College basketball is a beloved sport that has captivated millions of fans for decades. The intensity and passion that come with each game make it one of the most exciting sports to watch, and some games have left an indelible mark in viewers’ minds.
From buzzer-beaters to record-breaking performances, there have been some truly unforgettable moments in college basketball history. This article will examine the five most watched college basketball games in history and what made them so special.
How Popular Is College Basketball?
College basketball is more popular in locations with an excellent college team but no NBA franchise. One notable example is the University of Kentucky Wildcats, one of history’s most successful and legendary collegiate basketball teams. Kentucky has no NBA franchise, so basketball fans usually congregate and cheer for the next best thing.
On top of that, college basketball has a rich history and a passionate fan base that follows their favorite teams and players throughout the season. In fact, March Madness, the annual NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament, is one of the biggest sporting events in the country, attracting millions of viewers and generating billions of dollars in revenue.
College basketball players may not have the level of skills of NBA players, but they often make up for it with heart. The stakes and pride involved in college basketball games are so strong, while the rivalries are just as fierce. Some examples are the Kansas-UNC game, Duke-UNC, and even Duke-Maryland.
Top 5 Most Watched College Basketball Games in History
Organized college basketball has been played since 1896, so it’s no wonder why basketball fans have been treated with wild, intense, and exciting games through the years. The history allowed college basketball to harness fans, especially the people who attended any of the nearly 400 participating colleges and universities.
So, what are the 5 most watched college basketball games of all time? And if you’re reading up until this point and you consider yourself a college basketball connoisseur, can you guess the most watched college basketball game ever?
1. North Carolina State vs. University of Houston, 1983 Championship Game (32.14 million viewers)
The Wolfpack of NC State against the Cougars of the University of Houston is the fifth most watched college basketball game. UH boasted one of the most exciting college basketball teams ever with their Phi Slamma Jamma lineup led by Benny Anders, Clyde Drexler, Hakeem Olajuwon, and Michael Young.
The game was close all throughout, but in the end, the Wolfpack upset their favored opponents because of a dunk in the final seconds.
With the score tied at 52 with 44 seconds left, NC State retained the ball for a final shot attempt. Anders of Houston nearly missed swiping the ball as time expired. Dereck Whittenburg attempted a frantic heave that went short of the rim after collecting the deflected ball approximately 30 feet from the hoop. In fear of a goaltending call, Olajuwon was reluctant, allowing Lorenzo Charles to collect the ball and slam it for the 54-52 triumph.
2. Arkansas vs Duke, 1994 Championship Game (32.73 million viewers)
Some who have witnessed this game called it the “pinnacle” of college basketball, and it’s hard not to agree. It was a tightly-contested, back-and-forth game, but in the end, the Razorbacks edged out the Blue Devils, 76-72. Corliss Williamson, AKA the Big Nasty, led Arkansas with 23 points, but Scotty Thurman’s three-pointer over Antonio Lang with the shot clock expiring put the game out of reach.
With the victory, Richardson made history by becoming the second African-American coach to win a men’s basketball national title. Tubby Smith (1998) and Kevin Ollie (2014) have won championships, but John Thompson led Georgetown to the national crown in 1984, which paved the way.
3. North Carolina vs. Michigan, 1993 Championship Game (32.94 million viewers)
The Tar Heels-Wolverines game for all the marbles could be the most popular college game ever. This was when Chris Webber called a timeout the team didn’t have, costing the powerhouse Michigan the game. North Carolina was a slight favorite heading into the contest, but Michigan had the funky Fab 5 with many great NBA prospects. However, North Carolina’s poise enabled them to squeak this one out, 77-71.
If Webber didn’t make that mental blunder, they could go for the OT or win the game on the ensuing possession. They were only trailing by two, 73-71, after NC’s Pat Sullivan split the free throw with 19 seconds remaining. Webber grabbed the rebound, looked flustered, and signaled for a timeout after dribbling the length of the court. It was such a crazy play that you just have to watch it to believe it.
4. Duke vs Michigan, 1992 Championship Game (34.31 million viewers)
The most surprising thing about Michigan’s 1993 blunder was that it shouldn’t have happened because it was not their first rodeo. They already have the championship experience after falling short to Duke in the 1992 game, 71-51. It wasn’t close, but because of the Fab 5’s popularity, this became the second most watched college basketball game ever.
Christian Laetnner led the Blue Devils with 19 points and seven rebounds, while Grant Hill displayed his all-around brilliance with 18 points, 10 rebounds, and five assists. C-Webb had a double-double with 14 points and 11 rebounds for the Wolverines, but Jalen Rose was his only teammate to reach double-figures.
5. Michigan State vs Indiana State, 1979 Championship Game (35.11 million viewers)
This old-school basketball game drew many viewers because it’s the hoops equivalent of a David and Goliath encounter. The powerhouse Michigan State Spartans defeated the Indiana State Sycamores, 75-64, but it was the beginning of probably the best and most intense rivalry in the history of the NBA– Magic Johnson vs. Larry Bird.
There was no last-second drama because Magic had a much better team, but the magnificence of the occasion was difficult to ignore. Something about the two titans sharing the stage for the first time captivated the nation’s attention. It could be a portent of things to come as Magic and Bird carried on the Lakers-Celtics rivalry that eventually saved the NBA and made the league what it is today.
Wrapping Things Up: 5 Most Watched College Basketball Games in History
The Kansas-UNC game for the 2022 NCAA championship drew an average of over 17 million viewers across three TV networks. That’s a pretty substantial number, but that is dwarfed by highest rated college basketball games on this list.
So, what are the most watched college basketball games in history? The 1983 championship game between NC State in Houston is at fifth, followed by the 1994, 1993, and 1992 championship contests between Arkansas and Duke, North Carolina and Michigan, and Duke and Michigan, respectively. The most watched college basketball game ever was the 1979 championship game between Magic Johnsons’ Michigan State Spartans and Larry Bird’s Indiana State Sycamores.
Even though the Spartans easily won, this marked the beginning of the Magic and Bird rivalry that spanned 13 seasons in the NBA. It could possibly be the second most watched basketball game ever, ranked behind Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals between the Chicago Bulls and Utah Jazz.
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