For the 10th time this year’s Final Four includes four schools that have won an NCAA National Championship. Between the four schools they have won seven Titles. Let’s look at each one:
1952 saw the first ever Final Four as we know it today. Whittling down a field of 16, the remaining four schools met at Edmundson Pavilion in Seattle, Washington to compete for the NCAA Title. After spending several weeks at #1, Kansas dropped three games. Phog Allen with his assistant Dick Harp then instituted a new defensive philosophy. Pressure the ball full court. After the change Kansas would not lose a game the rest of the season. The Kansas Jayhawks entered the tournament ranked 8th in the nation. They began the NCAA Tournament with a narrow 68-64 win over TCU, followed by an easy 74-55 win over 5th ranked Saint Louis. The win over Saint Louis propelled them to Seattle for a match-up with unheralded Santa Clara. The Jayhawks routed the Broncos, to set up a title showdown with St. John’s.
The 10th ranked Redmen had already dispatched #1 ranked Kentucky and #2 Illinois, but led by Clyde Lovellett’s 31 points, 17 rebounds, and their stifling defense Kansas won in another route, 80-63. Lovellett, the future Hall of Famer, finished the season leading the country in scoring with 28.6 PPG. He is the only man to lead the nation in scoring and lead his team to a National Championship in the same year.
Just a couple other notes on the 1952 Jayhawks; John Wooden insisted that Phog Allen and Dick Harp were the inspiration for his Full Court Press implemented in the 1960s. Also, one of their guards later became a coach who also used full court pressure for much of his career. The player was none other than Dean Smith.
1963 Freedom Hall, Louisville, Kentucky. The #1 ranked Cincinnati Bearcats were going for their unprecedented third straight NCAA Title. The only school standing in their way was a small Catholic school from Chicago. Trailing by 15 with 11:45 to go Loyola took advantage of Cincinnati’s coach Ed Jucker’s decisions to freeze the ball. With Jerry Harkness leading the way the Ramblers closed to 54-52 with 12 seconds to go. Then following a Cincinnati missed free throw Harkness raced down the court and hit an off-balanced ten-footer to send the game into overtime. In overtime the two teams exchanged baskets to remain even until 58-58, when Loyola tried to stall for the last shot, but Cincinnati’s 5’10” Larry Shingleton forced a jump ball with Loyola’s 5’10” John Egan with 1:21 left. The game came down to who could control the tip. Loyola did, holding the ball until the closing seconds when Vic Rouse followed a Les Hunter miss with a game winning tip in with one second remaining. Loyola, in their only appearance in the Final Four, had captured the National Championship. Beating the #2, then the #1 Team in the country on back to back nights!
Where did such an upstart team come from? It was an incredible journey. Going into the Tournament George Ireland’s Ramblers were a big unknown. Their record was 24-2, but they had only played two ranked opponents, beating Seattle, then losing to Wichita State in their final regular season game. Due to their weak schedule they were ranked 5th entering the NCAA Tournament. The fact that Ireland started four black players seemed to add to the mystery. In the second round they were set up to play 6th ranked Mississippi State in East Lansing, Michigan, when Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett banned the Bulldogs from crossing state lines to play the Ramblers. University President Dean Colvard defied the Governor, snuck his team out of Mississippi, allowing the game to happen.
One of the most famous photos in sports history is of Loyola Captain Jerry Harkness shaking hands with Mississippi State’s Captain Joe Dan Gold before the game. The Ramblers would beat the Bulldogs 61-51, then routed #8 ranked Illinois to advance to Louisville. In the National Semi-Final they would meet another segregated school in Duke, crushed them, 94-75, setting up their epic encounter with Cincinnati. Ireland, like Don Haskins a few years later, never claimed to be a crusader. He just played the young men who gave him the best chance to win basketball games.
Rollie Massamino coached the Villanova Wildcats to the most surprising National Championship of all in 1985. Entering the Tournament unranked with a 19-10 record they used their slowdown ball control offense to win the Southeast regional, defeating #2 Michigan in the second round, before eliminating #7 North Carolina in the Regional Final. In Rupp Arena in Lexington, Kentucky, the Wildcats were joined by #1 ranked Georgetown, #3 St. John’s, and #5 Memphis State.
In a grinding slow down affair the Wildcats ended Memphis’ season with a 52-45 victory. This set up an all Big East Final with Georgetown, who vanquished #3 ranked St. John’s with surprising ease in the other Semi-Final. The Hoyas were heavy favorites to win their second straight title, but Villanova controlled the game from the start, leading most of the first half, settling for a 29-28 halftime lead. Led by seniors Ed Pickney, Dwayne and Gary McClain, and aided by the fact that Georgetown’s two best players (Patrick Ewing, Reggie Williams) were on the bench, Villanova moved out to a five-point lead. Ewing returned (Williams was hurt) leading Georgetown on a 6-0 run that vaulted them in to the lead, 54-53. The Wildcats continued their slow down pace, regained the lead on a basket by Harold Jensen with 2:37 left, and then made just enough free throws to seal the deal, 66-64. As an #8 seed, the Villanova Wildcats became the lowest seed to ever win the National Championship.
1988 saw Kansas win their second title. Struggling in the regular season to a 21-11 record, the Jayhawks backed in to the NCAA Tournament as a 6th seed. Led by College Basketball Player of the Year Danny Manning the Jayhawks rolled through the decimated Midwest Regional, never facing better than a 4 seed. Joining a 2 seed (Duke) and two 1 seeds (Arizona, Oklahoma) in the Final Four, they found themselves as a decided underdog in their Semi-Final match-up with Duke.
Behind an impressive 25-point and 10 rebound performance by Manning they jumped off to an early lead and then ousted the Blue Devils, 66-59. This set up a rematch with Big 8 Champion Oklahoma in the finals. “This team believed it could keep winning, we weren’t afraid of anybody,” said Jayhawk Coach Larry Brown. Down 5 with twelve minutes to go Kansas held Oklahoma to two baskets in the next eleven minutes to lead by 5 with a minute left, and the Sooners couldn’t recover. Manning finished with 31 points and 18 rebounds in the 83-79 shocker.
What a ride for the Michigan Wolverines in the 1988-89 Season. From the most embarrassing of losses to the removal of their head coach to the pinnacle of winning the NCAA Tournament, it was a ride like no other. Opening the season looking like the best team in the country, Michigan began with 11 straight wins with an average margin of victory of over 33 a game. Included in the streak were wins over Vanderbilt, Memphis and Oklahoma in the Maui Classic. Then suddenly they took a most embarrassing loss. Division II Alaska-Anchorage beat them, 70-66, in Salt Lake City in late December (it happened, I was there). This dropped them from #2 in the country to #7. This led to a rather mundane 12-6 Big 10 campaign. Earning a disappointing 3 seed in the Southeast Regional and a #10 ranking in the country.
That’s when Head Coach Bill Frieder accepted a job from Arizona State and Michigan Athletic Director Bo Schembechler immediately dismissed him, stating “A Michigan man is going to coach a Michigan team.” Top assistant Steve Fisher replaced him. Despite the chaos Michigan, led by All-American Glen Rice and Point Guard Rumeal Robinson, captured the Regional propelling them to the Kingdome in Seattle, and the Final Four. In the Semi-Final Michigan faced Big 10 rival and #3 ranked Illinois. After trailing most of the game, the Wolverines survived thanks to a last second put back by Sean Higgins, 83-81. This set up a final with Seton Hall that wasn’t settled until Rumeal Robinson canned two free throws with 3 seconds remaining in overtime, 80-79. Glen Rice set the record for most points in a NCAA Tournament with 184, 31 in the Final.
In 2008 the Bill Self led Kansas Jayhawks won in very impressive fashion. For the first time in tournament history the #1 (North Carolina), #2 (UCLA), #3 (Memphis) and #4 (Kansas) teams in the country met in the Final Four. The Jayhawks blew out North Carolina in the National Semi-Finals, 84-66, improving their record to 36-3, setting up a showdown with the 38-1 Memphis Tigers, who were just as impressive in their 78-63 destruction of UCLA in the other Semi-Final, in the Finals.
For 38 minutes Memphis was the better team, leading by nine with 2:12 left in the second half. Then Kansas started a furious rally, aided immensely by the Tigers inability to make free throws. Going only 1 for five from the line in the final 1:15 of regulation, Memphis only led 63-60 on the Jayhawks final possession. Then Kansas Guard Mario Chambers launched a three from the top of the key and knew it was good, “I just waited for it to hit the net” Chalmers said. Memphis was done, with Kansas dominating the overtime in their 75-68 triumph. Kansas had their third championship.
Jay Wright’s 2016 Villanova Wildcats roared into the Final Four with an impressive run through the Midwest regional. After three routes they faced #1 ranked Kansas in the Regional Final and dispatched them, 64-59. This set up a Semi-Final rematch with Oklahoma, who had blitzed Villanova in December, 78-55. At NRG Arena in Houston, the Wildcats avenged their earlier drubbing with a resounding 95-51 shellacking of the Sooners. Next up the #3 ranked North Carolina Tar Heels.
This set up one of the greatest games in College Basketball history. North Carolina led by as many as seven in the first half, settling for a 39-34 lead at the break. Villanova took control early in the second half, taking the lead, then extending it to ten. Things began to change. By the time Villanova inbounded the ball with 4.7 seconds left the score was all even. Villanova’s Ryan Arcidiacona was frantic, North Carolina had just erased a ten-point deficit in the final 5:29 on a spectacular 3-pointer by Marcus Paige. Just past the top of the key Arcidiacona felt a double team, he looked back and heard Kris Jenkins calling for the ball. Arcidiacona delivered the pass and Jenkins launched an uncontested 25-footer. The buzzer sounded, then the shot went in…final score, Villanova 77, North Carolina 74.
Four Schools seven championships. Two under-achieving teams that got hot at the right time (Kansas 1988, Michigan 1989). Two completely unexpected runs (Loyola 1963, Villanova 1985), three great players completely taking over the games (Lovellett 1952, Manning 1988, Rice 1989). Five of the most memorable games in tournament history (1963, 1985, 1989, 2008, 2015). Four of the most famous shots in tournament history (Harkness, Rouse 1963, Chalmers 2008, Jenkins 2016). Three incredible runs through a gauntlet of top teams (Loyola 1963, Kansas 2008, Villanova 2016). There were no #1 teams rolling to the title. Only one was favored in their championship game (Michigan 1989). What should we expect this time? Who knows, but any school that wins will only enhance their already rich legacy.