In 2021, Gonzaga joined the list of undefeated teams entering the NCAA tournament. It is hard to believe that only 20 teams entered the NCAA tournament undefeated. It is harder to believe that an undefeated team would go on to win the tournament seven times, and not once since 1976.
The tournament has changed over the years and the expansion of the bracket makes it more difficult to become an undefeated champion. There was just one team that entered the tournament undefeated from 1980 to 2014, but there have been three teams in a seven-year span in the 2010s.
Obviously, the caveat to this list is that these teams competed in the NCAA tournament. Undefeated teams like the 1954 Kentucky Wildcats or 1973 NC State Wolfpack, for example, don't qualify for this list as they didn't play in the NCAA tournament.
These 20 teams did, and this is how they fared:
Ah, the days when an Ivy League team was a legitimate national championship contender. Columbia had to replace their coach just days before the season began due to coach Gordon Ridings' heart attack. The Lions ended their regular season 21-0 and would face Illinois in the first round (the tournament consisted of just 16 teams back then). Jack Molinas' 20 points and 15 rebounds weren't enough to get past the Illini. Columbia was just one-and-done and finished 21-1 on the season.
The Dons set a lot of firsts. They were the first team to go undefeated and win the NCAA tournament. They were the first team to be ranked No. 1 in the Associated Press and UPI polls all season. Bill Russell and K.C. Jones couldn't be stopped, winning their second straight national championship with a 25-0 record and piling up a 55-game winning streak. San Francisco blasted Iowa behind Russell's 26 points and 27 rebounds in the championship game.
Frank McGuire brought a bunch of New York kids down south to Tobacco Road and delivered an undefeated season. Lennie Rosenbluth and Tommy Kerns would cruise past Yale, Canisius and Syracuse (three northeast schools) on their way to the Final Four. There, the Tar Heels completed what may be the most remarkable Final Four run in history. On Saturday, the Heels beat Michigan State in the national semifinal, 74-70, in triple overtime. The next day, North Carolina beat Wilt Chamberlain's Kansas team, 54-53, in another triple-overtime game. Carolina would finish 32-0 and gave the school, and the ACC, their first national championship.
The Buckeyes were defending national champions and came into their title defense 24-0. They needed a Jerry Lucas shot to get past Louisville in the second round (the Buckeyes first game) before cruising by Kentucky, 87-74. After smacking St. Joseph's in the national semifinal, the Buckeyes would come up short against in-state foe Cincinnati for the championship, 70-65 in overtime. Ohio State ended the season 27-1 and short of their goal for a repeat championship. Ohio State and Cincinnati would lock horns in the 1962 championship game with the Bearcats winning again. Fun fact about the 1961 title game: Ohio State and Cincinnati had to wait and wait and wait to play as the third-place game went to four overtimes.
We are now entering the UCLA portion of this list. Walt Hazzard, Gail Goodrich, and Kenny Washington would be the ones to start a 38-game NCAA tournament winning streak which is ridiculous the fathom today. The Bruins would breeze to an AAWU title and enter the tournament 26-0. UCLA would dispose of a then-great Seattle program before sneaking past San Francisco and Kansas State. The Bruins would beat Duke, 98-83, to win the school's first national championship. This would be the first of four 30-0 seasons for John Wooden and his Bruins dynasty.
This was Lew Alcindor's (now Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) first eligible season for UCLA and he was a force. The eventual Hall of Famer would average 29 points and 15.5 rebounds on the season and began what may be the greatest college basketball career ever. The Bruins cruised through the regular season and would pound Wyoming, Pacific, and Houston before toppling Dayton in the championship game. Another 30-0 season for John Wooden.
This Cougars team is known as the one who played in the Game of the Century against UCLA in the Astrodome ... a game that Houston would win. Elvin Hayes would average 36.8 points and 18.9 rebounds that season and the Cougars would head into the big dance 28-0. Houston would destroy Loyola-Chicago, Louisville, and TCU as they reached the Final Four. There they'd get a rematch with Lew Alcindor's UCLA Bruins and it wasn't pretty. The Bruins pounded Houston, 101-69, with Hayes tallying only ten points. Hayes would wake up for 34 points in the third-place game, but the Cougars lost to Ohio State by four. Houston ended the season 31-2.
When you think of the 1967-1968 St. Bonaventure teams, you think of Bob Lanier. The large center averaged 26 points and nearly 16 rebounds a game that season and led the Bonnies to a 22-0 record. After beating Boston College, 102-93, in the first round, the Bonnies were beaten soundly by North Carolina in the Sweet 16, 91-72. Lanier and St. Bonaventure would lay another egg against Columbia in the East Region consolation game, leaving their final record 23-2.
Al McGuire famously pulled his team out of the 1970 NCAA tournament and entered the NIT instead, where they would win that tournament's championship. The 1971 team would play in the NCAA tournament as they entered with a 26-0 mark. The Warriors would beat Miami-Ohio in the first round before losing a heartbreaker to Ohio State in the Sweet 16, 60-59. They would beat Kentucky in the Mideast Region consolation game to give them a final record of 28-1.
Marquette wasn't the only undefeated team in 1971. Penn would go 26-0 as the 1971 tournament began, behind the scoring of Bob Morse and Dave Wohl. The Quakers squeaked by Duquesne before clobbering South Carolina in the Sweet 16. They would meet fellow Big Five rival Villanova in the regional final, where they would get blasted, 90-47. The 33-point margin of victory is the largest for an undefeated team to suffer in an NCAA tournament. By the way, a despondent Penn team's flight was the same as Villanova's ... and both teams were heading to Philadelphia.
This UCLA team was devastating. They would finish 30-0 and had an average margin of victory of 32 points. Their closest game was their final one ... a five-point win over Florida State for the national championship. This was Bill Walton's first season in Westwood and he delivered (21 ppg, 15.5 rpg), winning the Naismith Award for college player of the year.
This version of UCLA of best known for its championship game. Bill Walton would hit 21 of 22 shots for 44 points and an 87-66 beatdown of Memphis State in the title tilt. UCLA was rarely challenged that season (though a couple of games against Stanford and Cal were relative nail-biters) as their championship capped off a 30-0 season. The win over the Tigers was the program's 75th straight win.
No, not the Indiana team you're thinking of. The 1975 Indiana Hoosier entered the tournament undefeated as well, though they didn't end the season the same way as the more famous team. Most of the big names of the 1976 team (Scott May, Quinn Buckner, Bob Wilkerson) were juniors this go around and dominated the Big Ten (they won it by six games). After entering the tournament 29-0, the Hoosiers would dispose of UTEP and Oregon State rather easily. In the regional final, they'd meet rival Kentucky in what would be a classic battle. In what would be one of the greatest games in NCAA tournament history, Kentucky would beat Indiana, 92-90, despite Kent Benson's 33 points. History would need to wait one more year.
By now you should all be aware that this Indiana team was the last to finish the regular season undefeated and national champions. Scott May, Kent Benson, and Quinn Buckner delivered what they couldn't the year before and beat Michigan for the national championship and a 32-0 record. The Hoosiers were hardly challenged en route to the title, with only one game decided by less than 14 points.
Bob Knight played on the 1961 Ohio State Buckeyes and coached the 1975 and 1976 Hoosiers ... linking him to three undefeated regular season teams.
Yeah. Rutgers. It seems inconceivable now that Rutgers once had an undefeated season, and many don't remember it because it occurred the same year Indiana finished the tournament undefeated. Their star was Phil Sellers, who is still the program's all-time leading scorer and rebounder. The Scarlet Knights would sneak by fellow New Jersey school Princeton in the first round, before pounding UConn and VMI to reach the Final Four ... which was played in nearby Philadelphia. That's where it would go back for the Knights, where they'd lose by 16 to the Michigan Wolverines. In those days, the third-place game was still a thing and Rutgers would lose that game as well, to UCLA. The Scarlet Knights would finish 31-2 and as a back page story to another undefeated team.
Yes, the Larry Bird team. The Sycamores entered the big dance 29-0 under the star power for Bird, the national player of the year. Bird led the team in scoring in 33 of 34 games and in rebounding in 33 of 34 games. In the national semifinal, Bird scored 35 points, grabbed 16 rebounds, and dished 9 assists in the two-point win over DePaul. In the title game, they'd face Magic Johnson and Michigan State in what is arguably the most important game in college hoops history. The game itself doesn't hold up to the hype and Magic's Spartans beat Indiana State, 75-64, leaving the Sycamores with a 33-1 record and only the second team to have their undefeated season end in the national championship game.
Quite possibly the most notable name on this list that didn't win the championship. UNLV won the 1990 championship by mauling Duke, 103-73. So not only was UNLV 30-0 entering the 1991 tournament, they were riding a 41-game winning streak. The squad of Larry Johnson, Stacey Augmon, Greg Anthony, and Anderson Hunt were legendary for their scoring ability and their athleticism. It was about as foregone a conclusion as you could get for a team to win the title. They would run into Duke again in the Final Four, but the Blue Devils weren't going to get smacked around again. The two teams fought all night with Duke pulling off the improbable 79-77 upset over Jerry Tarkanian's Runnin' Rebels. That game would basically mark the end of the Tarkanian-UNLV dynasty talk (34-1), it birthed Mike Krzyzewski and Duke's own dynasty.
Twenty-two tournaments would go by between the last time we had an undefeated team and this Wichita State team. Despite the Shockers reaching the 2013 Final Four, many people were a little suspect that this year's team could finish the job and win the national championship. This was a talented team, with Fred VanVleet, Ron Baker, and Cleanthony Early running the show. The Shockers were ... well ... shocked when they saw that they could face a very talented Kentucky team in the second round (more on the Wildcats in a bit). They would meet up in the second round in a back-and-forth battle that ended with a missed VanVleet three and a Kentucky 78-76 victory.
Wichita State would finish the season 35-1.
John Calipari ran a platoon system of sorts because he felt his team was filled with so much talent (he even remarked that his backup team was the second-best squad in the country). His confidence was warranted as there were a lot of bets of Kentucky vs the field. Karl-Anthony Towns, Devin Booker, Willie Cauley-Stein, and Andrew Harrison were the leaders (Booker didn't even start a game that season). The Wildcats were 38-0 as they entered the Final Four -- the best start in college hoops history. They ran into a very experienced Wisconsin team with Player of the Year Frank Kaminsky and lost in the national semifinals, 71-64. The 40-0 season wouldn't happen. They'd have to settle for a 38-1 record.
Gonzaga managed to win every regular season and West Coast Conference game during an unusual season where COVID protocols caused players to have to sit, games to be postponed or canceled, fans missing from the stands and having to endure a different experience than any other season. The Zags cruised through to the Final Four before needing a 30-foot running three to beat UCLA in overtime to get to the national championship game. The Bulldogs were the first undefeated team to reach the title game since Indiana State in 1979. Once there, Baylor jumped all over the Zags and cruised to an 86-70 win. Gonzaga finished the season 31-1.