NCAA Tournament History: The Best Of Sweet 16 Weekend

The four days of NCAA Tournament basketball ahead don’t have the whirlwind quality that last week’s first and second-round games did. For the most part, true Cinderellas have gone by the boards—only Ohio really fits the quality this year. Otherwise, 7th-seeded Florida or 10th-seeded Xavier have to pass for America’s miracle team.

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And on the other extreme, this isn’t a weekend about settling a championship like we have coming up in New Orleans. But if you want a balance between a lot of basketball flying back and forth on the TV screen, along with the tension of raised stakes, then the twelve games from Thursday to Sunday are as good as it gets in sports. TheSportsNotebook is opening up the time machine, as it were, to pull out the best weekends that each regional has produced.

Selection criteria is pretty basic. First, the timeframe is limited to 1976 forward because that’s when the modern NCAA Tournament really began. Second, this is not about selecting the best individual games—it’s about the best overall regional weekend. Hence, all three games at a given venue must have been barnburners.

To pick the most obvious example—the 1992 Duke-Kentucky regional final in the East was arguably the greatest college basketball game ever played. If this column were about best games, it would at or near the top of the list. But the regional semi-finals both teams won to get there were pedestrian blowouts.

The scope of this article is to focus on what venues gave fans three games of non-stop screaming their lungs out. Furthermore, it’s not about picking the best four regional weekends—the criteria requires that each regional give us its historical best. With that in mind, here are the four selections, in order of that “seed number” in TheSportsNotebook’s historical bracket.

#4 SEED: EAST REGIONAL 2006–I’m going to say from the outset I was disappointed in the East Regional over the years. There was really no year where all three games were absolute epics, and when you consider there’s been 36 tries in the modern era, that’s in the category of unpleasant surprises.

So I had to settle for a year where you had two masterpieces and the third game could at least hold its own. We settle on the Verizon Center six years ago. UConn was the top-heavy favorite to win the national championship, and they had what looked like a gutted bracket in front of them. 5th-seeded Washington was the highest-ranked opponent left. UConn still struggled with the Huskies in the Sweet 16 and this came conjured up a memories of a classic 1998 battle these same teams played in this round of the tournament.

UConn had to go to overtime to pull it out. It set up a Sunday final with 11th-seeded George Mason, who’d beat up on Wichita State on Friday. Mason rallied from nine down at halftime, actually missed a couple chances to put it away in regulation, looked ready to do the same in overtime, before UConn inexplicably settled for a  three-pointer on its final possession of OT, trailing 86-84, when the opportunity existed to go to the basket and enable the more talented team to extend play. The trey missed and George Mason was the biggest Cinderella to ever crash the Final Four.

I don’t like including a bracket where one of the three games was a clunker, but if you’re stuck with that, then a couple overtime battles and the biggest story in Final Four history isn’t bad. 2006 narrowly edges out 1990, which had two buzzer-beater finishes—UConn over Clemson in the semis, then Duke over UConn in the final—but lacked the Cinderella quality.

Besides, the day of the 2006 final my godson was baptized and we watched the game at a big party afterward with an entire room going crazy, while during 1990 I was alone in a dorm room. If it’s a close vote, the writer and selector’s memories can tip the balance.

#3 SEED: WEST REGIONAL 1996—This was another region that I felt was a historical disappointment. There was no bracket that made me go “Wow”, or “Yeah, I remember going crazy during that.” Or “I wish I hadn’t been so hungover when I watched those games, I might have appreciated them more.” But the ’96 West bracket in Denver gave three solid games.

Top-seeded Purdue had been ousted by Georgia, and the Bulldogs took Syracuse to overtime in Friday’s semi-final. If you watch a CBS highlight clip showing the late analyst Al McGuire dancing with Syracuse players in a postgame interview, it was after this game. Kansas and Arizona then went after each other in a great 2-3 game.

Paul Pierce, soon to be an NBA star with the Boston Celtics scored 20 for Kansas. Miles Simon, just one year away from being a Final Four MVP for Arizona knocked down 21. The Jayhawks prevailed 83-80. Sunday’s final was a teeth-grinder as Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim was able to slow the game down with his zone defense. The Orange led 60-57, and while Kansas got a last look on a three-pointer to tie, Boeheim got what was then the second Final Four trip of his career.

There’s a very clear separation between these two regionals and the two to come. The top two seeds in this column are what I was ultimately looking for.

#2 SEED MIDWEST REGIONAL 1985: The matchups were Oklahoma-Louisiana Tech and Memphis-Boston College. Before you groan at this, consider the talent on the floor. OU was led by power forward Wayman Tisdale, one of the best players in the country and a member of the 1984 U.S. Olympic team, the greatest amateur basketball team ever assembled.

Louisiana Tech was led by Karl Malone, on his way to a great NBA career with the Utah Jazz. Memphis had center Keith Lee, who was as well-regarded as any college big man, even if his pro career didn’t pan out. And Boston College? BC was just the little engine that could in the early 1980s. They’d reached a regional final in 1982, a year that also saw them upset top-seeded DePaul and were coached by Gary Williams, who would eventually win a national title in Maryland.

So those four names in of themselves constituted a more exciting bracket than it might appear to the modern eye. And the games themselves were gut-wrenchers. Oklahoma won in overtime, with both Tisdale and Malone having big nights. Memphis survived Boston College by a bucket—Lee didn’t play well, but his fellow big man, William Bedford, had 23 points.

And Memphis-Oklahoma—the top two seeds in the region also went down to the wire. This time Lee came up big with a 23/11 afternoon, outplayed Tisdale and his team won 63-61. There wasn’t a dull moment in Dallas.

#1 SEED MIDEAST REGIONAL 1983: This is the regional that’s undergone the name changes over the years, soon changing to the Southeast and now is the South. But in 1983, imagine going to Knoxville and having your four teams be Indiana, Kentucky, Louisville, and an Arkansas team that was coached by Eddie Sutton, a consistent national contender, had been to the Final Four in 1978 and nearly got there the following year before losing by two to Larry Bird’s Indiana State (by the Hog fans, your ’78 West Regional came in second to 1996 in the push for the #3 seed in this historical bracket).

Then add to the fact that this was at a time when Kentucky refused to play Louisville, a subject that got nationwide attention. Regardless of how the games go, this weekend won’t be boring. In the semis, Kentucky won a hard-fought 64-59 game over Indiana, playing without injured forward Ted Kitchel. Louisville, the region’s #1 seed, dug a ten-point hole at halftime against Arkansas before rallying to win by two. At last, Kentucky and Louisville would meet on the floor and a Final Four berth was at stake.

UK had this game all but sewn up late, when Louisville head coach Denny Crum put on the full-court press and his players unleashed a furious rally, closing the gap and forcing overtime. Louisville then scored the first 14 points of overtime and won 80-68 in a game that I still remember watching as a 13-year-old, pulling for the ‘Ville and just going nuts in disbelief.

The Kentucky performance is one of the more underrated collapses in sports history, especially set against the backdrop of their snobbish refusal to play an in-state program that had won the 1980 NCAA title, reached the Final Four in 1982 and would win another title in 1986. Those three days in Knoxville were the best NCAA regional ever.