Best college basketball teams not to win a title: The Elite Eight

Which is the best college basketball team not to win a title? Cast your vote on our Elite Eight.
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Call them the Extra Elite Eight. The octet of teams that survived the Sweet 16 of our Best Team Not To Win The Title bracket include two clubs that lost once all year, and another two that lost just twice. There are five teams that won national championships within two years of the season in question, and a sixth that had won one just four years prior. Five teams lost in the title game, and the average margin of defeat when these eight clubs were eliminated was just 3.5 points.

Picking which schools should advance is no easy task. Vote for the teams you think would win below, and check back tomorrow to see which ones made what will certainly be a Fantastic Final Four.

No. 1 UNLV (1991) vs. No. 8 Illinois (2005)

1991 UNLV
Record: 34-1, 18-0 (1st place) in Big West regular season, Big West tournament champions
NCAA tournament result: Final Four

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Since Indiana's perfect run to a national championship in 1975-76, only two teams have entered the NCAA tournament with an unblemished record. The most recent was 2013-14 Wichita State, which despite being 34-0, was neither No. 1 in the final regular season Associated Press poll, nor the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAAs. Poll voters and the selection committee doubted that the mid-major Shockers, which lacked a win over a ranked opponent, were really the nation's best, and they eventually lost to Kentucky in the tourney's third round. The other team was 1990-91 UNLV, a defending national champion that entered the NCAAs sparking debate not about whether they were the best team of that season, but whether they were the best team ever.

It did not concern pundits that coach Jerry Tarkanian and his Runnin' Rebels played in the mid-major Big West Conference; they hadn't lost since Feb. 26, 1990, and they had annihilated Duke, 103-73, in the biggest rout in NCAA title-game history. Four of UNLV's national-champion starters were still around: star power forward Larry Johnson (who would be the No. 1 pick in the 1991 NBA Draft), wing Stacey Augmon (the No. 9 pick in '91), point guard Greg Anthony (the No. 12 pick) and shooting guard Anderson Hunt. The Rebels' average victory margin was a remarkable plus-26.8, as they scored 97.7 points per game and allowed just 70.9. In February they went on the road to play the consensus No. 2 team in the nation, Arkansas, and won 112-105. They coasted into the Final Four in Indianapolis, where a repeat title seemed like a given, but Indy became the site of Duke's revenge: The 30-7, No. 2-seeded, Christian Laettner-led Blue Devils stunned the Rebels 79-77 and went on to win their first of back-to-back national titles. That Duke still had to beat Kansas in the '91 finale is largely forgotten. UNLV had been regarded as such a juggernaut that its downfall was the season's defining moment. -- Luke Winn

2005 Illinois
Record: 37-2, 15-1 (1st place) in Big Ten regular season, Big Ten tournament champions
NCAA tournament result: National championship game

This was the most captivating team of college basketball's past decade. From Dec. 1, 2004 -- the night they blew out Chris Paul and No. 1-ranked Wake Forest in Champaign, Ill. -- to March 6, 2005 -- the afternoon Illinois' perfect run ended at 29 games, in Columbus, Ohio -- the regular season was all about the Illini. They had a lovable jitterbug of a point guard in headbanded-and-braided junior Dee Brown; another point guard who was a physical, soon-to-be lottery pick in Deron Williams; and an efficient wing scorer in shooting guard Luther Head. That trio would go on to play in the NBA, and coach Bruce Weber -- in just his second season at Illinois after taking over for Bill Self -- put on a clinic in how to run a three-guard offense, all while getting them to play his trademark, suffocating man-to-man D.

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The loss to Ohio State on the final day of the regular season hardly derailed the Illini, as they recovered to win the Big Ten tournament and enter the NCAAs 32-1. In the Elite Eight, they pulled off one of the great tourney comebacks of all-time, erasing a 15-point deficit with four minutes to go against Arizona to book a trip to the Final Four. The team that stopped the Illini in the dance was the only team that was more talented: North Carolina, which beat them in the title game, 75-70, and then put four players into the first round of the following NBA draft. -- Luke Winn

No. 2 Indiana (1975) vs. No. 7 Georgetown (1985)

1975 Indiana
Record: 31-1, 18-0 (1st place) in Big Ten regular season (no Big Ten tournament)
NCAA tournament result: Elite Eight

Most college basketball fans know that the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers were the last team to complete an undefeated season by winning an NCAA championship. Yet, the Hoosiers were oh-so-close to completing back-to-back perfect seasons, were it not for a bad break – literally.

The Hoosiers steamrolled through the Big Ten, winning every game by an average of 22.8 points, and entered the NCAA tournament as the No. 1 team in America. Alas, they suffered an awful setback when starting forward Scott May, the Hoosiers’ second-leading scorer and rebounder and the Big Ten’s Most Valuable Player, fractured his arm in a late February win over Purdue. May had a foot-long pin surgically implanted in his arm, and while he only missed two games, he was severely limited by the thick cast and wrapping around his arm. Still buoyed by future NBA players like Quinn Buckner and Kent Benson, Indiana managed to win its first two games in the NCAA tournament, but it lost 92-90 to Kentucky in the Mideast Regional final. May only played seven minutes in what would turn out to be Indiana’s only loss during a two-year period. -- Seth Davis

1985 Georgetown
Record: 35-3, 14-2 (2nd place) in Big East regular season, Big East tournament champions
NCAA tournament result: National championship game

This was Team Maypole -- Patrick Ewing at center, with Reggie Williams, David Wingate, Bill Martin and Michael Jackson arrayed around him. Ewing had been the Most Outstanding Player of the previous year’s Final Four, and in his valedictory season he proved to be even more imposing. The latter four were almost interchangeable, and with everyone highly attuned to the wishes of coach John Thompson, the Hoya whole seemed to be more effective than the sum of its parts, even when a Perry McDonald or Horace Broadnax came off the bench to spell someone at guard or forward.

Mercurial forward Michael Graham had joined Ewing to lead the Hoyas to their NCAA title the season before, when Georgetown routed Kentucky and thumped Houston in Seattle. But in the intervening months Thompson kicked Graham off the team for academic lassitude, and the team actually seemed steadier in his absence. Following narrow, back-to-back losses to Big East rivals St. John’s and Syracuse at midseason, the Hoyas raced through the remainder of their schedule, leveling accounts with the Redmen and Orange at the Big East tournament.

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It was another rematch with a Big East rival, in the NCAA final at Kentucky’s Rupp Arena, that undid the Hoyas. They had defeated Villanova twice during the regular season, by seven at home and two in overtime on the road. But coach Rollie Massimino’s charges knew how to keep things close, Ewing et al. notwithstanding. On the night it mattered most the Wildcats shot 78.6 percent, missing only six times from the field all evening and just once in the second half, in a 66-64 victory. Georgetown wound up 35-3, with those three losses coming by a total of five points.

To the Hoyas, looking back, it’s of little solace, but a mark of how superlative a performance it took to subdue them on the sport’s biggest stage: If Villanova had shot merely 77 percent that night, Georgetown would have won. -- Alex Wolff

No. 3 North Carolina (1984) vs. No. 6 Houston (1983)

1984 North Carolina
Record: 28-3, 14-0 (1st place) in ACC regular season, lost in ACC tournament semifinals
NCAA tournament result: Sweet 16

These Tar Heels opened the season ranked No. 1. They wound up No. 1 in the final AP poll too. In between, they navigated the ACC regular season with a perfect record and lost just twice before the NCAAs, by one point on a neutral court to Arkansas and by two points to Duke at the ACC tournament. Carolina boasted five future first-round picks -- Michael Jordan, Sam Perkins, Kenny Smith, Brad Daugherty and Joe Wolf -- who together would log 65 seasons in the NBA. As those names attest, the ’84 Heels featured both power and athleticism, with such capable blenders as Matt Doherty, Steve Hale and Buzz Peterson to fill in the gaps.

But a team that coach Dean Smith would later confess he believed to be the best in the country was never quite the same after Kenny Smith, its floor leader, broke his wrist in late January. And in Atlanta, in the semifinal of the East Regional, North Carolina ran into an Indiana team that, after finishing third in the Big Ten, delivered the game of its season.

Freshman guard Steve Alford went off, scoring 27 points, collecting six rebounds and dictating the flow of a game in which Indiana only took 37 shots but made 24 of them. Center Uwe Blab played the Heels’ stout frontline to a draw over 36 productive minutes. And a genial Hooiser named Dan Dakich, who would go on to become a coach (at Bowling Green) and broadcaster (for ESPN), seized his moment. Though he would foul out, Dakich dogged Jordan throughout, holding him to 13 points on 6-for-14 shooting. And Jordan spent most of the game in foul trouble himself, logging only 26 minutes of the Hoosiers’ 72-68 victory. -- Alex Wolff

1983 Houston
Record: 31-3, 16-0 (1st place) in Southwest Conference regular season, SWC tournament champion
NCAA tournament result: National championship game

First of all, the Cougars had an all-time nickname: Phi Slama Jama. More importantly, that nickname was earned. The Cougars were trendsetters, playing explosive, frenetic and fun basketball and shaping the modern college game in many ways. Whereas legendary UCLA coach John Wooden had disliked dunking, Houston coach Guy Lewis insisted on it. And he had all the athletes he needed for his freewheeling brand of basketball.

The Cougars featured not one but two future NBA Hall of Famers in Hakeem “The Dream” Olajuwon and Clyde “The Glide” Drexler. Add in Michael “The Silent Assassin” Young and Larry “Mr. Mean” Michaeux, and you have one of the most talented -- and well-named -- rosters ever in college hoops. Entering the NCAA tournament as a No. 1 seed in the Midwest, the Cougars cruised to the national championship game, beating opponents by an average of 12 points. In the title game, the Cougars lost to No. 6 seed North Carolina State in one the most memorable buzzer beaters in history: a 30-foot air ball from Dereck Whittenburg was corralled by Lorenzo Charles and dunked as time expired. Olajuwon went on to be named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, the last man to date to earn that award in a losing effort. -- David Gardner

No. 4 Michigan (1993) vs. No. 5 Duke (1999)

1993 Michigan
Record: 31-5, 15-3 (2nd place) in Big Ten regular season (no Big Ten tournament)
NCAA tournament result: National championship game

Chris Webber. Jalen Rose. Juwan Howad. Jimmy King. Ray Jackson. After having lost badly to Duke in the national championship game as freshmen, the Fab Five returned as sophomores and went 31-5. The Wolverines started the season No. 1, finished it No. 3 and were never lower than No. 7 in the AP poll. Michigan set a Big Ten conference record for single-season blocked shots and led the conference in rebounding margin.

The Wolverines entered the NCAA tournament as the No. 1 seed in the West and after an overtime win against a loaded Kentucky team in the Final Four, they met North Carolina for the championship. Chris Webber vowed that Michigan would take home the title this time, and he was very nearly right. The Wolverines came from eight down in the second half to lead by four with under five minutes remaining, but the Tar Heels rallied with a 9-0 run to take a 72-67 lead. Michigan cut the deficit to three at 72-69 with 49 seconds remaining and took its last timeout. A UNC turnover and a putback by Webber got the Wolverines within 72-71. The Tar Heels' Pat Sullivan made one free throw but missed the second, and Webber grabbed the rebound with 20 seconds to play. He attempted to call a timeout but it went unnoticed by the officials. Then, as he started upcourt, he traveled, but again the refs didn't notice. Webber then dribbled past midcourt and into a trap in the corner in front of Michigan's bench. He called another timeout, and this time the refs saw him. The Wolverines were charged with a technical foul, and North Carolina sealed the title with four made free throws. Sometimes, one mistake is the difference between Best Team Ever and Best Team Never. -- David Gardner

1999 Duke
Record: 37-2, 16-0 (1st place) in ACC regular season, ACC tournament champions
NCAA tournament result: National championship game

How good were the 1999 Blue Devils? So good that when Connecticut beat them, 77-74, in the national title game, Huskies point guard Khalid El-Amin ran over to CBS’ Jim Nantz and said, “We shocked the world!” Never mind that UConn had been ranked No. 1 itself for almost two months or that it entered the tournament No. 3 in the nation. Duke was considered an unbeatable juggernaut, and with good reason. It averaged almost 92 points and beat opponents by an average of more than 24 per game.

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The Blue Devils boasted not just Wooden Award winner Elton Brand, who would be the top pick in that June’s NBA draft, but three other players who would be chosen among the first 14 selections: senior sharpshooter Trajan Langdon (No. 11), freshman wing Corey Maggette (No. 13) and sophomore point guard Will Avery (No. 14). Duke was so deep with talent that neither Chris Carrawell nor Shane Battier, who would follow Brand as ACC player of the year in 2000 and ’01, respectively, averaged even 10 points per game in ’99.

After losing by two points to Cincinnati in the Great Alaska Shootout in December, the Blue Devils reeled off 32 consecutive wins, including all 19 against ACC foes to win both the league’s regular season and tournament titles.

They advanced to the program’s first Final Four in five years by winning their four games in the East Regional by an average of 30 points. Duke then held off No. 2-ranked Michigan State in the national semifinal to set up a showdown with UConn in the final. The Blue Devils led by two at halftime but the Huskies refused to wilt, eventually pulling in front by five in the final minutes. Down one with under 10 seconds to go, Langdon – who had been a freshman on a Duke team that went 13-18 four years prior – was forced into a travel by UConn defender Ricky Moore. After two El-Amin free throws, Langdon had another chance but turned it over again at the buzzer during his rush up the court, leaving a Blue Devils squad that outscored the next-closest team in the country by more than 650 points four points shy of its goal. -- Ted Keith