Never before, at least in the modern history of the NCAA Tournament, had all four #1 seeds advanced to the Final Four. 2008 was the year that broke the mold, and when the four power teams of college basketball came to San Antonio, they produced an epic finish.
Kansas went 31-3 and shared the Big 12 title with Texas in the regular season. The Jayhawks beat the Longhorns in the conference tournament and got the #1 seed in the Midwest, while Texas settled for #2 in the South.
It proved to be a critical distinction, as the Midwest was gutted by upsets and Kansas still barely survived a tough fight from Davidson to make the 2008 Final Four.
Memphis steamrolled Conference USA, and played well outside the league. The Tigers rolled up 31 wins, with freshman Derrick Rose leading up a group of future NBA stars that shined in the 2008 NCAA Tournament. Memphis easily dismantled Michigan State and Texas to win the South Region.
North Carolina was as highly regarded as any of the #1 seeds. The Tar Heels had National Player of the Year Tyler Hansbrough, and overcame a couple of early ACC losses to roll to a record of 32-2 and claim the conference championship over Duke on the final day of the regular season. UNC then cruised through the East bracket mostly unchallenged.
UCLA had reached the Final Four each of the previous two seasons, and with Kevin Love and Russell Westbrook leading the way, the Bruins made it three in a row, going 31-3 and taking the Pac-10. It was a prelude to an unchallenged run through the West.
The matchups in San Antonio had Memphis-UCLA going in the first game, with Kansas-North Carolina as the nightcap. Rose and teammate Chris Douglas-Roberts combined for 53 points, and Memphis pulled away in the second half for a 78-63 win. Kansas then shocked everyone by jumping out to a 40-12 lead over North Carolina. The Heels closed the gap to as tight as four with 11 minutes left, but Kansas reasserted themselves and won 84-66. Brandon Rush’s 25 points and 7 rebounds led the way for the Jayhawks.
Kansas head coach Bill Self and Memphis boss John Calipari were each already well-regarded as coaches, but both had the absence of a championship overshadowing their resume. Memphis came into the game a two-point favorite, but after trailing by five at the half, the Tigers took a nine-point lead with 2:12 to go.
The question Memphis had faced all year was whether their poor free throw shooting would eventually catch up to them. The answer was yes. Rose and Douglas-Roberts combined to miss four of five foul shots down the stretch and when Kansas rebounded the final miss, the margin was down to 63-60.
Kansas got the ball in transition and sharpshooting guard Mario Challmes went to the right corner. He got the ball with three seconds left and drilled a three-point shot that sent the game to overtime. The extra session belonged to the Jayhawks. Darrell Arthur finished with 20 points/10 rebounds, and Kansas scored the first six points of OT, eventually winning 75-68.
Challmes finished with 18 points and for his heroics got Outstanding Player honors. He has subsequently won two NBA championship rings as a starter with the Miami Heat—ironically one of those rings, in 2013, came when the Heat got a missed free throw in an elimination game and a three-pointers in the right corner to force overtime. That shot, in Game 6 of the 2013 NBA Finals was by Ray Allen, but Challmes seems to find a way of being around big shots.
Self had his long-sought championship. Calipari would have to wait until he relocated to Kentucky and won the 2012 NCAA Tournament—ironically enough, he defeated Kansas and Self on Monday night.