Virtually every college basketball fan who has ever held Final Four tickets has been able to say that they saw a great memory – either a classic game, an unbelievable play, or a great performance for the ages by an individual player. The Final Four – the national semi-finals and finals of college basketball – has become an American institution, thanks in large parts to these memories.
Perhaps the greatest Final Four memory was not technically in the Final Four, but it did end up sending the Duke Blue Devils to a Final Four. Everyone has seen Grant Hill’s 3/4-court-length toss to Christian Laettner probably hundreds of times in their lives.
That miracle sequence, including the catch, dribble, head fake and shot from above the key, occurring in the final 2.1 seconds of an overtime versus Kentucky in the 1992 Elite Eight, gave Duke a 104-103 win.
In 1990, the Runnin’ Rebels of UNLV made history. Led by controversial coach Jerry Tarkanian, UNLV ran right past Duke for a 103-73 win in the NCAA basketball finals to give the school the largest margin of victory in a championship game in history.
The name Syracuse is familiar to any college hoop fan. The school has been to the Final Four on four occasions, but legendary Head Coach Jim Boeheim had to wait until 2003 to win his first career national title. That year, freshman forward Carmelo Anthony lead a team that was unranked to start the season all the way to the promised land. It was his only collegiate season and he was tabbed the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player before moving on to the NBA and becoming a superstar.
The 1985 Final Four featured two schools in Syracuse’s Big East Conference in the finals, though one of them, eighth-seeded Villanova, was a dark horse, to say the least. Those who had Final Four tickets that year were treated to a 68-64 Villanova upset victory over Georgetown in the finals. They remain the lowest seed to win the tournament, as well as a constant reminder that just about anything can happen during March Madness - including the Final Four.
Schools from smaller conferences, or mid-majors, have made the Final Four especially interesting in recent years. Butler University, then a member of the Horizon League, fought its way into the Final Four in consecutive seasons in 2010 and 2011. The Bulldogs defeated Michigan State to earn a berth in the championship versus Duke in 2010. A desperate half-court shot at the buzzer by eventual NBA guard Gordon Hayward did not land for Butler, giving Duke a national championship by a 61-59 margin.
A year later, Butler outpaced Virginia Commonwealth University, another mid-major or “Cinderella”, to earn its second straight trip to the national championship stage. Final Four tickets that year were good for a Butler-University of Connecticut championship game that saw a 53-41 UConn win, their third national title in just 12 seasons.
The George Mason Patriots, however, are the Final Four’s mid-major darling. In 2006, George Mason, out of the Colonial Athletic Association, lost to Florida in the Final Four, but victories over UConn, Michigan State and North Carolina captured America’s attention, if not its heart, to qualify for the Final Four. The team qualified for the NCAA tourney again only twice in the next five seasons, demonstrating how precious any Final Four appearance is.
But the tournament and the Final Four, has, by and large, belonged to the big name schools, and big name athletes. Michael Jordan thrilled those with Final Four tickets in 1982 with a game-clinching shot in the finals versus the Georgetown Hoyas, as Jordan’s North Carolina Tar Heels won 63-62 in New Orleans that season.
Legendary college basketball coach Bobby Knight won his final title in 1987 versus Syracuse when he was with Indiana. Keith Smart’s game winning shot for Indiana late in that game provided the memory for that year’s Final Four. The win was not only Coach Knight’s final national championship, but also that of Indiana University. The school did reach the 2002 final as a 5-seed, but fell to the University of Maryland.
One of the biggest championship game upsets occurred in 1983, when the N.C. State Wolfpack met the Houston Cougars, known by their Phi Slamma Jamma nickname. The heavily-favored Cougars fell to the upstart Wolfpack when Lorenzo Charles dunked a 30-foot air ball from the tournament’s leading scorer, Dereck Whittenburg with seconds remaining. The victory cemented NC State Head Coach Jim Valvano in NCAA lore, as he scrambled around the court at the final buzzer, looking for someone to hug in his greatest coaching moment.
No discussion of the Final Four can be held without discussing the UCLA Bruins. The school not only leads the sport in national championships (11), 10 of those 11 wins came in a 12-year span, from 1964-1975. The program reeled off seven straight national titles from 1967-1973 under legendary coach John Wooden and remains a would-be “measuring stick” for all other potential “college dynasty” conversation.
To put the Bruins’ NCAA accomplishments in perspective, here are some of the records associated with the program:
7 consecutive NCAA titles (1967–1973)
12 NCAA title game appearances
18 Final Four appearances
10 consecutive Final Four appearances (1967–1976)
25 Final Four wins
38 game NCAA Tournament winning streak (1964–1974)
Imagine a team not losing an NCAA tournament game in 11 years, never mind the consecutive championships?
The program went the three consecutive Final Fours again in 2006-2008 under coach Ben Howland, but unfortunately those who held Final Four tickets in those years did not see a single UCLA title.
Almost as highly regarded in NCAA lore is the University of Kentucky program. The school is second in national championships with eight. Unlike UCLA, which won all of its titles under Wooden, Kentucky has seen five different coaches lead their lauded university to the national title. Of course, legendary coach Adolph Rupp netted four titles of his own.
Kentucky has made 15 separate Final Fours, spanning from 1942 to 2012. Rupp coached the program from 1930 to 1972, retiring at age 70 only because of a university rule that forced retirement at that age. Rupp’s Wildcats appeared in 20 NCAA Tournaments and six Final Fours. Other Kentucky coaches to bring home a national title are Joe B. Hall (1978), Rick Pitino (1996), Tubby Smith (1998) and John Calipari (2012).
Thanks to an exciting blend of legendary universities and hungry mid-majors, the NCAA Tournament and its Final Four will continue to provide rich memories and great history for college basketball fans for generations to come.
In the classic basketball movie “Hoosiers,” the coaches and players alike from the small school team from Hickory marveled at the size of the arena in which they were to play for the state championship. The coach famously measured the distance from the rim to the floor and the length of a free throw. Of course, they matched those of their home gym in their small school, but the point was made.
As much as people like basketball, they love championship basketball. Final Four tickets are hard to get, but the NCAA has been routinely setting attendance records for its world famous events.
In recent years, the Final Four has been played in large football domes that typically accommodate about 70,000 fans.
The all-time attendance record for the two-session Final Four is 145,378 people in 2009, when the games were played at Ford Field in Detroit. The home state Michigan State Spartans naturally had something to do with the record numbers, but they fell short in the championship, losing 89-72 versus the University of North Carolina.
The Mercedes-Benz Superdome has a rich Final Four history, as well. In 2012, the venue sold over 144,000 tickets, good for second best all time. In fact, the stadium holds three of the top five Final Four attendance records.
Much like in 2009, hometown pride played a role in the 2010 Final Four. The feel-good story of the college basketball season saw mid-major Butler University advance to the Final Four in Indianapolis. That’s where Final Four tickets sales reached almost record numbers: 142,228 fans saw the three games at Lucas Oil Stadium. At the time it was good for second place all-time and today sits as the third most attended Final Four in history.
The Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans has sold its share of Final Four tickets. That site holds the third, fourth and fifth place distinction in total Final Four attendance. In 1987, 129,918 fans witnessed a Final Four that saw Indiana University get the best of Syracuse University, 74-73, in what was Bobby Knight’s final national championship.
In 1993, Dean Smith and North Carolina took home a title after 128,302 people attended that Superdome Final Four. The Tarheels scored a 77-71 victory over Michigan that year. In 1982, the Superdome sold 123,224 Final Four tickets, and again North Carolina won. This time they beat Georgetown, 63-62. The site also sold the third highest total tickets for the final in 2012.
The very first Final Four was held in Evanston, Illinois in 1939. That year, the Oregon Ducks beat the Ohio State Buckeyes 46-33 to win the championship. But the three games were not played in the same location until 1952, when the tournament shifted to a regional format.
Since that time, Kansas City has hosted the most Final Fours, with seven, including four of the first five under the new format from 1954-1957. Municipal Auditorium hosted six of seven of KC’s Final Fours, with Kemper Arena selling Final Four Tickets in 1988.
Louisville, Kentucky has hosted six Final Fours. Freedom Hall has seen five of them, all between 1958 and 1969, while Rupp Arena hosted the Final Four in 1985.
Surprisingly, the World’s Most Famous Arena, Madison Square Garden, has never hosted a true Final Four. It did host the championship games in 1943-1948 and in 1950, but has not hosted the actual Final Four event since the regional format. In addition, MSG has not hosted a tournament game at all since 1961.
The nearby New Jersey Meadowlands, in 1983, marked the last time Final Four tickets were sold in an area rather than a larger football stadium. It was also the last time the Final Four was played on the home court of a college basketball program, that of the Seton Hall Pirates.
Indianapolis and New Orleans have both hosted five Final Fours. Three venues in Indianapolis – Market Square Arena, the RCA Dome, and now Lucas Oil Stadium – have seen Final Fours within their walls. Lucas Oil Stadium was built specifically for both football and basketball and is slated to again host the Final Four in 2015.
The state of Missouri, with both Kansas City and St. Louis, has hosted 10 of the “modern-day” Final Fours. St. Louis Arena sold Final Four tickets in 1973 and 1978, and the Edward James Dome hosted in 2005.
The state of Texas also has its share of Final Four history and will see at least two more national championships in the coming years. The Alamo Dome has hosted three of the state’s six Final Fours and upcoming semifinal and championship rounds have been promised to Cowboys Stadium in Arlington in 2014 and Houston’s Reliant Stadium in 2016.
Washington State – Seattle’s Kingdome specifically – has been home to three Final Fours, in 1984, 1989 and 1995, while Hec Edmundson Pavilion hosted the first true “Final Four” under the regional format.
Detroit’s 2009 Final Four was the city’s (and the state of Michigan’s) only time to host the event, though the venue is in line for future national championships.
The NCAA is considering a change to the rule that a Final Four venue must contain at least 70,000 seats, which could return the event to basketball-specific arenas for the first time in a couple of decades.
But given the overwhelming popularity of the event, and the demand for Final Four tickets, more fans will get to enjoy the end of the college basketball season at indoor football stadiums for quite some time.