And here we are: the top 5. I had a video montage set to roll, but in light of the pall cast over awards season owing to recent events, we’ll bypass that. Instead, I’ll just thank all you little people for your tireless consumption of these articles. Without you, it still could’ve happened, but I might have lost it and just started writing comments to myself. So thanks.
5. 2009 Michigan State Spartans: 31-7/15-3; KP: 24.37, #9; SRS: 17.71, #13; 2-seed, lost to North Carolina in Championship Game
The SRS is ludicrous and, if I wasn’t trying to justify my gut feelings at all, this team would be #3. There’s only one NCAA run that can top the one ‘09 MSU went on, and it deserves to be recalled fondly for a long time.
Okay, yes, UNC bombed them by 35 in the regular season, and by 17 in the title game. Guess what. 2009 UNC might be the best team in all of CBB from 2001-2022. Other than that there was a very MSU home lost to Northwestern (who DID make the NIT), a very MSU home loss to Penn State (who WON the NIT), a road loss to Purdue (Sweet 16), a BIG tournament loss to Ohio State (made NCAA), and a non-conference loss to Maryland (made NCAA). Of the four other B1G teams to make the tournament, MSU went 2-0 vs. Illinois, 2-1 vs. Ohio State, 1-0 vs. Wisconsin and 1-1 vs. Purdue. They also beat NCAA participants Oklahoma State and Kansas in non-conference play.
Despite winning the B1G by two games, though, this is about the March run, and we all know it. Second round and a really dangerous 10-seed in USC, with DeMar DeRozan and Taj Gibson? Check. Sweet 16 rematch with Kansas? Check. Elite Eight vs. 1-seed Louisville (on a 22-2 tear)? How about a convincing 64-52 victory to advance to Izzo’s 5th Final Four?
With the Final Four played basically in MSU’s backyard, there was a sense that they might be a team of destiny. Well, no. UNC was phenomenal in 2009. But the semifinal victory over UConn was still a game for the time capsule. MSU went to battle against UConn’s #3 (per KenPom) defense and range up 82 points:
Click here if you want to watch the full game.
Apropos of nothing, I will point out here that Jim Calhoun was 6-1 all-time at the Final Four.
Kalin Lucas was B1G POY and/but was ably complemented by Durrell Summer, Raymar Morgan, and Goran Suton. I still lament Delvon Roe’s injury-plagued career. Keep reading, and you’ll see one MSU team ranked higher, but, in my gut, I’m betting on this one.
4. 2007 Ohio State Buckeyes: 35-4/15-1; KP: 29.33, #3; SRS: 21.54, #4; 1-seed, lost to Florida in Championship Game
There is a case for this team at #1, and I suspect most people would put them in the top 3, but the March run required more luck than the others on this list, and the B1G was a bit down in 2007. None of that, of course, should obscure that this team generally left a trail of destruction in its wake, stymied only by 2007 Florida, the only repeat champs in nearly 30 years.
Frosh sensations Greg Oden, Mike Conley, and Daequan Cook meshed nicely with senior Ron Lewis and junior Jamar Butler. The Buckeyes dropped a regular season game @ Florida and the national title game to the Gators. They also lost, without Greg Oden, @UNC in December. The only other game they lost all year was in the Kohl Center to a UW team that would reach #1 in the polls and grab a 2-seed in the NCAA tournament. That loss dropped OSU to 13-3/2-1.
They won their next 22 games.
If we’re going to nitpick, a home win over Tennessee was the only non-conference victory of note. And the NCAA tournament win required an obvious intentional foul to go under-called to escape Xavier in the second round. And in the Sweet 16, OSU needed to erase a 20-point deficit to escape a rematch with Tennessee:
Still, the Buckeyes more than proved their mettle by absolutely shutting down 33-3 Memphis (on a 25-game winning streak of their own) in the Elite Eight, and then keeping Georgetown at arm’s length for a 67-60 win the in the Final Four.
Florida was loaded for bear in the ‘07 tournament, and they jumped on Ohio State early. However, OSU gave Florida a decent effort, keeping things from getting out of hand. It’s not enough to grab a national title, but it was more than enough to be one of the very best teams the B1G has seen the last two decades.
3. 2019 Michigan State Spartans: 32-7/16-4; KP: 30.81, #3; SRS: 24.93, #4; 2-seed, lost to Texas Tech in Final Four
Seven losses (three in a row in late Jan./early Feb.) are more than you’d expect out of a team in this rarified air, but in 2019 the B1G sent 8 teams to the NCAA tournament and were one heartbreaker away from having four in the Sweet 16, and another heartbreaker away from having two in the Final Four. Boredom seemed to be MSU’s toughest opponent, as, in B1G play, they went 10-1 against teams that made the NCAA, and 6-3 against teams that didn’t (including getting swept by Indiana). Still, once February got going, so did MSU. A 7-1 finish to the regular season included a sweep of Michigan (who was 15-5 in B1G play) and a road win over Wisconsin (14-6 in B1G play). Proving none of this was a fluke, Sparty won the B1G tournament, beating Wisconsin in the semifinals and Michigan (for the third time) in the title game.
When the bracket was announced there was some chagrin that not only was MSU deprived a one-seed, but that they were put in Duke’s regional. Zion Williamson and Co. finished 3rd in the ACC regular season, but rolled to the tournament crown (thus the ACC ended up with three different 1-seeds in the tournament) and were the betting favorite to win it all.
Unfazed, MSU let Bradley hang around for a bit, but was mostly unchallenged in their first three tournament games, including a Sweet 16 romp over SEC champion LSU.
In a stone classic, MSU was up to the task thanks largely to stars Cassius Winston and Xavier Tillman, but also thanks to a huge three from unlikely hero Kenny Goins:
Full game here.
While the run ended against Texas Tech in the national semifinal, MSU showed their character by cutting a 13-point second-half deficit to one with three minutes to go before running out of gas.
It was a wide open year and MSU easily could have won it all. They didn’t (as evidenced by the existence of this whole painful exercise), and Winston and Tillman were deprived the chance in 2020. This means that, over time, the ‘19 and ‘20 Spartans may get overlooked a bit in the grand scheme of things.
But not here.
2. 2015 Wisconsin Badgers: 36-4/16-2; KP: 33.72, #2; SRS: 24.61, #3; 1-seed, lost to Duke in Championship Game
No team put more into the credit account over this period than 2015 Wisconsin, but, in the end, a couple the debits, and the overall legend of the ‘05 Illini, is enough to keep UW in the #2 slot. That said, it’s certainly worth noting just what the ‘15 Badgers bring to the table.
Per KenPom, the is the highest rated B1G team of the period and the highest rated offense, period. No team in any conference, per KenPom, has a better AdjO score than the 2015 Badgers.
In winning the Battle for Atlantis, UW took down UAB (Round of 32), Georgetown (Round of 32) and Oklahoma (Sweet 16) in successive days. They also beat NCAA qualifiers Buffalo and Boise State in non-conference play. In B1G play, UW went 16-2 against a fine, but not great, league. The loss to last place Rutgers sticks out, and missing NPOY Frank Kaminsky for that game is simply not a sufficient excuse (nor is PG Traveon Jackson leaving with an injury in the second half). Still, a 31-3 regular season (the other two losses were to eventual national champion Duke, and @Maryland, who finished second in league play), is getting you into the top 10 regardless.
But it was the NCAA tournament run that puts UW at #2. Simply put, no other B1G team came close to running the gauntlet that UW did. Wisconsin’s last four games were all against teams that finished in the KenPom top 10. Had they defeated Duke, they would have been the first—and still only—team to win a title by beating the highest possible seed each step of the way.
Sweet 16 opponent North Carolina was the best 4-seed that year, and one of the better ones you’ll see generally. Each player who started the 2017 national title game for UNC played in that 2015 matchup. Elite Eight opponent Arizona was #4 in KenPom, with a rating that would’ve been #1 in both 2014 and 2016. They entered the game 33-3, but UW dropped a 131.8 OffEff performance on them, the worst defensive outing Arizona had had since 2010. And this was in an Elite Eight game.
And then, to top it all off, in the Final Four, Wisconsin beat the highest ranked team in KenPom history (2002-present), a team that entered the game 38-0:
1. 2005 Illinois Fighting Illini: 37-2/15-1; KP: 32.68, #2; SRS: 24.11, #2; 1-seed, lost to North Carolina in Championship Game
How does Illinois finish #1? 29-0, and 37-2 obviously has a lot to do with it. But there were plenty of style points behind the raw numbers. The November blitzing of Chris Paul-led Wake Forest was far worse than the score indicated. Arkansas, Georgetown, Oregon, and Mizzou all missed the NCAA tournament, but all were .500 or better and quality non-conference wins.
The conference run was even more impressive. Road wins over Michigan State (Final Four), Wisconsin (Elite Eight, and the first home conference loss in almost four years for UW), and Iowa (NCAA qualifier). At most, only four of Illinois’ conference wins were ever “close” in the second half, and only the home win over Iowa was in doubt in the last couple of minutes.
The loss to Ohio State was, in many ways, a perfect storm. It WAS Ohio State’s national title game as they were on probation. And it required several unlucky breaks to be close late. It’s as close as a power conference team has been to a perfect regular season since...well, maybe since ‘76 Indiana.
The tournament run featured four double-digit wins in five games and then a horrid shooting night from three in a five point loss to North Carolina. Close doesn’t matter, but Illinois being so close in the title game despite shooting so poorly (and despite a game officiated closer to UNC’s preferences) tells you just how good the trio of Williams, Brown, and Head were. [At a subjective level, even if I think ‘15 UW clearly had a better, more impressive set of wins, I have to concede that I don’t see how a team that couldn’t keep Tyus Jones from penetrating was going to slow down those three.]
But, of course, the most memorable moment was the epic, and I mean truly epic, comeback against Arizona in the Elite Eight. Nevermind how the best team on this list could find itself trailing a very good, but not great, Arizona team by 15 points. Focus instead, on just how inevitable the comeback felt once it got started. It’s about as shining as non-championship moments get: