Our readers have spoken, anointing the 2005 Illinois Fighting Illini the Best Team Not To Win A Title. Now it's time for our panel of college basketball experts -- senior writers Alex Wolff, Seth Davis and Luke Winn; staff writer Brian Hamilton; associate editor Ted Keith and producer David Gardner -- to weigh in with their picks, beginning with the Final Four round.
No. 3 UNC (1984) over No. 7 Georgetown (1985)
If only this game had actually come to pass once upon a time: A first-ballot Hall of Famer on each team, Patrick Ewing and Michael Jordan; prizefight-quality buildup, what with the Hoyas being given a chance to atone for their messy finish in the 1982 title game, when Georgetown’s Fred Brown literally gave the championship away to James Worthy and the Tar Heels in the dying seconds; two old friends, John Thompson and Dean Smith, on opposing benches once again.
Few teams have ever looked more formidable in defeat than those Hoyas did in losing to Villanova in the 1985 title game. (Remember: If ’Nova had shot a mere 77 percent from the field, the Wildcats would have lost.) And no team more sorely wishes it had a mulligan on an NCAA tournament game than Carolina when it looks back at its 72-68 loss to Indiana in 1984. (Recall: Jordan shot 6-for-14 and fouled out.)
Here, I’m going with Carolina. Yes, there’s the Jordan Factor, and by the end of his junior season you could see the contours of the dominant pro he would become. But there are two other reasons. As intimidating as Ewing was near the basket, this wasn't the most impressive bunch of perimeter defenders Thompson ever had. Villanova committed only two turnovers in that game, and the ’Cats missed only once from the field the entire second half. So I’m guessing that Kenny Smith would have been able to run Carolina’s offense more or less as he wished. Mostly, though, I imagine the Tar Heels’ hydra-headed frontline of Sam Perkins, Brad Daugherty and Joe Wolf jointly getting the better of Ewing. One thing Carolina big men under Smith always could do was pass, particularly to one another. Even the greatest shot blocker can only draw a bead on one victim at a time.
No. 4 Duke (1999) over No. 1 UNLV (1991)
I know, I know: Duke got the better of UNLV in that epic national semifinal in 1991. It’s still regarded as a huge upset, one I’ve always believed to be oversold. (Honestly: We’re surprised when a team with Christian Laettner, Bobby Hurley, Grant Hill, Thomas Hill, Antonio Lang and Brian Davis beats somebody, even the defending NCAA champs?) But this game would pit an entirely different kind of Blue Devils crew against Larry Johnson, Stacy Augmon, Greg Anthony and Co.: a band every bit as swaggering, only deeper, what with Mike Krzyzewski able to call on William Avery, Trajan Langdon, Corey Maggette, Elton Brand, Chris Carrawell, Nate James and Shane Battier.
Jeff Sagarin, whose ratings I long ago learned to swear by, ranks the 1999 Duke team as the best since World War II not to win the NCAAs, while placing those Rebs a still-quite-impressive five notches behind it.
An average final score of a Duke game during the 1998-99 season? 92-67. Those Dookies’ record in the ACC that year? 16-0. I rest my case.
Champion: 1999 Duke
No. 1 UNLV (1991) over No. 5 Duke (1999)
Jerry Tarkanian’s Runnin’ Rebels finally get a chance to seek revenge against Duke. Sure, it’s not the same Christian Laettner-Bobby Hurley Blue Devils that upset UNLV in the ’91 Final Four, but it is revenge nonetheless. The biggest difference between these Blue Devils and those Blue Devils is the presence of sophomore center Elton Brand, a traditional post player much unlike Laettner, who was arguably the best “stretch four” in the history of college basketball. Brand was a lunch-bucket physical specimen, but at 6-foot-8 he was undersized for his position. That would be a problem against UNLV center Moses Scurry, who was limited himself on the offensive end but was a demon defensively on the block. Brand did not yet have the shooting range that would make him an effective NBA power forward, and he would be unable to overpower Scurry.
In the backcourt, the Rebels’ would have a similar advantage. William Avery was more of a converted two-guard, and he would have had a nightmarish time having to bring up the ball against Greg Anthony. Trajon Langdon was a sweet long-range shooter, UNLV would be able to counter in kind with Anderson Hunt. And just like Mike Krzyzewski met his match in the ’99 title game in UConn’s Jim Calhoun, so too will his customary advantage be negated by Tark the Shark. This time, UNLV gets the fortunate late whistle and wins in a squeaker.
No. 7 Georgetown (1985) over No. 6 Houston (1983)
There’s one simple (if imperfect) way to settle the question of which team would win this one, and that’s to look at the game played in the year between: the 1984 NCAA title game, in which Georgetown defeated Houston, 84-75. One of the main differences from the Hoyas’ standpoint would be the absence of Michael Graham, the bruising, enigmantic Glue Guy who was a difference maker in ’84 (14 points, five rebounds) yet was not on the roster the following year because of academics. The Hoyas were a better team in 1985 than the year before because they were more mature, more cohesive and they still had Patrick Ewing, one of the most dominant centers in the history of the sport. (Note: Patrick Ewing played four years of college basketball. Marinate on that for a moment.)
Of course, Houston could answer with a dominant center of its own in Akeem Olajuwon (he later changed his name to Hakeem), accompanied by the likes of Clyde Drexler, Michael Young and Larry Michaeux. Drexler had a dismal showing in the ’83 final against N.C. State, playing only 25 minutes (and scoring only four points) because of foul trouble. Both Georgetown and Houston ran into plucky darlings of destiny (Villanova and N.C. State, respectively), but in the final analysis, Georgetown was simply the better all-around team. The Hoyas won the first meeting, and they win again here.
Champion: Georgetown (1985)
No. 1 UNLV (1991) over No. 5 Duke (1999)
I should have had less faith in the Internet, and been prepared for a scenario in which this bracket would hijacked by championship-starved flatlanders, but I was delusional enough to think that the best team by far -- 1991 UNLV -- wouldn't face much competition. Even from 1999 Duke, which seemed like the biggest title-game lock of my adult life before it was upset by Rip Hamilton & Co.
UNLV was a juggernaut unlike anything we've seen since: a defending national champ that went undefeated all the way until the Final Four, won its games by an average of 27 points, and had three NBA lottery picks in Larry Johnson, Stacey Augmon and Greg Anthony. I don't think it's a stretch to say that these Rebels may have been the best team of the past 25 years -- including the ones which actually won titles.
No. 2 Indiana (1975) over No. 3 North Carolina (1984)
The only best-team-never candidate I was willing to put in the same conversation with '91 UNLV was '75 Indiana, which is possibly the greatest team Bob Knight ever coached. The core of this squad went undefeated the following season, and it only lost once in '74-75 -- to Kentucky in the Elite Eight, by two points, with star Scott May restricted to playing just seven minutes because he broke his arm in a regular-season ending game against Purdue. As much as I'm inclined to like a Carolina team that had a veteran Michael Jordan, as well as Sam Perkins, Brad Daugherty and Kenny Smith, the '75 Hoosiers were one injury away from being back-to-back champs.
Champion: 1991 UNLV
No. 1 UNLV (1991) over No. 4 Michigan (1993)
It is very nice that legions of Illinois fans logged on to vote for their 2005 team as the Best Team Never To Win a title, and surely SI.com will never begrudge willing fingers that click. It is also categorically insane to believe that Illini team, or any club in this particular sector of the bracket, could beat the loaded Runnin' Rebels. Four players on the roster (Larry Johnson, Greg Anthony, Stacey Augmon and Elmore Spencer) became first-round NBA draft picks. Another, George Ackles, went in the second round. All that talent, plus a run of 34 wins without a loss until a two-point defeat in the national semifinals, means that Jerry Tarkanian could have gone without his trademark towel. There was really no threat of breaking a sweat here.
Less clear was the outcome of another massive Michigan-Duke tournament matchup in the bottom half of this side of the bracket, a hypothetical big enough to hyperventilate about. Duke '99 was a machine with four first-round draft picks that lost by three in the national championship game. Michigan '93 returned its top nine scorers, with a roster that featured three first-round selections and a national title game berth blown by the infamous Chris Webber timeout call. I went with the Wolverines, giving a slight edge for talent and figuring that there was no chance that a fluky last-second bonehead play would undermine them this time.
No. 3 UNC (1984) vs. No. 2 Indiana (1975)
It is possible that I will get Slamma'd for believing that the Tar Heels of Michael Jordan would eke past the great 1983 Houston team featuring Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon, et al. I counter by saying, well, Michael Jordan. And four other players drafted within the first 13 picks of three different NBA drafts, including future No. 1 overall pick Brad Daugherty. Jordan, meanwhile, won four different national player of the year awards as a junior. Houston suffered one of the most agonizing NCAA championship game losses to N.C. State on Lorenzo Charles' buzzer-beating dunk, and the Tar Heels didn't make it out of the regional semifinals. But, well, Michael Jordan. And I won't be convinced otherwise.
I might have advanced 2002 Duke into the Elite Eight of this event, given that the Blue Devils were the nation's No.1 team in both adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency and had four starters back from a championship club a year earlier. That seemed enough to upend 1985 Georgetown, but not enough against a legendary team that fell just short of back-to-back undefeated seasons. Indiana '75 featured four top-11 draft picks. One of them, Scott May, suffered a broken arm in the regular season finale and was severely limited (two points) in a two-point regional final loss to Kentucky. That seems worthy of one of the largest asterisks in NCAA tournament history, and more than convincing enough to push the Hoosiers into the title match.
Champion: 1991 UNLV
Ted Keith, associate editor
No. 5 Duke (1999) over No. 1 UNLV (1991)
The Blue Devils have been so good for so long that arguably the best team of the Mike Kryzewski era is often overlooked. In fact, a case can be made that not only was Duke's 1999 squad the best one Mike Krzyzewski had that didn't win the national championship, it was better than any of his four teams that did. It won more games, was the only one to go undefeated in league play and it had a larger average margin of victory than the 1991, 1992, 2001 and 2010 teams that took home the trophy. I had more hesitation advancing Duke past 1998 North Carolina -- which beat a very similar Blue Devils club twice that year, by 24 and 15 points, respectively -- than I did getting them past the Fab Five Michigan team of 1993.
Likewise, everyone remembers how good UNLV was in 1991, but I don't think they would have rolled over an underrated (for this exercise) 1997 Kansas team, led by Paul Pierce and All-America Raef LaFrentz, as easily as some assume (yes, Illinois fans, I picked the Jayhawks to knock out the 2005 Illini in the first round). In fact, those Rebels might not have been as far above the field as some remember. They beat Georgetown by just eight points in the second round of the NCAA tournament and had to pull away in the second half to beat Utah and Seton Hall, respectively, the next weekend to reach the Final Four.
With that as the backdrop, I think the '99 Duke team that had a two-deep lineup (when it wanted it) and firepower and athleticism to spare would have knocked off UNLV, and by a bigger margin than the two-point difference its actual forebears needed in 1991.
No. 2 North Carolina (1984) over No. 7 Georgetown (1985)
One of the enjoyable -- and difficult -- parts of these exercises is wondering just which version of these teams we're talking about. Specifically, are we talking about 1975 Indiana with a healthy Scott May? If the answer is yes (and I believe it is), then we are also talking about 1984 North Carolina with a healthy Kenny Smith, the indispensable freshman point guard who broke his wrist at midseason and was severely limited upon returning later in the year. With Smith at full strength, those Tar Heels were undefeated and boasted an absurd amount of talent, including two first-team All-Americas in Sam Perkins and Michael Jordan and a center in Brad Daugherty who became a five-time NBA All-Star. Matt Doherty, a three-year starter, was good enough to keep a future first-round pick in Joe Wolf on the bench. That's more than enough talent to beat No. 14 Florida and No. 6 Houston to reach this Final Four. The only hesitation for the Heels: They didn't always flex their muscle as fearsomely as might be assumed, often winning games by surprisingly narrow margins.
It wasn't easy to pick Georgetown to beat No. 2 Indiana, assuming the Hoosiers had May at their disposal, but the Hoyas had much more depth and would have had the best player on the floor in Ewing. Georgetown's defense would have had a harder time slowing down a North Carolina team that shot 55 percent that year.
Champion: 1999 Duke
David Gardner, producer
No. 1 UNLV (1991) over No. 5 Duke (1999)
This region of the bracket became the tournament's most interesting because of the strong showing from Illinois fans in the voting. As I noted on Twitter on Friday, the Illini made a 2014 UConn-like run through our bracket. We kept doubting that they would advance, and they kept winning convincingly. When this bracket began, that's the run I imagined UNLV would have. The Rebels returned four starters from its 1990 national title team, one of the most dominant squads in the modern era, one that featured three future top-12 NBA draft picks. The '91 team that won its first 34 games may have been even better, which is why I had no problem advancing UNLV past a great-but-not-elite Ohio State team in the opening round and then over Illinois.
On the other side, the Fab Five were fan favorites, and deservedly so. Coming off a 20-point title game loss to Duke the season beforehand, Chris Webber & Co. were not interested in anything other than a national championship. But the Wolverines didn't even win the Big Ten. Duke's 1999 team, on the other hand, obliterated opponents by an average of 24 points per game. They were so good that their games often weren't interesting to watch because they'd be over by the first TV timeout. With four top-14 picks in the NBA draft, including Wooden Award winner Elton Brand, Duke deserves its place in this Final Four.
No. 6 Houston (1983) over No. 2 Indiana (1975)
I said from the very beginning that I was in the tank for Phi Slama Jama. I thought we ranked them too low as a No. 6 seed, considering that they had two of the greatest players of all-time in Hakeem (then Akeem) Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler. Their only competition in their region was Michael Jordan's 1984 UNC squad. There's a great argument to be made for the best basketball player of all-time at the peak of his college career on a team that went undefeated in the ACC and had four other future first-round picks. But I keep coming back to that 1983 title game. The Cougars played their worst game of the season, and a red-hot N.C. State team still needed a miraculous buzzer-beater to emerge as national champions. And it's for that reason that I sent Houston to the championship in our bracket.
As with those Cougars, whose greatness extended beyond that single season (they went to three straight Final Fours from 1982 to '84), Indiana's 1975 season was the beginning of a two-year run in which the Hoosiers lost just one game, that NCAA tournament matchup against Kentucky, by two points. If it weren't for Scott May's fractured arm, the Hoosiers may have gone undefeated two seasons in a row. These two teams not only belong in the Final Four, they also could inspire another contest: Best Dynasties That Never Were in college basketball.
Champion: 1991 UNLV