Pretty much everyone agrees the greatest game in NCAA Tournament historyhappened 25 years ago, when Duke beat Kentucky in an epic contestthat ended with Christian Laettner’s unforgettable buzzer-beating jumper.
After that, though?
So many great games. So many mesmerizing memories. So very hard to rank.
We’re going to try, though. Important note: We’re only looking at games in the expanded bracket era of the NCAA Tournament, not the entire history of the tournament. The NCAA Tournament jumped up to 64 teams starting in 1985, which means we’re not including Michael Jordan’s game-winning jumper against Georgetown in 1984 or N.C. State’s miracle win against Houston in 1983or when North Carolina beat Kansas in three overtimes in the 1957 title game.
Let’s start with a couple of honorable mentions:
Two games from this year’s tournament deserve mention; that opening-round battle between Michigan and Oklahoma State was, as SN college hoops guru Mike DeCourcy described it, “breathtaking.” And the Elite Eight contests between North Carolina and Kentucky gave us a week’s worth of magic moments in the final minute alone. Princeton nearly upsetting Georgetown as a 16 seed in 1989 lives in NCAA Tournament lore. Speaking of “what might have been” … if Gordon Hayward’s half-court heave goes in to end the 2010 title game against Duke, it’s probably top five on this list. And speaking of long-range shots, Trey Burke’s game-tying 3-pointer sent the 2013 Michigan-Kansas Sweet 16 game to overtime in an unforgettable contest.
See? So very hard to rank these games, but let's do it anyway.
11 greatest NCAA Tournament games since 1985
11. No. 2 UCLA 73, No. 3 Gonzaga 71
The stage: 2006 Sweet 16
Need to know: Gonzaga dominated the Bruins for most of this Sweet 16 matchup. The Bulldogs led 37-20 in the first half, 42-29 at halftime and still had a commanding 71-62 advantage when Gonzaga star Adam Morrison made a pair of free throws with 3:26 left in the game. But UCLA scored the game’s final 11 points, taking the lead for the first time with 10 seconds remaining on a bucket by Luc Richard Mbah a Moute. The lasting image of this game was Morrison — the floppy-haired, wispy-mustachioed scorer — collapsing in tears on the floor as UCLA celebrated.
10. No. 11 George Mason 86, No. 1 UConn 84 (OT)
The stage: 2006 Elite Eight
Need to know: This was supposed to be where the magical run ended. The 11th-seeded Patriots had knocked off Michigan State, North Carolina and Wichita State en route to the Elite Eight, but they were facing a Connecticut team that was a favorite to win the championship.
UConn had a nine-point lead at halftime, but George Mason fought back—in one stretch, the Patriots made six consecutive 3-point attempts—and had a four-point lead with less than 10 seconds left. The Huskies erased that deficit to send the game to overtime, where everyone expected them to run away with it. Unfazed, George Mason made 5-of-6 shots in the extra period and finished off the stunning upset. The Patriots were finally beaten by Florida in the Final Four.
9. No. 1 Illinois 90, No. 3 Arizona 89 (OT)
The stage: 2005 Elite Eight
Need to know: Illinois entered the NCAA Tournament with a 32-1 record and a No. 1 seed, but the Illini found themselves trailing third-seeded Arizona by 15 points with just 4:02 remaining. That’s when the best backcourt in the country took over the game — Dee Brown, Deron Williams and Luther Head combined to score 20 points down the stretch to send the game to overtime with an unforgettable comeback. Williams buried the 3-pointer that started the run and the 3-pointer that tied the game and then knocked down a pair of triples in the overtime session. The win sent the Illini to the Final Four, where they knocked off Louisville before falling to North Carolina in the championship game.
8. No. 1 Kansas 75, No. 1 Memphis 68 (OT)
The stage: 2008 National Championship
Need to know: These two No. 1 seeds had a combined 74-4 record entering the championship game in San Antonio. Kansas held a five-point lead at halftime, but with future No. 1 NBA Draft pick Derrick Rose, a freshman, leading the charge, Memphis took control in the second half. The Tigers built a nine-point lead as the clock slipped near two minutes, but a jumper by Darrell Arthur and a steal and 3-pointer by Sherron Collins sliced five points off the lead in about eight seconds.
Memphis went an agonizing 1-of-5 from the free-throw line down the stretch, and Mario Chalmers delivered one of the most clutch shots in the history of the NCAA Tournament — a 3-pointer with 2.1 seconds left — to send the game to overtime. The Jayhawks took a quick lead in the extra session and never looked back.
7. No. 1 Indiana 74, No. 2 Syracuse 73
The stage: 1987 National Championship
Need to know: The eternal memory of this great back-and-forth game in New Orleans is the floating jumper Indiana’s Keith Smart made with four seconds left on the clock. But that wasn’t his only contribution to the Hoosiers’ victory. With Syracuse’s defense smothering star guard Steve Alford down the stretch — Alford had 23 points and made 7-of-10 3-point attempts in the game, but didn’t score in the final four minutes — Smart stepped up and scored 12 of Indiana’s final 15 points. The oft-replayed jumper was just the final dagger.
Syracuse had one final chance with one second left, but Derrick Coleman’s long pass was picked off by the Hoosiers — Smart grabbed it, of course — and coach Bob Knight had his third (and final, it turned out) national championship.
6. No. 6 Kansas 83, No. 1 Oklahoma 79
The stage: 1988 National Championship
Need to know: With their 11 losses, the Jayhawks were one of the most unlikely championship game participants ever. They had faced the Big Eight rival Sooners twice during the regular season, with Oklahoma winning by eight points each time.In the first half of the title game in Kansas City, though, the Jayhawks went toe to toe with the high-octane Sooners — a team that averaged 102.9 points per game — and went into halftime tied at 50.
The Jayhawks slowed the tempo in the second half, but Oklahoma took a 65-60 lead with a little more than 12 minutes left on a jumper in the paint by Stacey King. Kansas rallied, though, and Danny Manning — who had 31 points, 18 rebounds and five steals in the game — hit four free throws in the final 15 seconds to help seal the upset. This squad will forever be known affectionately as Danny and the Miracles.
5. No. 8 Kentucky 78, No. 1 Wichita State 76
The stage: 2014 Round of 32
Need to know: Forget about the fact that this was a second-round game. This contest was Final Four quality, through and through. Wichita State entered the game undefeated, and a supremely talented-but-inconsistent Kentucky squad wound up running all the way to the national championship game. This was a game that will be forever remembered by everyone who happened to be in attendance that day in St. Louis (I should know; I was there).
Kentucky’s Harrison twins, Aaron and Andrew, were brilliant, combining for 39 points, and big man Julius Randle had a double-double (13 points and 10 rebounds). Wichita State’s Cleanthony Early nearly matched the Harrisons by himself, pouring in 31 points (on 12-of-17 shooting), including what felt like dozens of big buckets in the second half, and Ron Baker dropped in 20 for the Shockers, matching Early with a 4-for-6 showing behind the 3-point arc.
Kentucky shot 54 percent from the field for the game; Wichita State shot 55.1 percent. The lead changed hands the entire contest, with neither team ever leading by more than five points. It ended, rather stunningly, with a missed shot — Shockers point guard Fred VanVleet’s 3-point attempt hit off the rim, giving the Wildcats the hard-fought victory.
4. No. 2 Villanova 77, No. 1 North Carolina 74
The stage: 2016 National Championship
Need to know: The final moments of this game will always be amazing. After UNC senior Marcus Paige somehow knocked down his twisting, turning 3-pointer to tie the game with 4.7 seconds left on the clock, Villanova ran a beautiful play out of the timeout to free Kris Jenkins for a wide-open look to win the game. Jenkins, of course, calmly swished the shot — the buzzer went off while the ball was in the air — and the Wildcats claimed the title.
That’s not the only reason this game is so high on the list, though. No, this contest was a well-executed game played at an extremely high level by two veteran teams — the Tar Heels shot 64.7 percent (11-for-17) from beyond the 3-point arc in the game and the Wildcats shot 58.3 percent (28-for-48) overall from the field for the contest. The lead changed hands eight times in the first half alone, and Carolina went into the break with a five-point lead. Villanova came roaring back and pushed its advantage to 10 points with about six minutes left, but the Tar Heels responded by clawing back to tie the game on Paige’s miracle shot.
3. No. 2 Duke 79, No. 1 UNLV 77
The stage: 1991 Final Four
Need to know: One year earlier, in the 1990 national championship game, UNLV had absolutely pummeled Duke, winning by 30 points. Nobody expected the Blue Devils to lose by 30 again, but not many people were betting on them to win the rematch in Indianapolis, either. The high-flying Runnin’ Rebels, led by Larry Johnson and Stacey Augmon, were attempting to become the first team to win back-to-back championships since UCLA ended its run of seven straight in 1973 and the first team to finish undefeated since Indiana in 1976.
But coach Mike Krzyzewski’s squad kept UNLV from rattling off the game-altering runs that had turned the previous meeting into a blowout, and the game stayed tight throughout — there were 17 ties and 25 lead changes. Christian Laettner made two free throws with 12.7 seconds left to put Duke ahead by two points, and the upset was sealed when Anderson Hunt’s last-ditch 3-pointer was off the mark. Duke went on to win its first of consecutive national titles.
2. No. 8 Villanova 66, No. 1 Georgetown 64
The stage: 1985 National Championship
Need to know: The Hoyas were the defending national champions and the overwhelming favorites in this game, but history told the Wildcats they had a chance, even if nobody else thought they did. Coach Rollie Massimino’s team had held Big East rival Georgetown under 60 points twice during the regular season, and although both games had been losses for Villanova, they were close, which proved the slow-down approach could work. And it did on the big stage, when the Wildcats played what would become known as the Perfect Game.
In the championship game in Lexington, Ky., against the Hoyas, who had lost only twice during the regular season, the Wildcats made an incredible 22-of-28 shots in the game — including 9-of-10 in the second half — while controlling the tempo. They took the lead for good on a jumper by Harold Jensen with 2:37 left in the game, then made enough free throws down the stretch to pull off the unthinkable upset.
1. You already know