Here is an utterly biased historical opinion based at least partially on an overwhelming personal sense of nostalgia: The best era in college basketball history occurred from 1981 to 1993, beginning with Isiah Thomas and Indiana winning the title and commencing with the inevitable crack-up of the Fab Five at Michigan.
From ’81 to ’89 alone, the average margin of victory in the NCAA Championship game was four points; this was the moment when the tournament exploded into both a multimillion-dollar bonanza and an endearingly mawkish highlight montage.
Why do I bring this up now? Because I think college basketball had a moment this season, whether people fully recognized it or not. Because I think we could be on the cusp of another iconic run of Final Fours, and because I think the one-and-done era is slowly burning itself out and because I think the game itself, after several years of plodding, has begun to find its voice again as a beautifully imperfect vessel. And because this Final Four, like no other I can remember, feels so steeped in Eighties nostalgia as it is. Let us count the ways:
Sure, you’ve at least seen the grainy footage of Michael Jordan hitting that shot from the wing in ’82 (and Fred Brown subsequently hurling that pass to the wrong dude), and yes, you’ve probably at least watched some form of documentary about that ’85 Villanova team that swept through the field, shocked Georgetown and forever shook the moorings of the NCAA Tournament. But two of the best teams of that era that didn’t win titles were: A) The ’87-88 Oklahoma Sooners, the furiously up-tempo squad coached by maverick Billy Tubbs that lost to Danny Manning and Kansas in the title game, and B.) The ’86-87 Syracuse Orangemen, who lost to Indiana on Keith Smart’s last-second baseline jumper. We’re talking Mookie Blaylock and Sherman Douglas, Derrick Coleman and Stacey King, Rony Seikaly and Harvey Grant: Between the two of them, there is probably an epic hip-hop album waiting to be written.
Jim Boeheim had already been at Syracuse for more than a decade when that Orange team nearly won the title in ’87; Roy Williams was an assistant under Dean Smith when Jordan played for Carolina. These guys are a few of the last active ties to that era, and they may not be around much longer, so we may as well enjoy them while we can, even if they both wind up retiring amid disgrace. (There is nothing more reminiscent of Eighties college sports than blatant rules violations, and two of the four teams remaining in the tournament are potentially guilty of something, and if that doesn’t make Jerry Tarkanian smile down at us from above while chomping on a towel composed of fairy dust and cumulus clouds, then nothing will.)
There are plenty of potentially excellent Most Outstanding Players in this Final Four field, but there is only one who already feels like an icon, and that is Oklahoma’s Buddy Hield, who pulls the kind of WTF shit that guys like Jordan and Danny Manning and Christian Laettner did back in the Golden Era. Hield, a senior, may not be a great NBA player, and part of me almost hopes that he isn’t, because he feels like the sort of college sensation who could go down in history as the first great player of this bold new era for the sport.
And that’s what I’m hoping for, really: That this Final Four, by hearkening back to a more colorful time, manages to imbue the sport with that same kind of excitement again. Maybe it’s nostalgia, maybe it’s wishful thinking, but maybe this is the year college basketball finally goes back to the future.
Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games, now out in paperback. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb