Love it or hate it, the best team doesn’t always win the championship in college basketball.
That’s the nature of the NCAA tournament beast. A great team can have an off night. An OK team can play out of its mind. In a single elimination bracket, crazy stuff happens.
On the flip side, more teams have a chance to win the title than perhaps in any other sport. That’s pretty cool.
Still, don’t tell that to these guys. Here are the best teams since 2000 not to win a national championship:
* 2016-17 Gonzaga
Gonzaga was considered an underdog to win the title in 2016-17 because … well, it’s Gonzaga. The Team That Never Made a Final Four.
But the 2017 tournament changed things. Gonzaga was stacked. The pieces fit, too. Here’s how loaded the Bulldogs were: Zach Collins, who was drafted in the NBA lottery this summer, finished seventh on the team in minutes. Seventh! He averaged 23 points and 14 rebounds per 40 minutes. Gonzaga had so much frontcourt talent that playing time was scarce.
Przemek Karnowski will go down as one of the greatest characters in the history of college hoops. And he was a darn good player. Nigel Williams-Goss was one of the top point guards in the country, posting 17 points and five dimes per game.
The 37-2 Bulldogs didn’t win the title. But they finally broke into the Final Four and finished as the No. 1 team in KenPom despite their season-ending loss to North Carolina in the title game. Gonzaga had the best defense in America and a Top 15 offense, too. This team was no fluke. It was one of the best we’ve seen in a while.
* 2014-15 Kentucky
Take this collection of talent against any in the history of college basketball — really, strip away the 2000 caveat on this list — and you’d like your chances.
The names on the 2014-15 Kentucky squad speak for themselves.
Karl-Anthony Towns. Willie Cauley-Stein. Devin Booker. Andrew Harrison. Aaron Harrison. Trey Lyles. Tyler Ulis. None of those guys averaged more than 26 minutes per game. Yet the Wildcats still went 38-1.
Ulis was the seventh man on that Kentucky squad. When he took the reins the next year as the starting point guard, he was the SEC Player of the Year. Towns and Booker are on the verge of becoming NBA All-Stars. UK finished with the No. 6 offense and the No. 1 defense in 2014-15. So, yeah, they were pretty loaded. Perhaps it was even unprecedented how loaded they were.
Still, for all of those positives, they still lost to the next team on this list.
* 2014-15 Wisconsin
That season, Kentucky had outrageous talent with some experience sprinkled in. Wisconsin was super talented and super experienced.
Frank Kaminsky won the Naismith as a senior, averaging 19 points and eight boards. Sam Dekker blossomed into one of the best, most versatile players in America. Nigel Hayes was the perfect third option. Bronson Koenig — who would become the Badgers’ star as an upperclassman — finished fourth in scoring.
But what really tells you how good this Wisconsin team was? Ethan Happ, who might be a preseason All-American this year, redshirted. The tales of Kaminsky-Happ practice battles are legendary. Based on what we’ve seen of both players, that doesn’t feel like lip service.
The Badgers would go on to lose to Duke in the championship game. But their greatness can’t be overstated.
* 2014-15 Arizona
The 2014-15 college basketball season was fun. Arizona, a team that went 34-4 and had Stanley Johnson, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, T.J. McConnell and Brandon Ashley in its starting lineup, was a 2-seed in the tournament and made it to the Elite Eight.
Arizona lost to Wisconsin in that regional final game. Coach Sean Miller has never been to a Final Four, and based on the competition that year, one could say he picked the wrong time to have his best roster. The Wildcats finished seventh in offense and third in defense that season. Outside of Kentucky, no other team finished in the Top 10 on both sides of the court.
Arizona will break through one day. In fact, 2017-18 might be the year. But that Elite Eight loss to Wisconsin in ’15 will always sting.
* 2010-11 Ohio State
Ohio State didn’t make it past the Sweet 16 but it had a ridiculous season.
Jared Sullinger was Ohio State’s star, averaging 17 points and 10 rebounds. But the Buckeyes had an abundance of superstar role players, too. They were a fantastic 3-point shooting team, hitting 42 percent of their 3s, best in the country. William Buford, Jon Diebler and David Lighty all shot better than 43 percent from distance. Coming off the bench, Deshaun Thomas averaged eight points in 14 minutes per game. Aaron Craft was one of college basketball’s all-time pests — and that’s meant in a complimentary way.
Thad Matta’s crew finished first in KenPom that year, first in offense and eighth in defense. When we think about the Matta era at Ohio State, we’ll primarily remember Greg Oden, Mike Conley and Evan Turner.
But these guys shouldn’t be overlooked.
* 2009-10 Kansas
Like 2010-11 Ohio State, this Kansas squad was incredibly deep. Future NBA players Thomas Robinson and Jeff Withey couldn’t even crack the rotation. The Jayhawks didn’t have an individual star, but they had six extremely good players. The names: the Morris twins, Sherron Collins, Xavier Henry, Cole Aldrich and Tyshawn Taylor. Collins led the team in scoring with 15.5 a night.
Yes, this was the team that lost to Northern Iowa in the second round of the tournament. Credit the Panthers. They deserved the win.
But KU was still excellent. The Jayhawks finished second in offense, eighth in defense and went 33-3 overall. They won the Big 12 regular season and tournament titles. Kansas rarely played close games; 10 of its 15 conference wins came by double digits. This team was truly greater than the sum of its parts.
And yet that didn’t translate to NCAA tournament success. March is a cruel beast.
* 2007-08 UCLA
What’s more remarkable; the fact that this team had Russell Westbrook and Kevin Love, or that it held its first NCAA tournament opponent to 29 points?
Both are noteworthy, even if this was before Russell Westbrook became NBA Russell Westbrook. He hadn’t quite discovered his superpowers yet. Love, though, was dominant from the jump, averaging 17 and 11 for the 35-4 Bruins, who the reached the Final Four.
UCLA had complimentary pieces, too. Luc Richard Mbah a Moute was as tenacious of a defender back then as he is in the NBA today. Darren Collison was so good as a college point guard that Westbrook mainly played off the ball. In terms of raw ability, this is as close to 2014-15 Kentucky as it gets.
* 2006-07 Ohio State
You knew we’d get to these guys. Greg Oden and Mike Conley were one of the most lethal college basketball duos in recent memory. Oden was more or less playing with one hand by the end of the season and the Buckeyes still made it to the title game, where they fell to Florida.
Ohio State had lofty expectations that year and it lived up to them. The Buckeyes went 35-4 and had the No. 4 offense in the country. It wasn’t just the Oden and Conley show, either. Ron Lewis was second in scoring. Daequan Cook was an overqualified fourth option. And when Mark Titus is your 10th man, you know you have something extraordinary.
The 2006-2007 season was Matta’s best opportunity to win a title. It didn’t happen. But this team won’t be forgotten.
* 2004-05 Illinois
The three-headed monster of Deron Williams, Dee Brown and Luther Head was capable of just about anything, including one of the best comebacks in NCAA tournament history.
Illinois was ahead of its time. Roger Powell was small for a power forward then; he’d be a perfect small-ball four now. Williams, Brown and Head each launched at least five 3s per game. The 37-2 Illini made almost 40 percent of their 3s and finished with the third-ranked offense. Their defense ranked eighth.
U of I would lose to North Carolina — led by Sean May, Rashad McCants and Raymond Felton — in the title game. But Bruce Weber had it rolling in Champaign in the mid 2000s.
* 2001-02 Duke
Duke finished first in offense and defense, the only team in the KenPom era (2002 and beyond) to do so and not win the championship. Those Blue Devils may not have been as deep as some of the others here, but they still might be the best team on this list..
Fresh off a 2001 national title, Duke returned without star Shane Battier but still with the Big Three of Jay Williams, Carlos Boozer and Mike Dunleavy. Chris Duhon flashed as a freshman. Dahntay Jones was the glue guy everyone needs. And Williams — shockingly, the member of the starting lineup who had the shortest NBA career, which was due to injury — won the Naismith. It was a stacked starting five.
But Duke just came out flat against Indiana in the Sweet 16, losing 74-73.
Duke lost four games that season — two by one point, one by three and one (a regular-season game at Maryland) by six. The 2002 national championship slipped away from the Blue Devils. Thankfully for them, there’s plenty of jewelry to be found in Durham.