The NCAA Tournament is renowned for its upsets and the Cinderella story. But 2008 was a year when power reigned supreme. For the first—and as of this writing in December 2022, only—time in history, all four #1 seeds held serve in their regionals. Here’s a look back at the road Kansas, Memphis, North Carolina and UCLA took to reach the 2008 Final Four in San Antonio…
This was the 20th anniversary of Kansas’ run to the 1988 national championship behind Danny Manning. Over the past two decades, the Jayhawks had continued to be highly successful, making several Final Fours and reaching the national final as recently as 2003. Roy Williams left for North Carolina after that ’03 season and Bill Self take over. For four years, Self had continued to win, but not in March—a pair of first-round upset losses and two regional final defeats.
This edition of Kansas basketball had Mario Chalmers in the backcourt, and three good frontcourt players, Brandon Rush, Darrell Arthur, and Darnell Jackson. They led the Jayhawks to the #1 seed in the Midwest Regional, and an opening weekend destination of Omaha. Kansas blew out Portland State to open the tournament. In the second round against UNLV, the Jayhawks relied on a stifling defense that held the Rebels to 27 percent shooting. Kansas broke open a tight game in the second half and won 75-56.
It was on to Detroit for the regionals. The Midwest bracket was already gutted. Neither Clemson nor Vanderbilt, the 4-5 seeds, survived the opening weekend. Although drawing 12-seed Villanova, with a core of talent that would make its own Final Four run just one year later, probably wasn’t seen as a major break by the folks in Lawrence.
Kansas’ defense again came ready to play, holding Villanova to 35 percent shooting. Rush’s 16 points led a balanced attack and the Jayhawks won 72-57. On other side of the bracket, more gutting was going on. It was 10-seed Davidson, knocking out 2-seed Georgetown and 3-seed Wisconsin, who reached the Elite Eight. Although again, from the perspective of history, it wasn’t as big a break as it might appear. Davidson had this kid named Steph Curry, who dropped a combined 63 points on the Hoyas and Badgers, leading the way.
Self’s breakthrough Final Four trip wouldn’t come easy. Curry knocked down 25, although the Kansas defense was able to make that come at the price of 9-for-25 shooting. The Jayhawks won the rebounding battle 33-24. Defense and rebounding led the way to a narrow 59-57 win. Curry’s individual exploits were honored with his selection as the region’s Most Outstanding Player. But Kansas was going to the Final Four.
It was 2001 when John Calipari took over a program that had slipped since its most recent of success in the first part of the 1990s. Calipari immediately turned the Tigers into a 20-game winner. By 2003, they were back in the NCAA Tournament and they reached the Elite Eight in both 2006 and 2007.
The group aiming at taking the next step was led by a future NBA MVP, Derrick Rose, who averaged 15 points/5 rebounds/5 assists at the point. Chris Douglas-Roberts was an 18ppg scorer down low. Robert Dozier and Joey Dorsey were solid rebounders. Memphis earned the #1 seed in the South Regional and went to Little Rock to open NCAA play.
After blowing out UT-Arlington, Memphis found themselves in a tough fight against Mississippi State. The difference was rebounding—the Tigers enjoyed a 42-31 edge on the glass, thanks to Dorsey and Douglas-Roberts. Rose went for a 17/9/7 line and Memphis pulled out a 77-74 win.
The regionals were in Houston and 5-seed Michigan State was the Sweet 16 opponent. The Tigers simply destroyed the Spartans. It was 50-20 by halftime. Rose and Douglas-Roberts combined for 52 points. The final score got respectable, at 92-74, but it was never a game. Memphis moved on to face 2-seed Texas, blew out #3 Stanford in the other regional semifinal.
Houston played host to a third straight blowout in a game that had otherwise seemed comparably matched. Memphis took an 11-point lead over Texas by halftime. The Tigers shot 50 percent and held the Longhorns to 36 percent shooting. But the real difference was at the free throw line. Memphis scored 30 points at the charity stripe compared to 8 for Texas. That’s basically your margin of victory in a 85-67 rout.
Douglas-Roberts scored 25. Rose, with a 21/6/9 line against the Longhorns, picked up Most Outstanding Player honors. Memphis was in the Final Four for the first time since 1985.
Roy Williams took over the great North Carolina program in 2004 and won the national title a year later. The Tar Heels were coming off a crushing regional final loss to Georgetown in 2007 and were out for redemption. And this ’08 team was loaded.
Ty Lawson and Danny Green, both with long and productive NBA careers ahead of them, were in the backcourt. Wayne Ellington averaged 17ppg. And no one had a better year in 2008 than Tyler Hansbrough. The center averaged 23 points/10 rebounds and won the Wooden Award as National Player of the Year.
North Carolina won a winner-take-all showdown for the ACC title at Duke to close the regular season and picked up the 1-seed in the East. It was a regional placement that ensured the path to the Final Four would be a local one, through Raleigh and Charlotte.
UNC warmed up in the NCAAs with a 113-74 win over Mount St. Mary’s. The Tar Heels dropped 108 more points on Arkansas in the Round of 32, shooting 68 percent and running out to a 25-point lead by halftime.
The four highest seeds all advanced in the East, so there were no bracket breaks. North Carolina was hot enough that it didn’t matter. The Tar Heels showcased their defense in the Sweet 16, holding Washington State to 32 percent shooting in a 68-47 win. Third-seeded Louisville had knocked off Tennessee in the other regional semi. Hansbrough slapped up a 28/13 line on the Cards as UNC took a 44-32 lead by halftime and won 83-73. Hansbrough was the East’s Most Outstanding Player and North Carolina was heading for San Antonio, looking very much like the team to beat.
The proud Bruin program had not made the Final Four since their last national title run in 1995. Ben Howland came in 2004 and quickly got things back on track. UCLA was on a run of two straight Final Four trips, in 2006 and 2007. Each one ended at the hands of eventual national champion Florida. But Howland was back in 2008 with another stacked lineup.
We can drop the name of another future NBA MVP here—Russell Westbrook averaged a 13/4/4 line in 2008 for UCLA. A talented freshman named Kevin Love averaged 18/11. These future pro stars were joined in the lineup by Darren Collison, Josh Shipp, and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute. UCLA set the pace in what was a deep Pac-10, clearing the field by three games and getting the #1 seed in the West.
The March journey began in Anaheim and the Bruins put some defense on display. They held Mississippi Valley State to 20 percent shooting in a 70-29 win. That’s not a typo—UCLA only allowed 29 points. They needed every last bit of that defense two days later in a 51-49 survival fight against Texas A&M. Love’s 19 points/11 rebounds, combined with 21 points from Collision gave UCLA enough offense to advance.
Phoenix was the venue for the West regionals and the UCLA’s path had already started to clear. #2 seed Duke failed to make it out of the first weekend. The same was true of 4-seed UConn and fifth-seeded Drake. UCLA played #12 Western Kentucky in the Round of 16. And the Bruin offense opened back up. Love led the way with 29 points/14 rebounds. UCLA blew out to a 41-20 halftime lead and won 88-78.
Third-seed Xavier was the last obstacle between Howland and a third straight Final Four trip. And this one came easy. Love’s 19/10 line wrapped his Most Outstanding Player trophy. UCLA’s defense, holding Xavier to 36 percent shooting, led the way. The final score was 76-57.
THE 2008 FINAL FOUR
Having four heavyweights in San Antonio would seem to promise good games, but Saturday’s were both decisive. Memphis and UCLA tipped off in the first game. Neither team shot the ball well, and the Tigers led what was still a close 38-35 game at the half. But Memphis was again the team getting to the foul line. They went 20/23 from the stripe, with Rose and Douglas-Roberts getting all 20 of those free throw points. The duo combined for 53 points overall and the Tigers pulled away to a 78-63 win.
Roy Williams facing his former team was the big storyline coming into the second game. But the big story coming out was Kansas. The Jayhawks stunned everyone by bolting to a 44-27 halftime lead. Brandon Rush went for 25 points/7 rebounds. North Carolina got good games from Hansbrough and Ellington and briefly cut the lead to four in the second half. But KU pulled right back away and advanced to the final with an 84-66 win.
After so many blowouts in otherwise anticipated matchups, we were due for a good game. And Monday night lived up to its reputation as the sporting event that most consistently delivers on the promise of drama. Kansas took the halftime lead, 33-28. But Memphis took control in the second half, held a nine-point lead with two minutes to go and appeared ready to salt away the school’s first basketball championship.
Ironically, after free throws had delivered Memphis throughout this tournament, it would be free throws that became their undoing. They couldn’t close at the foul line. Kansas pulled to within 63-60 and got a final crack at tying the game. Chalmes nailed a three-pointer in the closing seconds.
The game went to overtime. Kansas not only had the momentum, but Dorsey had fouled out. The Jayhawks pulled away in OT to win 75-68. Arthur’s 20 points led the way and Chalmes finished with 18.
Chalmes would be named Most Outstanding Player, although that frankly seems an overreaction to one big shot. Arthur was the best player on Monday night. Rush had the better overall two-game swing in San Antonio. Either would have been a fine choice.
For the first time in 20 years, Kansas had a national championship. And Self didn’t have to answer any more questions about whether he could win in March.