005 and lost to Florida in the Elite 8 in 2006.
Key Players: Randy Foye, Kyle Lowry, Allan Ray and Mike Nardi
Jay Wright‘s four guard lineup during the early 2000s was one of the best to watch. There was no short circuit in scoring the ball as the team featured future lottery pick Randy Foye, Kyle Lowry and sharpshooter Allan Ray. Every Saturday I anticipated watching their games, especially when Big East Conference play came into effect. Unfortunately the team never made it passed the Elite 8.
The team got cheated during their Sweet 16 matchup with UNC after officials made one of the worst calls in NCAA history, calling Allan Ray for a travel in crunch time after he scored a basket that put the Wildcats up. The rest is history as UNC went on to win the championship.
14. Ohio State Buckeyes (2006-2007)
How far did they go? Lost in the National Championship Game to Florida
Key players: Greg Oden, Michael Conley and Daequan Cook
The Buckeyes were the most hyped team in America after they landed a historic recruiting class that featured a pegged future Hall of Famer (not) in Greg Oden, as well as Michael Conley and Daequan Cook. The young team cruised to the National Championship Game and fell to Joakim Noah and the Florida Gators as they completed their repeat.
13. UCLA Bruins (2007-2008)
How far did they go? Lost to Memphis in the Final Four
Key players: Kevin Love, Russell Westbrook, Darren Collison, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and Josh Shipp
The 2008 Bruins were a deep team featuring Kevin Love, Russell Westbrook and Darren Collison. Ben Howland led the Bruins to their third-straight Final Four appearances and their best regular season record in school history. If you look back it now it is almost amazing to think that this team did not go all the way to win the title in ’08. They faced and loss to an incredible Memphis Tigers team with Derrick Rose.
12. Illinois Fighting Illini (2004-05)
How far did they go? Lost in the National Championship Game to UNC
Key players: Deron Williams, Luther Head and Dee Brown
The Fighting Illini was stacked with guard play and were the most successful Illinois team in Champaign. The team started the season 29-0 and finished with, at the time, the most wins in NCAA history with 37. The team was so great that not even Deron Williams received the most attention on the team, after Dee Brown won a couple player of the year accolades. Luther Head cemented the trio with his defensive prowess. The team would eventually fall to a very great UNC team that featured Raymond Felton, Sean May and Rashad McCants.
11. Arizona Wildcats (2001-02)
How far did they go? Lost in the National Championship Game to Duke
Key players: Richard Jefferson, Gilbert Arenas, Jason Gardner, Loren Woods, Michael Wright and Luke Walton
The Wildcats did not lack on any parts of the floor and had one of the best backcourts in the nation in Gilbert Arenas and Jason Gardner, as well as a dominate frontcourt with Loren Woods and Michael Wright. With Richard Jefferson on the wing, this team was pretty impressive despite losing a few games in conference play. Lute Olson lost in wife during the season, which could be the reason for the team’s setback. The Wildcats would go on to gain their confidence back late in the tournament and reached the National Championship Game but lost to Duke.
10. Memphis Tigers (2007-08)
How far did they go? Lost in the National Championship Game to Kansas
Key players: Derrick Rose, Chris Douglas-Roberts, Joey Dorsey and Robert Dozier
Mario Chalmers and missed free throws are to blame for the Memphis Tigers not winning the title. Under John Calipari, the team set numerous records in Memphis basketball history and had the NCAA record for wins in a season (vacated due to the eligibility of Derrick Rose). Derrick Rose investigation aside, this team did not look like an ordinary college team.
The group were more like grown men bullying college kids on a basketball court. With an anchor in Joey Dorsey, a smooth wing in Douglas-Roberts and the gem in Derrick Rose, the Tigers made it to the National Championship Game with ease until they cracked at the end on the free throw line against Kansas and let Mario Chalmers do this.
9. Kansas Jayhawks (2001-02)
How far did they go? Lost in the Final Four to Maryland
Key players: Drew Gooden, Kirk Hinrich, Nick Collison, Keith Langford, Aaron Miles and Wayne Simien
The Roy Williams-led Kansas Jayhawks were deep with talent, featuring future NBA players Drew Goooden, Nick Collison and Kirk Hinrich and a few others. The team was a perfect 16-0 in Big 12 Conference play with Drew Gooden winning the player of the year award. They would eventually lose to the champions, the Maryland Terrapins, led by Juan Dixon.
8. Duke (2001-02)
How far did they go? Lost in the Sweet 16 to Indiana
Key players: Carlos Boozer, Mike Dunleavy, Jay Williams, Dahntay Jones and Daniel Ewing
A year fresh from winning the title, Duke came back the next season without Shane Battier but kept their core with Boozer, Dunleavy and Jay Williams. Williams continued his stardom during the season and won his second national player of the year award. The team could not get by Indiana in the Sweet 16, however, and failed their mission for a repeat.
7. North Carolina Tar Heels (2007-2008)
How far did they go? Lost in the Final Four to Kansas
Key players: Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington, Tyler Hansbrough and Danny Green
The ’08 Tar Heels had it all with some of the most prolific players in modern history with Tyler Hansbrough, sweet shooting Wayne Ellington, and a one-man fast break in Ty Lawson. They clinched the regular season ACC title against Duke and entered the NCAA tournament as the top seed. They cruised to the Final Four until losing to the eventual champions that season, the Kansas Jayhawks. The core would return and win the championship the next season, however.
6. Kansas Jayhawks (1997-98)
How far did they go? Lost in the second round to Rhode Island
Key players: Paul Pierce and Raef LaFrentz
The team boasted four first-round draft picks in Pierce, LaFrentz, Jacque Vaughn and Scot Pollard and failed to make it to the Final Four after being upset by Rhode Island in the second round.
5. Kentucky Wildcats (1996-97)
How far did they go? Lost in National Championship Game to Arizona
Key players: Ron Mercer, Derek Anderson, Nazr Mohammed, Scott Padgett and Jamaal Magloire
Squeezed in between two of their own National Championships, the Wildcats ’97 team was remarkable and had a bunch of NBA players on their roster. This was the last coached Rick Pitino Kentucky team and they were incredibly talented, but they ran into a Mike Bibby and Miles Simon backcourt against the Arizona Wildcats in the National Championship Game and lost. Imagine if they won and Pitino stayed instead of leaving for the NBA?
4. Duke Blue Devils (1998-99)
How far did they go? Lost in the National Championship Game to UConn
Key players: Elton Brand, Corey Maggette, Trajan Langdon, Shane Battier, William Avery
If they would have won the NCAA championship, this hands down would have been the greatest Duke team during Coach K‘s tenure. The team was great in every aspect and had everything you’d want. Elton Brand was the National Player of the Year; Corey Maggette was an athletic freak on the wing; Trajan Langdon, nicknamed the Alaskan Assassin, became the Duke leader in 3-point fields and Shane Battier was the tenacious defender. The team’s first loss was early in the season by two points to Cincy but did not lose a game until they met Richard Hamilton and the Huskies in the National Championship Game, only losing by three.
3. North Carolina Tar Heels (1998)
How far did they go? Lost in the Final Four to Utah
Key players: Vince Carter, Antawn Jamison, Brendan Haywood, Ed Cota and Shammond Williams
A ’98 Kansas vs. ’98 UNC matchup in the National Championship Game would have been legendary. The Tar Heels had an abundance of future NBA players on their roster and the tandem of Vince Carter and Antawn Jamison seemed unstoppable. Jamison averaged 22 points per game along with 10 rebounds per game as Carter put up 15 and five. With Ed Cota and Shammond Williams in the backcourt as well, this team did not lack any firepower in their offense. The team made it to the Final Four but lost to a surprising but talented Utah team that featured Andre Miller and Michael Doleac.
2. Michigan Wolverines (1991-92) and (1992-93)
Record: 24-8 and 31-5
How far did they go? Lost National Championship Game to Duke in ’92 and lost National Championship Game to UNC in ’93
Key players: Jalen Rose, Chris Webber, Juwan Howard, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson
The Fab Five transcended the game of basketball and broke all of the rules. They had possibly the most heralded recruiting class ever, featuring Chris Webber, Juwan Howard and Jalen Rose along with Jimmy King and Ray Jackson. Having four McDonald’s All-Americans was unheard of and never done before. The Wolverines feared nobody and from the moment they stepped on campus they were on a mission to let their voices be heard. The media loved and hated the Fab Five, a group of kids who brought hip-hop culture to the college setting by wearing long shorts and black socks.
Despite the fun antics, it is sad this group never won the National Championship Game, despite playing in the final in consecutive seasons. They lost to the “most hated” Duke team, featuring Christian Laettner and Grant Hill, in ’92. The team would come back the next season and lose to UNC in ’93 after Chris Webber’s famed timeout call with no timeouts left that basically ended the game. Even without winning the national championship and getting their wins vacated, the Fab Five goes down as one of the most polarizing teams in NCAA history.
1. UNLV Runnin’ Rebels (1990-91)
How far did they go? Lost in the Final Four to Duke
Key players: Larry Johnson, Greg Anthony and Stacey Augmon
The ’91 UNLV team is the greatest team to not win a championship. The Runnin’ Rebels were gifted athletically and were the defending national champions and dominated Duke in the championship game the year prior, 103-73. The trio consisting of Larry Johnson (won every player of the year award), Greg Anthony and Stacey Augmon did not let up the next season and the team had possibly the best season in college basketball history. Their average margin of victory was an absurd 27.3 points per game. They held the record for wins without a loss (34) until Wichita State accomplished and surpassed the feat this year.