7 Best College Basketball Teams That Didn’t Win A Title

    A look at the seven best college basketball teams that didn't win a title. These squads had a championship makeup, but fell short when it mattered.

    April 5, 2016

    A look at the seven best college basketball teams that didn’t win a title. These squads had a championship makeup, but fell short when it mattered.


    The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat – as the late Jim McKay often reminded us, these are the reasons we watch sports. Underdogs get hot and stun the world; favorites don’t always win. Nowhere is the uncertainty of sport more prominently on display than in the NCAA Tournament.

    This year’s college basketball season was, by all accounts, one of parity. The No. 1 ranking was more curse than blessing, more revolving door than iron throne. Heading into March Madness, Kansas was the favorite to win it all, but their loss to Villanova wasn’t that shocking, especially not after the Wildcats topped North Carolina to win their second national championship.

    Talk of Kansas and Carolina sparked a debate here around the office. The kind of lazily passionate, dark-humored kind that center on teams coming up short. Namely: which teams in the long history of college basketball were the best to never win a title? Voices were raised, insults were hurled and an one or two people may-or-may-not have put in their walking papers on account of it. Perks (?) of working in an aggressive bullpen.

    Anywho, after going ’round and ’round and ’round … a consensus was reached regarding the seven best basketball teams that didn’t win a title. Apologies to the 1993-94 Tar Heels, 96-97 Kentucky Wildcats, 80-81 Virginia Cavaliers, 82-83 Houston Cougars, 73-74 UCLA Bruins, and a host of other great teams, but here are the seven best teams to fall a bit short of cutting down the nets.

    *Teams are presented chronologically

    1956-57 Kansas Jayhawks

    The 1957 NCAA National Championship Game is probably the greatest college basketball game nobody talks about. Two burgeoning blue bloods, North Carolina and Kansas, went toe-to-toe in a triple overtime contest that was won by the Tar Heels, 54-53.

    Sophomore center Wilt Chamberlain was the star of a Jayhawks’ roster that ranked No. 1 nationally for the majority of the season. Including the national championship, Kansas lost only three games by a combined five points. Given how much of a man among boys Chamberlain was, it’s incredible that Kansas dropped even a game.

    Kansas fans can sit back and wonder “what if” Phog Allen hadn’t been forced out due to old age, and coached the Chamberlain-led team instead of his replacement Dick Harp.

    1983-84 North Carolina Tar Heels

    Dean Smith boasted no shortage of talented rosters during his three-plus decades as head coach at North Carolina. Heck, if they had blogs back in the 1960s and ’70s, Smith would’ve topped the lists of best coach to have not won a national championship. He would ultimately win two titles (1982 and 93, both in thrilling fashion) though not with, arguably, his most talented team.

    Marinate on this roster: Michael Jordan, Brad Daugherty, Sam Perkins, Kenny Smith, Joe Wolf, Dave Popson, Matt Doherty and Buzz Peterson. That’s six future NBA players (and eight Larry O’Brien Trophies), four top-five NBA Draft picks, two future college head coaches, one No. 1 overall selection in the NBA Draft and the greatest player of all time. Oh, and Eddie Fogler and Roy Williams were on Smith’s bench. Had Kenny Smith not broken his wrist midway through the year, it’s likely that this team would’ve run the table.

    1984-85 Georgetown Hoyas

    The stretch of success that John Thompson ran off in the mid-1980s is absolutely incredible to think about. It almost has a 1990s Atlanta Braves feel of the dominant club that had trouble winning it all. Georgetown was justthisclose to winning three titles in four years. If not for a cold-blooded shot by Michael Jordan (and an errant Fred Brown pass) in 1982 and a lights-out performance by Villanova in 1985, and Patrick Ewing would’ve gone down as the most successful center in college basketball this side of Lew Alcindor and Bill Walton.

    That 1985 team is the most astonishing what if. The Hoyas began the year at No. 1 and stayed atop the polls until Week 10. Their only two regular-season losses came in back-to-back games at the hands of No. 2 St. Johns and No. 11 Syracuse by a combined score of three points (including the title game Georgetown’s three losses were by a grand total of five points).

    Villanova’s upset in the championship game is one of the biggest in sports history, and it took a Herculean effort. Villanova – whom Georgetown had defeated twice that year – shot a scorching 90% in the second half to down a Hoyas team that boasted six future NBA Draft picks.

    1990-91 UNLV Runnin’ Rebels

    Call Jerry Tarkanian’s 1991 UNLV team the greatest never to win a national championship and you’ll get little pushback. Calling the Rebs dominant is an understatement, considering the defending national champions eviscerated any team in their path. They finished the regular season undefeated, scored over 100 points 14 times on the year (over 110 11 times) and in one game even put up 131 points (laying waste to Nevada, 131-81).

    And yet even with all that dominance, the Rebs never even made it to the title game. They were upended by the Duke Blue Devils in the semifinals, 79-77. The game was one that launched a dynasty, as the Devils would go on to win the national championship – the first of a young Mike Krzyzewki’s career. UNLV’s brash lineup consisted of five NBA Draft picks, four of whom that were selected in the first round, including No. 1 overall pick Larry Johnson.

    1996-97 Kansas Jayhawks

    Roy Williams won over 80% of his games during his 15 years as head coach of the Kansas Jayhawks. Still-chapped Jayhawks fans will be quick to remind that Roy Williams never won a championship while in Lawrence. Moreover, his best Kansas team never even reached the Final Four.

    The 1996-97 Jayhawks won 22 consecutive games before losing. That defeat – their lone regular-season loss – was by two points, 96-94, to rival Missouri in double overtime. Heading into their Sweet 16 matchup against Arizona, Kansas hadn’t played a game closer than 14 points in the month of March. The Jayhawks would fall to the eventual champion Wildcats by three, 85-82.

    Kansas, whose roster featured the likes of Paul Pierce, Raef LaFrentz, Jacque Vaughn and Scot Pollard, would finish the year with a 34-2 record, having lost their only two games by a combined five points.

    1998-99 Duke Blue Devils

    Mike Krzyzewski’s 1998-99 team was absolutely stacked. Boasting the likes of Elton Brand, Trajon Langdon, William Avery, Corey Maggette, Shane Battier, Nate James and Chris Carrawell, the Blue Devils were a force of nature both on the interior and at the wings.

    Duke lost only one game in the regular season – a startling two-point defeat to the Kenyon Martin-led Cincinnati Bearcats in late November. From there they went on a 32-game winning streak, running the gamut in ACC play and streaking to the national title game. They would succumb to a UConn team led by the dynamic backcourt of supremely confident point guard Khalid El-Amin and gunner Richard Hamilton. Duke finished the season at 37-2 (a 94.9 winning percentage) having lost its only two games by a combined five points.

    In the first true defection of Krzyzewski’s tenure, Duke saw underclassmen Avery, Brand and Maggette all leave early for the NBA. Along with Langdon, the players were all selected within the top 14 picks. Krzyzewski missed out on a title with the 1999 team, one that certainly appeared a lock to win one. However, he’d later claim one with a team in 2009-10 that, while not a complete surprise, was certainly no sure thing.

    2014-15 Kentucky Wildcats

    The last team to run the table undefeated was the 1975-76 Indiana Hoosiers – led by Scott May, Quinn Buckner and Bobby Wilkerson, and coached by the legendary Bob Knight. There have been programs since 1976 to make it through regular season play undefeated, though outside of Indiana State in 1979, the aforementioned 1991 UNLV Runnin’ Rebels and the 2014-15 Kentucky Wildcats none were really considered a threat at claiming a title.

    In this age of parity, Kentucky’s 2015 squad seemed the best, and possibly the last, team to ever challenge Indiana’s ’76 club. There were brief questions surrounding John Calipari’s bluechip plug-and-play formula and team chemistry after Kentucky lost an August exhibition game to Puerto Rico, 63-62. The team would not lose again until March.

    Kentucky buried the SEC, humbled rivals North Carolina and Louisville, and darn-near drove the entire UCLA fan base to hard drugs in an 83-44 curb stomping. With the likes of Aaron and Andrew Harrison, Willie Cauley-Stein, Karl-Anthony Towns, Devin Booker, Dakari Johnson and Tyler Ullis, the ‘Cats were a juggernaut.

    And yet, like several other teams on this list, Kentucky didn’t even reach the National Championship Game. A veteran Wisconsin club upended Kentucky, 71-64 in the semis, sending, arguably, Calipari’s most talented team (a bar-room debate in its own right) packing. Kentucky’s 38-1 record and failure to play for a title highlighted just what a cruel mistress March Madness can truly be.

    MORE: 5 Best Buzzer-Beaters, Finishes In NCAA Title Game History

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