The best NCAA championship games of all time

It's an exceedingly difficult task to whittle down the most exciting championship games of this crazy competition we call March Madness. It earned that nickname for a reason, after all.

Since the tournament's inception in 1939, six title matchups have been decided in overtime, and 17 ended with a deficit of three points or fewer. Not every close game is equally exciting, of course.

Narratives build throughout the first couple weeks of the Big Dance, lending an extra layer of public interest to certain matchups. Some games are remembered for iconic moments -- whether they're a symbol of rousing success or gut-wrenching failure. And nothing gets a basketball fan's blood pumping like an old-fashioned buzzer-beater.

With that in mind, here's one fan's ranking of the nine best college basketball championships of all time.

Best NCAA men's basketball championship in history
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Best NCAA men's basketball championship in history

9. 1993: North Carolina 77, Michigan 71

This would spell the conclusion of the “Fab Five” era at Michigan, and it did not end gracefully. The Wolverines were making their second straight appearance in the national championship game after losing by 20 points to Duke in 1992. This result was even more heartbreaking.

With 11 seconds left and Michigan trailing the Tar Heels by two, leading scorer and future No. 1 overall NBA draft pick Chris Webber found himself trapped in a corner and called a timeout his team didn’t have. The colossal error gave North Carolina two free throws and possession of the ball, essentially ending the game.

While UNC had only two future NBA journeymen on its roster in Eric Montross and George Lynch, Michigan boasted future stars Chris Webber, Jalen Rose and Juwan Howard in addition to talented contributors Ray Jackson and Jimmy King (with future Lakers GM Rob Pelinka coming off the bench as a sharpshooter). Webber’s mistake is a source of much angst for Michigan fans, but it made for one of the most memorable March Madness moments ever and bookmarked both an exciting game and an unforgettable era.

Photo credit: NCAA Photos via Getty Images

8. 1957: North Carolina 54, Kansas 53 (3 OT)

UNC finished off an undefeated season and nabbed its first NCAA tournament title by overcoming a favored Kansas team that featured national player of the year Wilt Chamberlain down low. Despite the towering presence of the 7-foot Chamberlain, who had a sizable height advantage over everyone on North Carolina’s roster, the Tar Heels managed to win their second straight triple-overtime game following a nail-biter in the national semifinal over Michigan State.

Kansas overcame an early 12-point deficit – practically an insurmountable advantage in this low-scoring era – to take a late lead before the Tar Heels tied it up in the final minute. After two periods of overtime in which some miserable offense led to four total points being scored (which affects this game’s place in this ranking), UNC center Joe Quigg made two free throws in the closing seconds to seal the game.

Photo credit: Rich Clarkson/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

7. 1987: Indiana 74, Syracuse 73

Junior college transfer Keith Smart helped Hoosiers coach Bobby Knight win his third and final national championship by scoring 12 of Indiana's 15 final points, including the game winner with less than 5 seconds left on a pull-up jumper along the left baseline. He also stepped in front of Syracuse's full-court desperation heave to clinch the tightly contested contest, which featured 19 lead changes and 10 ties. 

Orange freshman Derrick Coleman blew a chance to give Syracuse some more breathing room in the final moments when he missed the front end of a one-and-one directly before Smart's last-gasp heroics. Coleman went on to become the No. 1 pick in the 1990 NBA Draft, but is largely regarded as a bust after appearing in just one All-Star Game in 1994.

Photo credit: Bettman via Getty Images

6. 1989: Michigan 70, Seton Hall 69 (OT)

Senior Glen Rice set a record that still stands for most points scored in a single NCAA tournament (189), averaging 31.5 points per game to lead Michigan. But it was Rumeal Robinson who landed on the cover of Sports Illustrated with the nickname of “Mr. Clutch” after the point guard walked up to the charity stripe with three seconds left in overtime and the Wolverines down by one, then proceeded to knock down a pair of free throws to ice the game.

Seton Hall had its own potential hero in John Morton, whose three-pointer with 25 seconds left in regulation tied the game and sent it to overtime. But Michigan held strong in the extra period to complete a remarkable coaching job by Steve Fisher, who had just been thrown into the fire of March Madness for his first games as a collegiate head coach.

Predecessor Bill Frieder was dismissed after announcing he would depart to coach Arizona State after the season was over, which prompted athletic director Bo Schembechler to push him out the door early. In deciding to relocate to Tempe, where he totaled three NCAA tournament victories in eight seasons, Frieder squandered a chance at finishing the job with a championship-caliber team.

Photo credit: Getty Images

5. 1985: Villanova 66, Georgetown 64

The lowest-seeded team to ever win it all had to take down defending national champion and No. 1 seed Georgetown to do it. The Hoyas had won their first five tourney games by an average of 15.6 points behind future NBA Hall of Famer Patrick Ewing, but No. 8 seed Villanova shocked its Big East rivals on April Fool's Day.

In the last game in Division I history contested without a shot clock, the Wildcats took their time in crafting what would come to be known as the Perfect Game. They took just 18 shots in the first half, making 13 to stake a one-point lead heading into halftime. Their offense was even more deliberate in the second half, converting 9 out of 10 shots to shoot 78.6 percent overall for the game -- a tournament record.

Harold Jensen's jumper with 2:40 left put Villanova up 55-54, and after Georgetown turned it over on the ensuing possession, the Wildcats closed out the school's first title at the free-throw line. It was a fairy tale ending for the biggest Cinderella to ever be crowned the champions of the Big Dance, but points must be taken off for an agonizing pace of play and lack of any standout classic moment.

Photo credit: Villanova University/Collegiate Images/Getty Images

4. 2008: Kansas 75, Memphis 68 (OT)

This game is remembered for Mario Chalmers' buzzer-beating three at the top of the key -- or as Kansas fans refer to it, Mario's Miracle. But some might not remember that shot only tied the game to send it to overtime, where the Jayhawks rode the momentum by scoring the period's first six points to take control and coast to the finish line.

It was a stunning collapse by Memphis, which led by nine with 2:12 remaining in regulation. Leading up to that comeback, freshman Derrick Rose played like the No. 1 draft pick he'd become later that summer, capping a 14-point binge in eight minutes by nailing a ridiculous fadeaway that the play-by-play announcer instantly called "the shot of the tournament."

It wasn't. The Tigers -- ranked 339th of the country's 341 teams with 59 percent free-throw shooting, according to ESPN -- sunk just 1 out of 5 free throws in the game's final 90 seconds to open the door for the true shot of the tournament, courtesy of Chalmers.

Photo credit: Brett Wilhelm/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

3. 1982: North Carolina 63, Georgetown 62

The 1982 championship served as a reminder that even though college basketball features some of the country's premier athletes, these players are still young guys with somewhat limited game experience. In this instance, one of the most star-studded finals of all time ended in one of the most bone-headed plays to ever decide a championship.

After 19-year-old Michael Jordan hit a jumper with 17 seconds left to give UNC a one-point lead, Georgetown guard Fred Brown got confused when Carolina's James Worthy jumped into the backcourt and delivered the ball right to him.

With no three-point line enacted at the time, that should've been all she wrote for Georgetown. But Worthy, a future Los Angeles Laker legend, inexplicably missed both free throws to give the Hoyas another shot. It was wasted when a desperation heave fell short, as the Tar Heels clinched their first title under coach Dean Smith.

Photo credit: Bettmann via Getty Images

2. 1983: N.C. State 54, Houston 52

Though the 1985 Villanova Wildcats were the lowest seed to ever win the NCAA Tournament, many (myself included) consider the North Carolina State Wolfpack squad from two years earlier to be the greatest underdog story in March Madness history.

Their opponents, the Houston Wildcats, were loaded with talent in the form of Akeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler, who'd combine to make 22 All-Star teams in the NBA. "Phi Slama Jama" changed the way the game was played, ushering in an era of athleticism and highlight-reel dunks.

But it was the Lorenzo Charles of the "Cardiac Pack" who thundered home the most important dunk of the tournament, a game-ending alley-oop of sorts born from Dereck Whittenburg's desperate heave from 30 feet out. That provided perhaps the most iconic moment in tournament lore, sending coach Jim Valvano on a desperate quest to find anyone who'd hug him.

Photo credit: Bettman via Getty Images

1. 2016: Villanova 77, North Carolina 74

It's not just recency bias. The roller coaster of a game between these two blue-bloods in 2016 was the best title decider in NCAA basketball history -- and the only one to end on a three-pointer at the buzzer.

To set the stage: Villanova entered having stunned No. 1 overall seed Kansas in the Elite Eight, then demoralized Oklahoma and national player of the year Buddy Hield with the biggest blowout in Final Four history, a 95-51 laugher. Meanwhile, North Carolina won both the ACC regular season title and conference tournament before running roughshod through their side of the bracket, winning all five matchups by double digits with an average margin of 16.2 points to tie a record with their 19th Final Four (which they broke this year).

Senior point guard Marcus Paige led the Tar Heels on a furious comeback that cemented his place in Carolina lore, loss or not. Villanova led by 10 with less than five minutes left, but UNC cut that down to three on a trey from Paige with 1:30 left. A minute later, he rebounded his own missed layup to bring the Heels to within one. Then, on Carolina's final possession, he knocked down a miraculous, double-clutch three-pointer to tie things up.

The Wildcats came right back at the Heels, however, unfazed by the dizzying sequence. Ryan Arcidiacono dribbled down the court and shovel passed it to Kris Jenkins, who launched from well beyond the arc as time expired.

As Villanova coach Jay Wright coolly put it: Bang.

Photo credit: Matt Marriott/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

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