ARLINGTON, Texas -- To mark the 50th anniversary of the game show Jeopardy, the answer about the Final Four comes first.
For Connecticut, it’s March 29, 1999.
For Florida, it’s April 2, 2007. For Kentucky, April 1, 1996. And for Wisconsin, March 29, 1941.And now the question. What’s the greatest NCAA tournament day in the history of the program?
It seems a pertinent subject, since the case could be made that all four teams headed to the Final Four this weekend would claim a very, very prominent spot on their schools’ all-time memory list with a championship.
Imagine an entirely unexpected Connecticut title one year after being banned from the tournament. Or Florida winning its last 32 games. Or Kentucky finishing its remarkable No. 8 seed run with five freshmen starters. Or Wisconsin winning its first two Final Four games in 72 years.
They’d have to rank way up there. Which begs the question, what is already at the top for each of these four? It’s a matter of opinion, but here goes:
Connecticut, March 29, 1999.
It was the Huskies’ first trip to the Final Four, and there they were in the national championship game, with a 33-2 record. So how could they be 10-point underdogs?
Because Duke was 37-1 and had won 32 consecutive games, and few expected the Blue Devils to lose. “We felt it was ridiculous. We felt it hurt our pride,” Connecticut guard Khalid El-Amin would say later. “We wanted to come out to prove everybody wrong.”
Which UConn did. A back-and-forth game came down to the end with the Huskies leading 75-74 and Duke with the ball, but a turnover killed the Blue Devils’ last chance. It ended 77-74, with 27 points from Richard Hamilton.
“I looked into [the Duke] section and they just looked like they were shocked,” El-Amin said.
Connecticut not only had a famous upset, but had finally and fully joined the list of elite, by beating one of the elite.
“We could get used to this idea,” UConn head coach Jim Calhoun joked afterward. Turns out, he wasn’t kidding. He would win two more championships before retiring, but this night in St. Petersburg, Fla., was where it all started.
Florida, April 2, 2007.
The Gators had won the national championship the year before, and everyone knows what usually happens after that. All the stars head for the NBA.These Gators didn’t. The entire starting lineup came back, aiming to repeat, each willing to play his own role for the cause. The regular season had its bumps, and when Florida lost three of four in February, the big plans seemed to be coming undone.
Turns out, the Gators were only killing time, waiting for March. They did not have a score in the NCAA tournament closer than seven points, including 84-75 against Ohio State, in a championship game that felt more like a coronation. The Gators hit 10 of 18 3-pointers, and validated every goal they had sought.
All that was left that night was to decide where Florida might rank among the all-time greats. Some critics had marked them down the list, but it was Corey Brewer who said, “They might want to do some research. The numbers don’t lie. Back-to-back.”
And it was head coach Billy Donovan who added, “I think this team should go down as one of the best teams in college basketball history. Not as the most talented, but because they encompass what the word team means.
“The stuff that happened this year is so right for college basketball.”
And it was Joakim Noah who summed up the Gators’ legacy. “It’s in the book. It’s not going anywhere.”
Indeed. Florida remains the only repeat champion in 22 years.
Kentucky, April 1, 1996.
As any citizen of Blue Blue Nation knows, the Wildcats have an entire buffet table of championships from which to choose the greatest moment. But this one was particularly momentous for two reasons.
First, Kentucky was an undeniably great team, breaking new ground with head coach Rick Pitinio’s up-tempo game that started three guards and two forwards, and used reserves in waves. “People said you can’t win like that,” Pitino said.
But they did, without letup or mercy. Pitino grew to calling them the “Untouchables” because of the way they relentlessly played defense. By the time they got to the championship game, they were 33-2, had won their first four NCAA tournament games by an average of 31 points, and dispatched No. 1 Massachusetts (and its young head coach John Calipari) in the national semifinal.
The 76-67 title-game win against Syracuse was not typical Kentucky in neither margin nor high score, but was typical in manner. The Wildcat bench outscored the Syracuse reserves 26-0.
There is another reason to stick this night at the top. It was the bright light at the end of a dark Kentucky tunnel. When the 1990s began, the program was in shambles from NCAA violations. Imagine three consecutive seasons with no Kentucky in the tournament. When Pitino took the job, he called the Wildcats “the Roman Empire of college basketball.” This night proved the Roman Empire was back in power.
Wisconsin, March 29, 1941.
Britain was trying to survive the Blitz, Hitler was planning an attack on the Soviet Union, and Pearl Harbor was only eight months away. The world was a mess when Wisconsin and Washington State gathered to decide the third NCAA tournament title.
It was not exactly an exhibition in shooting touch. The Badgers hit 25.4 percent, the Cougars 21.5 percent. Wisconsin won 39-34, and they were so happy back in Madison, Wis., thousands were waiting at the train station when the team arrived at 1:15 a.m. on a Monday. According to archives at the university library, “House mothers even suspended rules and allowed female students to stay out for the event.”
They had good reason not to want to miss the celebration. It took 59 years for Wisconsin to get back to the Final Four. And the Badgers haven’t won a game on the Final Four level since that spring of ’41.
But lots of things could change the coming days. In four happy places, the history book is open for business.