by Charlie Tweeder
College Basketball in the 80s through 1994 was the best period of college sports I have ever witnessed. In particular, at its peak, the period of 1990-1993 was simply remarkable. The same period for the NHL was the best of professional sports that I have ever watched.
I continued to watch College Basketball with enthusiasm post-1993, but was always left reminiscing of what it used to be. In the case of hockey, I did nothing but reminisce as I watched less of the sport while it declined to levels of embarrassment that it is only starting to climb out from.
Like an old man, I’m resorted to looking back on those days fondly, wishing it could come back. Sports isn’t everything obviously, but if you enjoy sports and are watching an era of a given sport at its highest drama and intrigue, enjoy it while it lasts. Things don’t progress as you would like them to. It is all a business after all – even in the amateur ranks.
This first part will take a look at that era of College Basketball.
Before the 90s you had the NCAA tournament expand its TV coverage, its popularity and the number of teams in its tournament field. Every fan has the memory of the Jordan shot, Jim Valvano’s mad scramble to hug someone, Villanova’s cinderella win and Keith Smart’s shot engrained into their minds forever. The Final Four reached unprecedented popularity and became one of the main sporting events in the American calendar year.
It was an unknown at the time, but the period of 1990-1993 ushered in what would be the peak of college basketball. Before we knew it, everything had changed. As fast as this thrilling ride had arrived, it was gone.
Jerry Tarkanian’s UNLV teams always played with a chip on their shoulder and by 1989 they were recognised as a serious basketball program. But all of that changed during the 1989-90 season with the arrival of Larry Johnson.
The year before the team upset Arizona and made the regional final, before losing to eventual national runner-up Seton Hall. That team did not have Larry Johnson. In 1990 they returned every starter. If you never saw this team in action, you missed a spectacle. I am sure now they could have beaten some NBA teams at that time. Youngsters might google them and see a 35-5 record. Doesn’t seem that impressive you say?
These really were Rebels. Jerry Tarkanian was the ultimate rebel in his ongoing battle with the NCAA. The team was under a microscope and was having players suspended for games here and there every night out. They lost to a Shaq and Chris Jackson-led LSU squad (on the road) by two points, but were without Stacey Augmon – their second best player and their best defender.
In basketball when you are missing players here and there, it is difficult to develop chemistry required to reach your best level. This team won nevertheless and then showed in the tournament what they were really capable of. They mercilessly spanked Loyola Marymount – a team that was riding an emotional tidal wave after the shocking death of Hank Gathers. They hammered Duke by 30 points, still a finals record for ass-kicking.
The team got in brawls. Fans hated them. They were the ultimate villain. When they met Duke it was your classic American tale of good vs. evil. Whether those monikers are fair or not, that is how it was viewed at the time. The bad guys won. But they were oh, so good. They played a ferocious defence that I’ve never seen to this day. They had unlimited energy on the floor. They were big, athletic. They were a new type of brand of basketball. Brash, arrogant, physical and dominant.
If you are to have a dominant era of sport, you need a champion on the level of that UNLV squad. Georgetown and Ewing. Carolina and Jordan. Great teams, but they weren’t as dominant as these guys. However, in order for a sport to really achieve something, that champion must have a rival worthy enough to create some drama. Is that possible with this UNLV team?
1991: An Upset for the Ages
Duke had its ass handed to them in April 1990. The perennial bridesmaid of the NCAA tournament by that time, Duke was beaten by a more physical and athletic opponent. Duke was seen as “fundamentally sound” and good. UNLV was seen as the basketball of the 90s – brash, loud, but great.
During 1991, UNLV just carried on from its Championship blowout with all of its key players (less David Butler) back. They went undefeated. They were killing teams. They didn’t play cupcakes either. They beat #2 Arkansas on their own court in one of the most anticipated matchups of the season.
Then the 1991 Final Four featured a rematch between Duke and UNLV that propelled this era of College Basketball to the stratosphere. Think about a couple of years ago in 2015. Kentucky was unbeaten in that Final Four, but they didn’t match the kind of excitement UNLV did. It was just a more pure time for college basketball. Most of these kids were juniors or seniors at UNLV even though they could’ve all bailed for the NBA at a time when that still wasn’t common. They stayed.
You either hated UNLV or you loved them. You either hated Duke or you loved them. That night in the Hoosierdome, I think even North Carolina fans might have found themselves pulling for Duke. Duke answered the call of being too “soft” and the game was tight throughout.
In the end, Duke knocked out UNLV in what many called at the time – the biggest upset in Final Four history. It was two years of having rivals compete on the biggest stage. You had revenge. You had the good vs. evil mantra. Even more than that – you had competing cultures of college basketball. You had the future (UNLV) vs. the past (Duke). UNLV had brash stars that were destined for the NBA. They defied an NCAA that some were starting to feel took advantage of kids by making millions off of their talent. Many felt the UNLV players didn’t embody what a “student athlete” should be and weren’t there for degrees. UNLV didn’t graduate a lot of its players. Many of them could’ve gone to the NBA early, and would have if this was 10 years later. But then, we wouldn’t have had one of the greatest rivalries, no, the greatest rivalry in the Final Four. Nothing has come close to a rivalry of such great teams (not programs) in College Basketball before or since.
1992: The Greatest Game and The Changing Guard
The transition towards a new era of College Basketball started with UNLV, but it escalated with the arrival of the Fab Five at Michigan.
UNLV was put on probation and Tark was fired after the ’92 season. It appeared an era was over. Enter Michigan and the Fab Five. Just as Duke had rid itself of one group of bad guys, enter another. This Michigan group was almost a clone of UNLV, on steroids. UNLV had players that looked like a man among boys at times. Now this was to become the norm, with freshmen. Never before had a group of freshmen started and led a team on the brink of a National Championship. We didn’t know it at the time, but college basketball was in the twilight of its peak.
Lucky for us, Duke was scheduled to play Michigan in December of 1991. I will never forget that game. I rushed home from my own basketball game to watch it. I wanted to know “who are these Fab Five I keep hearing about? Duke is unbeatable. Let’s watch them beat these kids up”. It didn’t go that way.
I’ll never forget Chris Webber’s beyond half-court heave at the buzzer of regulation that almost went in. It was shocking how good these guys were. They were just out of high school. Are players getting better that quickly or is this guys just a freak of nature? It turns out what UNLV started, Michigan escalated.
Duke was carrying the “dynasty” torch that UNLV passed on. Duke was the bridge between two teams from the same school of ball. UNLV before, Michigan after. But for now, the kings of college basketball were the clean-cut, four-year players that played fundamentally sound basketball.
Then the greatest game of all time I have ever witnessed, IN ANY SPORT, took place. I’ll never forget this was the game that introduced my little brother to college basketball – he had never bothered to watch a full game until this one. Our parents were away for the evening, so it was very exciting to be home alone and be able to watch the NCAA tournament with as much chips and pop as we wanted (it was in those days of transition from a kid to a teen when parents could trust to leave you alone at home, it was considered a luxury)!
It was Duke and Kentucky. The Laettner shot. It’s one of those events you will always remember where you were when it happened. I consider myself lucky just to have watched this game. As years go by and I realise just how insane this game really was, that emotion just gets stronger. Of course, being a Duke fan, it’s that much more enjoyable a moment. It was the moment college basketball seemed like the greatest thing in the world to me.
Duke went on to meet Michigan in a rematch in the Championship game. Although it started out tight, Duke sent a message that college basketball wasn’t ready yet for “one and done’s” – as it would come to be known years later. They won 71-51 after pulling away in the second half.
Despite the loss, Michigan changed the culture of college basketball. They made it normal for Freshmen to be able to start and star on a college basketball team. Things would no longer be the same.
1993: End of an Era
Michigan returned its Fab Five the next season. The team played Duke early in the season and lost, yet again, to the Blue Devils. It seemed as though the college basketball powers-that-be were not yet ready to give over the reigns to a group of kids that represented things more frightening than UNLV. The logic was there for everyone to see: if top recruits could now come in and dominate college basketball in their first two years, why not just go play in the NBA?
The Wolverines went through the season trash talking and slamming over its opponents. They were cocky. A lot of people didn’t like the way they played. UNLV had talent and it showed. They were flashy. But this was a different level of flashy. These weren’t juniors and seniors either.
In the Fab Five documentary made years later, it was revealed that even Michigan alum were writing in to coaches, players and the administration about how they didn’t appreciate the style of play. Some of the letters were even filled with racist language. That’s how quickly these kids were changing things. That’s how much they could stir emotions. Their baggy shorts. Their “I want it now” mentality. To many, it signalled everything wrong with the young generation. No patience. No respect for elders. No respect for others. Just me, me, me.
The loud-mouthed kids from the inner-cities played another clean-cut, do-it-the-right-way program in North Carolina in the Championship game. Much like Duke, North Carolina was seen as the good guys. It was the same theme, different participants. It was another classic game that I will never forget, filled with another memorable moment. The timeout.
North Carolina went on to win and Chris Webber’s blunder went down in the history….of sports. He would begin the Fab Five exodus and leave for the NBA. A year later he was followed by Jalen Rose and Juwan Howard. A year after that, Kevin Garnett, the nation’s top high school prospect, announced he was going to forgo college and enter the NBA draft. With that, the era was over.
Michigan and UNLV had one thing in common that is unusual in today’s era. They had multiple stars that were NBA-ready by today’s standards that stuck around for multiple years. You had two years of UNLV and Michigan each. It was enough time to bring about rivalries and moments that had drama attached to it.
Without the UNLV kids returning in 1991 there is no Duke-UNLV rematch. Without Webber returning in 1993 there is no chance for redemption that leads to humiliation.
Duke vs UNLV in the rematch. Duke vs Kentucky. Duke vs Michigan and the rematch in the title game. The Webber timeout against North Carolina. You can blot these moments all on a timeline, but what they signify is an era of drama and intrigue that is perhaps unrivalled in my lifetime in sports, but most definitely in College Basketball.
This era represented a battle for the culture of college sports and its future. That debate is still being had out year in and year out, with no solution on offer. That’s what the UNLV and Michigan teams introduced. They challenged the status quo and nothing has come along that was so earth shattering than that. They escalated the debate about paying college athletes. Yet, all of that alone would have no meaning in the games themselves if it weren’t for an arch nemesis. A force that stood in the way of everything these kids from UNLV and Michigan wanted to accomplish and the message they wanted to send.
To have a great era of sports you need a villain and a good guy, whoever you choose it to be. You need stars. You need rivalry and drama. You need characters and time to build the storyline. These four years had all of that. It was a fascinating time that transcended sports into the real world. College basketball held a mirror to American society at the time. We weren’t sure what was to come, but it was sure a fun ride. My youth is filled with fond memories of those years, in part thanks to that era of college basketball. I loved it. Too bad it was gone before I could realise it.