When looking at the history of college basketball, it’s hard to apply the same set of standards to the pre-shot clock era and the shot clock era on a general level. This reality emerges to an even greater degree when trying to identify the worst games.
Wyoming defeated Georgetown, 46-34, in the 1943 Final Four’s championship game. It would be all too easy to label that a deficient game and, for that matter, pick on the 1940s as a decade which did not bring out the best in the sport of basketball.
Yet, such a focus would be misguided, inaccurate, and ultimately unfair. Basketball was evolving at the time, and the players of that era shouldn’t be held to today’s standards. Let’s present the worst Final Fours of the shot clock era, which began in 1986 at Reunion Arena in Dallas.
5 – Tie, 2005 and 2007
Reasonable people will disagree, but the verdict here is that a Final Four with two disappointing semifinals and a good championship game is worse than a Final Four with two quality semifinals and a bad championship game. The reasoning is simple: The Final Four is a three-game event. Two good games are therefore better than one.
These weren’t awful Final Fours, but in the shot clock era, these two Four-somes produced immensely disappointing semifinals relative to the expectations and hype that accompanied them. The subsequent championship games rescued these Final Fours in 2005 (North Carolina-Illinois in St. Louis) and 2007 (Ohio State-Florida in Atlanta), but it’s hard to avoid feeling empty as a college basketball fan when both national semifinals fail to provide a remotely satisfying experience.
4 – 2002
The Kansas-Maryland semifinal was fun to watch — thank goodness. The other two games in this Atlanta assemblage were very hard to watch. Oklahoma served up an awful performance in the first national semifinal on that Saturday, hitting just 2-of-18 three-pointers. Star guard Hollis Price was body-snatched, scoring just 6 points on 1-of-7 three-point shooting. Oklahoma hit only 36 percent of its shots, bowing meekly to a fifth-seeded Indiana team that, to its credit, was able to play one more excellent game in the 2002 NCAA Tournament.
Indiana sure didn’t play well in Monday night’s championship game.
Neither did Maryland.
In what was one of the four worst championship games of the shot clock era — 1992 Michigan-Duke, 2004 Georgia Tech-Connecticut, and 2011 Butler-Connecticut have a place in this discussion as well — the Hoosiers and Terrapins stumbled and fumbled, moving their arms and legs but not finding much coordination or clarity. Nerves and an awareness of the preciousness of the moment — Indiana hadn’t been to a title game in 15 years; Maryland knew this was the last rodeo with its best team since 1974 — hijacked the talents of both teams. It was a relief to see that 2002 title game end; everyone’s holistic well being was enhanced by the lack of an overtime period on that night in the Georgia Dome.
3 – 2000
Was the Wisconsin-Michigan State national semifinal the greatest aesthetic disaster in the history of the Final Four’s shot clock era? One could perhaps say that the Marquette-Kansas semifinal in 2003 was even more of a train wreck, given that the Jayhawks built a 29-point halftime lead and created, in essence, a 115-minute wait until the second semifinal between Syracuse and Texas (fun times in CBS executive suites on that day in New Orleans). However, Kansas actually played well in that game.
Neither team played well in Badgers-Spartans 14 years ago.
Credit Wisconsin for forcing the top-seeded Spartans to play at UW’s pace. Credit neither team for the way in which it shot the ball. Labored, plodding, and rife with bricklaying, this game could have been transported to the 1940s, and the final score (53-41, MSU) would not have been out of place.
This Final Four was not helped by the second national semifinal, partly because that was a game between an 8 seed (North Carolina) and a 5 seed (Florida). When an 8-5 game is the late national semifinal, you know you have Final Four problems.
At least the title game between Florida and Michigan State was fun to watch. It also offered a pinch of drama and controversy (Teddy Dupay’s hard foul on Mateen Cleaves), plus an iconic Final Four moment in which Cleaves made a “Willis Reed” re-entrance to the court and later shared “One Shining Moment” with a beaming Tom Izzo. That title game prevented this Final Four from being number one on a list in which “number one” is not a happy distinction.
2 – 2009
At least the first national semifinal between Michigan State and Connecticut was interesting and compelling. After that game, North Carolina — by far the best team in college basketball that season — sucked all the life out of Ford Field in Detroit by laying waste to Villanova (national semifinals) and Michigan State (championship game). When it’s hard to recall a single indelible moment from both the late national semifinal (generally regarded as the main event in comparison to the early-semifinal “undercard”) and the title game, it’s clear that a Final Four fell flat.
Yet, no Final Four collapsed more than this next one:
1 – 2006
Give George Mason a break.
The Florida Gators have, over the past decade, made it a habit to destroy Cinderella. Billy Donovan has snuffed out college basketball fairy tales over the years. He silenced Dunk City (Florida Gulf Coast) last year in the Sweet 16. He knocked out Norfolk State in 2012. He dumped Dayton in this year’s tournament. Florida did what it was supposed to do in the first national semifinal in Indianapolis, so cut George Mason some slack.
Reserve your ire and displeasure for LSU, the team that was supposed to provide some Cajun spice to the proceedings, but didn’t bother to put in much of an effort.
The second national semifinal — which looked so appealing on paper — became a dud which possessed the lopsided dimensions of Marquette-Kansas 2003. LSU, a team that looked so dangerous after beating Duke and Texas in the Atlanta Regional, gave the Final Four’s shot clock era its biggest no-show (even more than Marquette). The Tigers were paralyzed, unresponsive, and beyond sluggish in a jarringly unwatchable loss to UCLA. Some college basketball diehards might have stayed with this second semifinal to the finish, but plenty of viewers moved on with their Saturday evening social calendar early in the second half.
When Florida beat UCLA by 16 in Monday’s title game, the 2006 Final Four owned a dubious distinction: This three-game set didn’t produce a single contest decided by fewer than 14 points. The 2002 Final Four might have had the worst title game, and 2000 might have had the ugliest semifinal, but 2006 gave college basketball fans a true 0-for-3 line in the TV box score at the Final Four.