Ranking College Basketball's National Champions since 1985

Where does North Carolina's latest national title rank on this list?

College basketball owns the month of March (and oftentimes spills over into April). The extravaganza as we know it today really emerged in 1985, when the NCAA Tournament expanded from 48 teams to 64.

 

The 32 years since have provided hoop-heads with countless memorable moments. Tournament expansion gave rise to Cinderellas – those programs that come from nowhere to steal a win or two and become household names.

 

Beyond the addition of a play-in game in 2001, and expansion to 68 teams via the First Four in ‘11, the NCAA Tournament has remained largely the same since ‘85. Consider this is the modern era of the NCAA Tournament. This era has featured surprising champs and unforgettable Goliaths. Here is a ranking of all the teams that have cut down the nets since 1985.

 

1. 1992 Duke

Record: 34-2, 14-2 ACC

Championship Game: Beat Michigan, 71-51

Head Coach: Mike Krzyzewski

Repeating as national champions in college basketball is difficult. Duke proved it in 1991 when it denied UNLV, one of the most talented teams ever assembled, back-to-back titles. The Blue Devils' run through the 1991-92 campaign demonstrated it again. Duke became the first repeat champ since John Wooden's UCLA dynasty in the early half of the 1970s.

 

2. 1996 Kentucky

Record: 34-2, 16-0 SEC

Championship Game: Beat Syracuse, 76-67

Head Coach: Rick Pitino

Kentucky ripped through its schedule like a buzzsaw in 1995-96, blowing out opponents by an average of 22 points per game. The Wildcats avenged one of their two regular-season losses with a semifinal defeat of Marcus Camby's UMass Minutemen (coached by one John Calipari), then kept Syracuse at bay in the championship.

 

This Kentucky lineup featured veteran stars Antoine Walker, Tony Delk and Walter McCarty, as well as youngsters Nazr Mohammed, Ron Mercer and Wayne Turner.

 

3. 2001 Duke

Record: 35-4, 13-3 ACC

Championship Game: Beat Arizona, 82-72

Head Coach: Mike Krzyzewski

The 2001 Duke roster was one of the most impressive collections of talent Coach K has had in Durham. Shane Battier, Carlos Boozer and Mike Dunleavy all enjoyed lengthy NBA careers after leading Duke, and point guard Jay Williams ranks as one of the best floor generals ever in college basketball.

 

4. 2012 Kentucky

Record: 38-2, 16-0 SEC

Championship Game: Beat Kansas, 67-59

Head Coach: John Calipari

John Calipari has coached plenty of great teams in his career, whether at UMass, Memphis or Kentucky. His lone national championship team blended the transcendent talent typical of Calipari teams with a cohesive style of play that made for a memorable championship run.

 

Frosh phenom Anthony Davis earned various player of the year awards as an equal parts scoring, rebounding and defensive threat. Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist were lottery picks in the subsequent NBA draft.

 

5. 1990 UNLV

Record: 35-5, 16-2 Big West

Championship Game: Beat Duke, 103-73

Head Coach: Jerry Tarkanian

While the next season's UNLV team is perhaps better remembered for its overall talent – and for failing to win the championship – the 1989-90 Runnin' Rebels changed the complexion of college basketball.

 

Their blend of high-pressure defense and run-and-gun offense made UNLV one of the most exciting teams ever, led by the core of Larry Johnson, Stacy Augmon, Greg Anthony and Anderson Hunt. Center Moses Scurry provided the muscle. That group asserted its dominance with three different 30-point wins in the Tournament, including the title game.

 

6. 1999 UConn

Record: 34-2, 16-2 Big East

Championship Game: Defeated Duke, 77-74

Head Coach: Jim Calhoun

An irony of Connecticut's first national championship is just how much of an underdog it was heading into the title game against Duke. A Blue Devil roster stacked with talent, like Elton Brand, Corey Maggette and Trajan Langdon stormed into the championship at 37-1. They then hit a roadblock from Richard Hamilton, Khalid El-Amin and the rest of the Huskies.

 

7. 1995 UCLA

Record: 31-2, 16-2 Pac-10

Championship Game: Beat Arkansas, 89-78

Head Coach: Jim Harrick

UCLA's sole national title season since John Wooden's retirement was dominating in a way the Wizard of Westwood could appreciate. Behind Wooden Award winner Ed O'Bannon, and featuring one of the all-time great college point guards, Tyus Edney, UCLA culminated its close-to-unblemished campaign with an impressive win over defending national champion Arkansas.

 

8. 2005 North Carolina

Record: 33-4, 14-2 ACC

Championship Game: Beat Illinois, 75-70

Head Coach: Roy Williams

Bruiser Sean May was a monster for North Carolina in 2004-05, averaging a double-double to pace what was arguably the best Tar Heel roster since Michael Jordan and James Worthy shared the hardwood. Freshman Marvin Williams was an NBA lottery pick, Raymond Felton's had a lengthy professional career, and players like Rashad McCants and Jawad Williams were collegiate standouts.

 

North Carolina beat an outstanding Illinois team to win the first national championship of Williams' illustrious career.

 

9. 2009 North Carolina

Record: 34-4, 13-3 ACC

Championship Game: Beat Michigan State, 89-72

Head Coach: Roy Williams

Tyler Hansbrough's 2008-09 season ranks among the most hyped in recent memory. He held off pursuing the NBA to stay in Chapel Hill for four seasons, and capped his remarkable career averaging nearly 21 points and nine rebounds per game. Teammate Ty Lawson was one of the best point guards in the nation that season, providing perimeter punch to go with Hansbrough's inside dominance.

 

10. 2007 Florida

Record: 35-5, 13-3 SEC

Championship Game: Beat Ohio State, 84-75

Head Coach: Billy Donovan

Florida joined 1991 and ‘92 Duke as the only repeat champion in the modern era of the NCAA Tournament – which, despite the difficulty of repeating, felt like a formality. When Al Horford, Joakim Noah and Corey Brewer all spurned the NBA draft for a year, the Gators entered the 2006-07 season with what was clearly the nation's best roster.

 

They endured a late-February slump, which keeps the Gators from ranking higher on this list, but UF flipped the switch into Terminator-mode once the NCAA Tournament arrived. Like its football team three months earlier, Florida ended its title run with a win over Ohio State in the championship.

 

11. 2008 Kansas

Record: 37-3, 13-3 Big 12

Championship Game: Beat Memphis, 75-68 (OT)

Head Coach: Bill Self

Mario Chalmers' game-tying jumper endures as one of the most iconic moments in NCAA Tournament history, and gave Kansas its first title in 20 years. The 2007-08 KU roster was one of the deepest in recent memory, with Chalmers, Sasha Kaun, Darrell Arthur, Brandon Rush and Darnell Jackson all playing prominent roles.

 

Kansas emerged from the only Final Four featuring a quartet of No. 1 seeds, culminating by beating Memphis in the title game. The Derrick Rose-led Tigers mauled opponents leading up to the thrilling finale, which fit the Jayhawks' March; Kansas escaped in the Elite Eight against a Davidson team captained by one Steph Curry.

 

12. 1994 Arkansas

Record: 31-3, 14-2 SEC

Championship Game: Beat Duke, 76-72

Head Coach: Nolan Richardson

Arkansas' 40 Minutes of Hell reached college basketball heaven in 1994 when Scotty Thurman drained a late-game jumper to down Grant Hill and Duke. The Razorbacks knocked on the door before, employing head coach Nolan Richardson's signature full-court press, reaching a Final Four in 1990. Low-post bruiser Corliss Williamson helped Arkansas kick down that door.

 

13. 1987 Indiana

Record: 30-4, 15-3 Big Ten

Championship Game: Beat Syracuse, 74-73

Head Coach: Bob Knight

There's something about New Orleans and the Final Four. The Big Easy has been host to some of the national championship's best finishes, from Michael Jordan's jumper in 1982, to Hakim Warrick's blocked shot in 2003. Between those two classic moments, Indiana guard Keith Smart nailed a corner shot against Syracuse to seal the Hoosiers' fifth, and as of 2017, last national championship.

 

14. 1993 North Carolina

Record: 34-4, 14-2 ACC

Championship Game: Beat Michigan, 77-71

Head Coach: Dean Smith

The Tar Heels’ legendary head coach won his second (and final) national championship in New Orleans, the same city he claimed his first. The Tar Heels bested one of the most exciting collections of talent in college basketball history to win the title, Michigan's Fab Five.

 

Forward George Lynch and center Eric Montross powered the 1993 Tar Heels, but guard Donald Williams earned Final Four immortality as the Most Outstanding Player.

 

15. 2002 Maryland

Record: 32-4, 15-1 ACC

Championship Game: Beat Indiana, 64-52

Head Coach: Gary Williams

Juan Dixon completed an all-time great season to captain Maryland to its first (and still only) national championship. The scoring and defensive dynamo Dixon led a talented bunch of Terrapins that also included longtime NBA veteran Steve Blake, All-ACC center Lonnie Baxter and Chris Wilcox.

 

Before North Carolina in 2017, the ‘02 Terrapins were the ACC's great redemption story. Maryland returned to the Final Four after losing a commanding lead in a semifinal loss to Duke a season prior.

 

16. 2015 Duke

Record: 35-4, 15-3 ACC

Championship Game: Beat Wisconsin, 68-63

Head Coach: Mike Krzyzewski

Duke's fifth national championship team featured a blend of one-and-done talent in Jahlil Okafor and Justise Winslow, veteran leadership behind Quinn Cook and a role player who stepped up in a big way for the national championship game, Grayson Allen. It also was the shallowest bench Coach K has had for any of his five title teams.

 

17. 2016 Villanova

Record: 35-5, 16-2 Big East

Championship Game: Beat North Carolina, 77-74

Head Coach: Jay Wright

Kris Jenkins' answer of a game-tying Marcus Paige 3-pointer concluded one of the best NCAA Tournament games ever played. For Villanova, the return to the top 31 years after the program's first national championship carved Jay Wright's well-deserved place among the greats of college coaching.

 

18. 2004 UConn

Record: 33-6, 12-4 Big East

Championship Game: Beat Georgia Tech, 82-73

Head Coach: Jim Calhoun

Oklahoma State scored an Elite Eight upset of Saint Joseph's, which deprived the 2004 Final Four of a possible title game showdown between that season's two best players: SJU point guard Jameer Nelson, and UConn center Emeka Okafor.

 

As it stands, Connecticut won a nail-biter over Duke in the national semifinal, than capped Jim Calhoun's second championship season by beating surprising Georgia Tech.

 

19. 2017 North Carolina

Record: 33-7, 14-4 ACC

Championship Game: Beat Gonzaga, 71-65

Head Coach: Roy Williams

A veteran-laden roster led the charge to North Carolina's third national championship in 12 years under Roy Williams, while redeeming the heartbreak from the previous season. All-American Justin Jackson provided the star power, but this UNC team succeeded with a balanced approach of players who embraced their roles. Kennedy Meeks and Joel Berry competently filled the vacancies left by Brice Johnson and Marcus Paige.

 

The Tar Heels overcame a few sluggish NCAA Tournament performances to top Gonzaga, the No. 1 team in the nation per various metrics, in the title game.

 

20. 1991 Duke

Record: 32-7, 11-3 ACC

Championship Game: Beat Kansas, 72-65

Head Coach: Mike Krzyzewski

Before Duke became college basketball's most renowned villain, the Blue Devils played the role of underdogs well against undefeated UNLV. The Runnin' Rebels destroyed Duke in the 1990 title game, and Jerry Tarkanian rolled out a better roster in ‘91. Bobby Hurley, Grant Hill and Christian Laettner engineered one of the most shocking upsets in Tournament history, say nothing of the Final Four.

 

The semifinal against UNLV functioned much like the Soviet Union game for the 1980 US Olympic hockey team – it was the semifinal. Duke then held off Kansas in Roy Williams' first national title game appearance.

 

21. 2003 Syracuse

Record: 30-5, 13-3 Big East

Championship Game: Beat Kansas, 81-78

Head Coach: Jim Boeheim

Carmelo Anthony completed one of the all-time great one-and-done seasons by flirting with a triple-double in the national championship game: 20 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists.

 

Teammate Hakim Warrick came away with the defining play, though, blocking Kirk Hinrich's attempt at a game-tying 3-pointer in the closing seconds.

 

22. 1997 Arizona

Record: 25-9, 11-7 Pac-10

Championship Game: Beat Kentucky, 84-79 (OT)

Head Coach: Lute Olson

Arizona limped into the NCAA Tournament in 1997, losing back-to-back Pac-10 games and falling to 19-9. Based on regular-season performance, this Wildcat team would rank closer to the bottom. But its Tournament run is the only in history that saw three No. 1 seeds felled – including a Kansas team that, had it won the title, would probably top this list.

 

Mike Bibby and Jason Terry were two of the NBA's most notable mainstay point guards in the 2000s (and Terry still plays in 2017); Michael Dickerson was a first-round draft pick and MOP Miles Simon went on a tear in the Tournament.

 

23. 1998 Kentucky

Record: 35-4, 14-2 SEC

Championship Game: Beat Utah, 78-69

Head Coach: Tubby Smith

Kentucky reached the national title game for the third consecutive season in 1998, and claimed its second title over that time. The Wildcats survived a series of close games in the NCAA Tournament, beating Duke by two in the Elite Eight; Stanford by one in overtime of the semifinal; and came back from a halftime deficit against Utah in the title tilt.

 

The 1998 team was one of the least remarkable Kentucky had in terms of star power. At 13.7 points per game, Jeff Sheppard was its leading scorer. Nevertheless, the balance worked for the 35-win 'Cats.

 

24. 2013 Louisville

Record: 35-5, 14-4 Big East

Championship Game: Beat Michigan, 82-76

Head Coach: Rick Pitino

Louisville ripped through the first half of its 2012-13 schedule, stumbled through a three-game losing skid in January, then righted the ship in time for its first title run in 27 years. The 2013 Tournament was notable for Kevin Ware's Elite Eight injury and Michigan bench player Spike Albrecht nearly shooting the Wolverines past the Cardinals in the title game.

 

Nevertheless, Louisville answered Michigan's role-player performance with one of its own: Luke Hancock emerged to score 22 points in the national championship, giving Rick Pitino the second title of his career.

 

25. 2000 Michigan State

Record: 32-7, 13-3 Big Ten

Championship Game: Beat Florida, 89-76

Head Coach: Tom Izzo

Mr. March Tom Izzo having just one national championship speaks to how difficult winning six straight in March (and sometimes April) can be. He's had more talented teams at Michigan State, but the Morris Peterson-led 1999-2000 squad brought a title back to East Lansing.

 

The 2000 Final Four field featured two No. 8 seeds in Wisconsin and North Carolina – the former of which dragged Michigan State into a brutal semifinal – and Sparty met fifth-seeded Florida in the title game.

 

26. 1989 Michigan

Record: 30-7, 12-6 Big Ten

Championship Game: Beat Seton Hall, 80-79 (OT)

Head Coach: Steve Fisher

Bo Schembechler took the concept of "Michigan Man" seriously. So serious, in fact, he fired head coach Bill Frieder before the NCAA Tournament because Frieder was leaving for Arizona State the next season. It was a risk putting assistant Steve Fisher in charge, but a team with Glen Rice, Rumeal Robinson, Loy Vaught and Terry Mills delivered in the Big Dance.

 

Michigan avenged a regular-season loss to a stacked Illinois team, and then outlasted Seton Hall in overtime to win its first (and only to this point) national championship in basketball.

 

27. 2010 Duke

Record: 35-5, 13-3 ACC

Championship Game: Beat Butler, 61-59

Head Coach: Mike Krzyzewski

The 2009-10 Duke roster was a veteran one not boasting much in the way of NBA talent. Instead, experienced guys like John Scheyer, Kyle Singler, Nolan Smith and Brian Zoubek played keys roles in bringing Duke championship No. 4. The Blue Devils went through a three-loss January, but got hot in February and rode that momentum into March. Duke won a classic national championship game, which nearly had the greatest finish in title round history when Gordon Hayward's three-quarters court heave almost dropped.

 

28. 2006 Florida

Record: 33-6, 10-6 SEC

Championship Game: Beat UCLA, 73-57

Head Coach: Billy Donovan

Florida had a run at the top during the 2005-06, but endured a rough patch in the middle of SEC play. The stumble docked the Gators down to a No. 3 seed, which matched national runner-up UCLA as the highest seed to reach the 2006 Final Four. Cinderella story George Mason became just the second No. 11 seed to make the semifinals in Tournament history, and LSU stunned Duke in a Sweet 16 classic to join the class in Indianapolis.

 

29. 1986 Louisville

Record: 32-7, 10-2 Metro

Championship Game: Beat Duke, 72-69

Head Coach: Denny Crum

In an era when freshmen were typically role players at best, "Never Nervous" Pervis Ellison became an NCAA Tournament legend. The first-year Cardinal led Louisville to its second national championship in five years, left standing tall among one of the most bizarre Tournaments of all-time. That year's Final Four featured No. 11 LSU, while top seeds Kansas and Duke beat No. 6 NC State and No. 7 Navy to reach the semifinals, and Louisville bested No. 8 Auburn.

 

30. 1988 Kansas

Record: 27-11, 9-5 Big 8

Championship Game: Beat Oklahoma, 83-79

Head Coach: Larry Brown

Still one of the most unexpected champions of the modern NCAA Tournament era, the 1987-88 Jayhawks earned the nickname "Danny and The Miracles." Danny Manning took his game to otherworldly heights to lead Kansas on a run that included wins over Duke and Oklahoma. The Sooners were dominant much of the season, including scoring a clean sweep of the Jayhawks in regular-season Big 8 Conference play.

 

Kansas' 11 losses remain the most of any national champion.

 

31. 2011 UConn

Record: 32-9, 9-9 Big East

Championship Game: Beat Butler, 53-41

Head Coach: Jim Calhoun

Kemba Walker went on arguably the greatest individual March run. He took a Connecticut squad some thought needed to win the Big East Tournament just to get into the Field of 68 all the way to the national championship. The Huskies’ memorable run ended with a national championship most would prefer forget. The 53-41 slog against Butler is widely considered the worst title game of the modern era.

 

32. 2014 UConn

Record: 32-8, 12-6 American Athletic

Championship Game: Beat Kentucky, 60-54

Head Coach: Kevin Ollie

Lightning struck twice for UConn. In much the same way the 2011 Huskies ran to a surprise title behind the transcendent play of a star guard, Connecticut's 2014 championship came on the strength of Shabazz Napier, who elevated his game to a higher level.

 

Connecticut pulled off a unique feat in winning each of its final three games without reaching 70 points once.

 

33. 1985 Villanova

Record: 25-10, 9-7 Big East

Championship Game: Beat Georgetown, 66-64

Head Coach: Rollie Massimino

Villanova took advantage of the last game in the no-shot clock era, employing a slow-down style to choke the life out of Big East counterpart Georgetown in the 1985 national championship game. The Hoyas beat Villanova two times that regular season, but the Wildcats responded in the title tilt with one of the most efficient shooting performances in college basketball history.

 

Villanova's Cinderella story made for a fitting first entry in the era of the expanded bracket. The Wildcats remain the only No. 8 seed to win it all.

 

— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Kensing is publisher of CFBHuddle.com. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.

 

(Top photo by Jeffrey A. Camarati, courtesy of www.goheels.com)

 

Event Date: 
Wednesday, March 29, 2017 - 18:15

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