The history of the men’s NCAA Tournament started in 1938. This year’s event was the 83rd edition of March Madness, giving plenty of opportunities for the best college basketball programs to win a national title.
The unpredictable nature of the tournament, however, has left many of the biggest names still seeking that ultimate achievement. Several of those teams made runs this postseason before again falling short. Some have historically been very good, but are experiencing a recent downturn. All have gotten close and probably will again.
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A list of the best eight programs never to cut down the nets at the Final Four.
Twenty five years ago it would have been inconceivable that the Bulldogs would be on this list. In fact, most people wouldn’t have even known about Gonzaga unless they were fans of John Stockton. Flash forward to today and the program just concluded its 23rd consecutive NCAA appearance and has emerged as of the elites in college basketball. The lone thing missing is that elusive title. The Bulldogs have been seeded No. 1 five times, including this season, and made two championship games in the past five tournaments.
Even if the Cougars hadn’t reached the Final Four and Elite Eight in the past two seasons, they would be on this list. In the 1960s, led by Elvin Hayes, they made two Final Fours before losses to UCLA. Hakeem Olajuwon led them to three consecutive Final Fours in the 1980s, including losses to North Carolina State and Georgetown in consecutive national championship games with the Wolfpack pulling off one of the tournament’s biggest upsets to deny Houston a title. The Cougars have made six appearances in the Final Four, more than any school on this list.
The Fighting Illini have been a No. 1 seed four times and made Final Fours twice (1989 and 2005) when achieving that status. Among its five national semifinals, Illinois lost to Kentucky in 1947 and 1951 before finishing third both years. The Wildcats also beat them in a controversial 1984 regional final at Rupp Arena that caused the NCAA to ban teams from playing on their home floor in the regional round. That’s one of nine regional finals for Illinois. The closest it came to winning the title was a narrow loss to North Carolina in the 2005 championship game.
Besides making the Final Four in 1939 and 1947, the Sooners had no NCAA history to speak of before Billy Tubbs arrived in 1980. They were seeded No. 1 four times in a six-year span starting in 1984 and lost the national championship game in 1998 to Kansas. In total, Oklahoma is equal with Gonzaga in being a No. 1 seed five times. Only six teams have done it more. Kelvin Sampson and Lon Kruger also led the school to the Final Four in 2002 and 2016, respectively, giving the school five national semifinal appearances.
A disappointing loss to Saint Peter’s was just the latest tournament frustration for the Boilermakers, who seemingly have used up all their good karma in the regular season and then seen their postseason expectations ruined. They’ve had 44 tournament wins, the most of any team without a title, but only made two Final Fours. A memorable loss to Virginia in 2019 stopped Purdue from reaching a third. Perhaps the law of averages will play in its favor. This year was the 30th appearance in 39 tournaments, so at some point they have to break through, right?
No other school has been to more tournaments and failed to win a title than the Fighting Irish. A significant portion of those 37 appearances came during the tenure of Digger Phelps, who took Notre Dame to the Final Four in 1978 and also ended UCLA’s record 88-game winning streak in 1974. The best chance of winning the title may have been in 1979 when the Fighting Irish were seeded No. 1 before losing to Magic Johnson’s Michigan State team. Mike Brey has taken the school to regional finals in 2015 and 2016.
The Longhorns made Final Four appearances in the early era of the tournament in 1943 and 1947 when the field was only eight teams. The other trip to the national semifinals was in 2003 during a span of 14 consecutive tournament showings under Rick Barnes. Texas made its 36th appearance this season, putting them one behind Notre Dame on this list.
It might be surprising when you think about the Wildcats in the shadow of their in-state rivals, but they have their own significant tournament pedigree. However, much of it came in the previous century. K-State has reached the Final Four four times, including a runner-up finish in 1951. Only six programs can boast more than its 12 appearances in the Elite Eight. The bad news is that only 10 of their 31 tournament berths have come since 1996.