March Madness: Ranking the top 10 2016 NCAA Tournament games

 

Now that our heart rates have all dropped back to normal frequency, let’s take one long look back at the past three weeks. It was such a fun tournament, even with the fact that we had a lot of bad games. This bracket always comes through. Every year we get something we haven’t seen before, and every year we get a handful of tremendous games. I’ve listed out my favorites. As always, this proves tougher than I think it will be at first glance.

It was a hard list to pull together. Much of the second weekend and of course the national semis didn’t offer up much, but the inventory of games — 48 of them — in that first weekend created a logjam in creating this list. For instance, the first tip on that opening Thursday. Do you remember what game that was? Duke against UNC Wilmington. Was a pretty good game, but wouldn’t have even made my top 15. This tournament wound up giving us about 20 good-to-great games, and then there was a huge drop-off. Very few pretty-OK games, and then a lot of forgettable outcomes or boring blowouts.

We had dramatic endings and incredible comebacks (see: what Syracuse did twice in Chicago in the regionals), but I try to list out the 10 games that are truly the best on the whole. Those Cuse rallies were awesome, but in reality neither game stood out as the best of the best. Virginia was boringly beating Syracuse for 32 minutes, then things got really weird.

Middle Tennnessee beating Michigan State was a game we’ll never forget, but the crazy thing is MTSU didn’t really have the game in doubt. It was one of the most compelling games of the tournament, but not among the 10 best. Yale beating Baylor was riveting, but the game only had three lead changes, Baylor goofed up near the end, and Yale led for the majority.

The game that just didn’t make the cut: Indiana over Kentucky. Really good game for 35 minutes, and then Indiana ran away with it. It was a tough call, but the right one.

They played 67 games throughout 12 days over the course of three weeks. These are the 10 best.

10. Providence 70, USC 69: A one-point finish in an 8/9 game that was decided on a tough play in the final two seconds? Yeah, that’s a top-10’er. The final win of Kris Dunn’s college career came on a play he was a decoy on. Rodney Bullock deftly took a tough inbounds pass from Drew Edwards, and beat USC on a slip to put PC up with 1.5 seconds to go.

“Kris is a focal point, Ben’s (Ben Bentil) a focal point and you take advantage of what the defense gives you,” Providence coach Ed Cooley said afterward.

Julian Jacobs’ missed free throw with 11.6 seconds to go kept the margin do-or-die for PC.

This game had 13 lead changes, four ties and neither team led by more than seven. Eight players scored in double figures. Quality first-rounder.

9. Iowa 72, Temple 70 (OT): You might’ve forgotten about this one, but it’s without a doubt one of the 10 best from this year’s Dance. Adam Woodbury’s frantic-yet-delicate putback as time expired in OT lifted the Hawkeyes over the Owls during the second TV window of a first-round Friday.

But he also pushed off — and didn’t get called for the offensive foul.

Iowa would go on to get wrecked two days later by eventual national champs Villanova, but at least the team got to experience a dramatic win after losing five of its last six to end the season.

Making the play even more of a random thing: The winner here came off a play that was not what Fran McCaffery originally drew up.

I was in the arena for this one. A strong Temple contingent made for a good environment as TU came back from a 61-53 deficit with five minutes to go. At the time the day was fairly slow, so this gave that Friday a nice boost.

8. Villanova 64, Kansas 59: The best Elite Eight game and, until the national championship, the only game in which Villanova was tested. Even still, the Wildcats led for almost the entirety. But there was urgency, and getting the No. 1 overall seed on its heels made for gripping TV.

There was also the game plan switch by Jay Wright. Villanova won every one of its tournament games by going offense-first … except this one. VU leaned on its defense, and then free throws late. Remember, Kris Jenkins hit two foul shots with 13 seconds to go, then Jalen Brunson made both of his attempts with 3.5 seconds left.

This game also had the controversial offensive foul call on Devonte’ Graham as KU was scrambling to tie the game with less than 20 seconds to go. Ryan Arcidiacono sealed the VU win with a steal in the closing seconds.

7. Saint Joseph’s 78, Cincinnati 76: Concluded shortly after a game listed below here. Remember how amazing that wild first-round Friday night was? This one concluded with something I couldn’t remember — a game-ending dunk that did not count!

Cincinnati was trying to keep the game in hand, and then Isaiah Miles hit a 3 with nine seconds to go. The Bearcats didn’t hurry enough to get the ball in Octavius Ellis’ hands in time. He was juuuuust late.

The image from Spokane afterward was Ellis just sitting and sitting and sitting and not leaving the court, stunned he couldn’t finish in time.

Cincinnati came back from being down 10 in the second half. The game had nine ties and 14 lead changes and was tied for 5:35 of game time. The teams combined to shoot 50 percent. Very well-played game.

Mick Cronin’s calm “I have no comment on the officiating” from his postgame presser was also shared plenty. Cincy had a rough end to its season, with this loss and the previous game, a four-OT loss against UConn that included Jalen Adams extending that game for the Huskies with a 70-foot prayer at the buzzer.

6. Little Rock 85, Purdue 83 (2OT): I think this was my second-favorite game of the tournament; only Nova-UNC tops it.

Josh Hagins’ oh-so-deep 3-pointer to push this game to overtime was awesome and helped capped a big-time come back for Little Rock.

Then, in OT, Hagins hit another shot, a bank, to push the game to a second overtime. Hagins had 31 points, six assists and five steals in this one. Game of his life. The other thing about this game: Purdue was underseeded. Boilers should’ve been a 4 at worst and were a solid team much of the year. Little Rock was really good too, but this was definitely an upset of impressive proportions.

The win was so big, the year so good for Little Rock, that coach Chris Beard got the UNLV job. Little Rock became the second straight Sun Belt team to win an NCAA Tournament game. (Georgia State in 2015.)

5. Wisconsin 66, Xavier 63: Koenig’s killer from the corner. A true buzzer-beater, and how lucky we were to get four of those in this tournament — which is a record.

What you might’ve forgotten: Koenig had that other 3 with 11.7 to go, which tied the game. Need one big shot to instigate the next. In between those two biggies was the controversial charge call on Xavier’s Edmond Sumner. I still don’t see the charge there. The game had eight lead changes, but the crazy part: One team led by 17:37, the other for 17:56. Yet we also had big swins, as Wisconsin led by as many as 11, Xavier by as many as nine.

Xavier suffered the unfortunate fate of being a really, really good team most of the season, getting a top-two seed, then getting kicked out of the bracket before the Sweet 16. I think a lot of people could wind up overlooking how good X was this season, which is too bad. Fortunately, the Musketeers should be very good again in 2016-17.

4. Northern Iowa 75, Texas 72: Do you remember what happened before the most amazing buzzer-beater of this or any tournament of the past three decades? That’s right — Texas tied it. Isaiah Taylor’s basket is both forgotten to history and also necessary to setting up the most incredible single-shot ending to an NCAA Tournament in ages.

For UNI, it was a three-game thrill ride in March. Wes Washpun’s crazy-high bounce off the back of the rim at the buzzer in the Missouri Valley title game launched the Panthers into the tournament. Then the Texas half-court miracle. And finally, this. What’s sort of already forgotten: Northern Iowa would have likely won the game in the first OT, but Alex Caruso’s layup with 5.9 seconds remaining pushed it to another session. Paul Jesperson, riding high off the confidence from what happened two nights earlier, got his heave off way too early in OT. It was so early that there was still time left on the clock for A&M to get its own prayer off, which didn’t fall.

But yeah, we had the comet-like rarity: Two full-court prayers attempted on consecutive possessions just before time expired.

A&M’s rally eclipsed UNLV’s 11-point comeback in the final minute against Canisius in ’05. Few remember that one; we’ll all remember this one.

2. Notre Dame 76, Stephen F. Austin 75: I was there; it was an incredible environment at the Barclays Center. Start to finish, this was the best game of the tournament. Forty minutes of tense, terrific basketball. You also had the element of a No. 14 seed trying to break through to the second weekend, which is something that’d happened only two times prior and not in the past 20 years.

The biggest lead in the game was seven points. There were eight ties, nine lead changes. Notre Dame led by one at the half and the same at the end of the game. ND had three chances on its winning shot. A Rex Pflueger putback with 1.5 seconds to go. Made all the more shocking by the fact that it was the kid’s first field goal in two weeks.

It doesn’t get better than this environment for a second round game. Brooklyn was buzzing. This felt like Notre Dame stole it, and in fact that’s exactly what Mike Brey called it afterward: “a theft.”

Stephen F. Austin was in control of the game for most of the final eight minutes. The Irish only managed to win because they shot 57 percent. Thomas Walkup finished his brilliant career with a 21-point performance. The Lumberjacks came so close to becoming the biggest story in college basketball heading into the Sweet 16.

The loss was SFA’s first in 2016. It entered the game as the favorite. Such a terrific battle. The Fighting Irish have been involved in dramatic games in most of their past eight NCAA Touranment tilts.

1. Villanova 77, North Carolina 74: There can be no doubt. The best national championship game ever is what some believe. What we can all agree on: it’s top three at the absolute worst. If you want to say that 1983 or 1985 was better, that’s fine, but I’m going with this one because this one not only ended on a true buzzer-beater, it also had Marcus Paige’s unbelievable game-tying 3-pointer right before that. Yeah, that’s me in the background gripping the table and standing up.

Now, before we get to Kris Jenkins, let’s also note how the game crested, how it climaxed perfectly. First, you had Villanova getting a big four-point swing at the end of the half. UNC should have been able to get a nine-point lead, but it failed to convert when Josh Hart blocked Justin Jackson’s shot — then Phil Booth hit a tough 15-footer at the buzzer to make it a 39-34 game.

Nova became the sixth team in the past 30 years to be trailing at the half and go on to win the national title. As for Jenkins, I wrote a blow-by-blow account of the closing seconds and the reaction afterward here.

Now, there is a defensive breakdown by Carolina. No question. The play itself is great, and I love how Ryan Arcidiacono, a senior, just loosely gives the ball up to a trailing Jenkins. In a tie game situation, plenty of guys would shoot that ball for the glory. Arch had no issue settling for the assist. Hello, immortality. This is on the short list of greatest shots in college basketball history.

The game was tied for more than seven minutes. There were nine ties and nine lead changes. The teams combined to shoot 51 percent from the field and 61 percent from 3. How’s this for irony: NRG Stadium, the site of the worst title game ever, UConn’s ugly win over Butler in 2011, is now also the site of the best one ever. And after two Final Four blowouts, we were all redeemed with the best finale to one of the better tournaments of the past 20 years.

This reax video is a perfect capper.

Villanova’s Kris Jenkins shoots the championship-winning shot. (USATSI)

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