One of the beauties of Twitter is its role as facilitator of instant bar-stool chatter. In this case, one of my followers (@JaredKraus) posed a very interesting question in the wake of Connecticut's incredible run to the national title: Was it the best postseason run ever?
Well, I'm not one to back down from a research challenge, so I went back and looked at every national champion since the field expanded to 64 in 1985 to gauge how impressive the Huskies' title run was. The champs were evaluated on overall record (including conference tournaments), quality of opponents faced, margins of victory and perceived expectations for that team entering the postseason.
After much internal debate, here are the 10 most impressive national championship runs of the modern era:
10. Duke 1992 (9-0, ACC tournament champs, No. 1 seed in NCAAs)
The Blue Devils comfortably rolled through the ACC tournament, including a thrashing of North Carolina in the final, and only had two close calls in the NCAAs. One of those was the Christian Laettner game, a 104-103 win over Kentucky that is widely regarded as the best NCAA tournament game of alltime. They edged Indiana in the semis before crushing the Fab Five by 20 to repeat as national champs. This team tops the 2009 North Carolina team for the final spot in these rankings in large part due to the Heels' ACC tournament loss to Florida State (without Ty Lawson) and Duke's ability to handle the pressure of a repeat title run.
9. Connecticut 2004 (9-0, Big East tournament champs, No. 2 seed)
The Huskies rolled through most of the Big East tournament without Emeka Okafor, then edged top seed Pitt in the title game. They surprisingly received a No. 2 seed in the NCAAs because of questions about Okafor's back, but many picked them to win it all anyway. They plowed through a 15/7/6/8 path in the regional, winning all four games by at least 16 points. After edging Duke in a great national semi, UConn routed upstart Georgia Tech for the title. This team would be higher if it faced a stronger path or if expectations were lower.
8. Villanova 1985 (7-1, lost in Big East semis, No. 8 seed)
The first champ of the 64 (and more)-team era remains its most unlikely. The eighth-seeded Wildcats won it all by disposing of two No. 1 seeds and two 2s along the way. They lost at St. John's in the Big East semifinal, which is very understandable as the then-Redmen were the Big East tournament's top seed, a 1 seed in the NCAAs and also made the Final Four. Four of 'Nova's NCAA wins were by four points or fewer.
7. UNLV 1990 (9-0, Big West tournament champs, No. 1 seed)
The Rebels ripped through three overmatched foes in their conference tournament and then most of the NCAAs, where the only doubt came in a two-point win over surprise 12 seed Ball State in the Sweet 16. UNLV won by 30 in both the Elite Eight (over storybook Loyola Marymount) and in the title game (over Duke). They were ridiculously dominant at times and incredibly fun to watch.
6. Duke 2001 (9-0, ACC tournament champs, No. 1 seed)
The Blue Devils only had two close calls the entire postseason, and both came against league rival Maryland, which went on to win the national title the following season. Duke beat the Terps on a last-second tip-in in the ACC semis and then rallied from 22 points down in the national semis to win by 11. Coach K's squad won every NCAA tournament game by double digits, but didn't play another No. 1 seed in the event.
5. Arizona 1997 (6-0, no conference tournament, No. 4 seed)
The fourth-seeded Wildcats' case is pretty simple: They are the only team to beat three No. 1 seeds en route to a national title. They aren't higher on the list because there wasn't a Pac-10 tournament at the time (they actually lost their final two Pac-10 games of the season the weekend before the NCAAs), their three other NCAA wins were over double-digit seeds and none of their wins came by double digits. That said, second-round foe College of Charleston ended the year ranked 16th and, as noted by another Twitter follower (@notthefakeDLong), regional final opponent Providence had God (Shammgod) on its side.
4. Kentucky 1996 (8-1, lost in SEC tournament final, No. 1 seed)
The SEC title game loss to Mississippi State, which went on to make the Final Four itself, is the only blemish on an utterly dominant postseason run. Playing virtually the toughest path for an NCAA No. 1 seed, Kentucky won all four games in its region by at least 20 points. The Wildcats then avenged their only other loss of the season by beating 1 seed UMass before comfortably topping Syracuse in the title game.
3. Michigan State 2000 (9-0, Big Ten tournament champs, No. 1 seed)
The Spartans only won one of the nine games by single digits and that was by nine against slowdown Wisconsin in the Big Ten semis. They played the toughest possible path for a No. 1 seed in the region and beat the 16/8/4/2 seeds by 27, 12, 17 and 11 points. Then they beat Wisconsin for a fourth time that season in the national semis by 12 and took out upstart Florida by 13 to win it all. The modest demerits: They beat the 7/6/4 seeds to win the Big Ten tourney and only beat one top-three seed in the NCAAs.
2. UConn 2011 (11-0, Big East tournament champs, No. 3 seed)
Really? The first (and likely only) team to go 11-0 in postseason tournament play only gets second? Well, the 11 was boosted by a meaningless first-round Big East tournament win over DePaul (aside from the start of extended fatigue) and then second-round foe Georgetown was crippled without Chris Wright. That said, the subsequent run of wins over Pitt, Syracuse and Louisville (1, 3 and 4 seeds in the NCAAs) was astonishing and adds a ton of heft to a solid-but-not-dominant NCAA run that, like the 2000 Michigan State team, includes only one win over a top-three seed. They edge the Spartans on overall quality of opponent and exceeding expectations.
1. Florida 2006 (9-0, SEC tournament champs, No. 3 seed)
This title team gets lost in the retelling of the repeat title for "The '04s" the following season. Unlike the '07 champs, though, these Gators weren't a No. 1 seed and didn't slog through a title run. Seven of their nine postseason wins came over teams in Ken Pomeroy's top 25 and they didn't play a sub-100 team. The No. 3 seed won its final five NCAA games by an average of 14.0 points per game, finishing the deal by ripping 1 seed Villanova, fairy tale George Mason, and then 2 seed UCLA in the final, all by double digits.
By the slimmest of margins over fellow No. 3 seed UConn, I'll take the more dominant Gators, putting more value on the dominance and better quality opponents faced in the NCAAs.