Reliving the greatest era in college basketball—the 1990s

Sometimes I wonder if my memory plays tricks on me.

I was 12 years old when the year 1990 smacked the world in the face. It was a Guns N’ Roses universe (we were just living in it), but Nirvana had just stepped onto the music scene and brought a fury and creativity that had never been seen before. Then you had the emergence of acts like Boyz II Men, Arrested Development, and P.M. Dawn. It seems to me that music, more than almost anything, serves as a decade separator. But in some ways sports does, too.

With no offense to the 1970s or 1980s in college basketball, I believe the 1990s were an even greater era for the sport. It was the “Golden Age,” if you will. There are a few reasons why.

Coach K instructs Shane Battier | Courtesy Duke Athletics

First, Duke became Duke during this decade. I am not necessarily a Duke fan, but you have to admire what Mike Krzyzewski has done over the last four decades in Durham. Duke flirted with a national title on several occasions in the 1980s, losing in the national semis twice and in the final game twice (versus Louisville in 1986, and versus UNLV in 1990), but Coach K finally got a championship—and redemption— in 1990-91 after pulling off the near-impossible task of upending the runaway freight train of Nevada-Las Vegas. Duke won it the next year, too.

To pull it off, Krzyzewski needed an X-factor, a Wolf, a hardcourt terror. He found it in a tall, white kid from the Buffalo area named Christian Laettner. To many young kids across America, Laettner was like a god. He was arguably the biggest thing in college basketball at the time. Many a boy pretended he was Christian Laettner as he dribbled a worn ball across a rock-strewn court on chilly fall evenings in places like Carson City, Nevada, or Wrightsville, Georgia, or Jasper, Alabama. Duke as a program was squeaky clean but Laettner brought an edge that helped the Blue Devils to summit the mountaintop.

Ga Tech’s Kenny Anderson | Courtesy Ga Tech Athletics

The antithesis of Duke was Michigan’s Fab Five, a brash, talented group of individuals that included Jalen Rose, Chris Webber, Jimmy King, Juwan Howard, and Ray Jackson. Although the Wolverines fell short of winning a title, they, too, brought an edge and a rage to the game that had never been seen before: the scowls, the black socks, the long shorts.

UNLV was perhaps even brasher than Michigan. They were better, too. The Runnin’ Rebels were so good that I doubt any of the current college teams could tote their jock strap onto the floor. This is where, as the Geto Boys once wrote, my mind is playin’ tricks on me. Was UNLV that good? I think so. Could any current team have stopped the UNLV squad with Larry Johnson, aka “Grandmama,” Anderson Hunt, Stacey Augmon, and Greg Anthony? Doubtful.

And don’t forget about Loyola Marymount. The 1990s really opened with the death of LMU’s Hank Gathers and Bo Kimble’s incredible left-handed tribute during the NCAA tournament.

That’s just one (and the most poignant) side of the Loyola Marymount story. The other side is that LMU did something better than any other team that has ever reached the NCAA tournament: score. The Lions averaged 122.4 points per game that season, a Division I record. The offense, the brainchild of head coach Paul Westhead, was so fast-paced that even the scorekeepers had to ice their arms and fingers after the game.

I mentioned earlier that the 1990s was an era when Duke became Duke. It was also the time when UConn became UConn. Forasmuch as Duke’s rise to the top of the college football world was impressive, UConn’s emergence from Big East doormat to perennial power was equally remarkable. Jim Calhoun was the lynchpin of this now-elite basketball school located in Storrs, Connecticut. To close the 1990s, UConn stole the national championship away from one of the best teams Duke has ever had, the 1998-99 team with Elton Brand, Trajan Langdon, and Corey Maggette, to name a few.

Shaq was an imposing figure | Courtesy LSU Athletics

It was an era of great players and coaches. You had Eric Montross, Jerry Stackhouse, Rasheed Wallace, Vince Carter, and Antawn Jamison at North Carolina. You had Kenny Anderson, Dennis Scott, and Brian Oliver at Georgia Tech. You had Damon Bailey and Calbert Cheaney at Indiana. You had Harold Miner, aka “Baby Jordan,” at USC. You had Shaq and Chris Jackson at LSU. You had Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutombo at Georgetown. You had Lou Roe and Marcus Camby at UMass. You had Raef Lafrentz, Jacque Vaughn, Paul Pierce, and Rex Walters at Kansas. You had Jamal Mashburn, Tony Delk, and Ron Mercer at Kentucky. My gosh, the players.

Many of the coaches, in the dawn of their careers, were at different universities: Bob Huggins was at Cincinnati, John Calipari was at UMass, Rick Pitino was at Kentucky, and Roy Williams was at Kansas. Members of the old breed like Bobby Knight, Louisville’s Denny Crum, and Oklahoma State’s Eddie Sutton were still patrolling the sidelines. And don’t forget about Nolan Richardson and 40 Minutes of Hell. What an incredible run the Razorbacks made in 1993-94.

And it was a decade of moments. Laettner’s shot to beat Kentucky, Chris Webber’s infamous timeout, Grant Hill’s alley-oop catch and dunk, Tate George’s buzzer beater to beat Clemson in the Midwest Region semifinals, Tyus Edney’s coast-to-coast layup to put UCLA over the top against Missouri, and Bryce Drew’s 3 from the timeline to beat Ole Miss.

I suppose everybody holds the sports era they grew up in with certain nostalgia, and it’s no different for me. So every year as I fill out my bracket, I always think back to this incredible decade of hoops and long for it. Because I simply felt that the 1990s brought the best brand of college basketball I’ve ever seen.

But sometimes, my mind plays tricks on me. H&A


Cover photo: Kentucky’s Tony Delk cutting down the nets | Courtesy Kentucky Athletics 

Al Blanton

Al Blanton

Born in Jasper, Alabama, Al is the owner and publisher of Blanton Media Group.
Al Blanton

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