If Memphis beats UCLA in the Final Four, it'll set an NCAA record for victories in a season. If North Carolina wins the title, it'll set a record. And if the Tigers win it all, their 39 wins would be a memorable moment for the record books.
Yet, would 39 or 38 wins in one season be enough to vault either team into the "greatest ever" discussion?
After all, in the most loaded Final Four we've ever seen, shouldn't the winner (survivor) receive some kind of consideration for "greatest" talk?
(To be clear, UCLA and Kansas could match the wins record by cutting down the nets. Both teams could make arguments for "greatest," but without a wins record, it's a tougher case. Bruins and Jayhawks are worth keeping in mind, though.)
It all depends on your version of "the greatest team ever."
In a sport like college basketball where regional rivalries and conference play dictate most of the regular-season storylines (football season usually overshadows everything else), everyone has a favorite "greatest." It breaks down three ways:
An undefeated NCAA champion. These are always brought up first in "greatest" talk and usually include Bob Knight's undefeated '76 Indiana squad, Bill Russell's San Francisco Dons teams from the '50s or any of the Lew Alcindor or Bill Walton UCLA teams from the late '60s and early '70s. Future pro stars help these teams' profiles, but aren't critical to the "discussion greatest.
A team that dominated the regular season, featured plenty of star power, lost one or two games and won the NCAA Tournament.
Most notably, Rick Pitino's '96 Kentucky Wildcats, Coach K's '92 Blue Devils, North Carolina's '82 squad with James Worthy and Michael Jordan or '74 N.C. State that beat Maryland in a classic ACC tourney final, then beat Walton's Bruins in the semis en route to the title.
(Forget about being undefeated, the Wolfpack are the last title team with only 1 loss. Since then, 21 teams have entered the Big Dance with only one loss and have all left title-less. If Memphis doesn't win, maybe analysts should start clamoring for teams to lose at least two games before the NCAA Tournament.)
The third team that gets "greatest ever" consideration would be teams like '91 UNLV, '99 Duke or '85 Georgetown. These are schools that dominated the regular season, featured NBA talent yet didn't win an NCAA title.
That last category applies to all four teams in this year's tournament, but most notably Memphis.
The Tigers (37-1) are on a three-year tear rarely seen. At 103-9, only Kentucky from '96-98 won more games. Memphis hasn't lost a Conference USA game since 2006. It beat foes by an average of 18.6 points this season. It beat NCAA tourney teams in Georgetown, Connecticut, Oklahoma, Gonzaga, USC and Arizona. Except for a home loss to No. 2 Tennessee, the Tigers rolled through the season.
They feature the Final Four's best NBA prospect in point guard Derrick Rose (who could be the top pick), a first-team All-American in Chris Douglas-Roberts and two other forwards in Joey Dorsey and Robert Dozier that could be key reserves. When it comes to athleticism, Memphis has it in spades.
"When we get to the personnel part, our guys will enjoy watching it because you're going to see some of the most amazing dunks and lobs and athletic plays," says UCLA coach Ben Howland. "There will be a lot of oohs and aahs coming out of the popcorn galley."
But setting the wins record would be their best argument. For context, perennial power Arizona has won 39 games the last two years combined.
Four teams share that record for most wins in a season: '86 Duke, '87 UNLV, '99 Duke and '05 Illinois ('86 Duke was 37-3, the others 37-2.) All of them made the Final Four, yet none of them won an NCAA title. The most wins for a championship team? The 1948 Kentucky squad that beat Baylor to finish 36-3.
Maybe "greatest ever" is a little lofty until we know just how good Rose & Co. will be down the road. After all, the UCLA teams that are remembered featured Alcindor and Walton. (For some reason, Sidney Wicks' brilliant '71 team is usually overlooked.) Same deal with the '82 Tar Heels because a team with Jordan and Worthy must've been great.
Also, it's tough to really compare teams from then to now because the game has changed so much. UCLA's dominant teams weren't allowed to dunk. The 3-point line didn't exist until 1987.
But we can certainly compare this year's winner to the elite teams of the last 20 years, the best of which were – to my eyes – '92 Duke, '96 Kentucky, '02 Maryland and '07 Florida. (The last 10 are spotlighted here.)
The team that wins Monday, be it Memphis, UNC, UCLA or Kansas, would easily fit into that group. But Memphis could ascend to the top.