Ranking Every NCAA Tournament from Best to Worst- 2022 Update

In 2020, after the cancellation of the NCAA tournament, I used the time I typically spend watching the tournament to conduct several historical analyses of past tournaments. Aside from determining the greatest game of every NCAA tournament which was recently posted on this blog, I also ranked every NCAA tournament from best to worst by creating a ranking for every round of the NCAA tournament by year and then cumulatively ranking every NCAA tournament based on the average of those round-by-round rankings..

Here is the general criteria and guidelines I used for ranking each round:  for the first four rounds, every game of each tournament was assigned a point value from 0-3.   A game could earn one point if it was an “upset” which was I considered any game where the winner had at least a four line seed disadvantage over the loser or was otherwise considered a large underdog.  A second point could be earned if the game was decided by 3 points or less or was otherwise deemed “very close”.  Finally, a wildcard point could also be given for any game that was decided by a buzzer beater or was particularly memorable or exhilarating.  For instance, Valpo’s first round win over Mississippi in 1998 earned 3 points because it was decided by 1 point, was a 9 seed line upset, and contained a particularly memorable buzzer beater to earn a wildcard point.  If a game contained none of these elements, then they were considered 0 point games.  The points for all the games in a particular round of a tournament were then added together to give each year a raw score for each round.  When multiple tournaments had the same raw score for a particular round, the brackets were analyzed region by region to determine which tourney should be ranked higher than the other.

For the Final Four round, I assigned each game a 1-5 rating based on the overall quality of play, the unexpectedness of the ultimate result, and the amount of excitement each game produced.  The ratings for both games were then added together to give each tournament a Final Four raw score.  Finally, for the national title game, I simply ranked the games from best to worst.   The rankings of every round for each tournament were then averaged and ordered based on the tourney’s cumulative ranking.

One other caveat that had to be considered is the fact that older NCAA tournaments had less rounds than the six that we currently see.  For the eight team tournaments that existed from 1939 to 1951, only the last 3 rounds of the tournament were used in determining each year’s cumulative average.  For the 16-team tournament of 1952, the last four rounds were used in determining that tourney’s average.  From all the tournaments that contained five rounds, which were from 1953-1978, the last four rounds and the first round were included in this analysis.  All post-1978 tourneys were analyzed by averaging all six rounds of the tournament, excluding all First Four/play-in games.

Without further ado, here is my ranking of every NCAA tournament from first to worst, which has now been updated to include the 2021 edition of March Madness.  This year’s tournament can best be summarized as having an excellent first couple of rounds and then a bad to mediocre final four rounds, aside from the Gonzaga/UCLA classic in the national semifinal. The six numbers to the right of each year represent that tournament’s ranking for each round starting with the first round and ending with the title game.  The seventh number on the far right is that tournament’s average round ranking used for the final ordering of these events.  Also, the asteriks next to some of the title game scores indicates the game went into overtime.

YearFirst RoundSecond RoundSweet 16Elite 8Final FourFinal RawFinalAverage
12014101914414Uconn 60, Kentucky 543215.50

The key to this tournament’s # 1 ranking is that it didn’t produce a single bad round.

Top Moments:

  • The greatest NCAA tournament upset I ever attended featured 14th seeded Mercer beating 3rd seeded Duke in Raleigh (postgame celebration pictured below)
  • This tournament featured a big-name Cinderella title game involving 7th seeded UConn Huskies and the 8th seeded Kentucky Wildcats.  It was the first national title game featuring two teams that had failed to make the tourney in the year prior.  UConn became the first 7 seed to win a national championship.
  • Kemba Walker ended up getting the last laugh, but Kentucky’s Aaron Harrison was really the hero of this tournament based on his three different game winning three pointers to get the Wildcats of Kentucky to the national title game.
Mercer beats Duke, and it was 'men' vs. boys - The Washington Post
21950NRNRNR1212CCNY 71, Bradley 682516.33

This is a surprise selection as no one really remembers this being an historically epic tourney.

Top Moments:

  • This was the only national championship won by a current non-Division 1 program (City College of New York, pictured below).  Though, their title has been marred in controversy due to the revelation of a Mafia-inspired points shaving scandal.
  • The seven game tournament featured five games decided by five point or less, which percentage wise is a record for close games.
From Heroes To Villains': CCNY Basketball's Dramatic Fall From Glory | Only  A Game
320173316579UNC 71, Gonzaga 653116.83

Top Moments:

  • South Carolina makes shocking run to the Final Four as a 7 seed that was playing terribly leading up to the tournament. (pictured below)
  • North Carolina’s Luke Maye hits epic (or heartbreaking from my point of view) game winning shot to lift UNC over Kentucky in the Elite 8, en route to a national title.
NCAA Tournament 2017: South Carolina holds off Florida, makes ...
41986175132532Louisville 72, Duke 692719.83

Top Moments:

  • This tournament featured the first two 14 over 3 upsets in NCAA tourney history with Cleveland State knocking off Indiana and Arkansas-Little Rock beating Notre Dame.  Cleveland State would win their second round game as well and become the first of only two 14 seeds to reach the Sweet 16.
  • Dale Brown’s LSU squad became the first 11 seed ever to make a Final Four, and still the only 11 seed from a major conference to do so (pictured below)
Remember when? Looking back at LSU's biggest wins in Sweet 16 ...
520117152226Uconn 53, Butler 416820.00

Despite an ugly and disappointing national title game, this tourney featured two historic Cinderella runs by Butler and VCU.

Top Moments:

  • Butler makes improbable march to their second consecutive national title game with buzzer beating wins in both the first and second rounds (pictured below).
  • VCU makes shocking run from the First Four to the Final Four culminating in a stunning upset of top-seeded Kansas in the Elite Eight.
  • Fourth-seeded Kentucky stuns Ohio State, the overall top seed in the tournament, in the Sweet 16.
Butler's Howard Hits Tournaments 1st Buzzer-Beater – CBS Los Angeles
61983293516337NC State 54, Houston 52120.17
  • Jim Valvano’s Cardiac Pack make incredible national title run as a 6 seed, thanks to several nail-biting victories.  This team was the ultimate team of destiny.
  • Houston’s Phi Slamma Jamma dominates the field en route to a heartbreaking finals loss.
Wolfpack Flashback: The Impossible Dream Come True
71984351341419Georgetown 84, Houston 753820.50

Top Moments:

  • Georgetown wins its only national title in school history by beating Hakeem Olajuwon’s Houston squad.
  • Kentucky has the worst shooting game in tournament history by going 3 for 33 from the field (9.1%) in the second half in their blowout loss to the aforementioned Hoyas.
  • Wake Forest upsets DePaul in overtime in the Sweet 16 (pictured below) to send legendary Blue Demons coach Ray Meyer into retirement.  Delaney Ruud had to hit a 25 footer at the buzzer in regulation to even get the Deacs to the overtime period.
Former Wake Forest Basketball HC Carl Tacy Dies at Age 87 | Bleacher Report  | Latest News, Videos and Highlights
8197826NR182113Kentucky 94, Duke 882620.80

Top Moments:

  • Miami of Ohio upsets defending national champion Marquette in one of the biggest first round upsets prior to the 64 team bracket.
  • Kentucky gives Magic Johnson his only NCAA tournament loss (pictured below) with a 3 point upset over Michigan State in the Elite 8.  The Cats would later win the title with a victory over Duke.
9201939382814Virginia 85, Texas Tech 77*1520.83

Top Moments:

  • Virginia wins first national championship in school history thanks to three miracle victories in the final three rounds of their tournament run (the first of these wins is pictured below).
  • Cassius Winston leads Michigan State to stunning Elite 8 win over # 1 overall seed Duke Blue Devils.
Amazing Virginia buzzer beater and how it happened | March Madness ...
101985204322651Villanova 66, Georgetown 64322.67

Top Moments:

  • Villanova becomes the first and only # 8 seed to win a national championship by playing a near perfect game to beat Georgetown in the final.
  • David Robinson leads the Midshipmen of Navy to the first ever 13 over 4 upset in tourney history with 23 point win over LSU.
Tournament Throwback: #8 Villanova vs. #1 Georgetown (1985) - VU Hoops
T-11202231178021Kansas 72, UNC 691623.00

Top Moments:

  • St. Peter’s makes magical Cinderella run to the Elite 8 as a 15 seed that includes wins over Purdue and Kentucky.
  • North Carolina beats Duke in the Final Four to end Coach K’s career and become just the third 8 seed to reach the national title game.
  • Kansas overcomes 15 point second half deficit to pull off greatest comeback victory in National title game history.
T-112013142227366Louisville 82, Mich 763323.00

Top Moments:

  • The First Final Four I ever attended personally produces three great games culminating in a three point shootout between two unsung heroes: Louisville’s Luke Hancock and Michigan’s Spike Albrecht.
  • Wichita State makes Cinderella Final Four run led by future pros Cleanthony Early, Ron Baker and Fred Van Vleet.
  • Florida Gulf Coast becomes first and only 15 seed ever to reach the Sweet 16. (pictured below)
Florida Gulf Coast Makes History, Becomes First 15-Seed to Advance ...
13199853065910Kentucky 78, Utah 692323.67

Top Moments:

  • The Comeback Cats of Kentucky overcome double digit second half deficits in their final three tourney games to win a surprise national title. (comeback Elite 8 victory over Duke pictured below)
  • Bryce Drew hits incredible running three pointer at the buzzer to lead 13th seeded Valpo to upset victory over 4th seeded Ole Miss.  The Crusaders followed that win with a second round victory over Florida State to reach the Sweet 16 for the only time in school history.
UK's Scott Padgett celebrates shot against Duke, 1998 | Kentucky ...
141987271248548Indiana 74, Syracuse 73924.83

Top Moments:

  • Keith Smart hits game winner in the final seconds (pictured below) to lift Indiana to national championship with victory over Syracuse.  This was the fourth of six 1980’s title games which are still considered all time classics (’82, ’83, ’85, ’87, ’88, ’89).
  • The legendary Billy Donovan and Rick Pitino team up in a player/coach capacity to lead Providence to a Cinderella Final Four appearance.
Indiana nips Syracuse at the buzzer as Keith Smart's jumper leads Bobby  Knight's Hoosiers to national title - New York Daily News
152010610513839Duke 61, Butler 591025.67

Top Moments:

  • The basketball world is introduced to future superstars Gordon Hayward and Brad Stevens as Butler makes Cinderella run to the national title game in their hometown of Indianapolis.  Hayward’s rim out in the national championship game (pictured below) is one of the most iconic missed shots in sports history.
  • Wake Forest’s Ish Smith leads Deacons to a miracle overtime victory over Texas with pull up game winner in the final seconds.  It was the school’s last NCAA tournament win.
Hayward, The Shot, Butler's run to 2010 Final Four
16196667NR191815Texas Western 72, KY 651827.40

Top Moments:

  • Texas Western wins one of the most famous basketball games of all-time as their all black starting lineup knocks off Adolph Rupp’s all-white Kentucky team in the tournament final.
David Lattin - Photos: 1966 Texas Western vs. Kentucky National ...
17197545NR34208UCLA 92, Kentucky 853728.80

Top Moments:

  • John Wooden wins the last of his ten national championships with a narrow victory over Kentucky.
  • Kentucky upsets rival Indiana in the Elite 8 to give the Hoosiers their only loss in a two and a half year span from 1974-76.
ON THIS DAY: In 1975, Kentucky Steals Indiana's Shot at History
18197160NR171117UCLA 68, Villanova 624129.20

Top Moments:

  • UCLA wins its fifth straight national title and 7th overall, but not without surviving a major scare from Jerry Tarkanian’s Long Beach State squad in the Elite 8 (game pictured below).
  • Western Kentucky knocks off intra-state rival Kentucky as well as Ohio State to make surprise run to the Final Four.
Doug Krikorian: Holding on to grand memories – Daily News
T-1919962836153720Kentucky 76, Syracuse 674029.33

Top Moments:

  • A loaded Kentucky team (pictured below) nicknamed “The Dazzling Dozen” gives the program its first national championship in 18 years.  This was arguably the greatest college basketball team in the modern era.
  • 13-seeded Princeton shocks the defending national champs of UCLA with a back door cut, game-winning layup.
T-19200430762291UConn 82, Georgia Tech 734729.33

Top Moments:

  • UConn pulls off historic Final Four comeback win (pictured below) with late 12-0 run to knock off Duke.
  • UAB stuns the # 1 overall seed Kentucky Wildcats with second round upset victory.
2119991221384158UConn 77, Duke 74829.67

Top Moments:

  • UConn pulls off the greatest title game upset of the 90’s with a thrilling upset over a nearly unbeatable Duke squad (pictured below).
  • 14th seeded Weber State hands North Carolina its worst first round NCAA tournament loss in school history with a 76-74 upset.
22201882241753Villanova 79, Mich 627830.33

An epic tournament that would have been much higher on this list if not for a disappointing Final Four and national championship game.

Top Moments:

  • UMBC becomes the only 16 seed ever to beat a 1 with a shocking twenty point win over Virginia.  This was arguably the biggest upset in the history of sports.
  •  Loyola-Chicago and Sister Jean (pictured below) become the greatest Cinderella story in the history of the tournament with their improbable run to the Final Four as an 11 seed.
Love the Sister Jean story? Take a cue from Loyola players on how ...
232006162061362Florida 73, UCLA 576630.50

Top Moments:

  • Loyola-Chicago (mentioned/pictured above) may be the greatest Cinderella story in the history of the tournament but George Mason in 2006 is a close second (pictured below).  These guys knocked off Michigan State, North Carolina, and a loaded UConn team en route to a miracle Final Four run.
  • The Bradley Braves also made a little Cinderella run by making the Sweet 16 as a 13 seed.
241997468306622Arizona 84, Kentucky 79*1431.00

Top Moments:

  • “Simon says championship!” was the famous call by Jim Nantz as Arizona pulled off an overtime victory over the defending national champion Kentucky Wildcats to win the school’s only national title (pictured above).  This was also the only four seed to win a national championship since the tournament expanded to 64 teams and was the last national title won by the Pac-10/Pac-12.
  • Chattanooga becomes only the second 14 seed to reach the Sweet 16.
25202126464016Baylor 86, Gonzaga 707731.17

Top Moments:

  • Tourney tied record for highest seed to reach Sweet 16 (Oral Roberts- 15), Elite 8 (Oregon State- 12), and Final Four (UCLA- 11)
  • First time in tournament history that four teams seeded 13 or lower won first round games: Ohio (13), North Texas (13), Abilene Christian (14), Oral Roberts (15)
  • UCLA and Gonzaga play epic Final Four game decided by Jalen Suggs 40 foot bank shot (pictured below)
261982449257627UNC 63, Georgetown 62731.33

Top Moments:

  • Dean Smith wins his first national championship thanks to corner jumper from a little known freshman named Michael Jordan (pictured below).
  • Georgetown narrowly missed out on its first national title when point guard Fred Brown follows up Jordan’s jumper by throwing the ball directly to Tar Heel star James Worthy.
T-271943NRNRNR425Wyoming 46, Georgetown 344831.67

Top Moments:

  • Wyoming (pictured below) wins the school and region’s only national championship thanks largely due to Illinois declining a tourney bid after three of its starters were drafted into the army.
  • Future basketball powerhouses: DePaul, Georgetown, and Texas all made their first final four appearances in ’43.
Cowboys” The Story Of The 1943 National Basketball Champions Hits ...
T-27199018111572UNLV 103, Duke 738331.67

Talk about an up and down tournament.  1990’s March Madness featured my top ranked second round and Sweet 16 but my worst ranked title game!

Top Moments:

  • Bo Kimble leads Loyola Marymount on Cinderella run to the Elite Eight in honor of fallen superstar Hank Gathers.  If the 11 seeded Lions had managed to win one more game and make the Final Four, it would likely have outranked Loyola Chicago for greatest Cinderella run in the modern NCAA tournament.
  • Christian Laettner hits the first of his two iconic Elite 8 buzzer beaters (we all know about the one two years later) to pull off upset of UConn (pictured below).
292012917265742Kentucky 67, Kansas 594232.17

Top Moments

  • Two 15 seeds beat 2 seeds within a few hours of each other as Norfolk State pulled off the biggest point spread upset in tourney history (pictured below) and C.J. McCollum’s Lehigh team stunned Duke.
  • Anthony Davis gives John Calipari his only national championship, as Kentucky claimed their first title since the late 90’s.
3019891343366236Michigan 80, Seton Hall 79*532.50

Top Moments:

  • Wolverines win first and only national title in school history with clutch free throws by Rumeal Robinson (pictured below) in the final seconds of overtime.
  • Princeton comes within a shot of pulling the first 16/1 upset in tournament history against Georgetown.
311992533429611Duke 71, Michigan 516733.33

Top Moments:

  • Duke wins the greatest game ever played with 104-103 victory over Kentucky (Laettner game-winner pictured below) in overtime en route to a second consecutive national title.
  • Michigan’s Fab Five makes first of two consecutive title game runs by knocking off their arch rival Ohio State in the Elite 8 and then the Bearcats of Cincinnati in the Final Four.
321980511835343Louisville 59, UCLA 543433.67

Top Moments:

  • Denny Crum leads Louisville to the school’s first national championship with a 59-54 victory over UCLA in the title game (pictured below).
  • 4th seeded Duke beats top-seeded Kentucky in a Sweet 16 classic that was decided by a missed Kyle Macy buzzer beater.
331991114047583Duke 72, Kansas 654534.00

Top Moments:

  • Richmond Spiders become the first 15 seed to beat a 2 seed with first round victory over Syracuse (pictured below).
  • Duke wins their first national championship in school history by avenging their 30 point title game loss to UNLV from the previous year in the Final Four.
3419796424491041Mich St 75, Indiana St 641934.50

Top Moments:

  • One of the most famous title games ever played occurs when Magic Johnson’s Michigan State squad knocks off Larry Bird and Indiana State. (pictured below)
  • 9th seeded Penn makes Cinderella Final Four run thanks to a shocking 2nd Round victory over top seeded North Carolina.  The Quakers are the last Ivy League team to make a Final Four.
3519883723397230Kansas 83, Oklahoma 791235.50

Top Moments:

  • Danny (Manning) and the Miracles give Kansas their first national championship in 36 years with a Cinderella run culminating in a title game victory over conference rival Oklahoma. (pictured below)
It's Over' | By Danny Manning
36197757NR12652Marquette 67, UNC 594436.00

Top Moments:

  • Al McGuire leads Marquette to school’s first and only national title thanks to an incredible length of court catch and layup at the buzzer by Jerome Whitehead in the national semis. (pictured below)
  • Idaho State stuns  UCLA in the regional semis marking the first time the Bruins made the tournament and failed to make the Final Four since 1963.
3720021926107534Maryland 64, Indiana 525336.17

Top Moments:

  • Gary Williams leads Maryland to first and only national title in school history.
  • Indiana makes surprise run to the title game thanks to a stunning Sweet 16 upset of top-seeded Duke in the Sweet 16 (pictured below).  Blue Devils’ Jay Williams chokes game away with key missed free throws down the stretch.
This Date in Hoosier History: Indiana Stuns No. 1 Duke – The Daily ...
T382016442702476Nova 77, UNC 74236.33

Top Moments:

  • In the greatest live sporting event I ever attended, Kris Jenkins wins the national title for Villanova with a buzzer beating three-pointer. (pictured below)
  • Northern Iowa pulls off the most improbable NCAA tourney buzzer beater in their first round win over Texas, and then followed it up with the most improbable NCAA tourney collapse against Texas A & M two days later.
Villanova Wins N.C.A.A. Championship on Last-Second Shot - The New ...
T-3820032129542770Syracuse 81, Kansas 781736.33

Top Moments:

  • Jim Boheim finally breaks through and wins first national championship for Syracuse. (see game-sealing block in title game pictured below)
  • Dwayne Wade leads Marquette on Final Four run with several dominant performances including a triple double against Kentucky in the Elite 8.
Former Syracuse basketball star Hakim Warrick recalls 'The Block ...
401947NRNRNR2333Holy Cross 58, Oklahoma 475537.00

Top Moments:

  • Holy Cross becomes the only member of the modern Patriot League to win a national championship.
  • Oklahoma beats arch rival Texas 55-54 in a thrilling national semifinal. (Ken Pryor’s game winning jumper pictured below)
4119933237636118UNC 77, Michigan 711337.33

Top Moments:

  • The Badgers of Wisconsin win the school’s first and only men’s basketball national title (team pictured below).
  • Washington State makes school’s only Elite 8, Final Four, and national title game thanks to a 24-5 regular season and tourney wins over Creighton and Arkansas.
421941NRNRNR3047Wisky 39, Wazzu 343637.67

Top Moments:

  • The Badgers of Wisconsin win the school’s first and only men’s basketball national title (team pictured below).
  • Washington State makes school’s only Elite 8, Final Four, and national title game thanks to a 24-5 regular season and tourney wins over Creighton and Arkansas.
Men's basketball: What it was like when Wisconsin won a national ...
43197461NR31347NC State 76, Marquette 645938.40

Top Moments:

  • NC State ends UCLA’s seven year reign of terror (pictured above) with double overtime upset of the Bruins in the in Final Four.
  • Al McGuire leads Marquette to school’s first final four, setting the framework for their national title run three years later.
442005362837879UNC 75, Illinois 704338.50

Top Moments:

  • Bucknell shocks Kansas in arguably the biggest 14 over 3 upset in tourney history.
  • Illinois makes shocking elite 8 comeback to knock off Arizona 90-89 in overtime.  The Illini trailed by 14 points with 3:30 to go but then end the second half on a 17-3 run to force overtime.
  • Michigan State wins an epic two overtime Elite 8 thriller over Kentucky in a game featuring a stunning buzzer beater in regulation by Patrick Sparks to force the extra periods (pictured below).
Kentucky Patrick Sparks Stock Pictures, Royalty-free Photos ...
4520151533692852Duke 68, Wisky 633538.67

Top Moments:

  • Georgia State pulls off miraculous 14 over 3 upset of Baylor thanks to R.J. Hunter’s deep three in the final seconds (pictured below).  His dad’s (Head Coach Ron Hunter) subsequent broken leg celebration is an all-time great moment in tournament history.
  • Of the sixteen games played on March 19 (the first day of the tourney), five were decided by one point, a single-day record.
  • Kentucky’s run at becoming the first unbeaten national champion since 1976 ends with a dramatic loss to Wisconsin in the second national semifinal.
Second Round: Georgia State's Hunter stuns Baylor - YouTube
4620082331504580Kansas 75, Memphis 68*438.83

Top Moments:

  • Mario Chalmers hits one of the tournament’s most iconic shots (pictured below) to send Kansas to overtime in the national title game against Memphis.  The Jayhawks took over from there to win their first national championship in twenty years.
  • Steph Curry leads Davidson on a Cinderella run to the Elite 8 with wins over 7th seeded Gonzaga, 2nd seeded Georgetown, and 3rd seeded Wisconsin.
Kansas Head Coach Bill Self Live-Tweets 2008 National Championship ...
47195449NR93146La Salle 92, Bradley 766540.00

Top Moments:

  • Tom Gola leads La Salle to school’s only national championship (team pictured below).  Fran O’Malley is the early round hero when he hit a first round buzzer beater against Fordham to ignite the tourney run.
  • Penn State makes only Final Four run in school history.
Frank S. Blatcher, a player on La Salle's 1954 NCAA basketball ...
4819943827537329Arkansas 76, Duke 722240.33

Top Moments:

  • The Razorbacks of Arkansas wins school’s first national championship with President and alumnus Bill Clinton in attendance.
  • The defending champion and tournament favorite Tar Heels get sent home in the second round by Bill Curley’s Boston College squad.
49195768NR426425UNC 54, Kansas 53***641.00

Top Moments:

  • UNC unbelievably wins back-to-back TRIPLE overtime games, the latter of which was against Wilt Chamberlain’s (pictured below) Jayhawks squad, to clinch the school’s first national title.
  • Michigan State made their first of ten Final Four runs with wins over Notre Dame and Kentucky.
50196240NR215235Cincy 71, Ohio State 595841.20

Top Moments:

  • Coach Bones McKinney leads Billy Packer’s Wake Forest squad to school’s only Final Four in school history.
  • Cincinnati wins second consecutive national title with a narrow victory over UCLA in the Final Four followed by a dominating victory over intrastate rival Ohio State in the title game. (team pictured below)
Throwback Thursday – 1962 NCAA Championship
51195859NR235123Kentucky 84, Seattle 725141.40

Top Moments:

  • Kentucky survives Final Four scare against Temple and then defeat Elgin Baylor’s Seattle squad in the title game to win fourth national title.
1957–58 Kentucky Wildcats men's basketball team - Wikipedia
5219952214525663UCLA 89, Arkansas 785443.50

Top Moments:

  • UCLA’s Tyus Edney goes coast-to-coast for buzzer-beating layup (pictured below) in second round win over Missouri.  Bruins go on to win their only national title in the post-John Wooden era.
  • Defending champion Arkansas makes an improbable run to the title game thanks to a miraculous second round victory over Syracuse that featured a Chris Webber-style technical foul for taking too many timeouts in the final five seconds of regulation.
T-531945NRNRNR4657OK A & M 49, NYU 453044.33

Top Moments:

  • Coach Henry Iba leads Cowboys of Oklahoma A & M (now Oklahoma State) to their first national title in school history. (team pictured below)
  • National runner-up NYU erases a 10 point Final Four deficit in the final two minutes of regulation to knock off Ohio State in overtime.
1944–45 Oklahoma A&M Aggies men's basketball team - Wikipedia
T-532001139645555Duke 82, Zona 725244.33

I ranked the first round of this tourney # 1 all-time thanks to a slew of upsets and tight games.

Top Moments:

  • Hampton becomes the fourth 15 seed to beat a 2 when they upset Iowa State with a layup in the game’s final seconds. (see celebration below)
  • Duke overcomes 22 point deficit to stun Gary Williams’ Maryland squad en route to school’s third national title.
55197069NR202266UCLA 80, Jacksonville 694644.60

In direct contrast to the tournament above, I ranked this first round dead last due to the dearth of upsets and close games (no game decided by fewer than seven points).

Top Moments:

  • Artis Gilmore (pictured below) leads Jacksonville on stunning run to the national title game featuring wins over Iowa and Kentucky.
  • New Mexico State and St. Bonaventure join the Dolphins of Jacksonville as other Cinderella, first-time Final Four participants.
CBS Sports Network chronicles 1970 NCAA tournament run in ...
T-561946NRNRNR7038OK A & M 43, UNC 402845.33

Top Moments:

  • Oklahoma A & M center Bob Kurland executed the first two dunks in NCAA tourney history en route to a second consecutive national title. (team pictured below)
  • The Tar Heels of North Carolina make their first of a recond twenty final four appearances and the first of eleven title game appearances with victories over NYU and Ohio State.
1945–46 Oklahoma A&M Aggies men's basketball team - Wikipedia
T-561942NRNRNR1656Stanford 53, Dartmouth 386445.33

Top Moments:

  • The Stanford Indians, as they were called at at the time, won their first and only national title by knocking off Rice, Colorado, and then Dartmouth.  Interestingly enough, Stanford’s coach Everett Dean is the only coach in college basketball history to be unbeaten for his career in the NCAA tournament, as this was his only appearance in the Big Dance. (starting five pictured below)
  • The Kentucky Wildcats make their first of seventeen Final Four appearances thanks to a nail-biting victory over Illinois in the elite eight.
58195954NR593264Cal 71, West Virginia 702045.80

Interestingly, we’re following up the tournament where Stanford won its only national title with the tourney that arch rival Cal won its only national title.

Top Moments:

  • West Virginia, Cincinnati, and Louisville all made their first final four appearances in school history during this tournament.
  • The Cal Golden Bears win their first and only national championship with a game-winning tip-in with 17 seconds left to go. (celebration pictured below)
59196356NR434971Loyola 60, Cincy 581146.00

Top Moments:

  • Loyola of Chicago makes the first of their two legendary NCAA tournament runs (2016 being the other) en route to a surprise national title.  The Ramblers win their final game over Cincinnati by overcoming a 15 point second half deficit and winning the game with a tip-in during game’s final seconds. (see team picture below)
  • The Duke Blue Devils make their first of sixteen final four appearances with wins over NYU and St. Joseph’s.
60195563NR224731San Francisco 77, La Salle 636946.40

Top Moments:

  • Bill Russell wins the first of his many championships by leading San Francisco to the school’s first national title. (team pictured below)
  • The first NCAA tournament games to be played in the state of Kentucky took place when Marquette matched up with Miami of Ohio and Penn State played Memphis State.
611981523118368Indiana 63, UNC 506346.67

The 2nd and 3rd rounds of this tournament were epic, but the Elite Eight was the worst in tourney history in my judgment, as all games were won by favorites with no contest being decided by less than 11 points.

Top Moments:

  • Isiah Thomas leads Indiana to its second national title under coach Bobby Knight.
  • March Madness sees one of its first iconic days as three second round upsets were all decided by last-second baskets on March 14.  St. Joe’s beat # 1 seeded DePaul with a layup, Arkansas dethrones defending national champion Louisville with a U.S. Reed half court heave (pictured below), and Kansas State beats Oregon State with a fade away 17 footer.
  • Danny Ainge pulls off the most famous coast to coast buzzer beater in  tourney history to give BYU a 51-50 victory over Notre Dame in the Sweet 16.
U.S. Reed's buzzer-beating half-court shot for the 1981 Arkansas ...
621944NRNRNR7744Utah 42, Dartmouth 402147.33

Top Moments:

  • The Utes of Utah (pictured below) win their only national title in school history by pulling off major upset in title game victory over Dartmouth.  The Utes were an eight point underdog going into the game and were able to take home the crown thanks to Herb Wilkinson’s game winner.  The only reason Utah even got to play in that year’s tourney was that Arkansas had to withdraw its invitation because two  players were seriously injured in a car accident just before the tourney was set to begin.
63196762NR84354UCLA 79, Dayton 647147.60

Top Moments:

  • UCLA (team pictured below) wins the first of their record seven straight national championships thanks largely to the play of sophomore center Lew Alcindor (later known as Kareem Abdul-Jabar)
  • Dayton and Houston became first-time final four participants by winning the Mideast and Midwest regions respectively.  Dayton fans stormed the court in Evanson’s McGaw Memorial Hall after team’s Elite Eight come from behind overtime win over Virginia Tech.
1966–67 UCLA Bruins men's basketball team - Wikipedia
6420002425355478Michigan St. 89, Florida 767047.67

This tournament ranks the third worst in the 64 team era (post-1984) thanks to a first round that didn’t see a 12 seed or higher win and three snoozefest games in the Final Four.

Top Moments:

  • Two eight seeds make it to the Final Four for the first time in tournament history as North Carolina and Wisconsin make surprise runs to Indianapolis.
  • Florida makes run to first-ever national title game thanks to Mike Miller’s buzzer beating runner in their first round overtime victory over Butler. (see celebration below)
Reliving That First Butler Game ... Nearly 19 Years Ago - Florida ...
65196942NR334440UCLA 92, Purdue 728047.80

Top Moments:

  • Drake and Purdue both made their inaugural final four appearances, and the Bulldogs of Drake gave UCLA all they could handle in their national semifinal meeting (pictured below).  Unfortunately, Purdue, who lost their starting center in their Elite Eight game against Miami of Ohio, did not fare as well against the Bruins the lopsided national title game.
Fifty Years of Dolph - Drake University Newsroom
66195625NR663359San Francisco 83, Iowa 716148.80

Top Moments:

  • Hal Lear (pictured below) sends the Owls of Temple to their first Final Four in school history by sinking two free throws with two second left in their Elite Eight win over Canisius.  Interestingly, Lear became the first of only four players to win the tournament’s most outstanding player award without playing in the title game.
6720074732406061Florida 84, Ohio State 755649.33

The second worst NCAA tournament in the 64-team era (post 1984) thanks to a lack of upsets/cinderella stories, a dearth of buzzer beaters/iconic moments, and a predictable final outcome.

Top Moments:

  • Georgetown beats Vandy in the Sweet 16 with controversial drop step layup by Jeff Green that could have been called a travel.
  •  Duke loses its first round game for the first time since 1996 thanks to Eric Maynor’s game winner with 1.8 seconds left. (see celebration below)
Last-second shot gives VCU upset victory over Duke | SummitDaily.com
681948NRNRNR4845Kentucky 58, Baylor 426051.00

Top Moments:

  • Kentucky wins the first of its eight national titles in program history.  (team pictured below)
  • Baylor wins the only close game of the entire tournament in their first round game again Washington and then proceed to make a run to the school’s first and only national title game.
23715
691951NRNR607424Kentucky 68, K-State 584951.75

Top Moments:

  • Kentucky wins the third of its eight national titles by narrowly beating Illinois in the national semifinal.  The Cats overcame 7 point halftime deficit in that game to comeback and win on Shelby Linville’s game-winner. (team pictured below)
  • The UConn Huskies make their first of thirty-three NCAA tournament appearances.
The Twin Cities' first Final Four, in 1951, still stirs trash talk ...
701952NRNR681949Kansas 80, St. John’s 637452.50

Top Moments:

  • Kansas wins its first national championship in school history with legendary coach Phog Allen at the helm.
  • St. John’s pulls off possibly the greatest NCAA tournament upset of the decade by beating defending national champion Kentucky in the Elite Eight (pictured below).  Amazingly, the Cats beat the Johnnies by 41 points in their earlier regular season meeting.
St. John's to Honor Basketball Great Solly Walker on Saturday - St ...
71197241NR676850UCLA 81, Florida St 763953.00

Top Moments:

  • Southwest Louisiana becomes the first and only team to win an NCAA tournament game in its first year of postseason eligibility.
  • Florida State makes Cinderella run to the national title game where they put up a valiant effort against a dominant UCLA team.  Surprisingly, this is still FSU’s only trip to a Final Four. (team pictured below)
Missing sports? Savor the sweet memories of FSU's amazing run to ...
7220093141713965UNC 89, Michigan State 727353.33

The worst NCAA tournament of the modern era was plagued by a lack of upsets, the worst Sweet 16 in tourney history (no close games and only one upset), and a dull and predictable Final Four and national title game.  In fact, the ’09 national championship game is the only title game since 1995 that I didn’t watch live.

Top Moments:

  • Villanova’s Scottie Reynolds gives the Wildcats its first Final Four berth under Jay Wright with a game-winning runner in the lane to deny Pitt its first Final Four trip since 1941. (pictured below)
  • North Carolina completes one of the most dominant NCAA tournament runs in history by beating all six of their opponents by at least twelve points.
3 Villanova vs. #1 Pitt (2009 NCAA Tournament): Live Score, Stats ...
731940NRNRNR6328Indiana 60, Kansas 427555.33

Despite being the 11th worst tourney in NCAA history, this second NCAA tournament was considerably better than the inaugural event that you will read about below.

Top Moments:

  • Indiana wins the first of its five national titles thanks to three dominant victories, two of which were played in front of a home crowd in nearby Indianapolis. (team pictured below)
  • Phog Allen’s Jayhawks win the first close game in the history of the Final Four with one point victory over Southern Cal.
  • Duquesne and Western Kentucky play in the first close game in the history of the NCAA tournament when the Dukes win their first round game over Western Kentucky by a single point.
1940 INDIANA HOOSIERS 8X10 TEAM PHOTO PICTURE BASKETBALL NCAA ...
74195366NR447182Indiana 69, Kansas 682457.40

Coincidentally, the only two tournaments featuring national championship games pairing Indiana and Kansas are ranked right next to one another!

Top Moments:

  • Indiana wins the second of its five national titles with Bobby Leonard’s game winning free throw in the final 30 seconds of their one point title game victory.
75197634NR416773Indiana 86, Michigan 687658.20

Three of the five NCAA tournaments that Indiana won are ranked consecutively!

Top Moments:

  • Indiana (pictured below) becomes the last team undefeated national champion by beating Michigan in the first title game that paired two teams from the same conference.
  • Rutgers dodges a bullet in their first round game against Princeton to preserve their undefeated Final Four run, which is by far the best tourney finish in school history.
76196155NR576983Cincy 70, Ohio State 65*2958.60

Despite a quality national title game, this tournament is ranked near the bottom of the all-time list because of an absolutely dreadful Final Four round featuring two blowouts where the total margin of victory for the pair of games was 51 points!

Top Moments:

  • Cincinnati wins its first national championship by pulling huge overtime upset against intrastate rival Ohio State in the title game. (team pictured below)
  • St. Joseph’s and Utah play a four overtime third place game which is the last NCAA tournament game to go beyond three extra periods.
1960–61 Cincinnati Bearcats men's basketball team - Wikipedia
77196548NR585081UCLA 91, Michigan 805758.80

Top Moments:

  • Bill Bradley leads Princeton (pictured below) to its first and only final four appearance by virtue of convincing wins over NC State and Providence.
  • Wichita State earns its first final four berth as well by ending Henry Iba’s coaching career with Elite Eight win over Oklahoma State.  The Shockers wouldn’t return to the national semifinals until 2013.
Rules of Motion: The 1964-65 Men's Basketball Final Four Season ...
78196858NR563574UCLA 78, UNC 558261.00

Several of these UCLA championship tournaments are ranked near the bottom because of their lack of intrigue as to who was going to win the title.

Top Moments:

  • UCLA avenged their regular season “game of the century” loss to Houston two months prior with a 31 point drubbing of the Cougars in the Final Four.  The Bruins would take care of UNC in the title game to win their fourth overall title and second in a string of seven straight.
  • Ohio State’s Sunshine Sorenson (pictured below) hits game winner to knock off third ranked Kentucky in an epic Elite Eight game.
March Madness: Ohio State's greatest NCAA Tournament victories
791949NRNRNR5975Kentucky 46, OK A & M 365061.33

Top Moments:

  • Illinois and Oregon State both make their inaugural trips to the Final Four.  The Illini would go on to play in four more.  The Beavers would make one more in 1963.
  • Oklahoma A & M wins a first round thriller over Wyoming with a Jack Shelton game winning tip-in.  Henry Iba’s Cowboys would use this victory to propel them on a run to the national title game.
  • Kentucky (pictured below) becomes the first team to win consecutive national titles with a dominating run through their three tournament games.
1949 Men's Basketball National Champions - University of Kentucky ...
80196450NR618260UCLA 98, Duke 837265.00

Top Moments:

  • The Bruins of UCLA (pictured below) win their first national championship with narrow victories over Seattle, San Francisco, and Kansas State followed by a dominant win over Duke.  The K-State game was particularly memorable, as the Bruins made a late game comeback with the help of their cheerleaders who arrived in the final seven minutes of regulation due to a flight delay.
  • Michigan makes its first final four appearance in school history.
1963–64 UCLA Bruins men's basketball team - Wikipedia
81197343NR557977UCLA 87, Memphis St. 668167.00

Top Moments:

  • Indiana makes its first NCAA tournament appearance with Bob Knight at helm.
  • UCLA wins the last of its seven straight national titles.  Bill Walton is the most outstanding player.
  • James “Fly” Williams leads the Governors of Austin Peay into the Sweet 16 for an epic clash with Kentucky.  The Wildcats win this high scoring classic in overtime. (pictured below)
Kentucky Basketball on Twitter: "1973 - a new @marchmadness era in ...
82196065NR458167Ohio State 75, Cal 557967.40

Top Moments:

  • The seldom used Jim Reiss hits game winner for NYU in their overtime upset of West Virginia in the Sweet 16.
  • Ohio State wins the school’s only national championship with four dominant tournament victories in which they won by a total of 80 points.
831939NRNRNR7869Oregon 46, Ohio State 336269.67

The first-ever NCAA tournament ended up being the worst!  Not a single game was decided by less than 12 points. Thank goodness they decided to keep playing this thing!

Top Moments:

  • The Oregon Webfoots, as they were called at the time, won the first ever NCAA title (pictured below) with three convincing tournament victories.  Not only has Oregon failed to win another title, but they didn’t even make it back to the Final Four again until 2017!
Ohio State and Oregon have made championship game history together ...

Finally, here is my complete ranking of every NCAA tournaments without the illustrations or descriptions above.  I thought some of you may want to look at this to more easily be able to compare different seasons over time.  Again, the six numbers to the right of each year represent that tournament’s ranking for each round starting with the first round and ending with the title game.  The seventh number on the far right is that tournament’s average round ranking used for the final ordering of these events.  Thanks everyone for reading, and please feel free to comment or debate.

Greatest NCAA TournamentsFirst RoundSecond RoundSweet 16Elite 8Final FourTitle Game ScoreFinalAverage
12014101914414Uconn 60, Kentucky 543215.50
21950NRNRNR1212CCNY 71, Bradley 682516.33
320173316579UNC 71, Gonzaga 653116.83
41986175132532Louisville 72, Duke 692719.83
520117152226Uconn 53, Butler 416820.00
61983293516337NC State 54, Houston 52120.17
71984351341419Georgetown 84, Houston 753820.50
8197826NR182113Kentucky 94, Duke 882620.80
9201939382814Virginia 85, Texas Tech 77*1520.83
101985204322651Villanova 66, Georgetown 64322.67
11202231178021Kansas 72, UNC 691623.00
112013142227366Louisville 82, Mich 763323.00
13199853065910Kentucky 78, Utah 692323.67
141987271248548Indiana 74, Syracuse 73924.83
152010610513839Duke 61, Butler 591025.67
16196667NR191815Texas Western 72, KY 651827.40
17197545NR34208UCLA 92, Kentucky 853728.80
18197160NR171117UCLA 68, Villanova 624129.20
1919962836153720Kentucky 76, Syracuse 674029.33
19200430762291UConn 82, Georgia Tech 734729.33
2119991221384158UConn 77, Duke 74829.67
22201882241753Villanova 79, Mich 627830.33
232006162061362Florida 73, UCLA 576630.50
241997468306622Arizona 84, Kentucky 79*1431.00
25202126464016Baylor 86, Gonzaga 707731.17
261982449257627UNC 63, Georgetown 62731.33
271943NRNRNR425Wyoming 46, Georgetown 344831.67
27199018111572UNLV 103, Duke 738331.67
292012917265742Kentucky 67, Kansas 594232.17
3019891343366236Michigan 80, Seton Hall 79*532.50
311992533429611Duke 71, Michigan 516733.33
321980511835343Louisville 59, UCLA 543433.67
331991114047583Duke 72, Kansas 654534.00
3419796424491041Mich St 75, Indiana St 641934.50
3519883723397230Kansas 83, Oklahoma 791235.50
36197757NR12652Marquette 67, UNC 594436.00
3720021926107534Maryland 64, Indiana 525336.17
382016442702476Nova 77, UNC 74236.33
3820032129542770Syracuse 81, Kansas 781736.33
401947NRNRNR2333Holy Cross 58, Oklahoma 475537.00
4119933237636118UNC 77, Michigan 711337.33
421941NRNRNR3047Wisky 39, Wazzu 343637.67
43197461NR31347NC State 76, Marquette 645938.40
442005362837879UNC 75, Illinois 704338.50
4520151533692852Duke 68, Wisky 633538.67
4620082331504580Kansas 75, Memphis 68*438.83
47195449NR93146La Salle 92, Bradley 766540.00
4819943827537329Arkansas 76, Duke 722240.33
49195768NR426425UNC 54, Kansas 53***641.00
50196240NR215235Cincy 71, Ohio State 595841.20
51195859NR235123Kentucky 84, Seattle 725141.40
5219952214525663UCLA 89, Arkansas 785443.50
531945NRNRNR4657OK A & M 49, NYU 453044.33
532001139645555Duke 82, Zona 725244.33
55197069NR202266UCLA 80, Jacksonville 694644.60
561946NRNRNR7038OK A & M 43, UNC 402845.33
561942NRNRNR1656Stanford 53, Dartmouth 386445.33
58195954NR593264Cal 71, West Virginia 702045.80
59196356NR434971Loyola 60, Cincy 581146.00
60195563NR224731San Francisco 77, La Salle 636946.40
611981523118368Indiana 63, UNC 506346.67
621944NRNRNR7744Utah 42, Dartmouth 402147.33
63196762NR84354UCLA 79, Dayton 647147.60
6420002425355478Michigan St. 89, Florida 767047.67
65196942NR334440UCLA 92, Purdue 728047.80
66195625NR663359San Francisco 83, Iowa 716148.80
6720074732406061Florida 84, Ohio State 755649.33
681948NRNRNR4845Kentucky 58, Baylor 426051.00
691951NRNR607424Kentucky 68, K-State 584951.75
701952NRNR681949Kansas 80, St. John’s 637452.50
71197241NR676850UCLA 81, Florida St 763953.00
7220093141713965UNC 89, Michigan State 727353.33
731940NRNRNR6328Indiana 60, Kansas 427555.33
74195366NR447182Indiana 69, Kansas 682457.40
75197634NR416773Indiana 86, Michigan 687658.20
76196155NR576983Cincy 70, Ohio State 65*2958.60
77196548NR585081UCLA 91, Michigan 805758.80
78196858NR563574UCLA 78, UNC 558261.00
791949NRNRNR5975Kentucky 46, OK A & M 365061.33
80196450NR618260UCLA 98, Duke 837265.00
81197343NR557977UCLA 87, Memphis St. 668167.00
82196065NR458167Ohio State 75, Cal 557967.40
831939NRNRNR7869Oregon 46, Ohio State 336269.67

Be on the lookout for tomorrow’s column which systematically answers the questions of which NCAA tournament has produced the most upsets and which has produced the biggest upsets.

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