The ill-fitting colored cotton T-shirt. So 1990. So history.
When Nike entered the NCAA basketball world for the 1989-1990 season with three Division I schools, there wasn’t a lot of style flourishing in uniform design. Shorten the shorts, mesh the jerseys and if you want a base layer, dial up a nice oversized Hanes cotton T-shirt. Those looks wouldn’t last.
By 1992, Nike started to advance designs, and modified Georgetown University’s uniform with a more streamlined look, starting the trend of new aesthetics, including longer and looser shorts.
Throughout the early ‘90s Nike started to play with fabrics and patterns, adding in twill and even tossing on the Swoosh on a NCAA game short in 1992 for the first time.
As the style evolved, so did technology. At least starting away from the uniform. First came the replacement of the cut-off T-shirts with Dri-Fit baselayers, allowing technology to take root in uniform design.
Weighing a total of 26.8 ounces—13.0 ounces for the jersey top and 12.8 ounces for the short—the early 1990s uniform may have gotten baggier following the mid-1990s. But it got a lot lighter, too. Now the Nike jersey combination comes in at a total of 11.4 ounces—6.0 for the top, 5.4 for the short.
The weight reduction, Nike says, is the equivalent of a player carrying 124 fewer pounds of uniform over the course of an average NCAA season.
Getting lighter, though, required a change in fabric. Moving away from standard materials such as dazzle nylon and pro mesh, Nike migrated its Dri-Fit base layer creations into the full uniform, starting by developing a Dri-Fit mesh in the jersey and shorts by 2001.
Also in 2001, with Nike outfitting more and more teams, the Oregon-based apparel manufacturer introduced a new neckline for uniforms that served as the new base standard for future designs.
In the early 2000s, Nike continued to move lighter, debuting its Nike Sphere fabric for additional moisture management and reduced weight.
By the second half of the decade, Nike took over outfitting every part of the athlete in one cohesive unit, dubbed Nike’s “System of Dress.” The 2007 plan outfitted teams with a growing hemline on the longer, looser shorts while the jersey tailored tighter for a distinctly new look. Along with the uniform, compression base layer options came in varying lengths, both as shirts and pants. Of course, Nike was matching footwear options with the uniforms, creating the ability for teams to regulate temperature while focusing on style.
Those base layers became padded in 2009. New engineered mesh Nike Aerogrpahic backs also debuted that season, allowing Nike to reduce weight 31% and build graphics onto the back of the ventilated uniform top.
Recycling allowed for 80% of a uniform to get made from recycled polyester in 2011 and the next year, 100% of the shorts were created from recycled polyester and 96% of the uniform top. Small changes, such as laser perforations on the side panels, continued to focus the uniform on thermoregulation while dropping weight five percent more by 2014.
In 2015, as we approach another tournament season, Nike—along with other main apparel brands—continues to tweak its technology and design to offer a fresh aesthetic without losing the desired performance aspect for its now hundreds of men’s and women’s NCAA teams. Nike hopes their continued evolution helps them add to the list of 13 of the last 18 men’s national championship teams wearing head-to-toe Nike uniforms. But first we have a tournament to play.
Tim Newcomb covers stadiums, design and gear for Sports Illustrated. Follow him on Twitter at @tdnewcomb.