Minnesota has been at a karaoke bar for almost two months now, just belting out the chorus to Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin” on repeat, with Tubby Smith singing the lead vocals. But a team that is as frustrating as it is talented finally got its act together at just the right time on Tuesday night, upsetting #1 Indiana, 77-73, at The Barn. Perhaps it was the sports psychologist that Smith brought in this week. Perhaps it was the crowd and the team recognizing the opportunity of having a vulnerable #1 come to town in conference play. Or perhaps it was just this group of talented, athletic players finally figuring out how to play together. Whatever the case was, Minnesota needed this win, and badly. Fortunately for the Gophers, they’ve likely played their way safely into the NCAA Tournament field and only have games against Penn State, Nebraska and Purdue remaining before the Big Ten Tournament. Can they hold on? We’ll see. But here’s a few more thoughts on Tuesday night’s upset:
Minnesota needed the Big Ten Player of the Year-esque Trevor Mbakwe to show up on Tuesday, and that’s what they got. (USA Today)
The Gophers were clicking – There may not be a more athletic team in the country than the Gophers, which is exactly what made their recent struggles so puzzling. They didn’t seem to have any leadership, couldn’t find any chemistry on the floor, didn’t seem to be taking much direction from their coach and just weren’t appearing to be having all that much fun playing together. Funny what the No. 1 team coming to your house can do. What stood out most to me was that the Gophers did a great job of taking what the game and the Hoosiers gave them. If Indiana was going to get stuck with a smaller player on the red-hot Elliott Eliason, the Gophers kept feeding the post. If Minnesota needed a big basket, it would go to the stronger Trevor Mbakwe inside. And when Indiana refused to move away from its zone defense, the Gophers kept taking three-pointers. They weren’t always going in the basket early, but they were clean looks, and kudos to Minnesota for taking them. They eventually started to fall and were what allowed the Gophers to get over the hump midway in the second half. The Gophers have more than a handful of athletic, talented players who can beat you on any given night and that depth is hard to match in the conference. When they’re all on the same page, we saw what they’re capable of.
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).
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).
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.
In the second great finish of the day San Diego pulled off the big upset of UConn. De’Jon Jackson hit a fallaway jumper to give San Diego the lead with 1.2 secs left and the Toreros managed to hang on giving Jim Calhoun his first 1st round loss ever. Although some analysts warned us about UConn going down early, this still has to be a massive surprise to most people. We wonder if this will affect Calhoun’s memory of the St. Pete Times Forum where he won the national title in 1999.
Congrats to San Diego. Going into the tournament who would have thought they would be the only West Coast Conference team to make it to the weekend.
I don’t know about you, but it always irritates me when people brag about calling a 9-8 upset. Although I guess it technically involves a lower seeded team beating a higher seeded team, we don’t consider it much of a surprise.I guess the nerd in us feels that the seeds are a little bit like a normal distribution/Bell curve. The middle seeds (7-10) are like the big peak in the middle of the curve and are separated by very little difference. However as you get further out on the distribution (like in the top 3 seed region) the difference between seeds becomes more noticeable. That’s why we would consider a 2 beating a 1 more of an upset than a 9 beating an 8 (assuming games are played on neutral courts). This doesn’t really come into play at the bottom of the distribution since the 15 playing the 16 seed is such a remote possibility that it isn’t even worth considering.
Here are some of the figures about the first-round matchups by seed since 1985 when we went to a 64-team tournament:
- #1 vs. #16: The #1 seed is 92-0 (100%).
- #2 vs. #15: The #2 seed is 88-4 (95.7%)
- #3 vs. #14: The #3 seed is 77-15 (83.7%)
- #4 vs. #13: The #4 seed is 74-18 (80.4%)
- #5 vs. #12: The #5 seed is 63-29 (68.5%)
- #6 vs. #11: The #6 seed is 63-29 (68.5%)
- #7 vs. #10: The #7 seed is 57-35 (62.0%)
- #8 vs. #9: The #8 seed is 42-50 (45.7%)
As you can see the #8 seed is actually under .500 in the first round. While it isn’t statistically significant, I think it is pretty clear that this game is really a toss-up.
On a related note, we found some of the Vegas lines interesting (taken from USAToday.com):
- #8 UNLV (+2) vs. #9 Kent State
- #8 BYU (+2) vs. #9 Texas A&M
- #7 Gonzaga (+2) vs. #10 Davidson
So Vegas actually favors one #10 seed and two #9 seeds.
We would like to hear what you consider an upset in the NCAA tournament. Do you consider a 9-8 an upset? A 10-7 an update? Or something else? Let us know.