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Best college basketball teams not to win a title: The Championship


Both the 1983 Houston Cougars and the 2005 Illinois Fighting Illini lost in the national championship game. Both now have a chance at redemption of sorts, having reached the finals of our Best Team Not To Win A Title tournament.

In one semifinal, the star studded Cougars of Phi Slamma Jamma, fronted by Hakeem (then Akeem) Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler, matched up with Patrick Ewing-led 1985 Georgetown and destroyed the Hoyas, 68 percent to 32 percent. It doesn’t make up for the actual 1984 title game in which Georgetown defeated Houston, but hopefully Guy Lewis is somewhere chewing on a towel with joy.

In the other Final Four showdown, the Illini continued their upset-laden run through the bracket by finishing the Fab Five of 1993 Michigan by the same 68 percent to 32 percent margin. 

Illinois lost that championship game by five points to North Carolina. Houston lost the ’83 final to North Carolina State by two points. Is another nail-biter in store in the finals of our bracket? Vote all weekend long for which team you think should win. On Monday, we’ll reveal the Best Team Not To Win A Title.

No. 6 Houston (1983) vs. No. 8 Illinois (2005)

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

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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

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.

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