Whereas the worst Final Fours should be divided between the pre-shot clock era and the shot clock era, the best Final Fours don’t need to be segregated. Great basketball is great basketball, and interestingly enough, most of the five best Final Fours predate the advent of both the shot clock and the three-point arc.
Surprised? Join the club.
Before we go forward with this list, you might wonder why certain Final Fours are not mentioned here. Wasn’t 1979 a great Final Four? Didn’t 1983 have two games everyone still talks about, 31 years later? Didn’t the 1980s have more than one top-tier Final Four, with the incredible run of close championship games?
Those are all valid questions.
What can be said in response? The maker of a list gets to establish his or her own ground rules. The ground rule here is that the “best” Final Fours refer to a set of three games. This is not a list meant to identify the most important, memorable, or star-studded Final Fours. Which events had the best set of three games? That’s what we’re looking for here.
5 – 1957
Kansas did smack San Francisco, 80-56, in one national semifinal. This was, as a result, a Final Four in which only two of the three (non-consolation) games were special in some way. (A reminder: The Final Four staged a third-place game through the 1981 event.)
One can find many Final Fours in which two of the three games dazzled and delighted. This edition tops the list. Why? North Carolina had to win triple-overtime games in both the semifinals (Michigan State) and the championship game (Kansas) in order to lift the trophy. Two three-overtime Final Four games? Yes, this makes the cut as a “two-great-game” Final Four when compared to dozens of other examples from the past.
4 – 1993
This is the only shot clock-era Final Four on the list. It’s true that the first national semifinal between Kansas and North Carolina was not a classic, but it was what one could view as a “good, solid game,” one in which the better team (North Carolina) maintained its poise down the stretch. In this way and for this reason, 1993 edges out another similarly good Final Four from 1991.
In the 1991 Final Four, Kansas upset UNC in the first semifinal, preceding a marvelous second semifinal (Duke-UNLV) and an above-average championship game (Kansas-Duke). The 1993 event rates slightly higher as a measure of raw basketball quality because it was a rare Final Four in which the cumulative seed total was five — three 1 seeds and a 2. Michigan’s semifinal against Kentucky and its championship game loss to North Carolina offered viewers — at home and in the Superdome — a combination of supreme skill and soaring spectacle. If you want to make your case for 1991, you’d have a strong argument. Yet, 1993 wins by half a length.
3 – 1977
This Final Four in Atlanta featured an unusual collection of teams. Two were independents (Marquette and UNLV) and a third (UNC-Charlotte) hailed from the Sun Belt. Charlotte was making its first NCAA tournament appearance and had managed to strike 49er gold on its maiden March voyage. UNLV was making its third NCAA tournament appearance in school history under a much younger Jerry Tarkanian. Marquette, though a power over the previous 10 years under Al McGuire, was viewed as a highly fortunate and surprising at-large selection in the tournament field. Only North Carolina brought an established (and establishment) presence to this event.
Yet, a bunch of oddballs created a magical set of three games.
Marquette defeated Charlotte on a memorable buzzer-beating blocked-into-the-basket dunk by Jerome Whitehead over future NBA champion Cedric Maxwell. North Carolina nipped UNLV in an 84-83 thriller. In the championship game, Marquette produced a victory that, while not a basketball masterpiece — the game marked one of the pronounced failures of Dean Smith’s “four corners” approach — proved to be unpredictable and razor-close heading into the final few minutes. Marquette hit its foul shots at crunch time, and when the moment of triumph arrived, viewers were treated to one of the most gripping scenes in college basketball history.
McGuire, one of the sport’s greatest original characters, wept into his hands as the clock ticked down on the game and his never-boring career as a coach. Before NBC welcomed him to the best broadcasting crew in the history of the sport (with Dick Enberg and Billy Packer), McGuire celebrated a national title in his last game on the bench.
The 1977 Final Four provided three entirely compelling games, albeit for different reasons. Not many other Final Fours can make the same claim.
2 – 1978
It is striking to look through scores from many decades of Final Four action and see that in the late 1970s, several years before the arrival of the shot clock, this event in St. Louis delivered such entertaining, fast-paced play. In what is remembered as the Jack Givens Final Four — the Kentucky star dazzled by scoring 41 points in the title game against Duke — all three games were taut, tense and entertaining. Kentucky defeated Arkansas by five in a slow-paced (64-59) semifinal, but Duke and Gene Banks outraced Digger Phelps’s one Final Four team at Notre Dame in a 90-86 crowd-pleaser. Kentucky then engaged Duke in another 94-foot game, prevailing by a score of 94-88.
Heck, even the third-place game proved to be good theater, as Arkansas edged Notre Dame, 71-69.
All in all, this Final Four not only surpassed expectations; it cemented a legacy for two coaches (Phelps and Kentucky’s Joe B. Hall) while propelling the career of a third, Arkansas bench boss Eddie Sutton. It was also Duke’s last Final Four until this Krzyzewski guy figured things out in 1986.
The 1978 Final Four carries more historical resonance than you might first think. Yet, on the raw basketball merits, it stacks up quite well in the larger run of history.
1 – 1982
This is the Final Four that, with the passage of time, holds up better than any other.
Houston was a 6 seed in this NCAA tournament, but the Cougars’ talent was evident, a reality confirmed by subsequent appearances in the 1983 and 1984 title games. Georgetown hadn’t been a familiar presence at the Final Four — not since 1943 — but the Hoyas were no Cinderella in New Orleans, not with Patrick Ewing in the middle and Eric “Sleepy” Floyd in the backcourt.
Louisville and North Carolina represented college basketball royalty at this event. Sectioned off in different parts of the bracket, the Cardinals and Carolina carried the flag for the “royals” against the new kids.
The talent on the floor inside the Superdome was worthy of the spectacle and the crowd of over 61,600 fans that witnessed it. Even better, the three spotlight showdowns more than lived up to the hype, delighting CBS executives in what was Black Rock’s first year of televising the Final Four after NBC’s influential stewardship of the sport in the 1970s.
The three games at this Final Four were decided by a total of 10 points. Carolina defeated Houston, 68-63. Georgetown — in one of the best defensive games in Final Four history — outfought Louisville, 50-46. Then, in one of the best games in college basketball history — one that certainly belongs in the top-10 discussion — North Carolina stopped Georgetown, 63-62.
This Final Four lingers in the memory because Dean Smith finally won his first national title. Yet, it also endures in the imagination because of Fred Brown’s epic gaffe in the final seconds (his wrong-way pass to North Carolina’s James Worthy), and Georgetown coach John Thompson’s embrace of his distraught player shortly thereafter. Ewing — with his intentional goaltends early in the title game against North Carolina — carved out a presence as a central protagonist and villain.
Oh… and a certain fellow named Michael Jordan hit the championship-winning shot in the final 20 seconds.
A postscript: No coach in this Final Four quartet made fewer than three Final Fours. Three of these coaches made at least five of them.
The more you think about the 1982 Final Four, the more impossible it becomes to deny it the top spot on this list. The second through five spots are very much open to debate, but if you’re not going with 1982 as the best Final Four ever, you have a lot of explaining to do.