For all the drama and unpredictability that makes the NCAA tournament the most consistently excellent sporting event in America, by the time the Final Four is set, Cinderella has usually long since been packed up in her pumpkin. Since the seeding system was introduced in 1979, only four teams seeded ninth or lower have ever reached the Final Four and none of them—Penn (No. 9 in 1979), LSU (No. 11 in 1986), George Mason (No. 11 in 2006) and VCU (No. 11 in 2011)—has made it to the championship game.
This year’s Final Four features nothing but heavyweights: undefeated Kentucky; Duke, appearing in its 16th Final Four; Wisconsin, making its second straight trip to the Final Four; and Michigan State, which is there for the seventh time in the past 17 years. All but the Spartans were No. 1 seeds in their respective regions, just the fifth time that’s ever happened. But where does this year’s group rank among the best Final Fours of all time?
I broke down each Final Four field since 1979 into several categories to get a sense of how good the teams were that season and how good they had been historically, including the combined seedings of that year’s participants and the combined Final Fours and national titles they had when that weekend began. But sheer numbers were not the only consideration.
It’s important to note too that having the best field does not always equate to having the best Final Four. Among the years not included are 1982, '83 and '89, each of which ended with a scintillating title game that made Michael Jordan, Lorenzo Charles and Rumeal Robinson household names. The former had little trouble building on his newfound stardom, but had a quartet of participants that were clearly not as excellent as those below when the Final Four began.
(NOTE: Each team's seed is listed in parentheses.)
Georgetown (1), St. John's (1), Memphis State (2), Villanova (8)
This field was surprisingly bereft of historic significance. While the Hoyas were in their third Final Four in four years thanks to the dominance of center Patrick Ewing, their only other Final Four trip had come in 1943 and they were the only team playing at Rupp Arena that weekend to have already won a title. And while St. John's was one of the winningest program's in college basketball history, it was only its second Final Four ever. Ditto for Memphis State. It was Villanova's third such trip, but as an eight-seed it appeared to be weighing down the impact of that year's field, even if it had beaten both the No. 1 and 2 seeds in the Southeast regional to make it to Lexington, Ky., that weekend.
So why is 1985 on this list and not more historic quartets like 1995 (38 Final Fours and 16 championships among UCLA, Arkansas, North Carolina and Oklahoma State)? Because 1985 represented something never seen before or since: three teams from the same conference. The fact that they came from a Big East that was only in its sixth year of existence made it all the more remarkable. (Forgotten fact: The three Big East teams each beat an ACC opponent in the Elite Eight, with Georgetown topping Georgia Tech in the East, St. John's eliminating N.C. State in the West and Villanova knocking out North Carolina in the Southeast.)
While that year's semifinal games have been rightly forgotten, the championship game stands as a reminder that it matters not what seed a team carries or how many trophies it already has on display on its campus. All that matters is that it has a chance to do something magical. The Wildcats' wondrous 66-64 upset of the Hoyas remains as shocking now as it did that night and should give every Final Four underdog hope that it's not what you did to get there, but rather what you do once you are there that truly resonates in history.
North Carolina (1), Connecticut (1), Michigan State (2), Villanova (3)
Another heavyweight field included four teams that had won a championship already and combined for 32 visits to college basketball’s promised land. Despite the presence of a Spartans team playing in its home state and a fellow No. 1 seed in UConn that had yet to lose a game in the Final Four in its history, this was North Carolina’s tournament. The Tar Heels were in the midst of one of the most dominant tourney runs in NCAA history, as they would become the first team to win all six of its games in the Big Dance by more than 10 points, culminating with an overpowering 89-72 triumph against Michigan State in the title game.
Kentucky (1), Duke (1), Wisconsin (1), Michigan State (7)
The combined seeding of 10 is misleading. Yes it is the lowest ever for a Final Four field that had at least three No. 1 seeds, but it’s more top heavy than some years that had better combined seeding, like 1981 (combined seeds: 7, only two No. 1s), '89 (combined seeds: 9, one No. 1), '94 (8, one No. 1), '98 (9, two No. 1s) and 2001 (7, two No. 1s).
These four teams have combined for 46 Final Fours and 15 national championships (both third all-time) and each has won at least one title. Add that to the storylines mentioned above and it is certainly deserving of its place on this list.
Kentucky (1), Kansas (2), Ohio State (2), Louisville (4)
While 2012 is remembered mostly for the dominance of Kentucky and its one-and-done superstar Anthony Davis, this was as loaded a Final Four field as any this century. The Wildcats, Jayhawks, Buckeyes and Cardinals combined for 49 Final Four visits, second most ever, and 13 national championships, the sixth-highest total in history and none had gone more than seven years since reaching the sport's pinnacle. And while Kentucky was the only No. 1 seed left, the other three had each eliminated a No. 1 en route to New Orleans.
Once there, both Louisville and Kansas gave John Calipari’s team all it could handle before dropping respective eight-point decisions to the Wildcats, who won their first title in 14 years.
Connecticut (1), Duke (1), Michigan State (1), Ohio State (4)
For the second time in three years, three No. 1 seeds made it to the Final Four, and the one outlier, Ohio State, was making its ninth such trip in school history.
Much like 2015, there was just one question hovering over that year’s Final Four: Could anyone beat Duke? The Blue Devils arrived in Tampa having won 32 straight games and having whooped opponents by an average of more than 25 points per game. Yet after surviving a scare from the Spartans in Tom Izzo’s first Final Four, Duke was stunned—if a 33-2 team that is also a No. 1 seed is capable of pulling a stunner—by Connecticut in the final.
Kentucky (1), North Carolina (1), Minnesota (1), Arizona (4)
This was just the second time three No. 1 seeds reached the Final Four, but the most surprising thing about it wasn’t the trio that survived that long, but rather the one that didn’t. No. 1 Kansas was 34-1 entering its Sweet 16 matchup with No. 4 Arizona, but proved mortal against a lightning-quick trio of Wildcats guards, including Mike Bibby, Miles Simon and Jason Terry, who led Arizona to its third Final Four in 10 years.
The Wildcats didn’t stop there, beating the Tar Heels in Dean Smith’s last game as a coach and then topping the defending national champions from Kentucky in overtime in the final.
UNLV (1), North Carolina (1), Duke (2), Kansas (3)
Those four schools had combined for 32 Final Four berths and were tied (with five other seasons, 1981, ’97, ’99, 2001 and ’09) for the lowest combined seeding among the Final Four teams.
The Jayhawks, led by former Dean Smith assistant Roy Williams, were just three years removed from a national championship. Kansas had beaten the top two seeds to win the Southeast regional, but it was mostly an afterthought on Easter weekend of 1991. Archrivals Duke and North Carolina were in the Final Four together for the first, and still only, time—the fourth straight appearance for the Blue Devils and the first time in nine years for the Tar Heels.
Yet even that paled in comparison to the biggest topic of the weekend: the rematch between Duke and undefeated UNLV, which had crushed the Blue Devils by 30 in the previous year’s national title game. In Saturday's undercard, student topped teacher when Williams's Jayhawks beat Smith's Tar Heels, with Carolina's icon being ejected in the waning moments. In the night's main event, Duke shocked the nation by dealing the Runnin' Rebels their first loss of the season. Two nights later, Duke won the first national title in school history and the first of Mike Krzyzewski's already brilliant career.
Florida (1), Ohio State (1), UCLA (2), Georgetown (2)
The combined seed total was the third-best in tournament history, the 36 combined Final Fours was sixth-best and each school had already won at least one title, but none of those topics was the dominant storyline when this field gathered in Atlanta. The question everybody was asking was, "Could the Gators succeed where previous back-to-back hopefuls Kentucky and Arkansas had failed in recent years and win a second consecutive national title?"
They did. Florida cruised past the Bruins in the semifinals and then was never seriously threatened by a Buckeyes team led by stars of the first one-and-done season in college basketball, center Greg Oden and point guard Mike Conley Jr.
North Carolina (1), Michigan (1), Kentucky (1), Kansas (2)
Kansas, the only non-No. 1 seed, took out top-seeded Indiana to win the Midwest regional and join a field brimming with power teams in New Orleans, each of which had been ranked No. 1 during the season. The Tar Heels, Wolverines, Wildcats and Jayhawks had also combined for 37 Final Four berths, the fifth-most ever, and it was also only the second time—the first having occurred the year before—in which each team remaining had already won a national title.
There were plenty of juicy storylines too: Kentucky was making its return to the Final Four after a nine-year absence that included NCAA probation and a heartbreaking loss to Duke on Christian Laettner’s unforgettable shot the previous season. Michigan’s Fab Five were back for a second straight year, and North Carolina’s Dean Smith was trying to avenge a ’91 Final Four loss to his pupil, Roy Williams of Kansas, and in pursuit of his second national title.
That’s exactly what happened. UNC eliminated the Jayhawks in the semis and then got some technical assistance from Chris Webber to beat the Wolverines and claim Smith’s second crown.
Kansas (1), Memphis (1), North Carolina (1), UCLA (1)
The only Final Four in which all four No. 1 seeds survived until the final weekend would be an easy enough choice for the top spot on our list, but the caliber of those teams throughout the season is only the start of why 2008 belongs in this spot. The Jayhawks, Tigers, Tar Heels and Bruins had also combined for a staggering 50 Final Four berths among them, the most of any year since ’79, as well as 17 national championships, also the most ever.
The only minor historic glitch is that not all four teams had won a title by the time they arrived in San Antonio. That looked ready to change on Monday night, when Derrick Rose and Memphis carried a seven-point lead into the final two minutes against Kansas. But Mario Chalmers’s miracle three-pointer forced overtime and the Jayhawks dominated the extra period to win their third national championship.