Fairleigh Dickinson and Belmont got the party started at the 2019 NCAA Tournament. Auburn and Texas Tech carried the feel-good vibe to the Final Four. Virginia provided the crowning moment in the national championship game.
What am I referring to? Not necessarily the first-time NCAA Tournament wins by several schools at this event. Not entirely the first-time Final Fours from multiple schools, even though that represents a part of this story. Not solely Virginia’s first national championship, either.
This story contains a little bit of everything — the first NCAA Tournament wins, the first Final Fours, the first national championship in Charlottesville, and more.
The overall theme is broader: This was an NCAA Tournament and Final Four in which more programs experienced their best-ever seasons than in most years.
Fairleigh Dickinson, Belmont, UCF, Liberty, UC-Irvine, and Wofford all won their first NCAA Tournament games. Six schools cracked the win column in March Madness, objectively making this their best college basketball season in program history. The Big Dance doesn’t always — or even regularly — deliver that many first-time game winners.
That was merely the start of something special in this tournament.
Buffalo won its first NCAA Tournament a year ago, but this year, the Bulls gained a No. 6 seed; last year they were seeded 13th. This was Buffalo’s best season ever, bringing the count of “best-ever seasons” to seven.
Then move to the Final Four.
Auburn and Texas Tech produced the best seasons in program history by making their first Final Fours. Virginia entered this year’s Final Four 0-2 in national semifinals, so as soon as the Cavaliers won their national semifinal against Auburn, they clinched their best season ever.
That’s 10 schools which enjoyed their best seasons ever, as measured by NCAA Tournament performance.
The story isn’t quite over. One more detail needs to be related and then presented in a larger historical context.
Three of the four schools at the 2019 Final Four delivered the best season in program history — to be more precise, they unambiguously did so.
I make note of the word “unambiguously” because teams often match their previous best performance in the NCAA Tournament, but don’t exceed it. “Unambiguous” best seasons might exist in the case of Buffalo — which has won only two NCAA Tournament games in program history — but for programs such as North Carolina and Kentucky, with lots of Final Fours and multiple national titles, the notion of an “unambiguous” best season ever is elusive or, at the very least, debatable.
Within this framework, it has been a very long time since college basketball had a Final Four with three unambiguous owners of best-ever seasons.
Tons of Final Fours have had two schools who produced best-ever seasons, one such example being 2017 with South Carolina and Gonzaga, but it is noticeably difficult to find Final Fours with three schools enjoying best-ever seasons.
I had to go back to 1979 in Salt Lake City to find a Final Four with three schools who produced their best-ever seasons:
Pennsylvania made its first and only Final Four at that gathering in the Huntsman Center.
Michigan State won its first national title.
Indiana State made its first and only Final Four and reached its first and only national title game.
Other Final Fours from the 1970s met this standard of three “best-ever” seasons from participating teams. One such example was 1970, in which New Mexico State, Jacksonville, and Saint Bonaventure all made their first and only Final Fours.
This was a year of empowerment in college basketball. 2019 opened more doors to more teams in March (and early April) than most years.
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