5. Butler Duke – 2010
This may have the biggest what-if in college basketball history. But before that hypothetical situation was even close to rearing its head, the Butler Bulldogs had to get through a tough road as a mid-major to even get to the 2010 National Championship game. They had to get through Syracuse, who had 5 future NBA players and was the top seed in their region, Kansas State in the elite eight, then squeezed out a win in a close game against a Michigan team that had 3 future NBA players. What was even more impressive was the fact that Butler accomplished all of this as a 5th seed. They lacked the star power that many of the top programs had, or at least that’s what people thought going into the tournament. They were led by a still somewhat unknown Gordon Hayward and Shelvin Mack. While they had solid seasons, Hayward would end up being one of the best players to come out of this draft in the long run. Duke, unlike Butler, was in a very familiar place. As one of the most decorated and successful basketball programs in the country, the Blue Devils were led by the legendary coach Krzyzewski to another championship game. Duke cruised past the first 3 rounds, winning each game by at least 13. They then handled West Virginia in the Final Four, handing them a 19-point loss. With 7 future NBA players, the ACC representatives were stacked. They boasted a deadly front-court attack with Miles and Mason Plumlee. They also had great veteran guard and wing play with senior Jon Scheyer, and juniors Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith. They also had shooting help in Ryan Kelly and Andre Dawkins.
Butler, being the first team to play a championship game in its home city since UCLA in 1968, used the crowd to its advantage and kept up with the Duke. It was not the prettiest of games and there were foul troubles for Butler’s starters. But with bench players coming up big and well-timed time outs by coach Brad Stevens, Butler answered every Duke run and the first half ended with Duke up by just one. The two teams stayed within 5 points the rest of the way and saw the score at 60-59 with 3.6 seconds left. Duke center Brian Zoubek hit the first free-throw then intentionally missing the second one, knowing Butler did not have any timeouts. Hayward grabbed the rebound and heaved up a prayer from half-court and the ball bounced off of the backboard and rim, and the rest is history.
4. Duke vs. UCF 2019
Duke came into the season as one of the most hyped teas of all time. They brought in social media sensation Zion Williamson, top recruit R.J. Barret, Cam Reddish, another top 3 recruit, and Tre Jones, the number 13 recruit. With 4 freshmen coming in as possibly the best in their position for the class, the target was on Duke’s back all season. But things were not easy for the Blue Devils. After losing Grayson Allen, Marvin Bagley, Wendell Carter Jr., Trevon Duval, and Gary Trent Jr. to the NBA, they started the season going 10-0 with Barrett or Williamson leading them in scoring in all of them. But the losses would start to come as the season went on. Zion Williamson injured his knee when he slid through his shoe in his first and only game against UNC, and they suffered losses against some of the top programs in Gonzaga, Syracuse, and Virginia Tech. Still going into the tournament, the young team was still one of the favorites due to their elite athleticism and talent.
UCF came into the tournament as a 9th seed and beat VCU in their first-round matchup which set up this second-round game in which most people around the country had Duke winning. Not many casual fans knew of UCF or the solid season they had, but those who did certainly knew about Tacko Fall. The 7ft. 6 center would end up matching up with Zion Williamson for most of the night in what turned out to be a battle of two young men who had very little in common. Tacko was more of an offensive rebound and defensive threat, coming from very little hype and was in his senior year. Zion, as we mentioned earlier, had come from a lot of hype, thrived in the open court, and had yet to complete a full year of college basketball. Regardless, both teams went at it, and the score remained close for most of the game. UCF played through Aubrey Dawkins, who transferred from Michigan to play for his father, coach Johnny Dawkins, who played for and coached with Duke’s coach K. Dawkins ended the game with 32 points and were it for a lucky bounce or a few inches here and there, UCF would have completed the upset. In a true David. Vs. Goliath matchup, UCF battled in a memorable game that tested one of the most hyped and talented college basketball teams of all time.
3. Wichita State Kentucky 2014
This was a matchup between a 35-0 1st seed against an 8th seed, yet many thought this would be a close game and some even had the 8th winning. This was because the higher seed was a mid-major Wichita State team while the lower seed was a very talented Kentucky Wildcats team. Fans wanted to see if a mid-major could win and prove to be worthy of a high seed. For not only Wichita State but future mid-majors, this game could have implications going forward. A Wichita State team that showed it was not only equal but possibly better than Kentucky looked confident and were playing well. Led by eventual NBA prospects Cleanthony Early’s 31 points, and supported by Fred Van Vleet and Ron Baker, the Shockers were looking good down the stretch. But Kentucky had plans of its own while trying to right their sour season.
With James Young, the Harrison twins, Willie Cauley-Stein, Alex Poythress, Dakari Johnson, and Julius Randle, the Wildcats had made it here through a tough season and they were not about to go down without a fight. Aaron Harrison answered Cleanthony Early’s epic performance with yet another one of his signature clutch moments. Wichita State showed that they and other mid-majors are capable and belong, but the Wildcats prevailed in a great game that included many future NBA players.
2. Kentucky vs. Wisconsin 2015
Led by eventual NBA players Devin Booker, Aaron and Andrew Harrison, Karl-Anthony Towns, Trey Lyles, Dakari Johnson, Willie Cauley-Stein, Tyler Ulis, and Alex Poythress, the 38-0 Kentucky Wildcats looked to make history. After a quick and easy first three games in the tournament, they beat 8th seeded Notre Dame by 2 in the elite eight. That meant only two more wins until they finished with a perfect 41-0 record.
Wisconsin, although they lacked the hype that the flashy and always popular Kentucky team had, had their own NBA bound players in Nigel Hayes, Sam Dekker, and Frank Kaminsky. Being a number one seed themselves, they ran the table and although they ran into some tough matchups along the way, their depth and veteran play had them just 4 halves away from a championship of their own. Pundits and analysts believed that this was the first time during Kentucky’s season that the opponent truly was not scared and could match up with them. While Kentucky relied more on pure talent, Wisconsin was a battle-tested, patient, and disciplined team, that ran its offense and defense to perfection. In a close game, Wisconsin was able to pull away with their stifling defense and free throw shooting to shut down any hopes of a perfect season. Making this even more epic was the fact that Wisconsin had been eliminated from the tournament by Kentucky the previous year.
1. Villanova vs. UNC 2017
Possibly the best game of the decade regardless of sport. This slugfest included two of the most successful programs, two legendary coaches, and clutch moment after clutch moment down the stretch. The Tar Heels were led by Marcus Paige, Nate Britt, Theo Pinson, Joel Berry II, Kennedy Meeks, Isaiah Hicks, and Brice Johnson. This team was versatile and had depth. They had the experience but some youth as well. As well balanced a team Roy Williams has had in recent memory, the Tar Heels finished the regular season with a 33-7 record and won the ACC tournament. After winning every game in the tournament by double-digits, the Tar Heels seemed ready and destined to be back on top of the college basketball world.
Villanova had a lot of the same things its ACC counterpart had. They had a strong core of Josh Hart, Jalen Brunson, Kris Jenkins, Eric Paschall, Ryan Arcidiacono, and Daniel Ochefu. They had depth and could beat you inside and out. They finished the season with 35-5 and lost in the championship game of the Big East tournament. As dominating as UNC’s tournament run was, Villanova’s was more impressive. They had won their first 5 games of the tournament by an average of 24.2 points. This game ended up coming down to the final seconds. Marcus Paige ends up hitting a double-pump 3 from a few feet behind the line to tie the game. Without hesitation, Arcidiacono ran the ball up the court and then flipped a trailing Kris Jenkins who hit a 3 as the buzzer went off.