The NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament is perhaps the most exciting playoff structure in sports. 64 teams from across the country engage in a do-or-die system that captivates and enthralls players, coaches, and fans everywhere. Average Joes can become legends, and teams can become immortalized forever.
With every exciting story or upstart underdog, there is also soul-crushing sadness for the young men who are eliminated from postseason play. Some of the NCAA's greatest teams have mowed through the competition all year, up until a stronger force or unlikely mid-major knocks them off their perch. It's one thing to lose against another top team in the Final Four; for the teams on our list, their journey fell short of that, ending in gut-wrenching fashion. These are the seven best teams to fall short in the entire history of March Madness.
All statistics courtesy of Sports Reference CBB.
1974-75 Indiana Hoosiers
The 1974-75 Hoosiers may have been Bobby Knight's second-best team during his thirty-year tenure in Bloomington. Indiana entered the tournament with an undefeated record, buoyed by a dominant front-court lead by forwards Steve Green and Scott May.
May, an All-American, broke his hand in the final game of the regular season. In their first two games, the team won handily, beating UTEP and Oregon State. However, Indiana ran into a strong Kentucky squad in the Sweet Sixteen, losing an instant classic 92-90. Their heartbreak wouldn't last long; Knight's crew won the title while going undefeated the following season.
1982-83 Virginia Cavaliers
During future Hall of Famer Ralph Sampson's final year on campus, Virginia believed they had the makings of a title-winner. Having reached the Final Four two years prior, the club was loaded with experienced veterans, including future Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle, and was coming off a 29-5 season in 1983. With Sampson, arguably the nation's best player and a nightly double-double threat, the Cavaliers could go toe to toe with anyone.
After beating Washington State and Boston College in two close games, Virginia went up agains ACC rival NC State for a chance to reach the Final Four. Sadly for the Cavs, Jimmy Valvano's Cardiac Pack, an eight seed, eeked out a 63-62 nail biter on their way to a miraculous championship run. While Sampson scored 23 points, Virginia's lack of depth was on full display, as nobody else scored more than eight.
1983-84 DePaul Blue Demons
While they barely register on the national radar nowadays, DePaul in the 1970s and 80s was a force to be reckoned with. Despite high seedings in previous tournaments, they had fallen short of expectations ever since a Final Four run in 1979. Ranked as a 1 or 2 seed four times in a five year span after '79, DePaul had yet to advance past the second round.
In legendary coach Ray Meyer's 42nd and final season as head coach, he had assembled a formidable 27-3 squad, again ranked as a 1 seed. Due to past tournament structure, the team received a bye before beating eight seed Illinois State, pushing them to the Sweet Sixteen. DePaul, helmed by Dallas Comegys, future NBA journeyman Tyrone Corbin, and a stifling defense, fell to Wake Forest in an overtime shocker, 73-71. It would mark the last time the Blue Demons would land as a top seed in the NCAA Tournament.
1996-97 Kansas Jayhawks
Of the many Kansas teams that took the floor during the Roy Williams era, the 1996-97 iteration may have been the best. Led by a young Paul Pierce (16.3 PPG, 6.8 RB) and Raef LaFrentz (18.5 PPG, 9.3 RB), the Jayhawks were loaded with future NBA talent, driving a high-octane offense that averaged the second most points in the nation. Heading into the tourney at 32-1, KU was the obvious number one overall seed.
Come playoff time, Kansas acted like a top team, winning by double digits against #16 Jackson State and #8 Purdue. Still, the program faced a tough challenge in the Sweet Sixteen with #4 Arizona. Instead of slowing them down, the Wildcats went toe to toe with the Jayhawks, winning a tight contest 85-82 en route to a National Championship. For Kansas, the following season would see another brutal upset in the second round against eight seed Rhode Island.
2009-10 Kentucky Wildcats
In John Calipari's first season as head coach, he constructed the first of many high-profile rosters at Kentucky. Headlined by five stars in guard John Wall and center DeMarcus Cousins, along with other future NBA mainstays such as Eric Bledsoe and Patrick Patterson, the Wildcats had arguably the most talent in the nation. Ending the season with just two losses, the young squad had many prognosticators backing them for a run to the Final Four.
For the first three rounds of the NCAA Tournament, it seemed like they would get there. Through the Sweet Sixteen, Kentucky won all of their matchups by an average of 25 points. They soon met their match in the Elite Eight against Bob Huggins and the West Virginia Mountaineers. A combination of terrible shooting (12.5% from three) and frustration from Huggins' signature 'Press Virginia' defense led to a 73-66 upset and an end to a once-dominant season. While the season ended in disappointment, this team changed college basketball. By ushering in the one-and-done era, Calipari shifted the way that teams would recruit for the next decade and beyond.
2011-12 Syracuse Orange
Jim Boeheim's Syracuse teams often play at their best when everyone counts them out. In 2012, that was not the case; the Orange entered March Madness with a stellar 34-2 record. Leading the way was senior Kris Joseph and future NBA lottery pick Dion Waiters at guard. However, the strength of this crew was their depth; SU had seven different players average more than six points. The bench allowed for Boeheim to mix and match as the season went on, including the strategic decision to bring Waiters, their best scorer, off the bench as a sixth man. Syracuse's signature 2-3 zone also held opposing offenses to an average of just 61 points.
While Syracuse lost starting center Fab Melo for the tourney due to academic violations, 'Cuse still managed to roll through their first two opponents, before scraping by Wisconsin with a one-point victory. Heading into the Elite Eight, they met the Ohio State Buckeyes, led by All-American forward Jared Sullinger. Without Melo's length to combat Ohio State's physical game, Sullinger feasted, dropping nineteen points and sending the Orange home early by a score of 77-70.
2018-19 Gonzaga Bulldogs
Gonzaga, under the stewardship of head coach Mark Few, has had plenty of dangerous teams over the years, yet none have been able to bring home a National Championship, although this year's group may be good enough to pull it off. However, the 2018-19 crew was nothing to sneeze at. Known for a high-octane offense that scored the most points in college basketball (87.6 PPG), the Zags were carried by one of the best duos in recent memory, forwards Rui Hachimura (19.7 PPG) and Brandon Clarke (16.9 PPG).
Like our previous two entries on this list, the Bulldogs opened up the tournament with three straight wins, taking down #16 Farleigh Dickinson, #9 Baylor, and #4 Florida State with relative ease. In the Elite Eight, they matched up with Texas Tech in a battle of the nation's top offense and third-best defense. The Red Raiders slowed down Gonzaga, forcing sixteen turnovers and blocking seven shots in a 75-69 victory. While Hachimura and Clarke excelled (40 combined points), the rest of the roster scored just 29, as the team scored nearly twenty points less than they had averaged during the season.