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April 02, 2012

Can Kansas-Kentucky crack this top 10?

Anyone excited about this game? Anyone agree with this well-argued sentiment that a Kentucky title changes the college game for the worse? Anyone think Kansas has a chance?

    Bigger upsets have happened, but I'm not optimistic about Kansas' ability to pull this off. I think if you put Bill Self under oath, he'd tell you this is his fifth- or sixth-best Kansas team. The one from two years ago -- you know, the one that lost to Northern Iowa? -- would smack this one around in nine of 10 meetings. Yes, even with a disgruntled Tyshawn Taylor and a much skinnier Thomas Robinson. But there is pressure on Kentucky, in particular its oft-maligned yet effective head coach. I must say, the Wildcats have handled it and are playing terrific team basketball -- even though a lot of people want to believe otherwise. In honor of tonight, here are my top 10 national title games (my viewing history only and based purely on the quality of the game):

    1. N.C. State 54, Houston 52, 1983. The first Final Four I really watched closely, and this game was preceded by my favorite game ever -- Houston and Louisville trading dunks for two hours in the semifinals. That also made Houston my favorite college basketball team, so watching N.C. State shock them was a good lesson in the way this tournament can surprise and disappoint. I can't say I remember much about the game, other than thinking Akeem (no "H" yet) was getting fouled a lot, and then the Charles dunk and the Valvano reaction. Mainly, I was just excited my mom let me stay up late to watch it.

    2. Connecticut 77, Duke 74, 1999. Another choice based on personal experience. The first Final Four I covered, stranded in Florida with four other State Newsers after MSU's loss to Duke (poor us). I seem to remember a lot of Waffle House and also Charles Robinson yelling "Elton! Elton!" at Duke's Elton Brand as we walked past the Blue Devils one night in Ybor City. Brand did not seem interested in talking. Mostly, I remember a terrific championship game between two of the best college basketball teams I've seen. Khalid El-Amin and Richard Hamilton wouldn't let UConn lose. That Duke team has to be one of the best teams not to win it, and arguably Coach K's best team.

    3. Villanova 66, Georgetown 64, 1985. Here's an upset that would dwarf what Kansas could achieve tonight. This was a severe mismatch, but Rollie's guys hit every shot. Seriously, didn't it seem like it? We found out later that some of them were hopped up on substances, about a year before the Len Bias tragedy changed the way a lot of people thought about cocaine. But I'll remember this for the game and the upset of another of the best teams not to win it. This made me especially happy because Ewing and Co. denied Akeem and the Cougars their rightful title a year earlier.

    4. Kansas 75, Memphis 68, 2008. This is No. 1 on the list of favorites at NCAA headquarters because it helped them avoid having a vacated championship. Calipari's Tigers had to be wiped from the record books for NCAA violations, but no one who saw this will forget the way they collapsed to allow Kansas to force overtime. Here's another nominee for the Best Teams Not to Win It list, mostly because of the greatness of Derrick Rose.

    5. Duke 61, Butler 59, 2010. That Gordon Hayward halfcourt shot missed being the most memorable in NCAA Tournament history by about three inches, maybe. These were not great teams (again, Kansas was the best team in the game that season) and it wasn't an eye-pleasing game, but it was intense, and it was the closest we've been to a mid-major actually winning the whole thing. Of the five Final Fours Tom Izzo has left empty-handed, this was the best opportunity -- despite how injury-riddled the Spartans were at the time.

    6. Arizona 84, Kentucky 79 (OT), 1997. A great game to watch, lots of talent on both sides, back and forth at the end. This was the Simon-Bibby team (with a sixth man named Jason Terry who would win national POY honors two years later) that shocked Kansas in the Sweet 16. Have we mentioned best teams not to win it? That Kansas loss destroyed what was an otherwise near-flawless bracket and started me wondering about Roy Williams. But I've been told I'm too hard on him, so I'll leave it alone.

    7. Indiana 74, Syracuse 73, 1987. The Keith Smart shot to deliver Bobby Knight his third title and deny Jim Boeheim a championship -- even though he had the better team. Siekaly, Douglas, Coleman as a freshman. But Indiana was very good, too. Remember when everyone thought Steve Alford was a cool guy? One thing I'll never understand about this game is why Syracuse stood around for a couple seconds after Smart's shot fell.

    8. North Carolina 75, Illinois 70, 2005. Now that I'm going through this, it's amazing how often the best team doesn't win. Though many would argue that point in this case. To me, when Illinois was playing its best basketball that season (which it sustained for a few months), that was the best team I've covered. Brown-Williams-Head in that backcourt, with a great mismatch 4 in Powell and then an athletic 5 in Augustine. That's all you needed. Unfortunately for Illinois, Augustine was a foul-plagued non-factor in the title game. And Illinois was not playing its best in the tournament. It was playing its best when it came to Breslin and handled a very good MSU team that played very well. There was just no stopping the passing and shooting of that Illinois team when it was on its game. The Illini nearly roared back in the title game behind a flurry of 3-point bombs, but couldn't get the stops it needed against Sean May and Co.

    9. Michigan 80, Seton Hall 79, 1989. It was definitely a regrettable foul call that put Rumeal Robinson to the line to win it in overtime, a touch foul that denied everyone a last-second shot to win or lose it. But that that doesn't change the fact that this was a terrific game, with an improbable Seton Hall run late to force the extra session. Glen Rice was unbelievable in the entire tournament, but Sean Higgins made this possible with his little baseline shot to beat Illinois in the semifinals. And speaking once again of the best teams not to win it ... how about the '89 Illini? A bunch of 6-6 guys running around and dunking, great fun, should have won it all. Meanwhile, this was the best Seton Hall team ever, with John Morton and the feathered-haired Australian sniper, Andrew Gaze.

    10. Syracuse 81, Kansas 78, 2003. Another great one for New Orleans. Not quite as good as Jordan's winner in '82 or Smart's winner in '87 (or Webber's timeout in '93, I guess), but this came down to Hakeem Warrick seeming to leap from the key to swat Kirk Hinrich's tying 3-point attempt -- after Kansas came back from 12 down in the final moments to get within a bomb of tying it. Boeheim finally won one, and he did it with a freshman (Carmelo Anthony) as his star player. I still think this game changed the way some coaches think. You were supposed to need experience to win this tournament, but Anthony proved that a dominant one-and-done player (with some help) could get it done. Some of you may remember watching that Syracuse team pull out a thriller in Breslin that season, despite Chris Hill's 34 points. One of the best games Breslin has seen.

    A few more things to get in:

    * Chris Solari gives a thorough look back and ahead on MSU women's basketball.

    * Neil Koepke wraps up a surprisingly successful debut for MSU hockey coach Tom Anastos.

    * And here's a replay of today's chat for those who missed it, on the online pay model to come.

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Joe Rexrode
MSU Sports Reporter
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