I am not here to dump on the Elite Eight at the 2019 NCAA Tournament. It was EVERY bit as good as you think it was, maybe better. Moreover, the 2019 Elite Eight already contains some enormous points of historical resonance and significance, regardless of what happens in college basketball in the 2020s.
Tony Bennett made his first Final Four. Purdue-Virginia was a classic game on par with the greatest games this sport has ever seen. Carsen Edwards turned in one of the iconic single-game performances in NCAA Tournament history.
Auburn and Texas Tech made their first Final Fours. Chris Beard stamped himself as a bona fide coaching superstar. Bruce Pearl reminded us how great a coach he is, and now has the Final Four berth to prove it. He and Tony Bennett have been awesomely great for the past dozen years. One of them will coach for the national title on April 8.
Tom Izzo moved up in the historical coaching hierarchy on Sunday, while John Calipari endured one of his more confusing and improbable defeats.
Yes, this is already a momentous Elite Eight, no matter what happens in the coming decades. Saying this was the best Elite Eight of the 21st century is certainly a very reasonable opinion. You can make plenty of great arguments for it…
… but the 2005 Elite Eight might have been better.
I don’t make the rules, I just try to evaluate and compare games.
The four games we saw this past weekend were thrilling, fierce, and stuffed with great plays from great players, from Jarrett Culver and Davide Moretti of Texas Tech to Edwards, Ty Jerome, and Kyle Guy in Purdue-Virginia; from Jared Harper, Bryce Brown, and P.J. Washington in Auburn-Kentucky to Zion, Cassius Winston, and Kenny Goins in Michigan State-Duke.
The 2019 Elite Eight provided two overtime games plus a white-knuckle finish in MSU-Duke. The “worst” of the four games was still a compelling and intense battle which went down to the final minute and was decided by six points.
The 2005 Elite Eight had everything the 2019 Elite Eight had, only with more drama and heartbreak.
John Beilein was part of the 2005 Elite Eight. So was Rick Pitino. Lute Olson was there, Tubby Smith was there, Tom Izzo was there, Roy Williams was there. Bo Ryan snuck into his first Elite Eight that year, and Bruce Weber also reached his first Elite Eight 14 years ago.
You might think that with so many high-level coaches in the 2005 Elite Eight, teams which gained big leads would have held onto them.
On Saturday of that weekend, two epic comebacks unfolded. In Game 1 — the regional final played in Albuquerque — West Virginia lost a 20-point lead to Louisville, as Larry O’Bannon and Taquan Dean led a furious comeback for the Cardinals which overcame a 6-of-9 3-point shooting masterpiece from stretch big man Kevin Pittsnogle.
In a 2005 college sports season in which West Virginia stunned Louisville with an epic comeback on the football field, Louisville provided the counterbalancing moment with this remarkable rally in New Mexico. Rick Pitino made his first Final Four in his tenure at Louisville. Beilein couldn’t get West Virginia over the hump and into the Final Four; Bob Huggins took care of that five years later in 2010.
An overtime game and a 20-point comeback in the first regional final on Saturday (March 27) in 2005? Surely the second game would not be nearly as remarkable.
When Arizona gained a 15-point lead over Illinois near the four-minute mark of regulation — then a still-substantial eight-point lead with nearly one minute to go — it seemed that this regional final in Chicago would pass into the history books without an abundance of spilled ink or extra bandwidth.
Then all hell broke loose.
Arizona had Salim Stoudemire, a deadeye shooter and elite free throw marksman who would have been able to seal the game at the foul line… but with Arizona leading 80-75 with roughly 50 seconds left and the ball just past midcourt, Stoudemire gave up the ball to a teammate, Mustafa Shakur, who then lost the ball. Arizona’s ball-handling is precisely what enabled Illinois to whittle the 15-point deficit down to eight. Channing Frye made lazy bounce passes instead of handing the ball off to teammates in a more secure way. Stoudemire could have dribbled to avoid both a double-team and a 5-second closely guarded rule (remember that one?) with 50 seconds left, but he gave up the ball, he never got fouled, never went to the line… and that’s how Illinois pulled within three points, 80-77, with 45 seconds left.
The pressure mounted on Arizona at that point. The eight-point cushion was gone, and panic mode set in. Another bad pass on the inbound — after a timeout, no less — led to a Deron Williams three. Illinois had scored eight points in 18 seconds to tie the score and force overtime. In OT, Arizona’s turnovers continued, with Hassan Adams joining the turnover parade. The frenzied crowd in the venerable Rosemont Horizon — a Chicagoland crowd pulling for the state’s flagship school — gave Illinois a massive emotional lift. Arizona shriveled in the face of that surge.
Weber — who had lost his mother just two weeks earlier — reached his first Final Four and came within an eyelash of the national title in St. Louis. North Carolina barely fended off the Illini in the national championship game. Weber’s mom died at the Big Ten Tournament while picking up tickets for Illinois’ game at the United Center in Chicago. For Weber to make the Final Four after enduring that loss represented one of the feel-good stories from that Elite Eight Saturday. It remains Weber’s only Final Four, 14 years later.
That was only half of the 2005 Elite Eight.
Day 2 — Sunday — provided one of the most remarkable cliffhangers in college basketball history, in more ways than one. It also provided a game which, in most Elite Eights, would have been the talk of the country on Monday but was overshadowed by the other three games on that weekend.
In 2005, Wisconsin was still beginning to become an elite program. Bo Ryan had gotten the Badgers into the habit of finishing in the top four of the Big Ten and making the NCAA Tournament every year, but UW was a No. 6 seed in the 2005 Big Dance, not expected to go beyond the Sweet 16. Yet, North Carolina State upset No. 2 seed UConn in the second round, giving Wisconsin and Ryan the “bracket break” they needed to make the Elite Eight.
This was Ryan’s first visit to the thinner air of a regional final, and even though Wisconsin then was a lot like Virginia (note the Dick Bennett DNA in both programs, then and now), it somehow managed to play an up-tempo game against the ultimate up-tempo program, North Carolina. Wisconsin scored in the 80s (!!!) against UNC in Sunday’s first regional final, but the Tar Heels had every answer in a nip-and-tuck game. The final was 88-82 for Carolina. Wisconsin earned a new measure of respect. Ryan elevated his career and his national profile. Two years later, Wisconsin was a No. 2 seed, its highest-ever seed in the NCAA Tournament. Eventually, Ryan chased down an elusive Final Four and a berth in the national championship game, defeating the 38-0 Kentucky Wildcats in the 2015 national semifinals.
That 88-82 Carolina-Wisconsin game was, objectively, the “worst” of the four Elite Eight games in 2005.
The last of the four games was arguably the masterpiece.
Tubby Smith and Tom Izzo had met before in a Kentucky-Michigan State regional final, in 1999 in St. Louis. That game was riveting, tense and close… and Izzo had the last word, making his first Final Four in East Lansing. Six years later, both coaches felt the enormous pressure to win this game.
Izzo was about to have a senior class which did not make a Final Four at Michigan State. He had to win this game to keep alive his run of senior classes with Final Fours. Tubby Smith won a national title in Year 1 at Kentucky but then failed to get back to the Final Four in the next six seasons. He did a poor job in the year 2000 and also struggled to reach his players in 2002, but from 2003-2005, Tubby turned in his best work at Kentucky. He had No. 1 seeds in 2003 and 2004. The 2003 team was crushed by an injury to star player Keith Bogans in a Sweet 16 win over Wisconsin. Had Bogans not gotten hurt, Kentucky might have returned to the Final Four. In 2004, Mike Anderson and UAB shocked Kentucky in the round of 32. In 2005, Kentucky — a 2 seed — rolled into the Elite Eight with Rajon Rondo and Chuck Hayes. This was the time for UK to return where it was — and is — expected to be.
Kentucky and Michigan State engaged in a punch-for-punch heavyweight fight in which both teams stood on the precipice of victory. Kentucky was about to lose at the end of regulation, but a second offensive rebound led to a Patrick Sparks three which hit the rim multiple times before bouncing in. Sparks’ foot was very close to the 3-point line, but extended replay upheld the call. The game went into its first overtime.
Michigan State’s offensive rebounding kept the Spartans in the game after Kentucky grabbed a four-point lead. However, Kentucky had the ball last in overtime. This was the moment to get Tubby back to the Final Four. Kelenna Azubuike got the rock with five seconds left on the left wing. He had a chance to drive against a bigger, slower defender.
Instead, he dribbled across the width of the court to the right wing… and never took a shot. Completely oblivious to the clock, he drained the last several seconds. Kentucky’s chance had come and gone. Michigan State took control in double overtime to give Izzo the win which — like his 2015 dash to the Final Four as a 7 seed — represents one of the “rescue jobs” great coaches will occasionally deliver in March.
A bad regular season is made right at the NCAA Tournament every now and then. Many of the great coaches in the sport have performed a “rescue job,” and Izzo has multiple examples in his pocket. 2005 was not the first overall rescue job — Izzo had made the 2003 Elite Eight as a 7 seed — but it WAS the first rescue job which led to a Final Four.
Three overtimes. Two genuinely epic comebacks. Bruce Weber making the Final Four for his late mother. Izzo beginning to develop his legend at Michigan State. Bo Ryan and Wisconsin playing North Carolina in a track meet… and almost winning. Rick Pitino doing what Louisville fans always expected him to do. Lute Olson, John Beilein, and Tubby Smith enduring the most gut-wrenching March losses of their careers.
The 2019 Elite Eight was certainly tense, thrilling, unexpected, and a burst of memorable moments, with Purdue-Virginia being an iconically great game, a true instant classic.
Yet, 2005 had more overtimes, more comebacks, more “HOW DID THIS HAPPEN?” occurrences, and more plot twists. 2019 had the best game of the eight — Purdue-Virginia — but 2005 probably had a better collection of four games.
The 2005 Elite Eight had the better Kentucky game. The 2005 Elite Eight had a better “worst” game, UNC-Wisconsin over Texas Tech-Gonzaga. The 2005 Elite Eight produced two regional champions — 2005 UNC and 2005 Illinois — which were better and more talented teams not only in comparison with any of the 2019 Final Four teams, but which were also better than 2019 Duke.
Yes, 2005 Carolina and 2005 Illinois had more high-end talent than 2019 Duke — not necessarily in terms of a comparison of future talent (R.J. Barrett in 2021 might be a very different player compared to 2019 R.J. Barrett), but certainly in relationship to the 2019 level of skill and development.
Can you make the case that the 2019 Elite Eight is the best ever, certainly in this century? Yes.
I still think the 2005 Elite Eight was better, though I will also acknowledge that in five years, the view might change.
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