Pro Sports’ Biggest Disappointments

For 38 games, the University of Kentucky men's basketball team was one of the most dominant squads we had ever seen. After a 31-0 regular season, a walk through the SEC tournament, and a trio of easy wins through the Sweet 16, the Wildcats finally showed mortality, and lost to Wisconsin in the Final Four.

It's one of the most disappointing losses in the history of college basketball: a truly great team that picked the wrong time to go cold. Who are other great teams that failed to win a championship? We'll look for the equivalent of the 2014-15 Kentucky Wildcats in the NFL, NBA, and MLB — the best teams that didn't quite win it all.


I've written about this before, but here, we'll just do a brief summary of the top three teams.

3. 1983 Washington (14-2, lost Super Bowl XVIII)

The defending champions of Super Bowl XVII went 14-2, both of their losses coming by a single point. Joe Theismann was named NFL MVP, John Riggins set an NFL record for touchdowns in a season, and Washington became the first team ever to top 500 points in a season. The defense led the league in rushing defense and interceptions. Washington won its first playoff game 51-7, then defeated Joe Montana's 49ers in the NFC Championship. In the Super Bowl, however, Washington got blown out by a Raiders team it had defeated earlier in the season.

2. 1968 Baltimore Colts (13-1, lost Super Bowl III)

If the Colts had won Super Bowl III, they would probably be considered one of the two or three best teams in the history of professional football. Baltimore outscored its opponents 402-144, giving it an average margin of victory (18.4), second-best of any team in the Super Bowl era. The Colts won the NFL Championship Game over Cleveland — the one team that had beaten them — with a 34-0 rout that suggested the final step before a coronation in Super Bowl III. Baltimore entered that game as 20-point favorites, but fell to Joe Namath's New York Jets, 16-7.

1. 2007 New England Patriots (16-0, lost Super Bowl XLII)

This is the best football team I've ever seen. Not only did they win every game, they won blowouts. For the first half of the '07 season, the Patriots weren't even on the same level as their opponents, like NFL against college teams. Still, there's an argument to flip this with the '68 Colts. Baltimore's loss in the Super Bowl was more disappointing, more shocking, because the NFL had dominated the first two Super Bowls, and the Colts were seen as a much stronger team than the 1966-67 Packers, maybe even the best team in football history. Their loss to an AFL team was among the biggest upsets in football history.


The NBA, with its long season and quality of talent, doesn't lend itself to the same dominance as the college game, but it's certainly seen its share of disappointments from teams that seemed poised for a championship.

3. 1996-97 Utah Jazz (64-18, lost NBA Finals, 4-2)

The late '90s Jazz wish Michael Jordan had stayed retired. Runners-up in both 1997 and '98, the Jazz were a great team, but one that matched up poorly against the Bulls. They were built around point guard John Stockton and forward Karl Malone, two of the greatest players in history. Malone averaged 27 points, 10 rebounds, and 4 assists, winning his first NBA MVP Award. The Jazz won the Western Conference by seven games and coasted through the playoffs, going 12-3 on their way to the Finals. Two of their four losses in the Finals came by a single basket, with another by 4 points. The Jazz weren't anything like as dominant as Kentucky, but their disappointment was no less, and this year stands for all their failures to win a championship with Stockton and Malone.

2. 1981-82 Boston Celtics (63-19, lost Eastern Conference Finals, 4-3)

Larry Bird joined the Celtics in the 1979-80 season, and they won their first title in '81. But this was Bird's first truly great team. The Celtics had the best record in the NBA, five games better than anyone else, their best record in nearly a decade. They were the defending champions, they had dominated the regular season, and they had every reason for confidence heading into the playoffs. Like this year's Wildcats, they didn't even make it to the Finals, dropping a seven-game series in which they outscored the victorious 76ers by a total of 33 points, but lost too many close games.

1. 1972-73 Boston Celtics (68-14, lost Eastern Conference Finals, 4-3)

At the time, this was the third-best record in NBA history. The Celtics won the East by 11 games, and they were eight games better than anyone in the West. John Havlicek was an established star, and young center Dave Cowens won MVP honors, averaging 20.5 points and 16.2 rebounds. Following 12 years of Eastern Conference dominance, the West had won the last two Finals, and it seemed like the East's year to return to glory. Sure enough, it was, as the New York Knicks coasted to a 4-1 Finals win over the Lakers. The Celtics won the Finals the following season, but this was their best team of the '70s.


Perhaps no sport has a more famous history of great teams falling short than baseball. It's a challenge to narrow the list, but here are three teams that broke the hearts of their hopeful fans.

3. 2001 Seattle Mariners (116-46, lost ALCS, 4-1)

They won the most regular-season games in MLB history. Everything seemed to fall into place, like a season of destiny. Seattle hosted the all-star game — including eight Mariners, four of them starters — and the AL won, with Ichiro Suzuki getting the AL's first hit, Freddy Garcia getting the win, and Kazuhiro Sasaki earning the save. Ichiro won AL Rookie of the Year and AL MVP. It was a storybook regular season. But the Mariners, who have never reached the World Series, lost to the Yankees in the playoffs.

2. 1946 Boston Red Sox (104-50, lost World Series, 4-3)

Two and a half decades into the Curse of the Bambino, this looked like the team to break it. The war was over, and Ted Williams returned to win his first AL MVP Award. The Red Sox smashed team attendance records and won their first pennant since 1918, finishing 12 games ahead of the Tigers and 17 games in front of the hated Yankees. In this atmosphere of optimism and excitement, the World Series saw the Sox alternate wins with the NL Champion Cardinals, setting up a decisive Game 7. With two outs in the eighth inning and the score 3-3, the Cardinals' Harry Walker hit into left-center field, and Enos Slaughter made his "Mad Dash" from first base to score the winning run.

1. 1906 Chicago Cubs (116-36, lost World Series, 4-2)

Still considered one of the greatest teams of all time, the 1906 Cubs won the most games in National League history, and their .763 winning percentage is the highest in modern MLB history. They won the pennant by 20 games. The Cubs were an especially brilliant defensive team, with the Hall of Fame double-play connection of Tinker to Evers to Chance, and a pitching staff led by the legendary Three Finger Brown, who had his greatest season, with a 1.04 ERA that is still the NL record. In one of the biggest upsets in World Series history, the Cubs lost to their crosstown rivals, the White Sox, in only six games.

This year's Kentucky Wildcats were a great team, and their fans are understandably heartbroken about the NCAA tournament results. But they're far from the only great team to fall short of a championship — even the best professional teams can't always sustain success for a whole season. Going undefeated has never been easy.

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