|Winning a title in 1984 helped Georgetown's legacy, but it was always a great team whether it won it all or not. (AP)|
By Matt Norlander
You go through the century-old history of college basketball and there have been a lot of great teams. Not good teams -- great ones. Truly special, truly daunting and undeniably formidable in their era. There are teams with components that will never be duplicated. Lots of talent, great coaching, a confluence of characters that led such a team to earning a national title -- or coming very close.
Eventually, Jeff Goodman on this very blog will write how a team has to win a national championship to earn induction into his list of the greatest 16 college basketball teams of all-time. For me, that's not a requirement. It's about transcendence. Because for all the champions we've had, really, only about 20 to 22 teams stand apart from the rest, even fewer than that if you want to clump Wooden’s UCLA dynasty into one collective team (which I don’t, but those teams do have a way of linking together, of course). Not all the great teams who stand out in our memories won titles, but all of them were interesting, most of them were supremely talented, and each had a story that carried on long after every member of that team left.
Think about 1990-91 UNLV, what could easily be considered the best team to never win it a title -- only it did. The year before, Las Vegas finished 35-5 and pasted Duke 103-73 in what is still the most lopsided result in title-game history. That team was great, but '91 UNLV, comprised of largely the same roster, was better. It was undefeated, all the way up to the Final Four ... when it was felled dramatically by Duke. Sure, 1990-91 UNLV didn't win a title, but you can't tell me it wasn't one of the 16 greatest teams in the history of the sport. It was better than the team that won the year before, with all of its '91 first-round draft picks -- Greg Anthony, Larry Johnson, Stacey Augmon -- more polished and lovably arrogant. And that team remains more memorable than the first iteration that still stands as the last team from outside a Big Six conference to win the national championship.
Plenty of other ridiculously talented, unique teams come to mind. What about those Georgetown clubs from the '80s? You think college basketball in the '80s -- the sport's greatest decade, without question -- you think Georgetown before most everything else. The shirts under the jerseys (patented looks always help with the perception of a team; think of what Michigan’s Fab Five did to hoops culture in the early ’90s), the big men, the big coach, the intimidation, the bully of college basketball. That was Georgetown. The Hoyas didn’t need to win the title in 1984 to be considered one of the great teams of all-time. But it helped, sure.
Is this what is lacking in today’s game? Or, ironically, despite how so many believe sports culture is dominated by an everything-that-just-happened-is-th
e-greatest-ever, are we unable to feel nostalgic and properly put into perspective things that have happened with really good teams in the past decade? Florida’s back-to-back title-winning teams aren’t coated with the same long-lasting shine that 1982 Carolina -- a team that very nearly lost -- is all these years later. 2008 Kansas, because of Mario's Miracle, was an instant classic, but the team isn't looked upon as a whole as one that deserves inclusion.
I fight that notion. The story of 2008 Kansas, a program that had fallen early to so many lower-seeded teams, was 37-3 and had six eventual NBA players on its roster. For good and for bad, drama plays into our memory as well. Whereas the moment of climax for Kansas has somehow overshadowed how good that team was, the longest shot that almost was uplifted Butler's reputation. Butler has never had a team close to being one of the 50 best in the history of the sport, but it already feels like that 2010 title-game loss to Duke will be a memory that grows as the years go on. Twenty years from now, when no mid-major team has duplicated Butler’s back-to-back championship-game appearances, the accomplishment will be enhanced.
When CBS’ list of the 16 best teams of all-time comes out, I wonder if the great ones like ’99 Duke or ’83 Houston will get snubbed. They shouldn’t. Those were truly great teams, some of the best ever to never win a title. Houston’s Phi Slamma Jamma was as synonymous with the sport as those Georgetown teams.
When we made our lists, that’s what I looked for. The great teams had talent and proved their worth over the majority of a season, but the impact they had on the game lasted long after that. I measured up the final teams with the tell-your-kid rule. I looked at a group. If I thought, “When I introduce my child to college basketball, I have to tell them about this team,” then they were in. That wasn’t the case with 2009 North Carolina, 1998 Kentucky or 1994 Arkansas — all really good teams, but not essential to the most important parts of college basketball’s history in relation to its best teams.
Were you extraordinarily good and above that, were you so good and riveting that the story of your team didn’t die off in the days, weeks and months after your season ended. If so, you made my list.
-- The case against modern-era teams
-- Our ballots for the top 16 teams of all time
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