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.

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Greatest Games: Duke-UNLV 1991

Posted by nvr1983 on April 3rd, 2008

As you may have heard, for the first time ever the Final 4 will feature four #1 seeds. Although some people have been complaining about the lack of surprises, I was quite content watching Davidson make it to the Elite 8. As for the top 4 teams in the country making it to the Final 4 being the latest sign of the college basketball apocalypse, I really don’t see it as being much different than several other years where only #1 and #2 seeds made the Final 4. Would you really feel any different about this Final 4 if Texas had beaten Memphis? I doubt it unless you are a Longhorn or Tiger fan. Anyways, with a little more than 36 hours until the tip of the first semifinal I thought I would whet your appetite for the potentially great games we may see on Saturday and Monday night. On to the game. . .

With the exception of the 1992 Duke-Kentucky East Regional Final, a case can be made that Duke’s upset of UNLV in the 1991 National Semifinals was the most significant game of the past 20 years. This was the game that put Duke and Mike Krzyzewski over the top going from lovable losers to the team to beat most years. While the Blue Devils still needed to beat Kansas in the championship game (featuring Grant Hill’s alley-oop dunk from Bobby Hurley), most college fans will remember this as the de facto championship game much like the Miracle on Ice (the US had to beat Finland to win the gold). To put this game in context, you have to remember that UNLV had crushed Duke the year before in the championship game 101-71 (a record 30-pt margin).

Here is the box score from the championship game (not a pretty picture unless you were a Duke hater at the time).

UNLV came into this game undefeated and was widely expected to become the first team since Bobby Knight’s 1976 Indiana Hoosiers (featuring Quinn Buckner, Kent Benson, and Scott May) to go undefeated. Many experts were already speculating about where this UNLV team ranked all-time not unlike what happened with a certain football team from Massachusetts this year (minus the videotaping, but probably with more hookers). Jerry Tarkanian’s Runnin’ Rebels came into the game 34-0 beating their opponents by an average of more than 27.5 points while averaging a ridiculous 98.3 PPG. They were led by Larry Johnson (National POY), Anderson Hunt, Greg Anthony, and Stacy Augmon). Some of our younger readers may not realize how great these guys were in college so we’ll just say you should think about what Memphis did to Michigan State in the 1st half of their Sweet 16 game this year. Now imagine a team doing that every game. That’s what this UNLV team was like for the entire season. UNLV ran through the tournament with the exception of an 8-point victory against a Georgetown team that featured Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutombo.

On the other side of the ball, Duke came in with a respectable 30-5 record, but was only the #2 seed in its own region. After the championship game the year before nobody expected this game to be close. Duke had added Grant Hill to their roster, but he was only a freshman and nowhere near the player he was by the time he was a senior that carried a YMCA team to the 1994 championship game. In addition, the Blue Devils had lost 2 of their top players (Phil Henderson and Alaa Abdelnaby) from the year before to graduation. This was Duke’s 4th consecutive Final 4 appearance and 5th in 6 years, but they had failed to seal the deal and were becoming the Jim Kelly Buffalo Bills before there were the Jim Kelly Buffalo Bills. In the NCAA tournament, Duke advanced to the Final 4 through a relatively easy bracket thanks to some early-round upsets (beat a 15, 7, 11, and 4 seed to win the Midwest Region).

Thanks to the miracle of YouTube we can bring you footage from that game including a pregame and postgame clip.

[Editor's Note: For some reason the embedding isn't working properly except for the last video. All the videos are still up on YouTube. If you click anywhere in the box except on the "Play" button, it will load in an outside window. Sorry for the inconvenience, we're trying to figure out how to fix this.]

-Pre-game buildup and interviews with Tarkanian and Duke assistant coach (and current Harvard coach) Tommy Amaker

-Player introductions and opening minutes

-From 2:30 left in 2nd half until Laettner goes to the line.

-Laettner at the line with scored tied at 77 to post-game celebration.

-Newscast and reaction.

By the next day, the media knew they had witnessed one of the greatest upsets in college basketball history. As the years passed and we only saw a few teams of the caliber of that UNLV team (’92 Duke and ’96 Kentucky), the upset grew in legend to the point where in 2000 The Sporting News ranked it as the 4th best biggest NCAA tournament upset ever and the ESPN Page 2 readers ranked it as the 4th greatest sports upset ever. I think the Page 2 poll is way off as I consider it a huge upset, but probably not in the same class as the others mentioned in that list. However, I think TSN probably comes pretty close as ridiculous as it sounds for a #2 seed beating a #1 seed to be such a big upset.

We all know what happened afterwards. Duke went on to win the first of their back-to-back titles and grew into one of the most powerful sports programs of the past 20 years while Jerry Tarkanian was fired by UNLV in 1992 and floated around the basketball universe including stops at the San Antonio Spurs and Fresno State. UNLV never reached the same heights again and only has had a measure of success with Lon Kruger getting them to the 2007 Sweet 16.

rtmsf addendum:  This is a great recap of the climate surrounding this game.  The 91 UNLV team was considered an absolute juggernaut.  We for one will never forget the highly anticipated 1-2 regular season matchup between #1 UNLV and #2 Arkansas at the old Barnhill Arena in Fayetteville (a place where the Hawgs were nearly unbeatable at the time).  UNLV absolutely blitzed the Hawgs to open the second half, never looking back in a display of athleticism and prowess virtually unmatched in all of our years watching college basketball.

One other point on this 91 Duke-UNLV game.  Two months after the game, the Las Vegas Review-Journal published a photo of UNLV players Anderson Hunt, Moses Scurry and David Butler sitting in a hot tub drinking beer with convicted felon and noted “sports fixer” Richard Perry (see below).

UNLV Hot Tub

Perry had been involved in a point shaving scandal at Boston College in the 70s, and there was no shortage of similar conspiracy theories being thrown around at the time based on UNLV’s confounding loss to Duke in the national semifinals.  Where there’s smoke there’s fire goes the saying, and the DOJ even felt there was sufficient cause to open an investigation into the possibility that some UNLV players may have fixed the game.  To date, we’ve never heard anything come out of these allegations, but there are some who remain convinced something fishy went on during that game.

A final point that nvr1983 touched on but sounds completely absurd today is that, at the time of that 91 game, Duke was “America’s Team.”  The hatred and vitriol enabled by the last 15 years of Dookie V. and ESPN had not yet taken hold, and most of the basketball public was happy to see the plucky guys from Durham (who were indeed becoming the Bills of college basketball) finally break through and win a title against the bullies from UNLV.  My, how things have changed.

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