NCAAB
May 26, 2020
BY Bryan Zarpentine

Ranking 20 Best College Basketball Teams That Never Won a National Championship

As much as we all love March Madness, we must all admit that the NCAA Tournament isn’t perfect. In a single-elimination tournament, it must be obvious to everyone that the best team isn’t always going to win. One bad game, or even a lackluster half, can end an otherwise brilliant season in disappointment. As a result, some of the best teams in college basketball history have failed to win a National Championship.

We always hope that the best team wins more times than not, but for all of the occasions when that hasn’t happened, here is a look at the best college basketball teams that never won a title.

20. Gonzaga Bulldogs, 2016-17

Of all of the great teams that Mark Few has had at Gonzaga, this was the one that legitimately could have won a national championship. The Bulldogs were loaded with upperclassmen and added freshmen such as Zach Collins, Killian Tillie and Rui Hachimura, giving them an impressive amount of depth.

They were undefeated until the regular-season finale and then cruised to the Final Four. However, Gonzaga fell short in the national championship game, losing 71-65 to North Carolina. The Bulldogs finished the season 37-2 while leaving Few in search of a title.

19. North Carolina Tar Heels, 1993-94

The Tar Heels won the national championship the previous year and then added Jerry Stackhouse and Rasheed Wallace as freshmen. In theory, they should have been even better with Eric Montross and Donald Williams still around to lead the team.

For what it’s worth, UNC had a few stumbles during the regular season, finishing second in the ACC. But North Carolina entered the NCAA Tournament atop the polls after winning the ACC Tournament. However, they took their foot off the gas during the first weekend of the tournament, losing to the 8-seeded Boston College Eagles.

18. Syracuse Orange, 2009-10

There wasn’t a ton of NBA talent on this team, but they had one player win Big East Sixth Man of the Year and another win National Sixth Man of the Year honors. In other words, the Orange had seven starters, which helped them slowly rise in the polls, ultimately reaching No. 1 in early March.

Other than two losses to Louisville, Syracuse was close to unbeatable during the regular season. Alas, starting center Arinze Onuaku got hurt in the Big East Tournament, ruining the team’s picture-perfect seven-man rotation. The Orange survived the first weekend of the Big Dance without him but got clipped by Butler in the Sweet 16, enabling the Bulldogs to reach the national championship game when it should have been Syracuse.

17. Houston Cougars, 1982-83

Jimmy Valvano’s North Carolina State team won the national championship this season in stunning fashion. But that amazing upset overshadows how good Houston was that season — and how they were the real favorites to win the title.

Keep in mind that Houston had both Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler on the same team. Prior to losing to NC State, the Cougars were 31-2 and clearly the best team in the country before Valvano’s Wolfpack pulled off the unbelievable upset.

16. Duke Blue Devils, 2001-02

The Blue Devils won the national championship the previous season and looked like a safe bet to repeat as champions. Jay Williams and Mike Dunleavy were selected Nos. 2 and 3, respectively in the 2002 NBA Draft, giving Duke more than enough talent to win the title. It also didn't hurt that the Blue Devils had Carlos Boozer patrolling the paint. 

Despite not winning the ACC regular-season title, the Blue Devils were No. 1 in the polls at season’s end. Duke should have cruised to the Final Four, but in their hubris, the Blue Devils got tripped up by Indiana in the Sweet 16 and walked away with a 31-4 record but no championship.

15. Illinois Fighting Illini, 2004-05

With a three-headed monster in the backcourt of Dee Brown, Luther Head and Deron Williams, Illinois was the talk of college basketball all season. If not for a last-second shot by Ohio State in the regular-season finale, the Illini would have entered the NCAA Tournament undefeated. Nevertheless, the Fighting Illini were considerable favorites to win the national championship and complete a near-perfect season.

Outside of an overtime win over Arizona in the Elite Eight, Illinois had a relatively easy tournament, playing all of their games close to home — including the Final Four in St. Louis. However, the Illinois trio wasn’t good enough to beat a North Carolina team that had four of the top 14 draft picks in the NBA Draft that year. The Illini fell to UNC 75-70 in a once-in-a-generation type season.

14. Arkansas Razorbacks, 1994-95

In 1995, the Razorbacks were a great example of a team that won the national championship the previous season and looked just as good the following campaign. Once again, Corliss Williamson and Scottie Thurman led the way on a team that was stacked with upperclassmen.

Arkansas had a few stumbles during the season, but most thought they’d turn it on in the NCAA Tournament. However, the Hogs had to survive a 1-point win over Texas Southern in the first round and needed overtime to get past Syracuse and Memphis in the next two rounds. Nevertheless, Nolan Richardson got the Razorbacks back to the national championship game, only to lose to the UCLA Bruins.

13. Memphis Tigers, 2007-08

The title game in 2008 was so epic that you almost wish both teams could have won. Behind Derrick Rose and Chris Douglas-Roberts, the Tigers were dominant all season, winning 26 in a row to start the year, losing only to No. 2 Tennessee before the start of March Madness.

Memphis had a close call in the Second Round but otherwise had no problem knocking off the likes of Michigan State, Texas and UCLA on their way to the title game. However, missed free throws and an incredible shot by Mario Chalmers pushed the game to overtime when Kansas got the better of a Memphis team that looked destined to win it all.

12. Ohio State Buckeyes, 2006-07

Only the Florida team that won back-to-back national championships could stop the Buckeyes this season. Ohio State brought in a trio of five-star freshmen in 2006, highlighted by Greg Oden, who we should remember as a dominant force in the paint during his lone college campaign.

The Buckeyes lost just four games during the season, all to teams ranked in the top 10 at the time. There were some close calls in the NCAA Tournament, but the Buckeyes handled every challenge until facing Florida, who also beat them earlier in the season. If the Gators didn’t bring back all of their key players from the title-winning team, the Buckeyes likely would have walked away with the 2007 National Championship.

11. North Carolina Tar Heels, 1997-98

Bill Guthridge had a roster loaded with talent in his first season at North Carolina. Antawn Jamison and Vince Carter — who would both become top-five draft picks —overwhelmed opponents with their next-level athleticism.

Despite some unease with Guthridge taking over for Dean Smith as head coach, the Tar Heels lost just three games during the regular season. UNC won the ACC Tournament, ironically beating the three teams that defeated them during the regular season, and reached the Final Four without much trouble. Alas, the Utah team led by Michael Doleac and Andre Miller bested them in the national semifinal, likely depriving the Tar Heels of another title.

10. Georgetown Hoyas, 1984-85

In 1985, the Hoyas were on the losing end of one of the biggest upsets in NCAA Tournament history. Of course, that means that the Hoyas were a great team that couldn’t seal the deal when the pressure was on, which is why they find themselves on this list.

Georgetown had won the national championship the previous year and returned senior Patrick Ewing, who took home a dozen postseason awards. His supporting cast wasn’t bad either, including five future NBA draft picks. By the time the Hoyas beat St. John’s in the Big East Tournament final, they were 30-2 and looked poised to win a second straight title. With Cinderella Villanova in the title game, it seemed like a lock until the Wildcats shocked Georgetown 66-64, stealing the championship away from the Hoyas.

9. UCLA Bruins, 1973-74

The Bruins had won eight consecutive national championships heading into the 1973-74 campaign, including back-to-back undefeated seasons the previous two years. UCLA returned to the top of the mountain the following year as well, which makes it surprising that John Wooden’s team fell short in 1974.

This UCLA squad had four seniors who were NBA draft picks a few months later, including top overall selection Bill Walton. Most assumed the Bruins would win another title, especially in Walton’s senior year. But UCLA faced a double-overtime battle with NC State in the national semifinals and couldn’t find a way to pull it out, snapping their epic championship streak.

8. Indiana Hoosiers, 1974-75

We all remember the Indiana team that went undefeated and won the national championship in 1976. But Bob Knight’s team the previous year was just as good. The Hoosiers had eight players who would eventually be selected in the NBA Draft, including top-ten picks Scott May, Kent Benson and Quinn Buckner.

More importantly, Indiana was a perfect 29-0 heading into the NCAA Tournament and looked poised to run the table in March as well. However, the injury bug struck at the wrong time when May broke his arm late in the year. He was a non-factor in the tournament, which played a role in the Hoosiers losing 92-90 to Kentucky in the Elite Eight, ending their season at 31-1.

7. Kansas Jayhawks, 1996-97

The 1997 team was probably the most talented one Roy Williams had during his time at Kansas. This star-studded roster featured Paul Pierce, Jacque Vaughn, Raef LaFrentz and Scott Pollard. The Jayhawks were the top team in the country almost all season, even after they lost their one and only game during the regular season.

Kansas was the heavy favorite heading into the Big Dance, only to run into a buzzsaw in Arizona that ended their season in the Sweet 16 at 34-2. For what it’s worth, Arizona went onto win the national championship that season, beating two other No. 1 seeds in the tourney.

6. Duke Blue Devils, 1998-99

The Blue Devils have won a handful of national championships, but this team might be better than a few of those Duke squads that listed a trophy. The likes of William Avery and Elton Brand led a team that also included Shane Battier, Trajan Langdon and Corey Maggette. Together they went undefeated in ACC for the first time in program history.

Duke entered the NCAA Tournament at 32-1 and had little trouble reaching the Final Four. But they met their match in the championship game against a UConn team featuring Richard Hamilton. The Blue Devils lost 77-74, coming up just short of a goal that lesser Duke teams were able to reach.

5. Duke Blue Devils, 2018-19

When you have two of the top three picks in the NBA Draft, you’re expected to win a national championship. Not only did Duke have the best player in the country, but they also had a generational talent in Zion Williamson, R.J. Barrett, Cam Reddish and Tre Jones aren’t bad players either, even though they were all freshmen.

In fairness, the Blue Devils were far from perfect during the regular season. They were also in a conference that had the top three teams in the polls heading into the NCAA Tournament. On the other hand, the Blue Devils swept eventual national champion Virginia and clearly had the most talented roster. But Coach K was bested by Tom Izzo and Michigan State in the Elite Eight and the Blue Devils didn’t even reach the Final Four. Ouch.

4. North Carolina Tar Heels, 1983-84

The Tar Heels had a plethora of great teams under Dean Smith, but how in the world did this team not run away with the national championship? Michael Jordan was a junior while Sam Perkins and Matt Doherty were seniors. All three were with North Carolina when they won it all two years before that. UNC also added freshman Kenny Smith to the mix.

However, after going undefeated in ACC play, the team went cold in March, losing to Duke in the ACC Tournament semifinal and then falling to Indiana 72-68 in the Sweet 16. They were No. 1 in the polls virtually all season but couldn’t keep it up when it mattered the most. Despite finishing 28-3, Smith's Tar Heels weren't able to win the title. 

3. Michigan Wolverines, 1992-93

When the Fab Five came back for their sophomore season after losing in the national championship game as freshmen, most pegged the Wolverines as the team to beat. They were older, wiser and loved playing together.

Despite suffering a few losses during the season, most believed the Wolverines would be ready to step up in the NCAA Tournament. They were in a tough battle with North Carolina in the title game when “it” happened. That "it" is, of course, when Chris Webber infamously called a time out despite the team not having any. That resulted in a technical foul that swung the game in North Carolina’s favor. Michigan finished the year 31-5, although later had to vacate all of those wins.

2. Kentucky Wildcats, 2014-15

John Calipari has had some great teams at Kentucky, but the 2014-2015 Wildcats were nearly perfect. The likes of Willie Cauley-Stein and Karl-Anthony Towns were close to unstoppable in the paint. Plus, after the Wildcats lost in the national championship game the previous year, twins Aaron and Andrew Harrison surprised most experts by coming back for their sophomore seasons, giving Kentucky a lethal backcourt and far more depth than most of Calipari’s teams in Lexington.

Kentucky cruised through the regular season, maintaining the top spot in the polls all season, and heading into the NCAA Tournament at a perfect 34-0. After surviving a scare against Notre Dame in the Elite Eight, Wisconsin toppled the Wildcats in the Final Four, ending Kentucky’s season at 38-1, denying them of a title most had assumed since the Harrison twins decided to return to school.

1. UNLV Rebels, 1990-91

Forget about the teams that didn’t win a national championship, many people consider the 1991 UNLV team one of the best college basketball teams of all time. Coming off a national championship the previous season, the Rebels began the season ranked No. 1 and proceeded to go undefeated throughout the regular season behind future NBA stars like Larry Johnson, Greg Anthony and Stacey Augmon.

UNLV was 34-0 and averaged nearly 98 points per game until meeting Duke in the Final Four, a rematch of the national championship game from the previous season. The Blue Devils nailed a late three-pointer from Anderson Hunt to beat the Rebels 79-77, ending UNLV’s hopes of winning back-to-back titles and depriving one of the elite teams in college basketball history of a championship most assumed they would win.

Photo: Getty Images