This weekend I will watch my 25th Final Four, a silver anniversary, you might say, of shining moments. In 1981, I was a sixth-grader living in Southern California, when my dad and I watched a sophomore point guard named Isiah Thomas lead his Indiana Hoosiers over a North Carolina team one year B.M. (Before Michael). Herewith, my own final four: the finest teams to cut down the nets during the last quarter-century.
4) 1989-90 UNLV Runnin' Rebels -- The excellence of the teams on this list has a lot to do with the team they beat for the championship. These Rebels destroyed a still-developing Duke squad that would win the next two national titles. Larry Johnson and Stacey Augmon were All-Americas at UNLV, and Greg Anthony and Anderson Hunt may have been the best backcourt tandem since North Carolina State's Sidney Lowe and Dereck Whittenburg in 1983. With Coach Jerry Tarkanian chewing his towel on the bench, UNLV beat Kenny Anderson and Georgia Tech in the semis, then crushed Christian Laettner's Blue Devils, 103-73. Hunt made 12 of 16 field-goal attempts for 29 points while Johnson added 22. This was the pinnacle of UNLV's "outlaw" program, a band of hell-raisers who took the college basketball world by force and made no apologies for it. Final record: 35-5.
3) 1983-84 Georgetown Hoyas -- The 1984 championship game was a heavyweight matchup of two Final Four regulars from the early '80s. Georgetown was making its second of three appearances in the finals with Patrick Ewing at center. Houston was making its third straight trip to the Final Four with Hakeem Olajuwon playing the pivot. Ewing's supporting cast included the sweet-shooting Reggie Williams and the rim-rattling Michael Graham. Olajuwon was backed by Michael Young (18 points in the final) and Alvin Franklin (21). While Hakeem the Dream (15 points, 9 rebounds) may have edged Ewing (10 points, 9 rebounds ) in their matchup, the Hoyas were unbeatable in Seattle. Williams scored 19, Graham 14, and David Wingate added 16 in the 84-75 win. It was Coach John Thompson's only national championship, but it was enough to spawn a nationwide frenzy that put Hoya gear in shopping malls from Seattle to Miami. Final record: 34-3.
2) 1991-92 Duke Blue Devils -- This was the sixth of Coach Mike Krzyzewski's 10 Final Four teams, his second consecutive national champ, and to this day, the best team he's ever coached. Senior star Laettner was making his fourth straight appearance in the Final Four (and his third straight title game). When Laettner made his epic, buzzer-beating shot to beat Kentucky in the regional finals, this squad's coronation in Minneapolis was mere formality. The Devils squeezed by Indiana (remember Damon Bailey?) in the semis, 81-78, setting up a championship showdown with Michigan's Fab Five, the great quintet of freshmen. (We all know Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, and Juwan Howard, but who remembers Ray Jackson and Jimmy King?) The game was no contest. Sophomore Grant Hill scored 18, Thomas Hill 16, and Laettner wrapped up his college career with 19 as Duke won, 71-51. Michigan turned the ball over 20 times and was led by Webber's 14 points. (During Laettner's four years at Duke, the school had a record of 21-2 in the NCAA tournament.) Final record: 34-2.
1) 1981-82 North Carolina Tar Heels -- You just can't help but add some historical perspective to the greatness of Coach Dean Smith's first national champions. Three of their starters (James Worthy, Sam Perkins, and freshman Michael Jordan) went on to play a total of 44 seasons in the NBA and win nine NBA championships. Having lost in the finals the year before to Thomas' Hoosiers, the 'Heels knocked off Houston (with Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler) in the semis before edging Georgetown, 63-62, in a thrilling title tilt. Hoya freshman Ewing was guilty of a series of goaltending calls in the early minutes of the game, all the while establishing a presence North Carolina would have to play around with their superior perimeter players. With 28 points, Worthy assured his status as the NBA's number-one draft pick three months later. Jordan scored 16 (and pulled down nine rebounds), the last two coming on what proved to be the game-winning jumper with less than a minute to play. North Carolina was challenged by Ewing's 23 points and 11 boards, while Sleepy Floyd added 18 for the Hoyas. Sadly, the game tends to be remembered as much for Georgetown's Fred Brown throwing the ball to Worthy in the final seconds -- out of the corner of his eye, Brown thought Worthy was a teammate -- as for the first national breakthrough for the man who would become Air Jordan. Final record: 32-2.