While the best NBA games of all time are fondly remembered, many college games get overlooked. With a smaller and more niche audience, college basketball gives us a chance to see NBA stars at their rawest, where young athletes demonstrate their talents before the big leagues get their hands on them.
Today we’re looking at the best college games, mainly those that are part of NCAA tournaments where there is more to play for. There’s an NCAA tournament going on right now, so consult the March Madness odds if you’re interested.
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5. The Wildcats Play The Perfect Game
If we told you that a team called the Wildcats shot at 78.6% to take home a national championship title, you’d probably think we’re talking about the Kentucky Wildcats. Nope! In the 1985 Division I championship game, it was the Villanova Wildcats who made this eye-watering stat in their third showdown with the Georgetown Hoyas. The Hoyas shot for 58% but couldn’t put a dent in the Wildcats.
The Hoyas had beaten the Wildcats twice in the past, making this re-rematch even more intense. The Perfect Game, as it has since been called, was a great upset at the time as the Wildcats were the #8 seed. That makes them the lowest-seeded team to win the whole tournament, beating the Hoyas at 66-64 for an April Fools’ Day win that left many with their jaws on the floor.
The Hoyas, who had a young Patrick Ewing playing with them, just couldn’t compete with Villanova coach Rollie Massimino and The Expansion Crew – Ed Pinckney and the McClains, Gary and Dwayne.
4. The Blue Devils Make The Shot
Our fourth game isn’t higher on this list just because it wasn’t a national championship game, it was part of the Elite Eight. While the Duke Blue Devils took the entire title, it was the final game of the 1992 East Regional that everybody remembers to this day. Up against the Kentucky Wildcats, they lost the game at 103-104 after passing into overtime.
As you’d expect from the Wildcats, they played well and made a 57% shot percentage, yet they still lost to the Blue Devils. Why? Coach Mike Krzyzewski with All-Americans Grant Hill and Christian Laettner under his command. With just two seconds left and the Wildcats ahead at 103-102, Hill threw across the entire court to Laettner, who faked, dribbled, turned, and hit a buzzer-beating jump shot – now dubbed The Shot.
Both teams were revered by their colleges at the time, while Kentucky fans hated Laettner for his performance and a variety of other reasons, including stepping on Wildcat Aminu Timberlake in that same game, for which he was fouled. Even in the 21st Century, Laettner has topped polls for being the most hated college athlete.
3. The Tar Heels Upset Wilt Chamberlain
While they’re a top competitor for national championships nowadays, there was a time when the North Carolina Tar Heels were the underdogs. Their first championship win came at the end of a big underdog story that ended with the Tar Heels standing up to the Kansas Jayhawks – with Wilt Chamberlain at the helm.
This all happened during the 1957 championship game, which came down to rebounds. A lackluster performance by the Jayhawks saw them shooting at about 30%, less than usual, and so the Tar Heels took advantage of every mistake to turn the game around, force overtime, and pin the Jayhawks down at 36-25.
2. The Wildcats Escape The Tar Heels
Our runner-up for this list is a recent one that happened in the 2016 Division I championship game. This was where the Villanova Wildcats had fought their way through the entire tournament and were up against the North Carolina Tar Heels. It’s remembered for two men, Marcus Paige of the Tar Heels and Kris Jenkins of the Wildcats.
The first half was closely matched, the Tar Heels stealing ahead with just one minute left. Wildcat Phil Booth narrowed the gap with a field goal, the score becoming 39-24. In the second half, the Wildcats took the lead and then lost it with a minute and a half left – 70-64.
That’s where the play happened. Paige hit a three-pointer and, after a few other plays, the Tar Heels were down by three. Paige tied the game with a double-clutch three-pointer with four seconds left. The Wildcats called a timeout, then Jenkins hit his own buzzer-beating three-pointer to put Villanova ahead 77-74, securing their second NCAA championship title.
1. The Wolfpack Beat Phi Slama Jama
Everybody loves an underdog, which is why the 1983 Division I championship game is first on this list. This was where we watched the Houston Cougars, clear favorites to win, get bested by the… NC State Wolfpack?
The real story starts in 1980 when Jim Valvano becomes coach to the Wolfpack and trains new talent Dereck Whittenburg. Against all odds, his teams placed higher and higher in the Atlantic Coast Conference until they found themselves at the NCAA tournament. To get there, they had to upset Michael Jordan’s North Carolina Tar Heels and Ralph Sampson’s Virginia Cavaliers.
Reaching the championship game, they had to face the Cougars. NBA buffs might see a problem here – the ’83 Cougars were Phi Slama Jama, the intimidating combination of Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler. They were fast, they dunked hard, and they were very tall. At the last second of a back and forth game, Whittenburg threw a last-second pass to Lorenzo Charles, who dunked it and secured the unthinkable win for the Wolfpack at 54-52.
Those are some of the best college tournament games that we have seen in NCAA basketball. There are many others, no doubt, and many great games have been played where there wasn’t a title on the line.
That said, title games make for better stories. Sometimes the youngest and hungriest athletes can make a name for themselves with plays that would make headlines and make a reputation for themselves before hitting the NBA.