Friday, April 1, 2011

Hoops Time

Having used part of my last post to speak ill about today’s brand of basketball, while at the same speaking well about the play in this year’s NCAA tournament, I feel driven to write about some of the great moments in college hoops.

Simply put, when it comes to basketball, team play was better in the years before the mid-1990’s and remains better in college than in the pros. I was born in 1971 and my father took me to several University of South Florida games in the 1970’s; but it was from 1980 forward that I followed the game closely, and it just so happens that it was during those years that many classic championship games were played. I do not think I am blinded by my age when I say that the 1980’s were the golden age of college basketball.

This year’s tournament has given me hope that the game can regain its prior luster. While hoping for that to occur, here is a look back at what I consider the five greatest college basketball games in my lifetime, in no particular order.

1983 NCAA Championship Game

North Carolina State 54, Houston 52

Every sports fan who was alive and watching remembers this one. NC State didn’t have a good enough season to even be invited to the tournament, but managed to secure an automatic bid by wining their conference tourney. On the other hand, Houston was a fearsome and dominant team with three future NBA stars. They scared the bejesus out of opponents and dunked so often that they caused “number of dunks” to be kept as a statistic for the first time. Nobody in their right mind thought NC State had a chance against them.

Fortunately for NC State, they believed in themselves when nobody else did. It was before the shot clock era, and Coach Jim Valvano drew up a slow, ball-control game plan that was designed to keep Houston’s players from getting into the fast tempo at which they thrived. Valvano’s players executed the plan to perfection, and the Wolfpack had possession of the ball in the closing minute with the score tied at 52.

In the waning seconds, Houston’s defenders kept Wolfpack guard Dereck Whittenburg from getting a good look at the basket or moving anywhere near it, and in desperation he heaved up a shot from 30 feet away. As the ball came down short of the hoop, Lorenzo Charles leaped up, grabbed it from the air, and dunked it home a fraction of a second before the final horn sounded.

Pandemonium ensued. To this day, 28 years later, the video of Valvano running around the court looking for someone to hug gets played over and over again every single season. At the time, it was the biggest upset in college basketball history…well, except maybe for this one:

December 24, 1982

Chaminade 77, Virginia 72

The Virginia Cavaliers were the #1 team in the AP poll, and the Chaminade Silverswords weren’t even members of the NCAA. Located in Hawaii, Chaminade had only 900 students and competed in the NAIA, and its entire athletic program was only seven years old. Virginia’s center was Ralph Sampson, national player of the year for two years running, and he stood eight inches taller than Chaminade center Tony Randolph.

But on Christmas Eve, Randolph held Sampson to 12 points while scoring 19 himself, and unheard-of Chaminade stunned the sports world by toppling mighty Virginia. When the score appeared on the AP wire, Sports Center anchor Tom Mees initially refused to report it, believing it was a mistake. And rather than follow the usual procedure of simply taking stories from the wire and publishing them for the next morning, newspapers flooded the phone lines of the AP’s New York office to make sure the score was correct before proceeding. Eventually, everyone realized it was true.

1985 NCAA Championship Game

Villanova 66, Georgetown 64

This game was just as big an upset as NC State over Houston, and it was just as close, but for some reason it doesn’t get talked about as much. Georgetown was the defending national champion and was appearing in the title game for the third time in four years, while Villanova was seeded only eighth in its region and appeared hopelessly outmanned against the Hoyas.

Everyone knew the Wildcats needed to play a perfect, once-in-a-lifetime game to give themselves a chance, and that is precisely what they did. In basketball, it is very good for a player to make 50 percent of his shots and very rare to make 60 percent -- but on this one night, the Wildcats shot an astonishing 79 percent as a team, missing only six shots the entire game. And they did that in spite of the fact they were playing against one of the best defensive teams in the history of college basketball.

1987 NCAA Championship Game

Indiana 74, Syracuse 73

But of course, not every game is David vs. Goliath and most championship games are actually Goliath vs. Goliath. That was the case in 1987, when juggernauts Indiana and Syracuse met in New Orleans to determine the national title. Indiana led by one point at halftime, but Syracuse took the lead by scoring first in the second half and then remained on top all the way…until the game’s final basket.

The Orangemen were ahead 73-70 with 38 seconds remaining when Indiana got the ball and raced downcourt and pulled within 73-72 on a bucket by Keith Smart. When Syracuse brought the ball back inbounds, Indiana intentionally fouled Derek Coleman to send him to the free throw line for a one-on-one. He missed the front end and the Hoosiers got the rebound. Back at the other end of the court, Smart got the ball in the corner, moved slightly toward the baseline, and shot a jumper that swished through the net with four seconds remaining. When Syracuse brought the ball back in play to try for one last shot, Smart intercepted the inbounds pass to clinch Indiana’s third national title under legendary Coach Bob Knight.

Many great players were on the court that night, including some destined for the NBA. And both head coaches are considered to be among the best of the last 40 years. But mention the 1987 title game, and the only thing anybody says is “Keith Smart.”

March 28, 1992

Duke 104, Kentucky 103

This was the ultimate Goliath vs. Goliath match-up. Duke was the defending national champion and roughly a decade into its run as a year-in-year-out national power. Kentucky, one of history’s most storied college basketball programs, had returned to national prominence after a brief downturn. It was the Elite Eight, and the prize was a trip to the Final Four.

The game went back and forth from beginning to end, with both teams playing diligent defense and executing well on offense. Fittingly, it was tied at the end of regulation and went to overtime. Kentucky scored with two seconds remaining in OT to go ahead 103-102. Grant Hill then threw the ensuing inbounds pass almost the length of the court to Christian Laettner, who caught it near the top of the key, turned, and shot a jumper that went in as time expired to give Duke the victory.

Sports Illustrated declared it the greatest college basketball game ever played, and it is hard to disagree. The game was so good on a team-vs.-team basis that people often forget it included what has to be the most impressive clutch performance by an individual: Laettner hit every single shot he took, finishing 10-of-10 from the floor and 10-of-10 from the free throw line.

This list could cause some controversy if anyone looks at it, because I excluded some classics that have taken place in my lifetime. Like the Bird-vs.-Magic showdown in 1979, and Chris Webber’s infamous time-out in 1993. Not to mention NC State’s victory over Maryland in the 1974 ACC Championship Game, back when that was the only way to get a ticket to the NCAA tourney. If you disagree with me, let me hear it!

1 comment:

Betsy from Tennessee said...

Hi John, I am watching the game AS WE SPEAK.... I always love it when the smaller schools beat the big guys... I'm definitely for BUTLER tonight... I also liked VCU --and its coach.

You would love Arkansas. Where we go --it's rural and laid back... We love Pettit Jean State Park, Mt. Nebo State Park, and Mt. Magazine. There are lots of hiking areas in all three of these areas.

Enjoy the game.