2022 Skylark Classic
Why is this called 'The Skylark Classic' ?
Selection Sunday:
March 13 @ 6:00 pm CST
Entry Deadline:
March 17 @ 11:15 am CST
  Final Four Recap (1976-2006)  
By Dan Flaherty (2007)
The UCLA dynasty might have fallen one year earlier if not for a broken arm to Indiana's Scott May prior to the tournament. In '76, May was healthy and the rest of the Hoosiers were as well. They thundered through the regular season undefeated, then blew through the regionals, including a win over Al McGuire's Marquette.

Bob Knight's second Final Four team came to the old Philadelphia Spectrum and finished off the Bruins in the semis. Monday night was the first time two teams from the same conference played for the national title. Indiana hammered Michigan 86-68 to win the school's third crown and the General's first. A new era had begun.

It was far from the best team Al McGuire ever coached. The '77 Marquette squad had to put on a late spurt just to make the 32-team NCAA field. Even in making it to Atlanta, they hardly wowed anyone, pulling a Houdini escape against Kansas State in the round of 16.

North Carolina was the favorite by the time the Final Four was set. Michigan had been #1 in the country previously, but after getting pushed the wall by Dick Vitale's Detroit squad in the regional semis, the Wolverines faltered to Cinderella UNC-Charlotte. Marquette beat Charlotte, and UNC ousted UNLV on Saturday. In the final, Marquette won 67-59 and produced the enduring memory of the tough guy McGuire sobbing on the bench as he ended his career as the champion he never thought he'd be.

The expectations were enormous at Kentucky. Are they ever not? Joe B. Hall knew nothing less then a crown would get the fans off his back. The Wildcats were joined in the Final Four by Arkansas (led by future Milwaukee Buck star Sidney Moncreif), Duke and Digger Phelps & Notre Dame.

Kentucky and Duke made the final, and prime time belonged to Jack Givens. The Wildcat guard poured in 41 points and led the storied program and its embattled coach to their first title of the post-Adolph Rupp era.

The nation wanted to see Magic Johnson and Larry Bird play for all the marbles. They got what they wanted, but the path was not as pre-ordained as history can make it seem. Bird's Indiana State Sycamores were undefeated, but barely survived Arkansas in the regional final, needing a late tip-in to win. Then the Sycamores were nearly upended by DePaul in the national semis. Michigan State didn't give NBC any headaches. They hammered Notre Dame to make the Final Four, and then blew out Penn in the semi-final, after leading 50-17 at halftime.

The final game in Salt Lake City was the highest-rated college game ever. It was not a game worthy of the stakes. Magic had the supporting cast that Bird lacked. Greg Kelser controlled the middle for the Spartans and Terry Donnelly worked the baseline jumper for 15 points. Michigan State won by eleven. The game started a pattern of Magic besting Bird that would continue into the NBA, where the Lakers would beat the Celtics in two of the Finals matchups the two great stars squared off in.

For a Final Four in the heart of Big Ten Country, it was appropriate that two conference schools would make it to Indianapolis' Market Square Arena. Iowa, then coached by Lute Olson, upset an emerging Georgetown program to win the East regional. Purdue, with powerful center Joe Barry Carroll made the national stage.

But once in town, both Big Ten schools fell by the wayside. UCLA, led by a still unproven coach named Larry Brown went toe-to-toe with Louisville for the prize. The Cardinals, renowned as "The Doctors of Dunk" won a hard-fought battle to give Denny Crum his first national championship.

College basketball's big event was back in Philadelphia. And Indiana was back too. The Hoosiers surged down the stretch to steal the Big Ten at the wire, and then devastated an upset-wracked Mideast region (aided considerably by the regionals being held in Bloomington). IU continued its hot streak by pounding LSU on Saturday. The other semi was an ACC affair, with North Carolina besting Ralph Sampson and Virginia.

Monday night featured a coaching masterpiece, with the General and the Dean going at it. But the game was played with the pall of sadness looming over it. An assassination attempt had been made on President Reagan that afternoon, and for a while it was in doubt if the game would be played. Once word came the president was going to survive, the show went on. And so did Indiana, taking the game over in the second half and cruising to an easy win.

Six times, including last year, Dean Smith had come to the Final Four. Six times he went away empty-handed. He came to New Orleans for try #7 with the nation's top-ranked team and four experienced starters. In the semis, Smith beat Houston and its exciting freshman center Akeem Olajouwon.

North Carolina would play Georgetown on Monday. John Thompson's first trip to the big stage was off to a good start with a win over Louisville. The title bout was a barnburner in every sense of the word. It would be UNC's unheralded fifth starter that hit the decisive shot. Freshman Michael Jordan connected on the game-winner. And when G'town guard Fred Brown had a lapse and threw the ball straight to a Carolina defender on the last possession, Smith was finally a champion.

On one side of the bracket was Cinderella. On the other side was where the action was. Houston and Louisville looked to easily be the two best teams in the country. On Saturday, they staged one of the most incredible dunk-a-thons the game has ever seen. Houston won a closer-then-it-sounds 94-83 shootout that left everyone breathless when it was over. If Louisville basketball fans were like Michigan football fans, circa 2006, they'd have griped for a rematch (sorry, cheap shot).

The other side of the draw had looked destined to produce a battle between Virginia, with Ralph Sampson making his last stand as a senior, and North Carolina. But N.C. State and Georgia upset the two heavyweights in the regional finals. And after the Wolfpack won a ho-hum game on Saturday, the nation was forced to watch them be fed to the Cougars. Or so we thought. Jim Valvano's "Cardiac Pack" produced the most stunning upset in the history of the NCAA finals, capped off by Lorenzo Charles dunking home Derrek Whittenburg's desperation try at the buzzer. The dunk and Valvano's mad rush about the court rightly remain a staple of CBS' tournament openings to this day.

The Battle in Seattle was a war between the big men. Patrick Ewing and Georgetown rolled in with a ten-deep team and a defense that could smother. Akeem Olajouwon was on center stage for the third straight year, hoping for a ring.

Kentucky was back for the first time since '78, aided primarily by home-court advantage in their regional final against Illinois and some home-cookin' officiating. But outside Lexington, they were nothing for the Hoyas in the semi-final. Virginia had gotten here by upsetting Indiana, who'd stunned Jordan's Tar Heels. The Cavs—minus Sampson—gave Houston a tough run, but fell by a basket.

The Ewing-Akeem battle was similar (albeit less-hyped) to the Magic-Bird battle of '79. Ewing had the supporting cast and won a game that was never in real doubt. Unlike '79 though, this one didn't carry into the NBA. Akeem got his revenge on Ewing in the 1994 NBA Finals (Rockets-Knicks).

Not since the fall of UCLA had a team repeated, but Georgetown had all the ingredients. Ewing was back, the depth was intact and the smothering defense was still on display. The Hoyas survived Georgia Tech to make their third Final Four in Ewing's four seasons. The event was a Big East Feast this year, with St. John's and Villanova also qualifying. Memphis was the one interloper.

In Saturday's early game, Villanova ousted Memphis, quickly reducing the field to all Big East teams. Georgetown and St. John's had been atop the polls all year long—the Redmen actually nipped the top-ranked Hoyas for the Big East title. But the Hoyas took revenge, first in the conference tournament, then today in decisive fashion. What it did was set the stage for another incredible upset moment. Villanova—who'd played in an 8 vs. 9 game in this first year of the 64-team field—shot over 70 percent from the floor and pulled out a 66-64 win. That the Hoyas had the best team was not seriously in doubt. But there would be no repeat championship. Undoubtedly it would have come as bigger shock to know that this would be Georgetown's last Final Four appearance to date.

Dallas played host to three heavyweights and a Cinderella. #11 seed LSU had upset second-seed Georgia Tech and top seed Kentucky to get here. The Tigers dreamed of becoming the third upstart champion in four years. But in Saturday's early game, Louisville quickly brought them down to earth and gave Denny Crum another shot at a ring.

Duke and Kansas were both top seeds who'd held serve, with a minimum of difficulty. The Blue Devils won an excellent semi-final game to put a young Mike Krysewseski in the title game for the first time. The final was a game worthy of the stakes. But by Coach K's admission, it was experience on the bench that made the difference. The battle-tested Crum and his freshman center Pervis "Never Nervous" Ellison won 72-69. But like the year before, no one would have guessed that this was Crum's swan song at college basketball's showcase event.

It was the year the three-point shot came to college basketball. Three of the teams in New Orleans made heavy use of it. UNLV had gunslingers like Freddie Banks who shot without conscience. Providence, with its feisty coach Rick Pitinio and hard-nosed guard Billy Donovan made its living behind the stripe. And Bob Knight's Indiana team featured sharpshooter Steve Alford.

Providence couldn't shoot its way past Syracuse, in the Final Four for the first time under Jim Boeheim. Indiana pulled out to a big lead, over Vegas and then hung on down the stretch. The Hoosiers won the championship on Monday on Keith Smart's last-second jump shot. Knight had his third title. He had done it against an Orange lineup that featured three longtime NBA players (Sherman Douglas, Derrick Coleman, Rony Seikaly). Alford, who lasted a couple years in the pros was all had IU had.

Kansas had been struggling during the season, but the worked their way to the tournament. Then the bracket opened up for them, as the Midwest Regional's top three seeds were all upset one game prior to playing the Jayhawks. UK, led by Larry Brown on the sideline and superstar Danny Manning inside got an easy path to a Final Four held in their backyard at Kansas City.

The Jayhawks continued their run, beating Duke in the semis. It set up a Big Eight title game, as #1 seed Oklahoma beat fellow powerhouse Arizona. But Manning and homecourt advantage were too much for the Sooners on Monday, and Kansas won an exciting title game.

For eight straight years, two #1 seeds had made the Final Four. No more. No less. This year broke the string, as Illinois was the only team on the top line to make it to Seattle. They played fellow Big Ten school, Michigan. The Wolverines were becoming a feel-good story, as they'd been abandoned by their coach prior to the tournament and were being led by interim Steve Fisher. Michigan continued the story, beating the Illini 83-81 on a late put-back bucket.

Seton Hall had eliminated Big Ten champion Indiana and UNLV to make its first trip to center stage. Duke was here for the third time in four years, but the Devils were blown out by the Hall in the semis. Michigan and Seton Hall went to overtime to settle the national title. And when Wolverine guard Rumeal Robinson was fouled going to the hoop, he got a chance to live out a dream. He sank both free throws with three seconds left to produce the one-point win. After three weeks on the job, Fisher had a national championship.

UNLV was ranked #1, and had rolled through an upset-wracked West bracket to get to Denver and give Jerry Tarkanian his third try at winning it all. Duke came up a #3 seed, but still won the East, beating newly emerged UConn on a buzzer beater by Christian Laettner, and giving Coach K his fourth try.

The Rebels and Devils dispatched Georgia Tech and Arkansas respectively and set up a Monday night clash. It would prove to be the worst NCAA final of the post-UCLA era. Unless you were from Vegas that is. UNLV won by thirty points. The game was the last one Brent Musberger would call for CBS, as the face of the network's sports coverage was fired shortly before tipoff.

Duke and UNLV were both back. The Runnin' Rebels were aiming at history. Not only to win a second straight title, but they were aiming for the first unbeaten season since Knight's '76 team. They had been unchallenged in winning the West. The Devils were a two seed, and got through the Midwest without having to take out top-seeded Ohio State.

Tarkanian would get a chance to go undefeated in Indiana's backyard as the Hoosier Dome hosted its first Final Four. Skylark Classic's resident columnist and celebrity spokesman Dan Flaherty was on hand for this one, albeit a bit hungover after a losing fight with a bottle of Jim Beam the night before. On Saturday's late game, Duke stunned the world with a 79-77 upset. The rest of the Final Four seemed almost incidental, but the record shows Kansas beat North Carolina in the early semi-final. And after Saturday's thriller, Duke's seven-point win on Monday was about as anti-climactic as the Red Sox-Cardinals World Series in 2004.

Another chance for a team to finally win a repeat title was at hand. Duke had been ranked #1 most of the season. And they looked like a team of destiny, having escaped the hangman's noose in the East regional final. Trailing Kentucky by a point, and just seconds on the clock, the Devils went the length of the floor for a turnaround jumper by Christian Laettner.

The semis featured a mentor-protégé storyline, as Coach K went up against Indiana and Knight. The protégé had the ballplayers, and Duke hung on for a close win. Michigan was in the other semi, having pulled off the astounding feat of reaching the Final Four with five freshmen starting. A win over Cincinnati gave their "Fab Five" a shot at the Dookies. But one half was all the baby Wolverines had in them on Monday night. Duke turned one-point halftime deficit into an easy win, and college hoops finally had a repeat champion.

The Final Four was in New Orleans. In spite of numerous great teams since he walked off this very floor a champion eleven years earlier, Dean Smith had made only one Final Four since '82. He was joined by a group of power teams. For the first time, three #1 seeds had lived up to their billing. The one team that didn't—Indiana—had been hurt badly by a late-season injury, and they were replaced by #2 seed Kansas.

North Carolina beat Kansas in a rematch of their '91 semi-final game. The Fab Five were back for another crack. They played Kentucky and Rick Pitino, who were driven to overcome their heartbreak of the previous season. The five sophomores from Ann Arbor won in overtime and were again on Monday prime-time. The finale was decided when Michigan called a timeout it didn't have when trying to set up for the winning shot in the waning moments. It was a finish oddly reminiscent of UNC's 1982 win. But Smith's teams never beat themselves, and they had a national title as their reward.

Apparently one year out of the Final Four was too much for Duke. The Devils ousted #1 seed Purdue from the Southeast Region and brought their wares to Charlotte. They made their third final game in four years after beating surprising #3 seed Florida.

Arkansas was the top seed in the entire tournament, and they got here by eliminating Michigan, who had only four of the Fab Five remaining. The Hogs then knocked out Arizona, who overcome a recent history of first-round upsets to make Lute Olson's first Final Four since 1988. The championship game went down to the wire. In a tie game, Arkansas' Scotty Thurman launched a rainbow trey with such arc it must have kissed the press box where Razorback alum and president of the United States Bill Clinton was sitting. It went down, and was the key blow in securing the school's first basketball title.

Arkansas was making their own run for a repeat championship. The Razorbacks started the tournament as a strong #2 seed, and upsets in the Midwest Region made them impossible to stop. In the semis, they beat North Carolina.

UCLA was driven by a feeling of destiny, and they'd narrowly escaped a second-round upset by Missouri. In the semis, they beat Oklahoma State. Ironically the Cowboys were led by Eddie Sutton, who had not been to this point since coaching Arkansas in 1978. The Bruins continued the magic on Monday, as senior forward Ed O'Bannon and guard Toby Bailey took over the game and won a surprisingly easy decision over the defending champs. The trophy had returned to Westwood.

For Kentucky, going without an NCAA title for eighteen straight years was as unthinkable as the New York Yankees going that long without a World Series title. But both the Wildcats and Yanks had last won it all in 1978. Rick Pitino felt the pressure to change that as sure as Joe B. Hall had in '78 and the 'Cats had a joyless run to a #1 seed and a Final Four appearance in the Meadowlands.

In the semis, Kentucky beat newly emergent #1 seed Massachusetts. On the other side, Jim Boeheim made a surprising run through the West, and his Syracuse team then upended dark horse Mississippi State in the national semis. But the Orange were no match for the hungry Wildcats who won easily and ended their eighteen year drought. Ironically, the Yankees did the same thing that October.

For the fourth time in the 1990s, the defending champ came in as the favorite to repeat. Kentucky hadn't been as dominant as last year, but they were still a #1 seed and won the West. In Big Ten Country, Minnesota produced its best basketball team in ages, and made it to Indianapolis, before falling to the Wildcats on Saturday.

North Carolina won the East, but the big story was Arizona. Lute Olson's team upended top-heavy favorite Kansas in the Sweet 16. 'Zona then played Providence led by the player with the unforgettable name—God Shammgod. But Divine Providence didn't intervene on behalf the school that bore Its name. Arizona got the Final Four trip instead, beat Carolina and set up an all-Wildcats championship game. For only the second time since 1975, the finale went overtime. And Arizona pulled the upset again, denying a repeat titlist, and marking its third win over a #1 seed—an unprecedented achievement that further validates the authenticity of their title run

Rick Pitino left Kentucky to try his hand with the Boston Celtics, but Tubby Smith came in the Big Blue Machine kept rolling. The Wildcats made a huge rally to beat #1 seed Duke in the regional final and win a trip to San Antonio. With an overtime win over Stanford, UK was in its third straight final game, a feat unprecedented since the Wooden Dynasty.

Utah, led by colorful head coach Rick Majerus made a surprise run out of the West and then upset North Carolina in the semis. The Utes put on a gallant effort on Monday night, leading the game in the second half. But Kentucky had too much and eventually asserted its superiority, winning another national title.

All season long Connecticut and Duke had taken turns with the #1 ranking, eyeing each other up and down the Eastern seaboard. Each one took care of business in their respective regionals. Each one came to St. Petersburg and finished off a Big Ten team. UConn knocked off Ohio State, while the Dookies eliminated Michigan State. The juiciest title game since 1984 was set.

This one was worthy of the stakes. In a back-and-forth game, the Huskies finally prevailed in a sizzling 77-74 ballgame. For Jim Calhoun it was his first title in his first Final Four—but that hadn't come easy. Calhoun paid his dues with three losses in the regional finals before finally climbing to the top.

For the second straight year two Big Ten teams were on hand. One of them was expected. Michigan State was a #1 seed, and had captured the Midwest region in their backyard at Auburn Hills. One wasn't so expected. Wisconsin started at the 8-9 game in the West. They stunned #1 seed Arizona and sailed into port after the rest of the big guns fell in the early rounds.

It was a bracket torn apart from upsets up and down. #5 seed Florida won the East, and even being a #8 seed couldn't stop North Carolina from traveling the road to Indianapolis. The Gators beat the Heels on Saturday, and MSU ended Wisconsin's joy ride. The final game was all green, as the Spartans won their first championship post-Magic.

It had been nine years since Duke last cut down the nets. The program was still smarting from the '99 loss and an unfulfilled #1 seed the previous year. This year they again got to the top line and cashed it in for a plane ticket to the Twin Cities. They were joined by ACC rival Maryland, Arizona and the defending champion Spartans.

Michigan State was not a heavy favorite the way recent champions had been on their return to the Final Four. It showed on Saturday, as Arizona won in a rout. The late game featured an astonishing turnabout—Duke turned a 22-point 1st half deficit into an 11-point win. The Blue Devils finished the job on Monday with an 82-72 win over Arizona. Coach K joined his mentor Bob Knight in winning three national titles.

Maryland left the floor the previous season hungry for a return, and they brought their key players back. The Terps won the ACC and then beat UConn to claim the East regional. Indiana made its first Final Four trip of the post-Knight era, with a big win over Duke being the one notable moment in an easy ride through a bracket marked by upsets.

The Terps beat fellow #1 seed Kansas in one semi-final. Indiana beat Oklahoma. The Sooners were coached by Kelvin Sampson, and the irony of him losing to IU would not be readily apparent until four years later. Maryland took over the last ten minutes of the championship game, and gave Gary Williams a well-deserved trip to the winner's circle.

Two good soldiers brought their team to New Orleans looking for a long-sought championship. Jim Boeheim led Syarcuse through the east, relying on freshman standout Carmelo Martinez. Roy Williams and Kansas beat Duke and Arizona to win a stacked West bracket. In the semi-finals, Kansas put a stunning 50-point thrashing on Marquette—the same Marquette who'd blown out top-ranked Kentucky just one week earlier. Syracuse won a fast-paced game over Texas to set up the final game matchup.

Williams was in the Final Four for the fourth time. Boeheim for the third. It was Williams' second time on Monday night. It was Boeheim's third. The rumors were rife that after this game, Williams would depart for his alma mater at North Carolina. Boeheim had suffered his most painful loss on this floor seventeen years earlier. It would be Syracuse that would prevail, 83-80. The classy 'Cuse coach said later he told his Kansas counterpart "the same thing Bob Knight told me. 'You'll be back.'" But it wouldn't be at Kansas. Williams indeed left for Chapel Hill days later.

Just as in 1999, Connecticut and Duke put on a great show for the nation. Each team had won its regional fairly easily. But unlike '99, their game would be on Saturday and not Monday night. The Blue Devils had a big lead, but both coaches saw Duke's foul trouble inside and knew the tide was going to turn. It did, and UConn pulled off a rally and nipped the Devils 79-78.

Oklahoma State reached this point by ousting top seed St. Joseph's from the East region. Georgia Tech was in the Final Four for the first time since 1990. It was Tech that continued on, beating the Cowboys. But they were little match for powerful UConn, who gave Calhoun another championship.

Just as Jim Boeheim promised him two years earlier, Roy Williams was back. He'd brought his alma mater out of the temporary pit it had been in, and North Carolina coasted through the East bracket. They looked destined for a title clash with Illinois. The Illini had come within one basket in the regular season finale of an undefeated season. And they rolled through the tournament without ever getting on a plane. It started in Indy. Then they went to Chicago, where they reached the Final Four on the strength of an astounding comeback from 15 down with five minutes left against Arizona. And the last two games were scheduled for St. Louis. Illinois was doing it local.

In the semis, Illinois beat Louisville, another team who'd made a breathtaking comeback in its regional final. North Carolina knocked off Michigan State. The final game was worthy of the stakes, but the Tar Heels held off the three-guard attack of Illinois. It was UNC's third championship since the end of the Wooden era, but the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow for their brilliant coach.

There are upset-laden brackets, and there are upset-laden brackets. This was an upset-laden bracket. Not a single #1 seed made the Final Four. Only one #2 seed was here. Most astonishingly, George Mason was one of the teams in Indianapolis. The Patriots had won the hearts of the nation with an upset of top-ranked UConn.

Florida ended Mason's fairy tale with a resounding win in the semis. UCLA was back on center stage, this time led by tough-minded coach Ben Howland. It was defense, not flash and dash that led the Bruins into the Final Four and then past LSU into the final. But the Gators had too much on Monday night, and Billy Donovan's team cut down the nets. It would set the stage for another Florida title—this one in football—that would come just nine months later and mark the school as the first to win national titles in both sports in the same calendar year.
  Dan Flaherty is the editor of many different websites including The Sports Notebook