College football, you can have your “meaningful regular season.” College basketball’s postseason will be better than yours whether you change it or not.
The perfection that is the NCAA Tournament gave me a plethora of delights to choose from for this top 10. My shortlist was actually quite long, running into the 30s. It was so long, in fact, that later today we’re adding a special post—Buzzer Beaters of the Decade—to commemorate the best at the buzzer in college basketball, even if the entire games weren’t good enough to crack this list.
Those that just missed the cut for this prized pantheon include the Aughts’ biggest upset by seed (Hampton over Iowa State in 2001), Kansas staving off Davidson in the 2008 Elite Eight, and West Virginia’s thrilling double-overtime upset of Wake Forest in 2005. But don’t worry Mountaineer fans, you’re still involved here. But, ugh, not in a good way.
10. 2001 Regular Season: Duke 98, Maryland 96 (OT)
I had to throw one homer pick in here, didn’t I? Duke’s remarkable last-minute comeback solidified Jason Williams’ legacy in the pantheon of college point guards and the Blue Devils’ stranglehold on the Terrapins—one they asserted again two months later when they came back from down 22 to oust Maryland in the Final Four.
In retrospect, it’s easy to point to the various ways Maryland left the door open for Duke: Steve Blake fouled out, the Terps missed some free throws, etc. But still, you don’t believe a team can come back from 10 points down in 60 seconds until you see it. And the crazy thing about the Blue Devils’ “Miracle Minute” is that it was more like a “Miracle 20 Seconds.” Williams’ layup-steal-three combination halved the lead in roughly 10 seconds, and he hit another three eight seconds later. Duke tied the game with 21 seconds still left on the clock.
In a decade full of amazing comebacks, this may have been basketball’s best.
9. 2005 Maui Invitational: Gonzaga 109, Michigan State 106 (3OT)
Sadly, I couldn’t find any video evidence of one of the best duels of the decade, between a just-then-emerging Adam Morrison and a never-quite-got-there Maurice Ager. It was a contest of remarkable quality considering how early in the season it was being played, with the teams combining to shoot 53-of-57 from the foul line and Morrison and Ager nailing big shot after big shot to prolong the game. Of course, in the end it came down to a mistake: a missed layup by freshman Goran Suton that could have given the Spartans the lead in the final seconds. But nobody really lost that night in Maui.
8. 2009 Regional Final: Villanova 78, Pittsburgh 76
Helped by the fact that I was actually sitting courtside for it, Pitt and Nova’s Elite Eight matchup was Big East basketball at its finest—an illustration of the nation’s best conference in 2009 (and one of the most dominant single seasons by a conference in the Aughts). The largest lead of the second half was five, and the final five minutes saw both teams match each other shot for shot. That all set the stage for the longest four-second inbounds pass in history and a drive and floater that put Scottie Reynolds’ name in Tournament lore alongside Danny Ainge and Tyus Edney.
7. 2005 National Championship: North Carolina 75, Illinois 70
This isn’t the highest-ranked championship game on the list, but it was almost certainly the highest-quality. It matched the consensus top two teams in the country—two of the best this decade—in a game that proved why. With Sean May on the block and an arsenal of marksmen on the perimeter, North Carolina looked ready to blow it open with a 15-point lead early in the second half. But Illinois, with the best backcourt of the Aughts, hit its next seven shots and committed one turnover in the entire second half; it just happened to come on the game’s most important possession. The Illini cut the lead to two, fell back by 10, and then finally tied the game with just over five minutes left. It didn’t have a spectacular ending, but it didn’t need to in order to make this list.
6. 2006 Regional Final: George Mason 86, Connecticut 84 (OT)
George Mason—already with upsets over Michigan State and North Carolina (only two of the most productive programs of the decade)—had hung with Connecticut for much of the first half, but the Huskies appeared set to take control of the game with a double-digit lead just before halftime. The Patriots—I think it was Tony Skinn, specifically—hit a three just before intermission, keeping the lead under 10 and helping spark an early second-half run that set the stage for a dramatic final 15 minutes.
And again, by managing to tie the game on a very underrated last-second drive by Denham Brown—imagine if that had won the game—UConn appeared on the verge of putting Mason away once and for all. But the Patriots never backed down in overtime, and Brown’s three to win it at the buzzer bounced harmlessly off the back iron.
What’s most remarkable to me about this game is that, throughout that season and that tournament, there was little doubt that Connecticut was the nation’s most talented team; it was always a question of whether they were interested enough to play that well. And after slipping through three tight Tourney games, the Huskies showed up in the Regional Finals. This wasn’t Mason exploiting a flat or unprepared UConn team; this was Mason being better.
5. 2003 Second Round: Arizona 96, Gonzaga 95 (2OT)
One of the other great things about the NCAA Tournament—you know, after Cinderellas and buzzer beaters and great matchups—is the great game that comes out of nowhere, the one you start watching with no expectations and end up transfixed by for two-plus hours. Second-round games for No. 1 seeds are always good candidates for a game out of nowhere: The top seed rarely loses, so expectations are low; if it is tested, however, the potential ramifications heighten the intensity of the game.
Such was the case when top-seeded and No. 2 ranked Arizona—whom everyone figured was headed for a No. 1 v. No. 2 showdown with Kentucky in the Final Four*—faced off with a, to that point, unremarkable Gonzaga team. The game’s largest lead was seven, and Tony Skinner’s rebound of a missed Blake Stepp three and putback—which used all the rim—to tie the game at the end of regulation is one of the great forgotten plays of the decade (how many other guards grab a rebound in traffic and score to tie a game at the buzzer?). “It was a game too good to end in 40 minutes,” Dick Enberg said. It was a game too good to end in 45, as Gonzaga’s perfectly executed inbounds play with 15 seconds left in overtime was answered by a Luke Walton floater.
*People were so angry that the nation’s two best teams would play in the semis instead of the title game that the rules were changed to “rank” the No. 1 seeds the next year.
In the second OT, Salim Stoudamire gave Arizona the lead, and Stepp’s attempted putback of a Skinner missed three banked too hard off the backboard as the buzzer sounded.
“What a brilliantly played game!” Enberg shouted at one point in overtime (in so much as Dick Enberg shouts). And all the more brilliant, because it came out of nowhere.
4. 2008 National Championship: Kansas 75, Memphis 68 (OT)
A lot of people would probably put this closer to No. 1. Here’s my complaint: It wasn’t a very well-played game. In a tournament that had been defined by chalk with all four top seeds making the Final Four, Kansas and Memphis had risen to the top. Not only had they each knocked off another No. 1 seed in the national semis, but they had each done so convincingly. It would be hard to discern how in watching most of this game, which saw both the Jayhawks and Tigers struggle for long stretches from the field, missing open jumpers and turning the ball over.
Even Kansas’ comeback was fueled largely by Memphis’ miscues at the free-throw line—a turn of events, of course, savored by the few that hate John Calipari as much as I do.
Having Said That, Mario Chalmers’ shot was awesome. It was undoubtedly the most significant shot of the Aughts in college basketball, and maybe the biggest shot in a Tourney final since Keith Smart in 1987.* And oh yeah, the degree of difficulty? Who else has swished a fallaway three in the final seconds to tie a national championship game?
*I don’t count those Rumeal Robinson free throws. We’re still bitter in Jersey.
As John S has pointed out time and time again, just because something is overrated doesn’t mean it isn’t great. And this game was great; there’s just three that were greater.
3. 2005 Regional Final: Louisville 93, West Virginia 85 (OT)
18-of-24. 18-of-24! And they lost.
It might be the most mesmerizing statistic of the decade. West Virginia shot 18-of-24 from three-point range in regulation in this game. And they lost. The Mountaineers twice made seven consecutive threes. And they lost.
The prelude to the game that tops this list, Louisville’s comeback over West Virginia has been relegated to footnote status. After all, it was a 4-seed against a 7-seed for the Final Four, and the Cardinals were promptly and unceremoniously dispatched in the National Semifinals a week later by Illinois. But you’d be hard-pressed to find two teams that played as over-their-heads as the Cardinals and Mountaineers did for 45 magical minutes in Albuquerque. West Virginia jumped out to a 20-point lead in the first half by going 10-for-14 from behind the arc. Louisville fought back in the second half, although it’s hard to credit the Cardinals’ switch to man-to-man defense: The Mountaineers were 8-for-10 from downtown over those 20 minutes. In the end, with star Francisco Garcia fouled out, it took career games from Larry O’Bannon and Taquan Dean to tie the game late and push ahead in overtime, when West Virginia missed all three of its three-pointers.
18-of-27? That’s crap.
2. 2009 Big East Tournament Semifinal: Syracuse 127, Connecticut 117 (6OT)
I was on Spring Break in Atlantic City, and at about 11:15 on a Friday night, decided to head back to the room to catch the last five minutes of the ‘Cuse and UConn game before going all-out in gambling away any money I had by going all-in at the poker tables.* I got to the room with just over five minutes to go, and sat watching, transfixed, for the next two hours, as the Orange and Huskies played to draw after draw after draw (after draw after draw after draw).
*Lie: I stuck to Blackjack only.
You know, for awhile, I had this further down on the list. It wasn’t an NCAA Tournament game, so could it really surpass that ’08 title game, or that mesmerizing Louisville-West Virginia one (18-of-24!!!)?
But then I saw that 6OT sitting next to it, and I remembered just how outrageous that is. This was a game unlike anything anyone had ever seen. It pitted two rivals in the World’s Most Famous Arena for four hours—the last two of which were satiated with critical possessions and heart-stopping moments (how close Devendorf’s shot was to counting!). This game—and the one we’ll get to shortly—are the only ones on this list that are truly unforgettable.
1. 2005 Regional Final: Illinois 90, Arizona 89 (OT)
What can you say except, “Wow.” First, let’s remember a few very important things: 1. This game was really good even before the final four minutes of regulation. 2. Illinois hadn’t been down double digits all season before Channing Frye’s three gave Arizona a 12-point lead with six minutes to go.
I remember watching this game and feeling that it all wasn’t right: Here was Illinois, the dominant team all season, the one that succeeded by playing together better than any other great college team I had ever seen, about to lose unceremoniously to Arizona. Sure, the Wildcats were good, but not memorably so. They wouldn’t be a Cinderella; they wouldn’t be a good story; in fact, they were a bad story. Illinois was as likable a favorite as I could remember and Arizona as unlikable an underdog.
We’ve already run through our fair share of comebacks. What stands out to me about Illinois’ 20-5 run over the final 4:05 of regulation was that, the first time I even considered that they could tie it was when Deron Williams was about to hoist the shot that actually did tie it.* It’s not like the Illini hit a three and got a few steals and was right back in it like Duke. It’s not like Arizona complied by missing a lot of free throws like Memphis. It was more protracted: Illinois was still down nine with 90 seconds to go, and the Wildcats had the ball.
*And I’m pretty sure Dick Enberg** was in the same boat. As Williams prepared to launch, Enberg’s “Williams…can tie it with a three…” sounded like he, too, was just realizing that the Illini had come all the way back.
**You know what I’ve realized over the course of these 10 games: I love Dick Enberg.
It’s really two separate comebacks: an unimpressive one to make it 80-72 with just over a minute to go, and then an unbelievable 8-0 run that took less than 20 seconds (three, steal, two, steal, three). When Williams hit another three at the start of overtime, it all but sealed it. My favorite moment of this game, in fact, was a few plays later, when Head stole an Arizona pass, came down on a fast break and stared at Hassan Adams while blowing by him for a layup. The look was priceless, the message clear: “Nice try, kid. But maybe next year.”
It was a truly transcendent game, the nightcap of the greatest sports day of the decade (March 26, 2005), and the unforgettable crown jewel of a two-day stretch that gave us three of the best regional finals ever.