Wooden’s UCLA to Williams’ UNC: the most dominant NCAA tournament runs of all time

NCAA Basketball

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It’s been almost six months since Adama Sanogo, Jordan Hawkins, Andre Jackson Jr., and their teammates secured a fifth national title for UConn. Dan Hurley’s group won its six NCAA tournament games by an average of 20 points, marking the Huskies’ run as one of the most dominant performances in March Madness history.

Now that we’ve had ample time to reflect on UConn’s stellar 2023 postseason, we can perhaps address the big question: Just how dominant was that run compared to those recorded by the 83 previous men’s national champions?

First, a quick clarification. We’re ranking runs here, not national champions. We’ve already done that. In this same spirit of clarity we will define “dominant” roughly as “recording decisive tournament wins against strong tournament opponents.”

Right, so let’s start by drawing a dividing line at 1985, when the field expanded to 64 teams. Prior to that, national champions played anywhere from six to five, four or even just three tournament games.

It was a wild era, one where the tournament expanded no fewer than 13 times. Differing field sizes makes direct comparisons tricky even within the era, much less to more recent times. Nevertheless, the question must be posed. In this pre-modern epoch — where shot clocks were reserved for the NBA, all makes from the field earned two points and the tournament field expanded 13 times — which national champions posted the most dominant runs?

Peering into long ago brackets, 1939-84

An honorary certificate of merit goes out to the very first Division I men’s national champion. In 1939, Oregon won its three tournament games by an average of 15 points.

How amazing was that exactly? Hard to say. Equally impressive — if somewhat mysterious in evaluative terms — were runs posted by Indiana in 1940, Oklahoma A&M in 1945 and Kentucky in both 1948 and 1949. Well done, all of the above!

Then, at mid-century, things become at least a tiny bit more transparent. The Simple Rating System (SRS) at sports-reference.com kicks in as of 1950. As a schedule-adjusted measure of a team’s overall scoring margin, SRS functions a bit like KenPom for the decades before KenPom.

With that in mind, here’s one ranking of the best tournament performances over the ensuing 35 seasons:

5. UCLA Bruins, 1967

The first UCLA varsity team featuring Lew Alcindor (soon to become Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) won its four tournament games by an average of 23.8 points. To this day that is a record for any champion from 1939 all the way to 2023. Then again, our trusty pre-KenPom guide, SRS, suggests this team’s four opponents were, through no fault of the Bruins, collectively the weakest group faced by any pre-modern era champion other than La Salle in 1954.

4. NC State Wolfpack, 1974

Yes, yes, we know. One of NC State’s four tournament wins went to double-overtime. How “dominant” is that, exactly? Well, when the opponent is UCLA and its star player is Bill Walton, it’s dominant enough for us. David Thompson and his mates defeated the other three opposing teams by an average of 21 points.

Speaking of the Wolfpack, here’s a bit of pub trivia: NC State was the last program ever to win a national title in four tournament games (1974) and the first do so in six (1983). The first game the Wolfpack played under Jim Valvano in the latter year was a play-in contest of sorts, in a 52-team bracket.

3. Indiana Hoosiers, 1981

After watching IU start the season 7-5 and drop all the way out of the AP poll, head coach Bob Knight admitted he had “a lot of unanswered questions” about the team. Then Isiah Thomas, Randy Wittman and the rest of the Hoosiers found the answers. With an average tournament margin of victory near 23 points, Indiana coasted to the program’s fourth title.

2. Ohio State Buckeyes, 1960

Sometimes a champion’s overall margin of victory in the tournament includes not only an extreme blowout but also at least one genuinely close game. Such was not the case for Jerry Lucas, John Havlicek and these Buckeyes. Coach Fred Taylor’s group won every game by at least 17.

1. UCLA Bruins, 1968

Avenging a regular season loss to Houston, Alcindor and the Bruins defeated the Cougars 101-69 in the Final Four and then posted a 23-point victory over North Carolina to win it all. Despite facing an exceptionally strong succession of tournament opponents, John Wooden’s group came within a whisker of winning every game by double digits. For the record, that pre-modern era double-digit club includes the teams already mentioned as well as the Bruins of 1970 and 1973, San Francisco in 1956 and Michigan State in 1979.

But enough of bygone epochs. Let’s consider the tournament as we’ve long known and cherished it.

Ranking runs, 1985-2023

Another honorary certificate goes out at the top here too, this time to Baylor and its magnificent 2021 run. Yes, there was a pandemic. No, there were no fans (or not many) in the stands. Even so, the Bears were exceptional. BU won its games by an average of 15 points despite facing five top-20 KenPom opponents, including three (Villanova, Houston and Gonzaga) ranked in the top five. That’ll do.

As for tournaments that were not played in bubbles, we have a tie at No. 5…

T-5. Kentucky Wildcats, 1996

True, UK’s record-setting modern-era margin of victory (129 points across six games) was helped along by a 110-72 win over a No. 16 seed. So be it. Rick Pitino’s men posted a similar 101-70 victory over no less an opponent than Rick Majerus and Utah. Even considering relatively close seven- and nine-point wins at the Final Four over UMass Minutemen and Syracuse, the Wildcats known as “The Untouchables” most certainly came by their name honestly.

T-5. Michigan State Spartans, 2000

When Tom Izzo’s group won all six of its tournament games by double-digit margins, it marked the third time in a row that the team doing so in the NCAA’s marquee event had come from the Big Ten (including the Spartans in 1979 and Indiana in 1981). Then two things happened. One, the Big Ten stopped winning titles. Two, runs of victories by double-digit margins became more common, starting the very next year.

4. Duke Blue Devils, 2001

Not including a 95-52 win in the round of 64, Jay Williams, Shane Battier, Mike Dunleavy and the Blue Devils prevailed in every contest by between 10 and 13 points. (A stat made possible only after rallying from 22 down against Maryland in the Final Four.) On paper, none of Duke’s vanquished foes were fellow No. 1 seeds. On the court, however, the Terrapins and national finalist Arizona both ranked in the top six at KenPom.

3. UConn Huskies, 2023

Dan Hurley’s team is one of just three modern-era champions to face no opponent seeded higher than the No. 3 line (along with UNLV in 1990 and Virginia in 2019). Not that it would have mattered, of course, if the Huskies had played one or two or several of those eight potential opponents (one of whom was unavailable after losing to a No. 16 seed). When you win six games by a total of 120 points on your way to a national title, you’ve earned your lofty perch on this list, regardless of how the rest of the bracket performed.

2. Villanova Wildcats, 2018

After winning by 12 against Chris Beard’s fearsome Texas Tech defense — despite shooting 4-of-24 from beyond the arc — Jay Wright’s team returned to form at the Final Four. The Wildcats swamped fellow No. 1 seed Kansas with 18 3s before Donte DiVincenzo hung 31 points on Michigan in the title game. As seen with both the Red Raiders and in the preceding game against West Virginia, coming within 12 turned out to be as good as any tournament opponent could do against Nova.

1. North Carolina Tar Heels, 2009

Give it up for Tyler Hansbrough, Ty Lawson and the Tar Heels. After an 84-66 loss to Kansas in the 2008 Final Four, the top-seeded Heels won six times by an average of 20.2 points against a 2009 bracket that really held together. Maybe UNC didn’t face a No. 1 seed, but playing opponents from the Nos. 16, 8, 4, 3 and 2 (twice) lines still marks this team as unusual. The only top-seeded champion to face six opponents with a higher average seeding than 5.8 is… North Carolina in 2017 (5.7). Confronted with challenging paths, Roy Williams advanced all the way to the end more than once.

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