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Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise

Which team is the only one since brackets expanded to make three title games in a row? (And how’d they do?)

Tony Delk
Tony Delk
Photo: AP

We covered all the teams to make two NCAA title games in a row in this article… except... I left out one on purpose with the way I worded the question. Because there has only been one team since the 1985 expansion to make THREE final games in a row. They won it, lost it (in overtime), and won it back. The first vintage spawned an eventual NINE NBA players. This team comes as close to “dynastic” as we’ve had in the past 35 years.

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And it could only be the 1996-98 Kentucky Wildcats. Rick Pitino took the first two squads to back-to-back title games before leaving for the Boston Celtics, where he would utter the legendary, “Larry Bird isn’t walking through that door.” Derek Anderson, Tony Delk, Walter McCarty, Ron Mercer, Nazr Mohammed, Mark Pope, Jeff Sheppard, Wayne Turner, and basket-making employee No. 8 Antoine Walker all went on to varying NBA careers (or at least appearances). In ’96 the Cats bested Marcus Camby and UMass in the national semifinal, and John Wallace and upstart Syracuse, a 4 seed, in the finals.

In ’97, Lute Olsen’s Wildcats of Arizona downed the defending champs 84-79 in overtime. Miles Simon led that Arizona squad, who also provided Dean Smith’s swansong, as he retired after North Carolina lost to them in the semifinal. Kentucky bested Bobby Jackson’s Minnesota, in their first-ever Final Four appearance, to reach the championship. Ultimately, Kentucky fell five minutes shy of repeat glory.

But in ’98, Tubby Smith took the reins and guided Kentucky to it’s second title in three seasons. The Cats needed OT in the semifinal to get past Michael Madsen’s Stanford Cardinal. Utah took down 1 seed North Carolina to advance to the title game, which they hoped would be revenge for a loss to Kentucky in the Regional Final the year prior. But nope. Kentucky took down the Utes 78-69 to put a cap on one helluva run. 

Deputy Editor, Deadspin. Author, "One Lucky Fan: From Bleachers to Box Seats, Chasing the Ultimate Sports Dream to Visit All 123 MLB, NBA, NFL & NHL Teams." Earthwalker.