With the 2016-17 college basketball season in the rearview mirror, letâs check the frame and rank how the season came to a close. The NCAA Tournament overall? I would give it a B-plus. A random Final Four grouping, some big surprises and about 20 good-to-great games -- which Iâve whittled down to the best 10. Getting this list to 10 wasnât overly difficult, but the games in the ninth and 10th spots were debated with three other games that just missed out (Southern California-Providence being the final cut).
Of the 67 games, these were the 10 best.
10. Oregon 69, Michigan 68 (Sweet 16)
The Michigan story had the potential to be the biggest plot of this yearâs tournament. In hindsight, it falls behind UNCâs title redemption, Gonzaga making a title game and South Carolina making the Final Four. The Wolverinesâ run from bubble team to Big Ten tournament champion to Sweet 16 appearance, in the wake of a scare when their plane skidded off the runway as they were departing for the Big Ten tournament, was a fascinating arc.
And it ended against the Final Four-bound Oregon Ducks. Derrick Walton Jr.âs shot at the horn just missed. Oregonâs Jordan Bell, who was one of the five best players in the NCAA Tournament, had 16 points and 13 rebounds in this one. Oregon scored the gameâs final four points thanks to Bell grabbing a crucial offensive rebound off a free throw miss by Dylan Ennis. Ironically, Bell was twice unable to stop the same thing in the national semifinals, which cost the Ducks a shot at a last-second win vs. North Carolina.
9. Xavier 73, Arizona 71 (Sweet 16)
Xavier got to its first Elite Eight in nine years by beating the coach that took that school to the Elite Eight in 2008. Sean Miller admitted he was out-coached by Chris Mack, the man who took over for Miller when he left for Arizona. This rates as both a top-10 game and a top-five surprise result for this tournament.
Xavier, which had its third upset in as many games, hit back at Arizona with a 9-0 run in the final stretch. Remember how Allonzo Trier went on that one-man run? He put up 15 consecutive points for Arizona and gave the Wildcats an eight-point lead with four minutes to go. Then they didnât score a point in the final 2:50. Inevitable 2017 lottery pick Lauri Markkanen, infamously, didnât attempt a shot in the final 11 minutes. Trevon Bluiett, a top-10 player in this yearâs tournament, had 25 points, and this game gave us peak NCAA Tournament Bill Murray.
8. Purdue 80, Iowa State 76 (second round)
I might be putting this one too low. Iâm not sure we saw a game with a more entertaining flare in the final five minutes. Purdue got a double-double from Caleb Swanigan (20 points, 12 rebounds, plus seven assists) and held off a bevy of Iowa State bursts. At one point Purdue had a 19-point lead. By the three-minute mark, Iowa State had rallied. Then the teams traded shots, highlighted by Swanigan and Deonte Burton punctuating their teamsâ possessions.
Remember the Burton block? Most impressive athletic play of the tournament.
Burton had 25 points in the final game of his college career. This was also the last college game for Monte Morris. He had 18 points and nine dimes. The game was so good because the teams were reliable from the field. They combined to shoot 49 percent.
7. Oregon 75, Rhode Island 72 (second round)
Oregon very nearly didnât get out of the first weekend. Providence had the biggest blown lead of the tournament, but Rhode Island had what felt like the biggest gag job. With about four minutes left, I got the sense Oregon winning was inevitable. That happened with Tyler Dorseyâs pair of huge 3s, including the winner, in the closing two minutes. He had 27 points.
Rhode Islandâs Stanford Robinson randomly went off, hitting his career high of 21 points and giving URI the look of a top-25 team. This was the group we expected to see most of the season. In terms of big runs, game play, fun plays, blows traded, this was an absolute joy. Had Hassan Martin not been pinned to the bench because of foul trouble, the Rams probably win the game. And if that happens, Kansas probably gets to the Final Four. And if that happens, does UNC still win the national title?
6. Kentucky 65, Wichita State 62 (second round)
Two game-winning blocks in the final two possessions -- by different players and both behind the 3-point line. When is the last time you saw that happen? Kentucky-Wichita State was the most anticipated second-round game, and yet again these teams delivered the goods. It was roll-in-the-mud entertainment, a defense-first white-knuckle watch. Kentucky got on to the Sweet 16 after Malik Monk blocked Markis McDuffie with 12 seconds left, then Bam Adebayo denied Landry Shamet, who did not see a wide-open Conner Frankamp in the corner.
NBA prospects, but not all of them. Shamet might well get drafted in 2018. He had a game-high 20 here and proved himself to be as competitive and crafty as any Wildcat. Ironic that he wound up getting his shot blocked.. Two of the most confident and polarizing coaches on opposing sidelines. A blueblood vs. a cocky newcomer that has earned its way to the big-boy table. Kentucky had the
This was only the second time in tournament history that two 30-win teams faced off in the first weekend (Tennessee vs. Butler in 2008 was the other).
5. Gonzaga 77, South Carolina 73 (Final Four)
The better of the two national semifinals ironically turned into an offense-first opening half that turned in Gonzagaâs favor late. We donât always have a Final Four or title game in the top 10, but this was a pretty consistently entertaining tilt.
South Carolina trailed 45-36 at the break, then the Gamecocks went on a 16-0 run to take a 67-65 lead with seven minutes left. How often do you see a 16-0 run in the Final Four? It did seem like South Carolina was going to win this by force and will, the way it had the four previous games, but Gonzagaâs defense clicked into winning form.
This was the Zach Collins Game, remember. Collins had the best performance of his college career (14 points, 13 rebounds, six blocks). It was his weirdly made 3-pointer that folded in off the soft spot of the back rim that ended the South Carolina run. We also got the display of how balanced Gonzagaâs attack could be. Nigel Williams-Goss had 23, Jordan Mathews was 4 of 8 from 3-point range. Przemek Karnowski was a load for South Carolina to deal with. Williams-Goss tweaked his ankle late in the game, a mishap that would come back to haunt Gonzaga in the title game, when he injured the same ankle late vs. the Tar Heels.
After Williams-Goss missed a shot with 12.7 seconds to go in a 75-72 game, Gonzaga did the right thing by fouling up three. Yet Josh Perkins, who committed the touch foul, might have done so unintentionally. Sindarius Thornwell -- who had his worst game by far in the tournament -- made the first foul shot, intentionally missed the second, and then Killian Tillie came in cold to hit the clinching free throws.
4. Wisconsin 65, Villanova 62 (second round)
The reigning champion/No. 1 overall seed goes down on aby savvy Wisconsin senior Nigel Hayes. Some early tournament talk centered on how chalky and blah the first weekend was. This game, played in Buffalo, was an exception. It was close throughout, but ended in anticlimactic fashion. Hayesâ winning shot came with 11.4 to go. Villanova first-team All-American Josh Hart made a driving attempt to the hole but never even got a shot off thanks to the defense of Ethan Happ and Vitto Brown, who stripped the ball loose at Hartâs waist.
That was the surprise of the game. There was the sense the entire time that the outcome would come down to a final shot given the ebbs and flows. But it didnât. A credit to Wisconsinâs defense. And as I wrote thereafter, Wisconsinâs win here emphasized that the program has a claim to being.
It was the third time in four seasons Wisconsin knocked off a No. 1 seed. Badgers be giant-killers.
3. Michigan 92, Oklahoma State 91 (first round)
This was awesome, one of the better first-round visuals in the past five years. Two terrific offenses playing up to the hype and killing the over/under number. I wrote on Selection Sunday that this game was one of my five must-watches. It came through. What remains ridiculous about this loss for OSU is the fact it shot 58 percent from 2-point range, 44 percent from 3-point range, 88 percent from the foul line, had 16 offensive rebounds and still lost.
Ninety-nine percent of the time, those stats are giving you the win.
But Michigan went nuts from 3. Derrick Walton Jr. had 26 points and 11 assists in helping U of M set a school record with 16 3s, including 11 of 15 from behind the arc in the second half. Walton was 6 for 9 from deep. Bombs on bombs on bombs. Fun basketball -- and a stark contrast from the title game.
Oklahoma State had 19 more rebounds than Michigan but lost, so this is your latest reminder that rebound margin is a meaningless stat and needs to go the way of the dodo. Michigan had only four turnovers in a 65-possession affair. This marked the first time a tournament game was decided by a single point wherein both teams cracked 90 points since 1965!
2. North Carolina 75, Kentucky 73 (Elite Eight)
Another hyped game that surpassed the buildup. Two blue bloods, the two winningest schools in NCAA Tournament history. A swing of emotions in Memphis with the Final Four on the line gave us the second epic between these two teams this season. Malik Monk put up 47 in Vegas in that first game, back in December, and this one had UNC getting its revenge with a player who is a contrast to Monk. Six-foot-nine Luke Maye made the shot (with 0.3 left) that will now be remembered for vaulting UNC into the Final Four and to a title.
UNC had a 12-0 run in the final five minutes, and Kentuckyâs comeback has been somewhat overlooked here. The Wildcats were down by seven with less than 50 seconds to go. Then DeâAaron Fox hit a 3 from the corner, followed by two tough 3s from Monk. The second Monk 3-pointer tied the game with 7.2 seconds left. I loved that there was no timeout. Just a pendulum of opposite emotions for UK fans.
Maye had 17 points, a career-best.
âThat shot is just playing back and forth in my head,â Fox told reporters that night. âItâs going to be difficult to get over.â
1. Florida 84, Wisconsin 83 in OT (Sweet 16)
Because of the overtime factor and because this was the only true buzzer-beater of the 2017 tournament, and because the buzzer-beater, I have to put this one ahead of UNC-UK. Chris Chiozzaâs winner was a top-10 moment for me, ever, at a basketball game.
Remember, this was do-or-die. If Luke Mayeâs shot misses, UNC and UK go to overtime. Florida was down two when âCheeseâ hit cheddar. Itâs the most memorable shot in program history.
I expect this to get lost in the years to come, but those who watched the game closely are aware that Florida had the edge much of the second half. Wisconsin was down 12 with 4:20 left. Then Wisconsin pushed late. With Zak Showalterâs 3 (and why didnât Florida foul?) with 2.1 left to get the game to overtime, it felt like the been-here-before UW team would win out. As overtime played on, that sense only grew stronger.
Then Canyon Barry made a block on a breakaway and any sense of momentum was neutralized. This was the final college game for March regulars Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig. Hayesâ drive-and-foul move came too early, as he put Wisconsin up two but left four seconds on the clock for Cheese to get down the floor. This is in the March Madness highlight reel for years to come.