We ask a lot from March Madness. We ask for chaos and earth-shattering, early-round upsets. We ask for buzzer-beaters. We ask for amazing Cinderella runs, but we also ask for the sport's biggest stars to play a role deep into the proceedings. We ask for a memorable cast of characters and a championship game that gives us everything college basketball has to offer.
(We also ask for it to pay for basically all of the NCAA in a given year. No pressure.)
It's almost impossible to provide all of that at once. Early-round upsets are amazing but eliminate some potential star power and often lead to later-round blowouts. Chalk can give us later-round fireworks but deprives us of the nonsense we crave in the opening weekend. In the end, we just hope for as much from each bucket as possible.
On the eve of the 2022 NCAA men's tournament, let's look back at the tournaments that did the best job of providing us the best of all worlds. Here are the 20 best tournaments since 1979.
(Why 1979? Because that's when the NCAA began using proper top-to-bottom seeding. It's hard to properly gauge the magnitude of upsets from before then. Plus, 1979 gave us the Magic Johnson vs. Larry Bird final and helped take the tournament's popularity to a new level, which makes it a logical starting point as well.)
Best attribute(s): Maybe the greatest first round ever
Best game: Hampton 58, Iowa State 57 (first round)
To get a read for which tournaments had more upsets than others, I compiled what I called "upset points" -- if a No. 9 seed beats a No. 8 seed, that's one point; if a 15 beats a 2, that's 13 upset points, and so on. Only three tournaments have provided more first-round upset points than 2001 -- 2012, 2016 and 2021 -- and none of those could match the number of close games this one gave us.
The round of 64 provided 13 games decided either in overtime or by four or fewer points (or both). That includes Hampton's classic upset of No. 2 seed Iowa State in the West regional and Holy Cross' near-win over No. 2 Kentucky in the East.
The rest of the tournament? It was OK. This was a time period defined in part by the Duke-Maryland rivalry, and those teams gave us a wild Final Four matchup -- the Terps surged to a 39-17 lead, only to watch Duke outscore them 78-45 the rest of the way -- but what was maybe Mike Krzyzewski's best team won its six games by an average score of 87-70, depriving us of much late-tournament drama.
Best attribute(s): Bird vs. Magic
Best game: Indiana State 76, DePaul 74 (national semifinals)
The only 40-team tournament in history -- it jumped from 32 teams the year before to 48 the year after -- was pretty chalky overall, giving us three 1-versus-2 matchups in the Elite Eight and not all that many close games.
It did give us two things, however: a wild East region and the most-watched basketball game of all time. In the East, No. 10 seed St. John's beat No. 2 Duke by two in the second round, while No. 9 Penn beat No. 1 North Carolina by one. The two Cinderellas met in the Elite Eight, and Penn advanced 64-62.
That pales in comparison to the biggest thing, however. The final pitted Larry Bird's unbeaten Indiana State team against Magic Johnson and Michigan State. The Spartans kept the Sycamores at arm's length throughout, but the game earned a 24.1 rating, the highest in basketball history. The game is credited with paving the way for college basketball's rise in television notoriety (and revenue) in the coming years.
Best attribute(s): Three Final Four games decided by a total of 11 points
Best game: North Carolina 75, Kentucky 73 (Elite Eight)
Sometimes the NCAA tournament requires sacrifices. Sometimes an amazing first weekend results in Sweet 16 blowouts, and sometimes a chalky, unmemorable beginning produces second-week magic. The 2017 tourney gave us the latter. Twelve of the top 16 teams in the field reached the Sweet 16, but half of that round produced classics, and a 7-seed (South Carolina) reached the Final Four.
Each of the last three games were nip-and-tuck. Gonzaga survived Frank Martin's Gamecocks, 77-73, North Carolina topped Oregon by just one point, and while the title game featured poor shooting and minimal flow (because of what we'll diplomatically call aggressive officiating), it at least went down to the wire before UNC prevailed.
Best attribute(s): One of the wildest second weekends you'll see
Best game: Butler 74, Florida 71 (Elite Eight)
Did this tournament have one of the most frustrating and unwatchable finals in memory (UConn's 53-41 win over Butler)? Absolutely. But the journey to that point was awfully fun. The round of 64 featured 10 games that finished within four points, and in UNC-Asheville's win over Little Rock, we also got an overtime game in the First Four. Plus, after Pitt lost to Butler in the second round, two other No. 1 seeds (Ohio State and Duke) lost in the Sweet 16, and emerging out of the First Four, Shaka Smart's VCU Rams upset the last remaining No. 1, Kansas, in the Elite Eight.
This was the ultimate "anything goes" tournament, and it was a thrill ride ... for two weekends, at least. A cool-shooting Final Four kept this tournament out of the top 10, though.
Best attribute(s): Michigan's dramatic run and Princeton-Georgetown
Best game: Georgetown 50, Princeton 49 (first round)
This was one of the chalkiest tournaments on record, with a pretty fun first round but almost no upsets whatsoever in the three rounds that followed. But it made some memories all the same. Two No. 1 seeds came within a point of losing -- Georgetown barely survived Pete Carril's Princeton (50-49), while Billy Tubbs' Oklahoma almost fell to East Tennessee State (72-71) -- and Michigan proved willing to do some heavy lifting in the drama department.
Led by interim coach Steve Fisher, the Wolverines beat Xavier by five in the first round and North Carolina by 5 in the Sweet 16 before winning two all-timers in the Final Four. They needed 28 points from Glen Rice to beat Illinois, 83-81, then 34 from Rice (plus two clutch free throws from Rumeal Robinson) to beat Seton Hall in overtime in the finals.
Best attribute(s): The other candidate for best first round ever (and a buzzer-beating title winner)
Best game: Villanova 77, North Carolina 74 (national final)
If you're a fan of upsets, this was your year. A 15-seed won in the first round (Middle Tennessee over Michigan State), as did a 14 (Stephen F. Austin over West Virginia), a 13 (Hawaii over Cal), two 12s and three 11s. Little Rock's double-overtime win over Purdue was particularly memorable. In all, the first round provided 71 upset points, easily the most ever.
Granted, that created quite a few lopsided matchups in the coming rounds, and the two national semifinal games were decided by a combined 61 points. But you can't ask for a better start to the tournament, and you couldn't ask for a better finish either: Kris Jenkins' buzzer-beating 3-pointer gave Villanova a 77-74 victory over North Carolina and its first national title since 1985.
Best attribute(s): The Fab Five and Duke-Kentucky
Best game: Duke 104, Kentucky 103 (Elite Eight)
This list focuses on the tournaments that gave us the most over the course of three weekends. Grading by this scale, the 1992 tournament wasn't particularly amazing. It gave us fewer upsets and close games than normal, and Duke won its second straight national title with a 20-point pounding of Michigan in the final.
That Michigan team, however, with its five fabulous freshmen, ended up becoming one of the most culturally influential teams of all time, and that Duke team had to survive one of the greatest games ever to even reach the Final Four.
Best attribute(s): A fabulous first round ... and Carmelo Anthony
Best game: Arizona 96, Gonzaga 95 (second round)
The first round gave us 14 games decided within five points (including Drew Nicholas' buzzer-beater to put Maryland over UNC-Wilmington), and the second round gave us an Arizona-Gonzaga affair that might have been the best game ever in the round of 32. (The Zags missed buzzer-beaters in two overtime periods and fell 96-95.) The first weekend was chaos, and then the stars took over.
Dwyane Wade's Marquette team upset Kentucky to reach the Final Four, and Syracuse freshman Carmelo Anthony led his Orange to four wins over Big 12 teams and a national-title upset ... with help from Hakim Warrick's famous title-game block of Michael Lee, anyway.
Best attribute(s): An unforgettable South region
Best game: Loyola Chicago 63, Tennessee 62 (second round)
Most of 2018's chaos came in a single region. In the South, UMBC became the first 16-seed to beat a 1-seed, leaving nothing to doubt in a 74-54 thrashing of Virginia. That region's 11- (Loyola Chicago) and 13-seeds (Buffalo) also pulled off upsets, and none of the top four seeds made even the Sweet 16. Loyola ended up pummeling UMBC-slayer Kansas State to reach the Final Four.
The drama was over by the third weekend, though. The last three games of the season were decided by 12, 16 and 17 points as Villanova cruised to its second title in three years. It was fun getting there, though.
Best attribute(s): Balance
Best game: Navy 71, Cleveland State 70 (Sweet 16)
In terms of chaos vs. chalk, this was another nicely balanced tournament, and while it didn't have a No. 16 beating a No. 1, a la 2018, it did have Navy-Cleveland State. The Vikings beat Indiana in the first round, while Navy, led by David Robinson, thumped Syracuse in the second. In the Sweet 16, Robinson hit a late game-winner to take down Cleveland State and advance to the Elite Eight before Duke ended the dream. Meanwhile, in the South region, 11-seed LSU knocked off Kentucky to advance to the Final Four.
This tournament also had a lovely finale. Denny Crum's Louisville prevented Duke from winning Coach K his first title thanks to freshman (and future No. 1 pick) Pervis Ellison, who had 25 points and 11 rebounds. The Cardinals won 72-69.
Best attribute(s): The last four Virginia games
Best game: Virginia 80, Purdue 75 (Elite Eight)
This one had a vibe extremely similar to 1989's: a reasonably active first round gave way to a run of chalk. But the Elite Eight was utterly magnificent -- two overtime games, a one-point finish and a five-point finish -- and Virginia packed as much drama as possible into its title run.
Tony Bennett's Cavaliers survived a grind against 12-seed Oregon in the Sweet 16, then won one of the greatest games in recent memory against Purdue in the Elite Eight. Their 63-62 win over Auburn in the Final Four was equally memorable (Kyle Guy made three free throws with 0.6 seconds left after a series of pivotal calls and no-calls), and they watched Texas Tech come back from two 10-point deficits before finally putting the Red Raiders away in overtime.
Best attribute(s): A loaded first weekend and a wild UCLA run
Best game: Gonzaga 93, UCLA 90 (national semifinals)
After the COVID-driven cancellation of the 2020 tournament, the 2021 edition gave us all the chaos we had been craving. No tournament had more combined first- and second-round upset points than this one -- we saw four double-digit seeds reach the Sweet 16, with UCLA (an 11-seed) reaching the Final Four, Oregon State (12) nearly doing the same and Oral Roberts (15!) coming within two points of the Elite Eight. It was wild.
After all the chaos, though, the top two overall teams reached the final. Gonzaga had to survive a classic against UCLA in the semis, while Baylor beat Houston and the Zags by a combined 35 to win its first national title. A bit anticlimactic? Sure. But the first two weeks had given us more than enough.
Best attribute(s): An awesome Sweet 16 and Arizona
Best game: Arizona 85, Kansas 82 (Sweet 16)
After a rather staid first weekend to the 1997 tournament -- 13 of the final 16 teams were top-six seeds -- all hell broke loose in the Sweet 16, with three overtime games (including a double-OT classic between Minnesota and Clemson) and six of eight games decided by six or fewer points.
Three No. 1 seeds survived and advanced to the Final Four, but 4-seed Arizona, led by an incredible perimeter attack (Miles Simon, Mike Bibby, Michael Dickerson, Jason Terry), won three games by four or fewer points -- including a thriller over Kansas, the Southeast region's top seed -- to advance to the Final Four. Once there, the Wildcats took down North Carolina in the semis and survived Kentucky in overtime to earn Lute Olson his only national title.
Best attribute(s): Chaos early, Keith Smart late
Best game: Indiana 74, Syracuse 73 (national final)
This was another nicely balanced (albeit rather chalky) tournament -- loads of close games in the first two rounds, with a prominent Cinderella emerging (Wyoming beat UCLA to reach the Sweet 16) and a batch of near-upsets that could have upended things. Rick Pitino's Providence pulled off a pair of upsets to reach the Final Four, but Indiana's run of dramatic wins stole the show.
The Hoosiers won their third national title under Bobby Knight, but it took a last-second win over LSU in the Elite Eight, a 97-93 thriller over UNLV in the Final Four and Keith Smart's famous jumper with four seconds left in the title game to beat Syracuse.
Best attribute(s): The upsets never stopped
Best game: Kentucky 74, Wisconsin 73 (national semifinals)
The 2014 tournament gave us a title game pitting two of basketball's blue bloods against each other. That's not exactly novel. But the fact that UConn was a No. 7 seed and Kentucky was an 8 shows how wacky these three weeks were.
The first round gave us three 12-over-5 upsets and 14-seed Mercer knocking off Duke. The second round gave us an 11-over-3 and a 10-over-2, while Kentucky beat Midwest top seed Wichita State in a classic. It felt like we were destined for a Florida vs. Wisconsin title game, but UConn took down the Gators by 10, and Kentucky outlasted Wisconsin in the most high-quality game of the season. The final game was fine -- UConn won 60-54 after leading most of the way, though neither team shot amazingly well -- but this year ranks this high because of everything that happened before it.
Best attribute(s): Another wild first weekend (and Butler)
Best game: Duke 61, Butler 59 (national final)
The opening two days of the 2010 tournament were a thrill ride, with 12 of 32 first-round games decided by five or fewer points or in overtime. We didn't get an unusual number of upsets out of that, but those came in the second round, with Northern Iowa riding Ali Farokhmanesh to a shocker over top-seeded Kansas and four double-digit seeds reaching the Sweet 16.
Butler was the story that kept on delivering. Brad Stevens' fifth-seeded Bulldogs narrowly survived Murray State in the second round but took down the West's top two seeds to advance to the Final Four, where they also survived blue blood Michigan State. And in the final, they gave us the greatest almost buzzer-beater ever when, after a nip-and-tuck 40 minutes, Gordon Hayward launched a half-court bank shot that came achingly close to bouncing in.
It looked like it was going in until the moment it didn't.
Best attribute(s): Maybe the greatest second weekend ever
Best game: George Mason 86, UConn 84 (Elite Eight)
Despite starting out as a 3-seed, Billy Donovan's Florida Gators were clearly the class of this tournament, winning six games by an average of 16 points to claim the first of back-to-back titles. But their only near-loss came during an amazing weekend of ball.
The 2006 Sweet 16 gave us eventual finalist UCLA's classic 73-71 comeback win over Gonzaga, plus two overtime games (Villanova over Boston College, UConn over Washington), a narrow Florida win over Georgetown (57-53) and George Mason continuing its Cinderella run with a win over Wichita State. Then the Elite Eight gave us two more overtime games -- LSU's upset of 2-seed Texas and one of the most incredible tourney games of the 21st century, George Mason defeating top-seeded UConn 86-84 despite blowing a late lead in regulation.
This tournament gets a point deduction for a dud of a Final Four (three games decided by an average of 15 points), but wow, the preceding weekend was fantastic.
Best attribute(s): Jim Valvano, looking for someone to hug
Best game: NC State 54, Houston 52 (national final)
Let's put it this way: Despite only 52 teams participating (and, therefore, fewer overall games being played), the 1983 tournament featured as many thrillers as just about any tourney on record. There were only eight total first-round games in the West and Mideast regions, but six were decided by three or fewer points, including a wild, double-overtime affair between Valvano's NC State and Pepperdine.
The Wolfpack survived the Waves and proceeded to define the tournament. They beat No. 3 seed UNLV 71-70 in the second round, then toppled conference-mate and top seed Virginia 63-62 in the Elite Eight. They fended off tournament debutants Georgia in the Final Four, and, well, you probably remember what happened after that.
Best attribute(s): One of the best first weekends ever ... and Bo Kimble shooting left-handed
Best game: Duke 79, UConn 78 (Elite Eight)
College basketball was blessed with so many thrilling national-title games in the 1980s, but the 1990 tournament didn't provide that -- UNLV pummeled Duke 103-73 in the final. It did, however, show us how a 64-team tournament could become its own living, breathing organism.
The first weekend gave us just about as many close games as we've ever seen. We got three overtime games and nine games decided by four or fewer points in the first round (including 16-seed Murray State taking Michigan State to overtime), and in maybe the greatest second round ever, 12 of 16 games were decided by four or fewer. UNLV nearly lost to Ball State in the Sweet 16, and oh yeah, Christian Laettner sent Duke to the Final Four with a buzzer-beater. (Where have we heard that before?)
Meanwhile, the biggest story was a team that won its first two games by a combined 53 points. Paul Westhead's Loyola Marymount Lions reached the Elite Eight with full-throttle tempo and a higher purpose following the death of star Hank Gathers just days before the tournament. They fell to UNLV, who rolled from there, but this incredible tournament packed star power, buzzer-beaters and raw human emotion like almost no other tournament could.
Best attribute(s): All of them -- it had a little bit of everything
Best game: Villanova 66, Georgetown 64 (national final)
Forget bracket creep -- the NCAA bracket erupted in the early 1980s, doubling in size from 1978 to 1985 and slowly becoming the television juggernaut that it is today. Considering how many incredible tournaments were in this period, it's frankly incredible that the rapid expansion didn't continue.
Whatever you look for from March Madness -- star power, upsets or classic finishes -- you got it in 1985. Twelve first-round games were within five points, with nine more games in an incredible second round. We got the requisite Cinderellas (three 11- or-12 seeds in the Sweet 16, though one was Kentucky), and we got loads of star power in the Final Four, primarily via Patrick Ewing and Georgetown facing Chris Mullen, Walter Berry and St. John's for the fourth time in two months.
At the end of this delightful ride, we got maybe the most memorable national-championship upset ever. Rollie Massimino's Villanova Wildcats were overshadowed in the star-heavy Big East and reached the tournament as only an 8-seed. But they beat Dayton by two, top-seeded Michigan by four and Maryland by three, then kept North Carolina and Memphis at arm's length to make the final. They knew they could hang with Georgetown, the defending national champs, having lost two games to the Hoyas by a combined nine points that season. Georgetown was a 9.5-point favorite, but Villanova shot 78% from the field, played perfect possession basketball and took down the mighty Hoyas 66-64.
Actually, 1985 is probably why the bracket really hasn't expanded much since. How do you top perfection?