Author Jeff Morris

Greatest Final Four Ever Played

The Greatest Final Four Ever

The NCAA tournament is one of the most popular sporting events in the United States. In 1939, eight teams played in the initial tournament with Oregon beating Ohio State for the title. Harold Olsen, the head coach at Ohio St. in 1939, is credited with starting the NCAA tournament.

According to, the tournament expanded to sixteen teams in 1951, thirty-two teams in 1975, forty-eight teams in 1980 and then to sixty-four teams in 1985. The last time the tournament added teams was in 2011 when “play-in games” were added to expand to the current number of sixty-eight teams.

The NCAA tournament has become so popular that men plan their surgeries around the tournament. The Wednesday before the first round starts on Thursday is allegedly the day for the most vasectomies are performed in the U.S. I have done no research to determine if that is true, but I am certain that day is at least in the top five. All I know for sure is the first four days of the tournament are any true basketball fans favorite time of year. Sixteen games on Thursday and Friday and then eight on Saturday and Sunday starting at 11am and ending around midnight. What is not to love?

I remember watching the tournament as a young boy in the mid-70s. I can recall my dad watching Indiana beat Michigan in the 1976 title game and I also watched part of the title game in 1977 when Marquette sent Al McGuire into retirement with a championship.

However, the NCAA tourney did not take off until 1979. That was the year Larry Bird and Indiana State met Magic Johnson and Michigan St. in the final game. To this day, that is still the highest rated NCAA game in history. Over 24 million people were estimated to have watched the Spartans beat the Sycamores that night.

A few years ago, I asked myself “What was the greatest Final Four of all time?” There have been over eighty NCAA tournaments and several have been memorable. Some of the ones that I considered were:

  • The 1966 Final Four with Kentucky, Duke, Utah, and Texas Western (now UTEP). That tourney was the first in which an all-black starting five at Texas Western beat an all-white team from Kentucky to win the title. It changed the landscape of college basketball because schools in the south, like Kentucky, started recruiting black players. There is even a movie about that Texas Western team called “Glory Road” from 2006.
  • 1973 with UCLA, Memphis St., Indiana and Providence. UCLA beat Memphis for the title and finished undefeated for the second straight year. Their winning streak was at 60 games and would grow to 88 before losing to Notre Dame in 1974. The most amazing stat of the final was Bill Walton was 21-22 from the floor and finished with 44 points. Probably still the greatest single game performance in Final Four history and maybe in NCAA history.
  • 1979 with Michigan St, Indiana St, DePaul, and Penn. As I stated earlier, MSU vs ISU is still the highest rated NCAA game in history. Magic vs Bird. Enough said.
  • 1983 with NC State, Houston, Louisville, and Georgia. NC State stunned Houston in the final 54-52 on Lorenzo Charles’ dunk, but the best game of the tourney was likely the semifinal between Phi Slamma Jamma (Houston) and the Doctors of Dunk (Louisville). NC State vs UGA seemed like a jayvee game being played before Houston and Louisville ran up and down the floor and dunked what seemed like thirty times (it was closer to like fifteen) with Houston winning 94-81.
  • 1985 with Villanova, Georgetown, Memphis St. and St. Johns. The first Final Four with three teams from one conference, the Big East. Villanova played over their heads for three weeks and shocked the world by playing an almost perfect game to beat #1 and defending champion, Georgetown, 66-64.

There were other Final Fours I could add like 1990 with UNLV blowing out Duke, 1999 when UConn upset heavily favored Duke, 2008 when Kansas upset Memphis, and 2022 when Duke and UNC finally met and UNC beat Duke in the NCAA tourney in Coach K’s final game (notice a pattern of Duke losing in my favorite Finals Fours?), but I will stop with the ones I mentioned above.

There are four criteria that I used to choose the greatest Final Four of all time. First, the Final Four selected as the greatest had to have something historic or unusual happen. Like the first time the 3pt shot or shot clock was used or the first time an all-black starting five played in a game (see Texas Western above).

Second, great coaches. There has to be at least a couple, if not four, memorable coaches for the teams playing in the final weekend of the season.

Next, an abundance of great players. Guys who were great (or at least really good) in college and a few who went on to stardom in the NBA.

Finally, at least one memorable game. It is hard to have three memorable games at the Final Four, so one is all I require. With all that being said, my choice for the greatest Final Four of all time is…….

1982 Final Four in New Orleans, LA.

This Final Four was historic and not just because we were introduced to a skinny freshman named Mike (now Michael) Jordan. A friend of mine, Ed Belva, attended the games that weekend and bought me a Final Four t-shirt with all four teams, UNC, Georgetown, Louisville and Houston, on the shirt. I wore that shirt until it finally just disintegrated.

What was historic or unusual about this Final Four? It was the first Final Four played in a domed stadium. Over 50,000 people packed the Louisiana Superdome, home of the NFL’s Saints, to watch three games over the course of Saturday and Monday. Only one other memorable game had been played in a dome up to that time and that was the 1968 showdown between UCLA and Houston. Now, every Final Four is played in a dome due to the popularity of the tournament. In fact, I believe that last Final Four played in a basketball arena was 1996 when Kentucky beat Syracuse at the old Meadowlands in New Jersey.

What about the coaches? Well, you had Dean Smith from UNC, John Thompson from Georgetown, Louisville’s Denny Crum, and Guy V. Lewis from Houston (who also coached the Cougars in the game that was played at the Astrodome in 1968). Those four coaches combined to win five national titles, lead their teams to multiple Final Fours, and won over 2700 games in 125 seasons as head coaches. Dean Smith was the winningest coach in NCAA history for a few years and still ranks seventh. All four coaches are in the Naismith Hall of Fame.

How about the players on the four teams? Well, there were nineteen NBA draft picks between the four teams (this is a little misleading because there were seven rounds in the NBA draft in the early 80s and now there are only two, but still, that is a lot of talent). The list of the top players for each of the teams is staggering:

North Carolina

Tar Heels







Michael Jordan*

James Worthy*

Sam Perkins*

*NBA Draft Picks

Patrick Ewing*

Eric “Sleepy” Floyd*

Fred Brown

Bill Martin*

Anthony Jones*

Derek Smith*

Jerry Eaves*

Lancaster Gordon*

Rodney McCray*

“Scooter” McCray*

Milt Wagner*

Charles Jones*

Wiley Brown

Clyde Drexler*

Rob Williams*

Larry “Mr. Mean” Micheaux*

Michael Young*

Hakeem Olajuwon*

Benny Anders

Here are just a few of the accomplishments the players in that Final Four achieved during their playing careers in college and the NBA:

  • Worthy, Ewing, and Olajuwon were all three #1 overall picks the year they were drafted (MJ was selected 3rd after Dream and Sam Bowie in 1984….shocking, I know).
  • Worthy, Jordan, and Ewing all won at least one National Player of the Year Award.
  • Players were named 1st, 2nd, or 3rd-team AP All-Americans thirteen times (some were named multiple times) between 1981-85.
  • UNC lost to Indiana in the 1981 national final, Louisville’s players were the bookends to the 1980 and 1986 National Titles they won, Georgetown won the 1984 Title and lost in 1985 to Villanova, and Houston would make the Final Four in 1983 and 1984 and lose in the finals in both. Players on these four teams combined for four National Championships and twelve Final Four appearances from 1980-86.
  • Jordan, Worthy, Ewing, Olajuwon, and Drexler were all inducted into Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.
  • Too many NBA MVPs, All-Stars, All-NBA teams, and NBA titles to name.
  • And, of course, this was when we first saw MJ’s greatness.

Finally, the national championship game was historic and memorable for two reasons ( one great play and one not-so-great). The semifinal games were fairly pedestrian. UNC beat Houston 68-63 and held the Cougar’s leading scorer, Rob Williams, to zero points. Georgetown slowed the tempo and beat Louisville 50-46 in the second game.

The championship game had huge hype leading up to tipoff. John Thompson had his team stay in Mississippi, some seventy miles away from New Orleans, to shield his team from the media and fans. Dean Smith was still looking for his first title as a head coach.

The game itself was close throughout. Thompson had told Pat Ewing to block every shot he could early and he committed multiple goaltending fouls in the first minutes of the game. Georgetown led 32-31 at the half. The last four minutes of the game were back and forth with the teams changing leads several times. Sleepy Floyd made a short jumper to put the Hoyas up 62-61 with under a minute left. UNC ran the clock down and called timeout with :32 on the clock (you can watch the last minute on the link below).

UNC ran their offense and probed for the shot to take the lead. I said earlier there was a great play and a not-so-great play, well, this was the great play. Jimmy Black threw a skip pass to MJ and he hit an 18-footer to give UNC a 63-62 lead with about sixteen seconds to play.

Georgetown did not call timeout and Fred Brown brought the ball down the floor. You can watch as Worthy gets out of position trying to steal a pass from Brown. Brown turns away and then sees what he thinks is a teammate on his right. The not-so-great play was Brown threw the ball to Worthy with six seconds left. And the rest is history. I still feel sick for Fred Brown when I watch that play and I feel sick for me because I LOVED the Hoyas in the early 80s. Fortunately, Brown and the Hoyas redeemed themselves in 1984 by winning it all.

There you have it. The greatest final four of all time, in my opinion. What do you think?

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