I've been posting this list after each NCAA Tournament over the past seven years. This was the toughest one to whittle down I've ever done, and there have been some close calls over the years.
Looking back on the past three weeks, it does feel like that was one of the best tournaments we've had in two decades. Probably not definitively the best -- and they tend to blend together as the years go on -- but it's pretty impossible to argue outside of the top five, minimally. We tied a record for the most overtime games in a tournament (seven) and had more than 20 games that were in doubt in the final two minutes. You can't ask for better than that.
I had to pare this to 10 games, somehow. There are plenty of worthy candidates that didn't make this list, like Dayton-Syracuse, SLU-N.C. State (ugh, N.C. State, how), Iowa State-UNC, NDSU-Oklahoma and Kentucky-Louisville.
That said, here's my crack at reeling off 10 games -- the top 15 percent -- of this year's tourney.
A game ending at the horn has to count for something, I say. Though I think Cameron Ridley's putback on an awful shot by Jonathan Holmes will wind up being one of the most forgettable winners at the buzzer in tournament history. The fact Texas went on to get smoked againt Michigan doesn't help matters, either. But! The game was still close and decided in the closing seconds of that first Thursday of the tournament.
9. Stephen F. Austin 77, VCU 75 (OT): Leading by 10 points with 3:16 remaining against a No. 12 seed that was the popular upset pick, VCU couldn't hold on. It gave away the game on one of the final plays in regulation. Stevie Austin trailed by four points with less than five seconds to go. What's the one thing you can't do in that situation if you're VCU? Foul. Foul on a 3-pointer, even more specifically. And that's what happened. Desmond Haymond drained a 3 in front of SFA's bench and was (barely) touched by Rams freshman JaQuan Lewis. The four-point play was complete, sending the game to OT, where the Lumberjacks went on to extender their winning streak to 29 games. What many have forgotten: VCU went to the line with a four-point lead and 10.5 seconds remaining, but Jordan Burgess missed both free throws.
8. Michigan State 61, Virginia 59: I was there in person to watch this, a terrific game that was dominated in a beautiful way by defense. The Spartans and Cavaliers traded blows like boxers, and it was among the most aggressive off-the-ball games we've seen all tournament. Easy to forget about this one, but it absolutely deserves a spot in the top 10. I don't think we had a Sweet 16 game that was any better. Branden Dawson went for 24 and 10 and helped Michigan State reach its eighth Elite Eight under Tom Izzo in 15 years.
7. Dayton 60, Ohio State 59: The very first game was an amazing experience for one father who drove alone to watch the game in memory of his son. Vee Sanford hit a layup with 3.8 seconds to go to give the Flyers the lead. Aaron Craft couldn't make the shot at the buzzer, so Craft's career ended with the image above. The game was helped in part by the fact it was called by Verne Lundquist and Bill Raftery, two men who have a knack for knowing the big moment -- and knowing how to increase its level of fun. The plot line of having two intra-Ohio teams was also interesting here, and knowing this win set up Dayton's Elite Eight run also added emphasis in hindsight.
6. North Carolina 79, Providence 77: The best game you've already forgotten about. This one was a thriller, led by Bryce Cotton finishing his college career with a personal-best 36 points in the loss. He's only the second player in tourney history to have 35 points, five rebounds and five assists in a game -- and lose! Providence was coming off a Big East tournament title, while UNC was a No. 6 seed that had flashes of brilliance all game. J.P. Tokoto, you're up.
So many ties and lead changes, and really, it was the best game in the Round of 64 that we saw. Amazing stat: Roy Williams is now 24-0 in the first round/Round of 64.
We came pretty close to having UNC and Duke lose their first tournament games, which almost never happens to begin with, and would have been the first time since 1979 both lost in the same year.
5. Michigan 73, Tennessee 71. When a game can go from a snore to a roar in the NCAAs, it's hard to ignore. Tennessee climbed back from a 15-point deficit and may have lost this game on the most controversial call of the tournament. Michigan was helped by some crazy shooting, and Tennessee's ability to get down low of course increased the Vols' chances late. It felt like the Wolverines were ready to gag away what would've been one of the worst chokes in tournament history. Tennessee, an 11 seed, finished the season ranked seventh in KenPom, three spots ahead of Michigan.
4. Kentucky 75, Michigan 72: And now we enter the UK version of the program. Truth be told, I saw very little of this one live. I was writing a game story on UConn-Michigan State at Madison Square Garden. When Aaron Harrison hit the 3 to send Kentucky to the Final Four, I had climbed into an MSG suite and was watching alone in the arena on one of the TVs. (I was able to watch the whole game on CBS Sports Net the next day.)
Some game! Michigan proved itself worthy of a No. 2 and saw a terrific season end at the hands of a late-game killer in Harrison. Somewhat forgotten from this game: Julius Randle's 16 points and 11 rebounds. The sequence Michigan had to tie the game was outrageous. Incredible passing around the country in a flurry of action. The play-by-play read like this:
From there, Harrison did the rest. Michigan couldn't get a shot off in time to tie the game.
3. Kentucky 74, Wisconsin 73: This is just freaky.
Aaron Harrison is a bad man - pic.twitter.com/DLDwFFMZHC— Kyle Porter (@KylePorterCBS) April 6, 2014
Every year, I basically go into the Final Four hoping for one thing: Give us one really good game of the three. That's all. Expecting anything more than that is setting yourself up for disappointment. Many college basketball games aren't very close or exceedingly entertaining as is. Toss in the stage and pressure and anxiety of a Final Four, and the odds aren't great you'll get something spectacular. But Kentucky and Wisconsin gave us that, and it was the best game in Arlington over the weekend. Bucky was superb in the first half. The way it was finding its offense was so impressive. Kentucky made a late run behind Julius Randle to cut the lead.
Then James Young, who had a game-high 17 points, helped key a second-half run. Wisconsin hit eight 3s; Harrison's winner was just UK's second long ball of the game. Neither team played badly. Traevon Jackson had an awkward attempt at the winner, but it didn't fall. (If it had, maybe it's No. 1 on the list.)
2. Wisconsin 64, Arizona 63 (OT): In most years, this would've been No. 1. No team led by more than three points in the final 18 minutes. Frank Kaminsky went for 28 and 11 against Arizona's front line. Aaron Gordon did this (in a previous game, but it was so good I forgot it came against SDSU and what the heck I'm leaving it here anyway).
The Nick Johnson charge call was highly questionable, but ended up not mattering because Wisconsin turned the ball over (which took way too long to decide on a monitor review) on the inbounds play. Wisconsin essentially won the game on a tip shot from Kaminsky with 73 seconds remaining that gave UW a three-point lead. Then came a bunny from Jordin Mayes with a minute to go for Zona. Johnson couldn't get a shot off in time for Arizona on the final possession in OT.
Amazing thing about Arizona: it's lost its last four Elite Eight games in the past decade-plus, and those losses have come by an average of less than two points and required multiple overtimes.
Bo Ryan got to the Final Four by winning on what would have been his father's 90th birthday.
1. Kentucky 78, Wichita State 76: The only thing this game was missing was a shot that fell as time expired. The Shockers proved they earned a No. 1 seed by playing the best game of the tournament. Kentucky, which had to win four games by five points or less, never played better at any point this season than in this game.
An undefeated team, a group chasing 40-0, was beaten by a squad that hoped to go 40-0 back in October. There was some moaning over pairing these two teams in this spot, but if we're going to get this game at the Round of 32 or never at all, I'll take it when we can get it.
You know who was really good in this game? Andrew Harrison, not Aaron. Andrew had 20 points. Cleanthony Early (season-high 31 points) and Ron Baker hit huge shot after huge shot. The game was tense from tip to OT, and that's why it's No. 1. No game was nearly as thrilling or gripping as this one, and remember, there was a lot of hype coming in as well. It exceeded it. Ten years from now, I think we'll remember UConn winning it all, the Kentucky freshmen salvaging a season, and Wichita State's perfect year coming to an end in an all-time classic. This game stands out above all others.
Each team brought out the best in the other, which is always the sign of an NCAA Tournament epic.