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The top 10 games of the 2012 NCAA tournament

By Matt Norlander | College Basketball Writer
It really wasn't such a bad tournament. No buzzer-beaters, but still a good batch of close, dramatic games. (Getty Images)

Now that it's over, can't we take one more loving, long, gazing look back at the bracket? Of course. And guess what? The 67 games this year weren't tremendous, but they also weren't tremendously disappointing. Making a top 10 wasn't so simple, and you'll probably disagree with an exclusion or two, so that tells me March again was more than OK to all of us.

There are no honorable mentions here, because honorable mentions are weak sauce. I will, however, bring up that Jeff Goodman maintains Western Kentucky 59, Mississippi Valley State 58 should be on this list. It's not for two reasons: that game was not awesome, it was ugly. A quagmire. A volcanic burp of awful basketball that happened to end in what was actually the second-worst collapse in the building that night. (So many bad turnovers, MVSU.) The second reason: I hate the play-ins. Not the first round; the play-ins.

On to the list.

10. Kentucky 102, Indiana 90. How could a game that ended with a double-digit margin be one of the 10 best of the tournament? First, did you see this year's tournament? Second, the pace and quality of play of this game would rank in the top three if we made a list based purely off those two criterions. The scoring pace was sick; Kentucky put up more than 1.4 points per possession, while Indiana had a 1.25 PPP rate. Only one in 10 possessions ended in a turnover. Plus, UK-IU was about as good of a lead-up to a Sweet 16 game as we could've asked for. The rematch of one of Kentucky's two losses from this year, and so tangible means of revenge was placed right there for John Calipari's team. Indiana probably beats all but maybe UK and a healthy UNC if it played the way it did in this game against any other group in the country. Just the wrong opponent to get matched up with in the bracket. Hoosiers could/should/will be in Kentucky's position next year (i.e., a one seed).

9. Michigan State 65, Saint Louis 61. The Billikens like to ugly it up, but this wasn't really a hideous one. It was close, and it was a nine seed putting a one seed in doubt on a Sunday afternoon. Also, it was a standalone game in its TV slot, meaning everyone watching college basketball was only watching this game — so there's some enhancement there. Michigan State doesn't advance if it doesn't have Draymond Green, who got the last win of his college career thanks to 16 points, 13 rebounds and six assists in what I think was one of the five best performances of the NCAA tournament.

8. Kansas 63, Purdue 60. Funny how this bracket — and history — plays out, because Kansas should have never been in the title game. It never should have been on the brink of having Bill Self become the first KU coach with two NCAA titles. Purdue had this game and gave it away. One of the final games of the opening weekend was the final game of Robbie Hummel's career. His 26-point, nine-rebound performance was a fitting final graf to a thick and twisted on-the-court five-year traverse. His team had the lead the entire game until it was 57-56 with just over three to go. KU overcame a 10-point second-half deficit to survive the dreaded first-weekend dropout its endured many times before under Self.

Ohio, which had won big tournament games prior to 2012, won't have its best NCAA showing soon forgotten. (US Presswire)

7. North Carolina 73, Ohio 65 (OT). If Ohio wins, this is a top-three game, no question. Even without Kendall Marshall yes, it's incredible. It would have been the first time a 13 beat a one. But the game went to overtime, where UNC froze out the Bobcats. Prior to that, we had the most butt-clenching, would-be buzzer-beater of the tournament when D.J. Cooper's potential game-winning shot fell wrong. When people point to this year's tournament and say it wasn't good, I laugh. Yeah, UNC won this, but what a game it was. Tyler Zeller's 20 (points) and 22 (rebounds) was mightily impressive. And this ended a great run for a MAC program whose reputation nationally has been pretty terrific in the past five years. Can it continue without John Groce, though? The team's head coach is now the former team's head coach since taking the Illinois job.

6. Creighton 58, Alabama 57. None of the 8/9 games were stinkers, but this was the only thrilling one. Creighton came back from 11 points down in the second half, survived after Josh Jones missed two free throws with 8.7 ticks to go. Jones was the one who blocked Trevor Releford's 3-pointer. Alabama was the definition of Nondescript Power-Conference Team who slides into 8/9 game. Creighton was the Valley group with the All-American player (Doug McDermott) who deserved a chance against a top seed. So, good for the Bluejays. Most of you have already forgotten this game happened, but it was one of only a handful we had this March wherein the ending was truly in doubt in the final 10 seconds. Cherish it!

5. Ohio 65, Michigan 60. Two spots for Ohio, who shares that distinction with one other team on this list (Indiana). This particular tilt was completely overshadowed by No. 4, as both were happening in the same TV window. A shame, because it was a flurry. Fortunately, we've got this list to preserve the perspective on how nice a game this was. Two excellent guards in Cooper and the NBA-bound Trey Burke willing their teams to runs; there were 24 assists and 13 3s in this one. A thought on this that still lingers: Michigan had a great season — and then it just ended so abruptly. The small schools who get to the tournament have their moments, but if you're a big program, losing in the Round of 64 if you're anywhere from a four seed or lower can be such an afterthought. The Wolverines had a really great year. That appreciation goes to waste when the games end so quickly and other drama is taking place, which was the case when …

Lehigh and Norfolk State in one day was so awesome, it'll probably be decades before two 15s do it again. (US Presswire)

4. Lehigh 75, Duke 70. … Lehigh beat Duke. And you know what I find nuts about this? The impact of this 15-over-two didn't have a cataclysmic feel. Like, if you were in a 30-person pool, chances are two or three of those brackets had Lehigh winning. Yeah, whenever Duke loses it's a fun thing for a lot of people, but we've had so many years where Duke's failed its seeding now, that at this point, it's going to take an impressively dominant, one-seeded Duke team to lose prior to the Elite Eight for us to feel any shock anymore. A note on Lehigh: It already feels like it will be the “other” 15 seed in the future, when this becomes the most common trivia question from the 2012 NCAA tournament. How many times from now until the world burns into the sun will we see two 15s win not only in the same tournament, but on the same day? You probably have more toes than this scenario, repeated.

3. Indiana 63, VCU 61. It was the closest thing we had to a buzzer-beater. The game was tied, VCU had gotten out of its “havoc” defense system and played keep-away from Indiana. (Bad move.) After the elastically athletic Victor Oladipo's running layup attempt was blocked by Darius Theus, Sheehey was in the right spot, popped, and sank the game-winner with 11 seconds to go. By reaching its first Sweet 16 in 10 years, Indiana was all the way back on the national scene, and Shaka Smart, while continuing to elevate VCU's program, was three points short of really taking The Leap. Interesting in-game note: at one point, Tom Crean was downright scolding Smart to “coach your team! You coach your team!” while officials reviewed a possible elbow/flagrant situation. I was there in Portland to see this one, and it was extremely entertaining.

2. Norfolk State 86, Missouri 84. Kyle O'Quinn's Michal Strahan-like mug is the enduring image of the first weekend of the 2012 NCAA tournament. I think Calipari getting his first title with Alien Davis and that Kentucky stable of freshmen will be the thing we remember this tournament for overall, but just hearing “Norfolk State” already conjures up images and feelings we associate with this bracket, with this month. It will be like that for the next 20 years. Again, when people say this tournament wasn't high on drama, I can offer you up this team and this game. Plus: Frank Haith's reputation getting knocked down a peg or four after a surprisingly successful regular season.

I was in the VCU locker room during the team's off/media day, and I have to admit it was one of the coolest experiences I've ever had watching a tournament game. It wasn't just that I was with an underdog team rooting for a bigger underdog team, it's that a lot of VCU's guys grew up on the high school and AAU circuit playing with/against a lot of the NSU guys. Some Rams were calling out NSU guys by their nicknames and such. The locker room smelled terrible, by the way.

1. Syracuse 64, Wisconsin 63. Surprised? It has to be this one. The best Sweet 16 game, the best second-weekend game, the best game we had. Came down to the final possession, was highly competitive and Could've been either team that won. You think the Badgers are boring? How's 14 3-pointers sound to you? Then, to make 14 3s and lose? Ironically, it was Jordan Taylor missed 3-pointer on a bad/ugly play that ruined Wisconsin's chances at the upset. But the game only had 12 turnovers, 25 fouls, and the teams were 19-of-36 from deep. Norfolk State over Missouri was the bigger headline, but wire to wire, this was the better-played game with more on the line and better players on the floor. It won't be what we remember 2011-12 Syracuse by, but the Orange's final win was one of the most dramatic, uncertain ones during its most dramatic, uncertain season in program history.

 
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