Congratulations, Virginia, you’ve joined the most exclusive of college basketball clubs. In fact, some of the greatest teams ever to play the sport would love to be in your shoes right now, starting with UNLV 1991, Duke 1999 and, yes, Kentucky 2015.
On the subject of greatest teams, I decided to go ahead and, once again, attempt the impossible. I ranked every team that’s ever won the national title, starting with Oregon in 1939 and running up through the Cavaliers in 2019.
Crazy? Of course. Even the teams “down” in the 50s on this list were, of course, preeminent and even dominant at times.
Naturally, the most dominant teams of all tend to come from the era when players were, for the most part, required to stay with their teams for a full four seasons. That led to some truly legendary synergies between experience and talent.
Still, you don’t have to read too far down this list to come across familiar names from the past few seasons. Say what you will about the one-and-done era, it has not lacked for great teams.
Here are my rankings of every NCAA tournament champion, from 1939 to 2019:
1. UCLA Bruins, 1972 (30-0)
The average — repeat, average — final score of a UCLA game in 1971-72 was 95-64. The Bruins finished the season 30-0, having played only two games that were decided by single digits (one being UCLA’s 81-76 victory over Florida State in the national championship game). Bill Walton made his collegiate debut and averaged a 21-point, 16-rebound double-double for the season, and Henry Bibby joined him on the consensus All-America first team. Curiously, in this pre-shot-clock era, only one opponent chose to take the air out of the ball. Notre Dame hosted the Bruins in January, and Digger Phelps’ team attempted only one shot in the first 10 minutes of the second half. The Irish lost 57-32.
3. UCLA Bruins, 1973 (30-0)
Walton cemented his status as one of the greatest college players of all time with 44 points on 21-of-22 shooting in the national championship game against Memphis State. UCLA’s average margin of victory that season was 22 points, and no NCAA tournament opponent was able to come within 10 points of John Wooden’s team.
5. UCLA Bruins, 1968 (29-1)
Arguably the greatest team in NCAA history that didn’t go undefeated, the Bruins lost the “Game of the Century” in January to Elvin Hayes and Houston 71-69 before a crowd of 52,000 at the Astrodome. That blemish was avenged by Lew Alcindor and his teammates when UCLA defeated the Cougars 101-69 in the Final Four. Dunking was banned across college basketball in 1967-68 as a direct response (more or less) to Alcindor’s dominance. The prohibition wasn’t lifted until 1976-77.
6. UCLA Bruins, 1967 (30-0)
Alcindor made his collegiate debut and averaged 29 points and 16 rebounds. The Bruins were seriously challenged only twice in the course of recording a perfect season, and both games were played on the road. In February, archrival USC held on to the ball and took the contest to overtime before losing 40-35. Two weeks later, Oregon employed the same strategy but fell short, 34-25.
11. UCLA Bruins, 1969 (29-1)
One day after being taken to double overtime by USC at the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena, the Bruins lost to the Trojans 46-44 at Pauley Pavilion. It proved to be UCLA’s only loss of the season, and Alcindor & Co. defeated Purdue, their coach’s alma mater, in the NCAA title game 92-72.
17. UCLA Bruins, 1971 (29-1)
No Alcindor, no Walton, no problem. UCLA lost at Notre Dame in January, but the ensuing victory against UC Santa Barbara was the first in what became an 88-game win streak spanning four seasons. (A streak that was also ended by Phelps’ Fighting Irish in South Bend, Indiana.) Both Sidney Wicks and Curtis Rowe were selected first-team All-Americans.
18. UCLA Bruins, 1964 (30-0)
As the first of what would become 10 national championship teams under Wooden, the 1963-64 Bruins defeated Duke 98-83 in the title game. Wooden always credited assistant coach Jerry Norman (albeit not vocally enough for Norman’s tastes) for conceiving the zone press that Gail Goodrich, Walt Hazzard, Keith Erickson and the rest of the team used to such devastating effect.
19. UCLA Bruins, 1970 (28-2)
Wicks, Bibby, Rowe and John Vallely all averaged 15 points or more in an era of fast-paced hoops that saw Wooden’s team face its toughest challenges in Pac-8 play. Conversely, once the Bruins reached the NCAA tournament, they won every game by 11 points or more, including an 80-69 victory in the final over Jacksonville. UCLA averaged 92 points.
23. UCLA Bruins, 1965 (28-2)
The defending national champions lost their season opener to Illinois, but went 28-1 the rest of the way. Erickson and Goodrich returned from the team that had won the title the previous season, and led a fast-paced Bruins attack that averaged 100 points per 40 minutes over the tournament’s first four games. In the final, Wooden’s men defeated Cazzie Russell and Michigan 91-80.
37. UCLA Bruins, 1975 (28-3)
This was Wooden’s final national championship team, and without a doubt his most “clutch” group. The Bruins reached the title game after a run that included a three-point win over Montana and a one-point overtime victory against Louisville. When Wooden walked off the floor of the San Diego Sports Arena on March 31, 1975, following UCLA’s 92-85 win over Kentucky, the sport said goodbye to a legend.
42. UCLA Bruins, 1995 (31-2)
Jim Harrick’s Bruins averaged better than 87 points per outing, and once Tyus Edney made his length-of-the-court dash to beat Missouri in the round of 32, nothing could stop Ed O’Bannon and UCLA. In the final, the Bruins dashed Arkansas’ hopes of winning back-to-back championships, beating the Razorbacks 89-78.
43. Cincinnati Bearcats, 1961 (27-3)
Hogue and Bob Wiesenhahn both averaged better than 16 points for a Bearcats team that dropped two games in Missouri Valley play, yet still marched to its third consecutive Final Four. In his first season as head coach in Cincinnati, Jucker won a national championship when his team defeated Ohio State in the title game 70-65.
44. Louisville Cardinals, 2013 (35-5)
Pitino’s Cardinals struggled through a February funk, losing three games in a row and subsequently dropping a five-overtime classic at Notre Dame. However that would be the last time Peyton Siva and Russ Smith would come out on the wrong end of a final score. Entering the tournament as the overall No. 1 seed, the Cardinals moved through the bracket with relative ease before surviving a scare from suddenly unstoppable Michigan guard Spike Albrecht in the national final. George Mason transfer Luke Hancock earned Final Four most outstanding player honors. The title was subsequently vacated in 2018 in the wake of the NCAA’s investigation into illicit recruiting and player benefits. Louisville is the first Division I team to vacate a title in the Final Four era.
45. North Carolina Tar Heels, 2017 (33-7)
What is it with the Tar Heels? In three different seasons under Williams — 2004-05, 2008-09 and 2016-17 — UNC (1) won the Maui Invitational, (2) captured the ACC regular-season title, (3) watched as Duke earned the league’s automatic bid with an ACC tournament championship, (4) entered the NCAA tournament as a No. 1 seed, and (5) won the national title. Eerie. ACC Player of the Year Justin Jackson set a school record for 3s, Kennedy Meeks dominated the offensive glass and all season long the team recorded far more attempts than its opponents. Add it all up, and it’s a personal hat trick for Williams.
46. Kentucky Wildcats, 1998 (35-4)
It took six years, but the Wildcats extracted payback for the Laettner miracle of 1992. In an Elite Eight game that Duke led comfortably in the second half, Wayne Turner proceeded to slice the Blue Devils’ defense to ribbons. Steve Wojciechowski and his teammates couldn’t stay in front of Turner, and Tubby Smith’s team went on to defeat Rick Majerus and Utah in the title game 78-69.
47. Villanova Wildcats, 2016 (35-5)
For a third consecutive season the Wildcats won the Big East outright with a 16-2 record, but after two consecutive exits in the round of 32, Jay Wright’s team faced its share of skeptics entering the 2016 bracket. Still, nothing defeats skepticism like historically good offense and six straight wins. Kris Jenkins hit a pure release-buzzer-swish game winner from 3 to give Nova the 77-74 victory over North Carolina.
48. Kentucky Wildcats, 1951 (32-2)
Other than a 76-74 squeaker against Illinois in the national semifinal, Adolph Rupp’s team was never seriously challenged on the road to a third national title for UK. On a Wildcats team that also included sophomore Cliff Hagan, MOP honors went to Bill Spivey.
49. Syracuse Orange, 2003 (30-5)
The road to a national title for Syracuse went through the heart of the Big 12, and though it was seeded on the No. 3 line Jim Boeheim’s team was up to the task. With wins over not only Manhattan and Auburn but also Oklahoma State, Oklahoma, Texas and Kansas, the Orange won it all behind the scoring of freshman Carmelo Anthony and a potentially game-saving blocked shot against the Jayhawks by Hakim Warrick.
50. Duke Blue Devils, 2010 (35-5)
Kyle Singler, Jon Scheyer and Nolan Smith didn’t get much respect in 2009-10, but the Blue Devils just kept winning. With Singler and Scheyer hitting 3s, and perpetually underrated big man Brian Zoubek gobbling up offensive boards, Coach K’s guys were able to overcome aberrantly poor 2-point shooting and win it all when a would-be buzzer-beater for the ages by Butler’s Gordon Hayward rimmed out.
51. Connecticut Huskies, 2004 (33-6)
No tournament opponent could stay with Ben Gordon and Emeka Okafor into the 40th minute but one, and that game came in the national semifinal. Facing a Duke team led by JJ Redick and Luol Deng, the Huskies overcame Okafor’s foul trouble and rallied from a late eight-point deficit to win 79-78.Calhoun’s men then defeated Georgia Tech 82-73 in the final to claim the program’s second national championship.
52. Michigan State Spartans, 1979 (26-6)
In a made-for-TV showdown that helped establish the NCAA tournament as a national rite of spring, Magic Johnson, Greg Kelser and Michigan State faced Larry Bird and undefeated Indiana State in the title game in Salt Lake City. Jud Heathcote’s Spartans won 75-64, and Johnson helped redefine the sport as a 6-foot-9 point guard who averaged more than 8 assists.
53. Michigan State Spartans, 2000 (32-7)
While Mateen Cleaves sat out the early part of the season because of an injury, the Spartans started 9-4. Included in that early stretch was a loss at Wright State. But once Cleaves returned to the lineup this was a different team. Though Tom Izzo’s group lost in overtime at Indiana in late February, MSU closed the season with 11 straight wins in which every opponent lost by nine points or more. Cleaves and fellow Flint products Morris Peterson and Charlie Bell (“the Flintstones”) led the Spartans past Udonis Haslem and Florida 89-76 to win it all.
54. Duke Blue Devils, 1991 (32-7)
Though it wasn’t the greatest team Coach K has ever had (particularly on defense), this was the one that won him his first national title. Laettner, Bobby Hurley, Bill McCaffery and Thomas Hill were blown out in the ACC tournament title game 96-74 by North Carolina, but the Blue Devils rallied and won a thrilling grudge match against heavily favored UNLV in the Final Four before securing the championship with a 72-65 victory over Kansas.
55. Florida Gators, 2006 (33-6)
Going into the 2006 tournament all eyes were on Duke, Connecticut and a bracket that had been drawn up accordingly. But after the Blue Devils lost to LSU in the Sweet 16 and the Huskies were edged by George Mason in one of the best regional finals ever played, the path was clear for Donovan and his young Gators. Horford, Noah and Brewer ended the Patriots’ Cinderella run, and then beat UCLA 73-57 for the first of what would be back-to-back titles for Donovan.
56. Michigan Wolverines, 1989 (30-7)
Bo Schembechler made headlines as an athletic director in 1989 when he told basketball coach Bill Frieder not to bother showing up for the NCAA tournament after he agreed to take the job at Arizona State. (“A Michigan man will coach Michigan.”) Interim and eventual head coach Steve Fisher then led Glen Rice, Rumeal Robinson and Sean Higgins to thrilling last-minute victories at the Final Four over Illinois and in overtime against Seton Hall, giving Michigan its only national title.
57. Indiana Hoosiers, 1981 (26-9)
Remembered as the team that Isiah Thomas took to a championship, the Hoosiers struggled early and greeted New Year’s Day with a 7-5 record. But Knight’s emphasis on defense began to pay dividends in conference play, and though IU was a No. 3 seed, Thomas, Ray Tolbert & Co. ended up marching through the bracket without once playing a contest decided by single digits.
58. Arizona Wildcats 1997 (25-9)
Still the only team to defeat three No. 1 seeds in a single NCAA tournament, Lute Olson’s Wildcats started their historic run by upsetting top overall seed Kansas 85-82 in the Sweet 16. After defeating fellow Cinderella Providence, Arizona prevailed against North Carolina and won a showdown against a Kentucky team shooting for a second consecutive national title. Instead, Michael Dickerson, Mike Bibby and Miles Simon beat the other Wildcats 84-79.
59. Connecticut Huskies, 2011 (32-9)
UConn’s 9-9 finish in the Big East was so uninspiring the Huskies were bracketed in the Big East tournament’s first-round daytime game against DePaul. The opening tip of that sparsely attended contest, however, marked the beginning of a stunning 11-0 run by Calhoun’s team. For much of that run, Kemba Walker and Jeremy Lamb were unstoppable on offense. Then, when the Huskies reached the Final Four, a switch was flipped and the UConn defense held Kentucky and Butler to only 96 combined points over the course of two games.
60. Connecticut Huskies, 2014 (32-8)
Shades of 2011: Shabazz Napier took the role of Walker and led the No. 7 seed Huskies on a run to the championship. Kevin Ollie’s team needed overtime to escape Saint Joseph’s in the round of 64, but from that point forward no opponent came closer to UConn than six points on the scoreboard. That included a win against overall No. 1 seed Florida in the national semifinal, as well as a title-game victory over Kentucky and game-winning-shot specialist Aaron Harrison.
61. Louisville Cardinals, 1986 (32-7)
Billy Thompson, Milt Wagner and freshman sensation Pervis Ellison headlined a high-scoring attack for Crum that seemed to grow stronger as the season progressed. In the championship game, the Cardinals eked out a 72-69 win over a Duke team led by Johnny Dawkins, Mark Alarie, David Henderson and Jay Bilas.
62. Marquette Golden Eagles, 1977 (25-7)
Marquette won the national championship as an independent team, unaffiliated with any conference. That unbounded spirit seemed to animate everything and everyone from the uniforms to the team’s unfailingly quotable coach, Al McGuire. The uniquely attired players were also good at basketball: Butch Lee averaged 20 points, and Bo Ellis and Jerome Whitehead controlled the boards.
63. Indiana Hoosiers, 1953 (23-3)
The Hoosiers’ three losses came by a combined total of five points, all in true road games (at Notre Dame, Kansas State and Minnesota). Once IU was safely ensconced on neutral floors, however, coach Branch McCracken’s team beat Kansas 69-68 to win the program its second national championship. In an era not thought of as high-scoring, Indiana averaged better than 80 points behind the consistent production of 6-foot-9 center Don Schlundt.
64. Kentucky Wildcats, 1949 (32-2)
The Wildcats rode both the scoring and the defense of center Alex Groza, who recorded almost twice as many points as second-leading scorer Ralph Beard. After watching UK ring up a total of 161 points in wins over Villanova and Illinois, Oklahoma State attempted to slow things down in the title game. The result was a 46-36 victory for Rupp’s team.
65. La Salle Explorers, 1954 (26-4)
Tom Gola dominated college basketball in the mid-1950s as a 6-foot-7 athlete who could both score and rebound. His Explorers weren’t statistically dominant on either end of the court, but no one found a way to beat coach Kenneth Loeffler’s La Salle team when it mattered most. The Explorers would play in a second consecutive national title game the following season only to lose to Bill Russell and San Francisco.
66. Kansas Jayhawks, 1952 (28-3)
After a close four-point win over TCU in their first NCAA tournament game, the Jayhawks were never seriously threatened on their way to the program’s first national championship. At 6-foot-9, Clyde Lovellette averaged 28 points a game and shot 74 percent at the line for coach Phog Allen. In KU’s 80-63 win over St. John’s in the final, Lovellette recorded a 33-point, 17-rebound double-double.
67. Kentucky Wildcats, 1958 (23-6)
Led by Vernon Hatton and Johnny Cox and dubbed the “Fiddlin’ Five” for reasons that apparently satisfied Rupp (“We’ve got fiddlers, that’s all. … We don’t have any violinists.”), UK beat Elgin Baylor and Seattle 84-72 to bring a fourth championship back to Lexington.
68. Kansas Jayhawks, 1988 (27-11)
Larry Brown’s team entered the tournament as a No. 6 seed after a third-place finish in the Big Eight. Yet even during an up-and-down regular-season Danny Manning averaged 24 points, and once the Jayhawks survived a close game against Murray State in the second round it was clear sailing all the way to the finals. That’s where Stacey King, Mookie Blaylock and Oklahoma were waiting, but KU emerged victorious thanks to a 31-point, 18-rebound double-double from Manning.
69. NC State Wolfpack, 1983 (26-10)
Everyone remembers the final seconds of the final game, but what Jim Valvano did just to get his team that far was incredible enough. NC State probably wouldn’t have received a bid if it hadn’t won the ACC tournament, and in the NCAA tournament Valvano’s men advanced by margins of 2,1, 19, 1 and 7 points, respectively. Facing overwhelming favorite Houston and its Phi Slama Jama lineup of Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler and Michael Young, Valvano slowed the game down all the way to the 40th minute. That’s when NC State’s Dereck Whittenburg airballed a 30-footer that Lorenzo Charles was able to catch and dunk. Never give up.
70. Villanova Wildcats, 1985 (25-10)
Rollie Massimino’s veteran core of Ed Pinckney, Dwayne McClain and Harold Pressley was the afterthought at a Final Four that featured fellow Big East members Georgetown and St. John’s. But the Wildcats extended their thrilling run of close-game mastery and defeated Ewing and the Hoyas 66-64. In winning six tournament games, Villanova held opponents to an average of 50 points.
71. Oklahoma State Cowboys (Oklahoma A&M Aggies), 1946 (31-2)
The team then known as Oklahoma A&M featured Bob Kurland, reputed to be the first true 7-footer in college basketball history. With Kurland on the floor and Hank Iba calling the plays, the Aggies went undefeated in Missouri Valley play, breezed to the title game and won a tense 43-40 contest over North Carolina. The semifinals and finals in New York City that year marked the first time that four teams met at a neutral site to determine a national champion.
72. Kentucky Wildcats, 1948 (36-3)
As he would be again in 1949, Groza was UK’s leading scorer in the paint. But in winning the first of what would be back-to-back titles he had help on offense from guard Ralph Beard. The Wildcats won by comfortable margins against Columbia, Holy Cross and Baylor to claim the program’s first national championship.
73. Wyoming Cowboys, 1943 (31-2)
After beating Georgetown 46-34 to win the NCAA title, Ken Sailors, Milo Komenich and the Cowboys faced NIT champions St. John’s in a benefit game with the proceeds going to support the Red Cross. Though Wyoming was effectively the visiting team playing at Madison Square Garden, coach Everett Shelton’s team won the mythical national championship with a 52-47 victory.
74. Holy Cross Crusaders, 1947 (27-3)
George Kaftan was named the tournament MOP, but any team with Bob Cousy in the backcourt confronted opponents with a taller task than stopping only one player. Coach Alvin “Doggie” Julian’s team won its championship by defeating Navy, CCNY and Oklahoma.
75. Indiana Hoosiers, 1940 (20-3)
In later years and indeed until the 1970s, a team would have to win its conference to play in the NCAA tournament. But in 1940 these procedures were still being worked out, and the Hoosiers received a bid after finishing second in the Big Ten. McCracken’s team made the most of the opportunity and won the title behind Marv Huffman’s MOP heroics.
76. Wisconsin Badgers, 1941 (20-3)
Gene Englund was the consensus first-team All-American, but most outstanding player honors went to John Kotz as coach Bud Foster’s Badgers defeated Washington State 39-34 to capture the NCAA tournament’s third championship.
77. Oklahoma State Cowboys (Oklahoma A&M Aggies), 1945 (27-4)
Iba’s team won the first of what would be two consecutive championships when Kurland scored 22 points in the Aggies’ 49-45 victory over NYU. Cecil Hankins had 15 points for A&M in the championship game.
78. Stanford Cardinal, 1942 (28-4)
Howie Dallmar won MOP honors for coach Everett Dean’s team, as the Cardinal defeated Dartmouth 53-38 to win the title.
79. Oregon Ducks, 1939 (29-5)
The “Tall Firs” bounced back from a 19-point loss at Oregon State to end the season with eight straight wins. Howard Hobson’s Ducks beat Texas, Oklahoma and Ohio State to win the first NCAA tournament, as John Dick scored 15 points against a Buckeyes defense focused on Slim Wintermute and Lauren “Laddie” Gale.
80. CCNY Beavers, 1950 (24-5)
The only team to win NCAA and NIT titles in the same season, CCNY beat Bradley 71-68 for its NCAA championship. Irwin Dambrot won most outstanding player honors, and coach Nat Holman would make an appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” but the following season the Beavers were embroiled in a point-shaving investigation. Ultimately the scandal enveloped not only New York-area programs like NYU, Manhattan and LIU, but also Kentucky, Bradley and Toledo.
81. Utah Utes, 1944 (21-4)
Coach Vadal Peterson’s team featured Arnie Ferrin, and the Utes received an NCAA bid only after an auto accident injured enough members of the Arkansas team to force the Razorbacks to decline their invitation.
Author: John Gasaway