Power Ranking the SEC's 5 best NCAA Tournament champions
Gonzaga will chase history tonight in a number of ways when the Zags take on Baylor for the NCAA basketball championship (9:20 PM ET, CBS).
Gonzaga is seeking the program’s first national championship and playing for immortality. Mark Few’s 31-0 Zags are trying to become the first men’s basketball team to finish a season unbeaten since 1975-1976 Indiana and with that accomplishment, secure a permanent spot in the ongoing conversation about greatest college basketball teams of all time. For the Zags, tonight is simply the final arbiter of their spot in that conversation — having annihilated most their competition this season, winning games by an average of 22.4 points per contest — the tiny little Jesuit school in Spokane, Washington, is already very much one of the best teams in a generation. Win tonight and their legacy will be even grander than generational greatness.
The task ahead of the Zags — and the way they were pushed to the limit in the national semfinal by a heavy underdog — couldn’t help but remind SEC fans of Kentucky’s fate in 2015, when John Calipari’s 38-0 Wildcats made only one basket in the final 6 minutes of their Final Four tilt with Wisconsin and fell out of the discussion of greatest teams to ever play and into the discussion of greatest teams to never win a championship.
It’s tough to win in March — and Gonzaga, who has been pushed to the limit now by UCLA and even prior to that, BYU in their conference tournament championship — has one more towering test in Baylor tonight in Indianapolis.
The winner will join the prestigious fraternity of NCAA champions, a group that includes 11 teams from the SEC.
Here is an SDS power ranking of the 5 best NCAA Tournament champions from the SEC.
5. 1947-48 Kentucky Wildcats (36-3, 9-0 SEC)
The first of Adolph Rupp’s 4 national champion teams, the Wildcats didn’t just win — they obliterated their competition. The Cats’ average margin of victory in March was 23.6 points, with only Holy Cross (then a national power) coming within single digits of Big Blue. Keep in mind these margins were during the 2-point field goal only era and without a shot clock, making the dominance all the more impressive. This squad, dubbed “the Fabulous Five,” saw 3 players drafted into the NBA and launched an era of dominance in the sport that is unrivaled anywhere outside of Westwood and Tobacco Road.
4. 1993-94 Arkansas Razorbacks (31-3, 14-2 SEC)
Nolan Richardson, like another coach later on this list, was given time to build a program and in Year 9, delivered a national championship to Arkansas.
Playing a physical but fun brand of basketball dubbed “40 Minutes of Hell,” Richardson’s pressing, uptempo unit featured only two players over 6-9 — seldom-used freshman Lee Wilson and backup center Darnell Robinson. It didn’t matter. Sophomore Corliss Williamson was a force down low, using his girth and quick feet to overwhelm bigger, more plodding bigs on his way to SEC Player of the Year and All-American honors.
Meanwhile, a sterling backcourt, led by future NBA guards Corey Beck and Clint McDaniel, steadied the Hogs uptempo attack and made it a point to find matchup nightmare Scotty Thurman, a sophomore who could attack a closeout beautifully and shot a staggering 43% from deep in his college career.
It was hard not to think of Thurman’s final minute 3-pointer in the national championship against Duke this weekend after watching Jalen Suggs’ memorable moment send the Zags to the title game. Thurman’s shot helped secure Arkansas’ lone national title in hoops — with Williamson named the tournament’s MVP.
3. 2011-2012 Kentucky Wildcats (38-2, 16-0 SEC)
This indomitable group of Wildcats — John Calipari’s lone national champion — slots in at No. 3 largely because they were less experienced and slightly less deep than the teams featured at No. 1 and No. 2.
Still, this was an almost invincible team, led by freshmen sensations Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. The Cats lost only 2 games, a buzzer-beater to Indiana at Assembly Hall in December and an SEC Tournament semifinal game against Vanderbilt and an unconscious John Jenkins. Kentucky had already defeated Vanderbilt in the regular season and avenged the Indiana loss on a neutral floor in the Sweet 16. From there, they weren’t really pushed, with the devastating defense of the trio of Davis (3rd nationally in block percentage), Kidd-Gilchrist (3rd nationally in points per possession against as a primary defender) and Terrence Jones (top 10 in SEC in steals and block percentage) helping the Cats lock opponents down in the Final Four, holding rival Louisville and then Kansas to 61 and 59 points, respectively.
Kentucky saw 4 contributors selected in the first round of the NBA Draft and marked the first time in NBA history when the top 2 picks in the NBA Draft (Davis and Kidd-Gilchrist) came from the same program. Had the 2014-2015 Wildcats managed to win one more game, they would rank as Cal’s best team. Had they returned to school, who knows what records might have fallen. Instead, this awesome national champion will suffice.
2. 2006-07 Florida Gators (35-5, 13-3 SEC)
The only team this century to go back-to-back, Florida did it with the same starting five, a feat that may never occur in college basketball again. Florida also managed to repeat despite the immense pressure and celebrity which accompanies trying to repeat.
“Every move was scrutinzed in 2006-07 for us,” starting guard and sharpshooter Lee Humphrey remembered this summer.
“When we won, people said it wasn’t pretty enough. When we lost, the sky was falling,” All-American big Joakim Noah agreed. “It got to the point, in the middle of the season, where we had to come together because it wasn’t always fun.”
The Gators lost 3 of 5 games down the stretch, but rallied to capture the SEC regular-season title in a rout over Kentucky on Senior Day. After the game, Billy Donovan had the team cut down the nets. “We needed to remember that every moment, every accomplishment, is fun and worth celebrating,” Donovan said after that game.
The ploy worked. Florida rolled through the SEC Tournament, winning each game by an average of 20 points, and then steamrolled its way back to the Final Four, where the Gators played two rematches. First against UCLA, which they had defeated for the national title in 2006, in the semifinal. Florida won easily, led by a swarming post defense and Lee Humphrey, who hit 3 consecutive 3-pointers in the second half to blow the game wide open and become the NCAA Tournament’s all-time leader in 3 point field goals in the process.
In the championship, Florida met Ohio State, which it had defeated handily in the regular season. This game was closer, thanks to a monstrous performance from Ohio State freshman phenom Greg Oden. But in the end, Florida’s balance — led by the lottery pick trio of Noah, Al Horford and Corey Brewer — proved too much for the young Buckeyes to handle.
Donovan was given time to build the Florida program and in Year 10, he climbed the mountaintop. Doing it again a year later, with what was statistically a better team — made the climb even sweeter.
1. 1995-96 Kentucky Wildcats (34-2, 16-0 SEC)
Rick Pitino’s “Untouchables” were the deepest college basketball team in history, with 9 players going on to the NBA. The Cats began the season No. 1, never fell below No. 5 and when March arrived, bulldozed their way to the program’s first national championship in 18 years.
The Cats finished 34-2, losing only to an excellent UMass team (coached by John Calipari) and Mississippi State in the SEC Tournament final. In between, they were rarely challenged, winning an astounding 18 games by 20 points or more.
In the Final Four, the Cats avenged their early-season loss to Calipari and UMass, with monster performances from future first-round NBA Draft picks Antoine Walker and Tony Delk paving the way.
In the championship game, Delk went off again, scoring 24 points, but it was Ron Mercer who came off the bench to eviscerate Syracuse’s vaunted 2-3 zone. Mercer’s 20 points in 24 minutes included 3-of-4 shooting from deep, a testament to just how versatile and explosive Kentucky was off the bench, even with Pitino limiting his rotation to 8 guys. Maybe that last line gives you an idea into just how good this Kentucky team was: With 9 future NBA players, only 8 could find the floor on any given night during the NCAA Tournament.
Kentucky’s 21.5 average margin of victory in the NCAA Tournament remains one of the highest ever, and keeps this team — along with the teams ranked 2 and 3 on this list — in conversations about the best college team ever.