Most compelling teams since '91 UNLV
The 1990-91 UNLV team may be the most compelling college basketball team of the past 20 seasons, but it's far from the only one that conjures fond memories. With equal parts quality and style, these 10 teams also moved the meter, at least for this writer (teams listed in chronological order).
What more is there to say about the team that changed the modern paradigm of college basketball as well as its aesthetics? The Chris Webber/Jalen Rose-led quintet ushered in long shorts and a cocky, woofing style that, at the time, made you not want to miss a minute. It all began with a preseason practice where the incumbents talked a little too much smack and the freshmen teamed up to destroy them in a five-on-five. Six months later, those frosh rode a No. 6 seed all the way to the national title game, where they lost to Duke by 20.
The highly successful 1990 and '91 teams, with Todd Day and Lee Mayberry, may stand out a bit more for the individual talent, but this team won the national title, providing the apex for Nolan Richardson's compelling "40 minutes of hell" approach. That's not to say this version was nondescript. Corliss Williamson was an unbridled beast inside, Scotty Thurman was a quality second banana, and who didn't try to impersonate Al Dillard and his 30-foot, nose-of-the-hog threes on the playground or in gym class? Throw in a sitting president as superfan and these Hogs had plenty of buzz.
The biggest postseason flop on this list (the Golden Bears were upset by 12-seed Wisconsin-Green Bay in the first round of the NCAAs), but very clearly passed the "if they were on, you were watching" test. On the heels of 1993's second-round upset over two-time defending national champ Duke, everyone wanted to see what Jason Kidd could do for an encore for young coach Todd Bozeman. The college game's only truly transformational point guard since Magic Johnson responded by averaging a ridiculous 16.8 points, 6.8 rebounds, 9.1 assists and 3.1 steals a game. Co-star Lamond Murray averaged 24.5 points and 7.8 rebounds a game.
If UNLV's '91 team (somehow) isn't considered the best college team of the last two decades, then these Wildcats are. UK was loaded with NBA talent, headed by Tony Delk, Antoine Walker, Derek Anderson, Ron Mercer and Walter McCarty. The 'Cats shredded through a 16-0 SEC campaign, with the piece de resistance being their 86-point first half at LSU. Their two losses were to Marcus Camby's UMass team (which was atoned for in a national semifinal win over the Minutemen) and in the SEC championship game to Mississippi State, which also made the Final Four that season. The core of this team made the next two Final Fours, as well, and was an OT loss to Arizona in 1997 away from three straight national titles.
This team was the apex of the pure Princeton offense teams, edging Air Force 2004 as my favorite purveyor of this purist approach. The common myth about the Princeton offense is that it can make up for a lack of talent. In actuality, like any other offense, it only works when you have talent, and when you have the right talent, it's beautiful to watch. These Tigers, led by Gabe Lewullis (he of the backdoor layup that KO'd UCLA in 1996) and skilled center Steve Goodrich, were ranked as high as seventh in the nation during a 26-1 regular season. They only got a No. 5 seed in the NCAAs, though, and were undone in the second round by a Mateen Cleaves three in the final minute. The young core of that Michigan State team would go on to make the next three Final Fours and win a national title in 2000.
North Carolina 1998
Interestingly, these Tar Heels handed that Princeton team its only regular-season loss (a closer-than-the-final 50-42 decision in Chapel Hill). You definitely can debate whether they were better than the 2005 Heels, a devastating offensive machine with four NBA lottery picks, but I found this version more compelling and they played in an era where there still was considerable upperclass talent in college basketball. This club gets completely lost in the discussion of the best college teams because of a surprising loss to Utah (with Keith Van Horn and Andre Miller) in the national semifinals. At 34-4 overall, with the high-flying excitement of the collegiate Antawn Jamison/Vince Carter combo, they win this comparison with their national champion brethren.
The 1999 version of the Blue Devils were marginally a better team, but this version was more fun to watch, and the quality difference between the two is modest enough that aesthetics make the difference. Because of the motorcycle injury that prematurely ended his NBA career, it's easy to forget just how dominant Jay Williams was running the show for these Devils. He averaged over 21 points and almost seven assists a game on a team that also had Shane Battier, Carlos Boozer and Mike Dunleavy Jr. In their 35-4 season, three of the losses were by two points or fewer and all four were to teams ranked in the top 16. These Devils averaged over 90 points a game with an average margin of victory of 20.2.
Saint Joseph's 2004
The dynamic backcourt of Jameer Nelson and Delonte West led the upstart Hawks to the nation's first (and only) unbeaten regular season since the 1991 Rebels. Still, some people were up in arms when they were awarded a 1-seed in the NCAAs after getting blown out by Xavier in an Atlantic 10 tournament quarterfinal. The Hawks backed up their seeding by making it to the regional final, where they lost a heartbreaking 64-62 decision to Oklahoma State. This team basically bludgeoned you from the arc. Their top four scorers all shot at least 39 percent from three-point range on at least 124 attempts, and they also held opponents to just 28 percent from deep. They could afford to close down on shooters with elastic shot-blocker Dwayne Jones protecting the rim. Fun, fun team to watch.
Along with Saint Joe's, one of the most entertaining guard-oriented teams in recent memory. Forwards James Augustine and Roger Powell Jr. were solid complementary pieces, but this team (and its appeal) was all about the backcourt trio of Dee Brown, Deron Williams and Luther Head (the team's leading scorer and a great bar bet question). These Illini just missed matching Saint Joe's perfect regular season, falling to Ohio State on the final day of league play, and played in one of the classic national title games of this era, falling by five to a loaded UNC team on a night in which Illinois made just 12-of-40 threes.
Ohio State 2007
I really enjoyed watching this season's Florida team try for the repeat, but the team they ultimately beat in the final was a flashier story. Freshman point guard Mike Conley Jr. emerged to lead a team with Greg Oden, the most hyped freshman big man since Tim Duncan. Oden's wrist injury, which delayed the start of his career and limited him all season, was an important undertone. The Buckeyes also had a magical NCAA run. They really should have lost to Xavier in Round 2 (X fans still gripe about the lack of an intentional foul on Oden late) and then rallied from 17 down at the half to beat Tennessee in the Sweet 16 before a second-half masterclass against Memphis put OSU into the Final Four. Others considered: Georgetown 1991 (Alonzo Mourning/Dikembe Mutombo); UCLA 1995 (O'Bannon Brothers/Tyus Edney); Arizona 1997 (Mike Bibby and Co.); Cincinnati 2000 (Kenyon Martin); Florida 2007 (The Oh-Fours)