Past Imperfect: The NCAA’s Greatest Weekend

Posted by JWeill on March 24th, 2011

Past Imperfect is a series focusing on the history of the game. Each week, RTC contributor JL Weill (@AgonicaBossEmail) highlights some piece of historical arcana that may (or may not) be relevant to today’s college basketball landscape. This week: the greatest Sweet 16 and Elite Eight ever, the 1990 NCAA Tournament.

By the time the 1990 NCAA Tournament hit its second weekend, fans had already been treated to quite a show: 16th-seeded Murray State pushing top seed Michigan State to the wire; Loyola Marymount’s emotional return to the court following the tragic passing of All-American teammate Hank Gathers and stunning rout of defending champion Michigan; upsets by Ball State, Dayton and Northern Iowa; surprise takedowns of high seeds Kansas, Purdue and No. 1 Oklahoma.

But as much as the results, 1990 in many ways represented a modern apogee for college basketball – a natural peak that was a nexus of upperclassman experience, elite talent and athleticism and a growing American obsession with this quirky college tournament cum mega-event. As television numbers soared and a new generation of basketball fans came of age, interest in the NCAA Tournament was at an all-time high, and the product on the court was worthy of it.

Basketball is a game that has weathered changes in style, scandals of all levels and cycles of roster attrition, any of which might have crippled a less beloved sport. But while there have always been flaws, much of the negativity and cynicism that has since widened the gap between fans of the college game and fans of the modern NBA at the end of the 1980s had yet to be amplified by the combination of youthful revolt, unmitigated marketing and an ever-present media lens that we accept as the norm today. Likewise, at the time the 1990 tourney tipped, ESPN had yet to dominate the sports broadcast market the way it does now and, while viewership of cable television was certainly widespread, Americans were still mostly attuned to a tradition of watching major sporting events like the NCAA Tournament on network, and even more so, local television. And, certainly not to be ignored, this was long before the Internet changed forever the way fans consumed, discussed and dissected the sports the watched.

NBA talents with years of college experience like Michigan State’s Steve Smith made the 1990 NCAA special.

But if in these many ways the beginning of the 1990s was a more innocent time for fans, it was a more experienced and developed time for college basketball. Since Magic Johnson had been drafted No. 1 overall as a sophomore in the 1979 NBA Draft, only 12 underclassmen had been selected in the draft to that point, and of those, none had been freshmen from Division I colleges. There was a fundamental agreement that freshmen were not physically ready to play with grown men in the NBA, and despite the Spencer Haywood decision of the early 1970s granting high school players the right to be drafted, only three high school players had opted to skip college entirely: Moses Malone, Darryl Dawkins and Bill Willoughby.

The result was that coaches continued to build teams around star players who they knew were not only talented, but also would be around long enough to accrue the experience that came with having played at least two years in college already. Any fan of college basketball knows that while added playing experience is certainly no guarantee of success at the college level, it sure does help.

So came the 1990 tournament, flush with future pros, plus Hall of Fame and soon-to-be-household-name up-and-comer coaches, too. There were blueblood programs and upstarts alike. And the opening weekend of the tournament was a fantastic one. But if the first two rounds had produced great games and standout individual performances, it was only a prelude to the grand waltz of the weekend ahead. From March 22-25, 1990, college basketball showed, on its grandest stage, all of the best things its season-ending tournament had to offer: emotion, drama, intrigue, and controversy – not to mention collegiate athletics played at the highest level.

It all began with a bang. Two years before a miracle full-court pass and shot at the Meadowlands in East Rutherford, N.J., would become one of the most replayed and remembered moments in NCAA Tournament history, another, different but equally improbable full-court catch and shoot would captivate college basketball fans’ imaginations … for all of two days.

Few people remember now that when coach Jim Calhoun took over the University of Connecticut program it was arguably the worst in Division I. Now, in just his fourth year, Calhoun had the Huskies as the East Region’s No. 1 seed, facing a talented fifth-seeded Clemson in the Sweet 16. Strong and oozing confidence, UConn opened a 19-point lead. But in the second half, Clemson went on a 25-8 run to cut the lead to two with just over three-and-a-half minutes left. With only 12 seconds remaining in the game, Clemson sophomore David Young hit a three-pointer to give the Tigers their first lead since early in the first half. UConn point guard Tate George missed a jump shot with four seconds left, Clemson rebounded and was fouled. But after forward Sean Tyson missed the free throw, UConn collected the rebound and called time out. One second remained on the game clock.

In the Connecticut huddle, Calhoun was emphatic that his team would win. He’d say after the game, ‘‘it’s going to sound bizarre. I never really thought we were going to lose. I know it sounds crazy. It is crazy.’

Connecticut's Tate George hit a jumper at the buzzer to shock Clemson, and fans everywhere.

But he was right. Scott Burrell, then a Connecticut freshman, threw a baseball pass 80 feet to the right corner where George caught, turned and fired the ball up just as the final horn sounded. George never saw the ball go into the net, only heard the roar of the arena crowd and was mobbed by teammates. George’s shot crushed the Tigers. It would be six years before Clemson would again reach the NCAA Tournament. Waiting in the locker room that Thursday was Duke, who would top UCLA in the second game that evening. The two teams would never imagine what was going to happen just two days hence.

Down in New Orleans, a different brew of last-second drama and controversy would create another of the college game’s most indelible moments. Georgia Tech, led by its triumvirate of shooting stars Brian Oliver, Dennis Scott and freshman sensation Kenny Anderson, had toppled talented but flawed LSU and met All-American Steve Smith and No. 1 seed Michigan State in the Sweet 16. The game see-sawed back and forth until the final moments when Anderson, displaying the raw speed and ball-handling skills that made him one of the great point guards in the game, streaked the length of the floor, pulled up and buried a shot at the horn. His basket would have won the game if it was a three-pointer or sent the game to overtime if not. The referees collaborated and decided his foot was on the line, but the bigger issue was that television replays appeared to indicate that Anderson hadn’t gotten the shot off in time. The referees decided, against the protests of Michigan State coach Jud Heathcote, to award Georgia Tech the two-point basket and begin an extra session.

In the overtime, the teams again battled back and forth, with the Spartans taking the lead 80-79 on Smith’s foul shots with 23 seconds remaining. But it was Scott’s off-balance game-winner with just eight seconds remaining that finally put an end to this classic. The Yellow Jackets moved on to face Minnesota, who had upset Syracuse in the earlier game at the Superdome.

Out West, the Loyola Marymount phenomenon continued to grow in scope. Held to just 62 points by Alabama’s slow-down defensive scheme, Bo Kimble and company showed they could win a possession by possession game and moved to within a game of one of the most improbable Final Four appearances in NCAA history.

Standing in Loyola’s way was the most feared and reviled team in America, Nevada-Las Vegas. UNLV had dunked, run and taunted its way to the top overall seed in the tournament. Led by a powerful front line of Larry Johnson, Stacey Augmon and Moses Scurry, and the backcourt skill of Greg Anthony and Anderson Hunt, the Runnin’ Rebels were assumed to have little trouble with their Sweet 16 opponent, surprising Ball State. But Ball State had already stunned Gary Payton and Oregon State in the opening round and Louisville in the second round just to get there, and it wasn’t about to lay down for UNLV.

The Cardinals managed to slow down the Rebels’ running offensive game and hold onto the basketball. UNLV always scored a lot of easy baskets on turnovers, so Ball State’s tactics were to work each possession and make UNLV guard the entire shot clock. Trailing by 11 with just over 14 minutes remaining, Ball State began to hit shots from the outside. By the time Billy Butts hit a three at the 1:12 mark, the margin was just three, 68-65. Ball State rebounded a miss and scored to bring the Cardinals within two, then fouled Anthony with 19 seconds to go. The preternaturally calm UNLV point guard uncharacteristically missed the front end of the one-and-one, giving Ball State one last shot. But the play Cardinals coach Dick Hunsaker drew up didn’t go according to plan and a scrambling lob pass was picked off, letting heavily-favored UNLV off the hook, 69-67.

Four regions, only eight teams remaining. The stage was set for an epic two days of NCAA basketball.

Epic. What Connecticut had done in the third round to beat Clemson was epic. And yet, it only moved them one step further on the bracket. Next up was Duke, whose intimidating lineup included center Alaa Abdelnaby,  guard Phil Henderson, plus super sophomore Christian Laettner and a fresh-faced rookie point guard, Bobby Hurley. Duke had managed to avoid the drama bug that had plagued most of the other teams still standing in the tournament. Now they had to face the No. 1 seed in UConn, who had second life after Tate George’s game-winner the round before.

Before the game even began, Hurley fought off stomach woes. That would be nearly the only thing Hurley had trouble with in this one. In the first half, the Duke point guard’s penetration into the lane gave UConn fits. His most effective target was Abdelnaby, a New Jersey native, who scored 17 in the opening frame. Thanks to Abdelnaby’s big half, Duke led by seven at the break. In the second half, cutting the lead to three before Huskies guard Chris Smith buried a three with nine seconds remaining to tie it at 72 and send the game to overtime. In the overtime period, the two teams traded leads until the Huskies led 78-77 with four seconds to go. Hurley saw an open Henderson and released a pass that UConn’s George read and intercepted.

Christian Laettner foreshadowed his later heroics with a game-winner vs. UConn.

“I thought that was it,” said Hurley to the media after the game. “It’s like total defeat in your mind.”

But George couldn’t hang on to the ball and it was Duke’s ball out of bounds with only 2.6 seconds remaining. From the Duke bench, coach Mike Krzyzewski called for a play called “Special,” in which the inbounds man, here Laettner, gets an immediate pass back because he isn’t being guarded. Blue Devils forward Brian Davis shot the ball back to Laettner on the right wing and the sophomore fired at the buzzer. Good. UConn had won by the buzzer beater and now had to accept defeat by the same. Duke was on to  Denver. Jim Calhoun’s team was headed home. So it is at the NCAA tournament.

Far from the madness in the Meadowlands, surging Texas, seeded 10th, and No. 4 seed Arkansas, who had coasted to wins in their Sweet 16 matchups, met in Dallas on Saturday for a spot in the Final Four. The two teams both played fast and frenetic styles and were well acquainted, having both come from the Southwest Conference.

Coach Nolan Richardson had built his best team at Arkansas. Led by sophomores Todd Day, Lee Mayberry and Oliver Miller, the Razorbacks ran teams ragged on both offense and defense. Texas also featured a trio of talented scorers in Travis Mays and Lance Blanks and Joey Wright had already worked upsets over higher seeds Georgia, Purdue and Xavier. Arkansas had avoided top seed Oklahoma after the Sooners were upset in the second round. Now, as the familiar foes squared off, the stakes were raised.

For all their freewheeling scoring prowess, the teams’ Final Four futures ultimately came down to the simplest of fundamentals: free throws. Each team shot the ball well from outside, rebounded and played frenetic defense, but Arkansas kept getting fouled. The Razorbacks built a 16-point lead in the second half, but missed enough at the stripe that Texas worked the lead down to just three with 32 seconds left on Banks’ three-point jumper. Day was sent to the line one second later, but missed the first. Texas got the ball back and raced up the floor, but Mays three-pointer to tie the game was off the rim and his foul on the rebound sent Arkansas to the line. Ron Heury, who had scored just six on the afternoon, finally ended the string of misses and Arkansas was headed to the Final Four with an 88-85 victory.

If the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets, having squeaked by the No. 1 seed in their last game, figured to have an easier time with No. 6 Minnesota in the regional final, they were mistaken. Clem Haskins’ Gophers had whipped the No. 2 in the region, Syracuse, with a rattling offensive display. Led by all-conference 6’7 forward Willie Burton, Minnesota broke from the gates quickly, leading by as many as 12 points in the early going. But Dennis Scott was not going to let this one go. Scott had dropped 20 pounds in the offseason and he dropped 40 on the Gophers, most notably a sequence of deep three-pointers late in the game that Minnesota never recovered from. Still, with little time remaining, Burton canned a three to bring Minnesota to within two, 93-91. That would also be the final score, as the Gophers’ Kevin Lynch was wide on a pressured shot from the corner. In all, Tech’s “Lethal Weapon 3,” as they’d been dubbed by fans and the media, finished with a stunning 89 of the Yellow Jacket’s 93.

Bo Kimble and Loyola Marymount finally reached the end of an emotional run vs. UNLV.

Loyola Marymount headed into their regional final matchup with UNLV having lasted longer than critics and even fans expected, given their scoring and rebounding leader had been cruelly stolen from them just before the tournament began. The absence of Hank Gathers wasn’t just emotional. He was an All-American, and without him, no one gave the Lions a chance to get this far, much less take down the feared Runnin’ Rebels. For a half, it seemed Loyola Marymount actually might do the unthinkable.

After Bo Kimble pulled the Lions to within four late in the first half, fans in the arena and at home began to believe one more miracle might be possible. But the Rebels proved too deep, too long, too fast for an emotionally and physically spent Marymount. The final score was 131-101, but no one felt the Lions had performed anything but admirably given all they’d gone through. Facing a loss of a friend and teammate was far worse than a loss to the eventual national champion. And three straight upsets by the Lions had given anyone watching all the answer they would need to the question of whether college kids pushed to their limit athletically and physically could find something beyond mere effort, beyond talent, something beyond.

Much like the Loyola Marymount team, the third and fourth rounds of that 1990 NCAA tournament had proved there was more than just wins and losses in that gorgeous cascading bracket. There was humanity, grief, struggle and perseverance. There was also beautiful basketball, played with a grace, style and swagger befitting the game. In the long history of the NCAA Tournament there have certainly been other games, plays, players and outcomes to rival any one of those found in the 1990 edition. And some might rightly argue there were better overall tournaments, top to bottom. But you’d be hard pressed to find a single weekend of college basketball to rival that third week in March 1990, when the whole world watched the inherent glory of the NCAA tournament writ larger than life.

JWeill (27 Posts)

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2 responses to “Past Imperfect: The NCAA’s Greatest Weekend”

  1. Ernesto says:

    Great to remember all those games and the fantastic players who played them. This years’ tournament has the makings of a classic; Morehead’s “dream” win over UL prompting Pitino’s comment that he may have coached for too long. (Remember 15 seconds is a long time for Rick), the big 10’s unprobable futility so far, Arizona’s big win over Duke, Pitt’s surprising early exit. Florida has proven it deserved the 2 seed and who expected Marqueete to still be around? It was not just that Fl State beat ND but the trouncing they gave them that impresses. Kemba Walker’s sterling play for UCONN also impresses. But next to UK beating a favored Ohio State team(UL fans here say that would be the biggest upset of the tourny but I think a 13 over a 4 qualifies) my favorite team is, once again the Butler Bulldogs. Despite being an 8 seed and losing several key players from last year’s runner-up team they have beaten two very tough outs, Pitt at the 1 and Wisc at the 4. It may be technical good basketball to have mostly 2’s playing 1’s in the semi’s but I prefer the chaos of underdogs in the building.

  2. Mantequilla says:

    How can you talk about the 1989-90 UConn Huskies without once mentioning Nadav Henefeld?!?! He was the heart and soul of that team. Only played that one season, but he had as much impact as Mark Macon had at Temple two seasons before.

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