The other day, when discussing my Final 4 childhood memories, I made a reference to my belief that the Phi Slamma Jamma Houston Cougars were the best team to never win a championship. It lead to other discussions of teams that could be on the list, and I clarified that I meant not just a specific year, but an era for a team. So, for example, UNLV losing in 1991 or Georgetown losing in 1985 wouldn’t count, since both those teams, with many of the same players, won a title the year before.
That caveat gets me in a little bit of a gray area with some teams, but I used the ncaa game finder at sports-reference/college basketball to find teams that lost in consecutive years as high seeds, then whittled the list down. I included a program if they had three seasons in a row that qualified that weren’t directly adjacent to a national title. So, Duke makes it for 1997 to 1999, though some key players were seniors when they won it in 2001. Kentucky makes it for the Jamal Mashburn teams, even though they would eventually win a title in 1996. The North Carolina teams of the early to mid-80’s don’t make it though, because of the 1982 championship right in the middle of several other failures.
Clear as mud? Well, I’ve whittled it down to 20 nominees since 1979 (I settled for this cutoff since it was the first year they seeded the tournament and assigned #1 seeds). Teams are grouped by 3 to 4 year periods, and I looked at things like advancing deep in the tournament and/or being seeded really highly during multiple years over that period. I’m going to let you vote for teams on this list, and I’ll post the top 10 this Saturday before the games. Here are the nominees, in chronological order from 1979 forward. I’ll list some key highlights (lowlights?) and player or players from those teams.
DePaul (1979-1982) Lost in the Final Four in 1979 to Indiana State, then proceeded to enter each of the next three tournaments as a #1 seed, and lost all three times in the first game (they didn’t play a 16 seed in the first round then). Key Players: Mark Aguirre and Terry Cummings
Virginia (1981-1983) The Cavs were a #1 seed three straight years, reaching one Final Four in 1981, and losing to eventual surprise national champion NC State in the regional final in 1983. Key Player: Ralph Sampson
Houston (1982-1984) Phi Slamma Jamma went to the Final Four three straight years, and is the only team on this list to lose consecutive title games. Key Players: Akeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler
Kentucky (1983-1986) The Wildcats lost to Louisville in the Elite 8 in 1983, then were a #1 seed twice, under Joe B. Hall then Eddie Sutton, losing in upset fashion twice before reaching the Final Four. Key Players: Mel Turpin, Sam Bowie, Kenny Walker
St. John’s (1983-1986) St. John’s was a #1 seed three times, reaching the Final Four and losing to Georgetown in 1985. Key Players: Chris Mullin, Walter Berry, Bill Wennington
Duke (1985-1989) Duke lost early in the tournament as a high seed twice before breaking through in 1986 to reach the title game, before being upset by Louisville. They would return to the Final Four two years later, only to lose to Kansas. Key Players: Johnny Dawkins, Mark Alarie, Danny Ferry
Georgetown (1987-1990) Georgetown lost as a #1 seed in 1987 in the regional final to upstart Providence, then returned as a #1 seed two years later with the Twin Towers. Key Players: Reggie Williams, Alonzo Mourning, Dikembe Mutombo
Syracuse (1987-1990) Syracuse came within a shot of the national title in 1987, then returned as a high seed the next three years, never making it past the Elite 8. Key Players: Sherman Douglas, Derrick Coleman, Rony Seikaly, Billy Owens
Illinois (1987-1989) The Illini twice got beat as a high seed early, but broke through as a #1 seed to win get to the Final Four, only to lose to conference rival and national champ Michigan. Key Players: Nick Anderson, Kendall Gill
Oklahoma (1988-1990) Billy Tubbs’ Sooners lost the title game to Kansas in 1988, then were upset early in each of the next two seasons. Key Players: Stacey King, Mookie Blaylock
Arizona (1988-1991) The Wildcats reached the Final Four in 1988, then bowed out as a #1 seed to UNLV the next year, and early as a #2 seed the next two. Key Players: Sean Elliott, Steve Kerr, Bison Dele, Sean Rooks, Chris Mills
Ohio State (1990-1992) The Buckeyes had a two-year run as a #1 seed, losing in the Elite 8 in 1992 to rival Michigan. Key Players: Jimmy Jackson, Chris Jent
Kentucky (1992-1994) The Wildcats lost one of the most heartbreaking and memorable tournament games on Laettner’s shot, then got to the Final 4 the next year, only to lose to the Fab 5. Key Players: Jamal Mashburn, Rodrick Rhodes, Tony Delk
Kansas (1995-1998) Virginia, Arizona, Rhode Island. Kansas was a #1 seed three times and lost in stunning fashion all three times. Key Players: Paul Pierce, Raef LaFrentz, Jacques Vaughan.
Duke (1997-1999) Duke was a 2 seed upset by Providence, then a 1 seed for two straight years, losing in 1999 in the title game. Key Players: Trajan Langdon, Elton Brand, Shane Battier
Arizona (2000-2003) The Wildcats were a #1 seed twice over this span, and lost in the 2001 Championship game as a #2 seed. Key Players: Richard Jefferson, Gilbert Arenas, Jason Gardner
Kansas (2001-2003) The final three Roy Williams’ teams included consecutive Final Fours, and a loss in the 2003 Title Game. Key Players: Drew Gooden, Kirk Hinrich, Nick Collison
Duke (2004-2006) Duke lost to UCONN in the Final Four, then lost consecutive Sweet 16’s as a #1 seed. Key Players: J.J. Redick, Shelden Williams, Luol Deng
UCLA (2006-2008) UCLA went to three straight Final Fours without a title, the only team besides Houston on this list to do that (Duke also did it from 1988-1990 but won in 1991). Key Players: Aaron Afflalo, Darren Collison, Kevin Love
Memphis (2006-2008) Memphis lost twice as a high seed in the Elite 8, and then were a few free throws away from a national title in 2008. Key Players: Derrick Rose, Chris Douglas-Roberts
[editor's note: I also added Michigan's Fab Five from 1992-1993, even though my initial search limited it to teams that were highly seeded over three to four year periods, they should be part of this discussion]
That’s it. Apologies to LSU from 1979-1981, the Tim Duncan teams at Wake Forest, Indiana with Calbert Cheaney, Glenn Robinson at Purdue, and more. I whittled it down the best I could. Now it’s your turn. Vote for up to 3 teams as the best groups that did not win a national championship, in the modern era since they started seeding the tournament.