Ranking the 10 Most-Hyped Teams in College Basketball History
In a sport like college basketball, where so much expectation is based on nebulous terms like "potential" and "upside," hype is inescapable. A climate soaked in social media seemingly puts nothing but hype in our faces day in and day out.
However, Facebook and Twitter didn't invent hype. Far from it.
College basketball fans have been getting excited about their teams' prospects since Iowa sought revenge for a loss to Chicago back in 1896. Whether through the blessing of talented recruits or the return of veterans who spurned professional overtures, many teams have entered many seasons with enormous expectations.
One day, the super crop of freshmen from Kentucky—pictured above—will be on a list just like this, once we have the benefit of some distance and some historical perspective. For now, though, we have to look back a bit further.
These 10 teams had talent to spare. They also had the burden of proof hanging over them from the season's opening tip.
And—spoiler alert—only one group had ever heard of Facebook or Twitter.
10. North Carolina 2008-09
Even if national Player of the Year Tyler Hansbrough's primary sidekicks had been Deon Thompson and Marcus Ginyard, the 2008-09 North Carolina Tar Heels were still a likely Top-5 preseason pick.
Once perimeter studs Wayne Ellington, Ty Lawson and Danny Green reconsidered their decisions to enter the NBA draft, the Heels became the no-brainer No. 1 selection.
Hansbrough's return was noteworthy in itself because no national POY had returned to school since Shaquille O'Neal in 1991. The decisions from Ellington, Lawson and Green, however, gave a Final Four team back seven of its top eight scorers. Florida had similar continuity after its first national title in 2006, but Joakim Noah wasn't a three-time all-conference selection, let alone an All-American.
Questions were raised when the Heels dropped their first two conference games, including a shocker at home to Boston College. Carolina turned on the jets from there, winning 13 of its next 14 games by an average margin of 14 points.
UNC likewise stormed through the NCAA tournament, defeating its last four opponents by an average of 16 points. Lawson and Ellington justified their decisions to return by outscoring Hansbrough in the Final Four in Detroit, leading North Carolina through a merciless dissection of homestanding Michigan State in the championship game.
A team that had trailed 40-12 early in the 2008 Final Four put both semifinal opponent Villanova and final foe Michigan State in similar quick holes. The Heels learned how to win after a loss, and most of us saw it coming.
9. LSU 1989-90
No freshman before or since has set the nets aflame at the rate LSU's Chris Jackson (now known as Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf) did in the 1988-89 season. His 30.2 points per game remain a national freshman record. Among all SEC players since then, the only ones to average even 25 PPG were Jackson and his successor as LSU's resident mega-star. The two even played together during the '89-'90 season.
The teammate? A gregarious giant named Shaquille O'Neal. Perhaps you've heard of him. Like the previous year's top Tiger recruits Jackson and Stanley Roberts, O'Neal was a McDonald's All-American and played for a little while in the NBA.
Between Jackson's pyrotechnics, the addition of Shaq and the academic eligibility of Jackson's classmates Roberts and Harold Boudreaux, the Tigers were beasts to be feared in the fall of 1989. The Associated Press put coach Dale Brown's team second in its preseason poll.
The go-go Tigers topped 100 points in 10 games during the season, including an insane 148 in a now-iconic win over Loyola Marymount. LSU defeated eventual national champion UNLV, along with Elite Eight participants Loyola and Texas.
Unfortunately for ulcer-prone Bayou Bengal fans, the offense was also prone to maddening inconsistency, being held to less than 80 on nine occasions. A January loss to Alabama only featured 55 points, or as many as Jackson had scored by himself against Ole Miss the previous March.
By March, LSU was barely a Top-20 team and made the NCAA tournament as a No. 5 seed. In the second round, the Jackson/O'Neal/Roberts era came to a screeching end with a loss to another talented trio, Georgia Tech's "Lethal Weapon 3" of Dennis Scott, Kenny Anderson and Brian Oliver.
8. Duke 1991-92
The kind of continuity that served North Carolina well in 2009 had already done wonders for the Heels' arch-rivals at Duke nearly two decades prior. Coming off the school's first national championship and the exorcism of the Devils' demons from UNLV, Duke returned six of the top eight scorers for a run at a repeat.
Sports Illustrated was writing rhapsodic features about Blue Devil center/matinee idol Christian Laettner. Point guard Bobby Hurley was making the vaguely demeaning phrase "gym rat" a term of endearment for short, scrawny, below-the-rim players everywhere. Sophomore Grant Hill was becoming as known for being a great player as for being the son of ex-NFL running back Calvin Hill.
Most importantly, Duke was seen as a beacon of how the college game was supposed to work. A team whose coach played by the rules and whose players weren't lounging with gamblers or trying to beat miscellaneous hotel charges.
In short, the Blue Devils weren't UNLV, and for that the NCAA breathed a sigh of relief.
While Duke didn't completely run the table, its two losses—a two-pointer at North Carolina and a four-point defeat at Wake Forest—were tight enough that the Blue Devils never fell from the top spot in the AP poll.
When the NCAA tournament rolled around, Duke was ready for anything. After leading Iowa by 24 at the half and keeping Seton Hall at arm's length in the Sweet 16, the Devils survived a true epic in the regional final against Kentucky.
Sometimes called "The Greatest Game Ever," usually by those who support schools not named Kentucky or North Carolina, the game ended with Hill finding Laettner on a court-length pass that didn't work in the loss to Wake Forest.
Laettner didn't miss a shot all night, and Wildcat fans are quick to point out that that includes a stomp to the chest of UK forward Aminu Timberlake that would have gotten most players ejected.
From there, a national title seemed pre-ordained, and a 20-point stomping of Michigan's Fab Five (more on them later) in the championship game made it so.
7. NC State 1973-74
In 1973, North Carolina State's David Thompson was toiling under great restraints. A player who would go on to influence arguably the greatest baller of all time was not allowed to dunk, depriving college basketball fans of innumerable moments fit for a highlight reel.
The 1972-73 Pack had gone undefeated and were ranked second in the nation behind UCLA's juggernaut, but were ineligible for the NCAA tournament thanks largely to recruiting violations, some involving Thompson himself. Once the ban was over, Thompson and his Mutt-and-Jeff sidekicks, 7'3" Tom Burleson and 5'7" Monte Towe, were ready for a Bruin hunt.
An 18-point loss to the Bruins in November stung, but NC State would not suffer such indignity again.
A 103-100 win over Maryland in the ACC tournament final became the conference's top entry in the "Greatest Game Ever" stakes, one in which the losing Terrapins shot 62 percent from the floor. In those days before NCAA at-large bids, a loss to the Terps would have left the Pack empty-handed for a two-year span with only two defeats.
The narrative of the NCAA tournament itself was largely built around the inevitable meeting between some combination of the Bruins, Wolfpack and the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame. Notre Dame didn't make the party, and few know that Marquette and Kansas did.
State and UCLA waged a pitched battle that only ended after the Wolfpack had battled back from a pair of 11-point deficits in the second half. There was a first overtime, then a second, and State fought back from seven down in the second bonus period to win by three.
Sports Illustrated spotlighted David Thompson on its covers before the season—coasting in for what would surely be a graceful finger roll, right?—and after—scoring over Bill Walton in the Final Four. The hunt for the first national champion in seven years from east of Century City was big news all year long.
6. Kentucky 1995-96
Hype is either the best friend or worst enemy of every player who puts on a Kentucky uniform. The championship banners hanging over their heads at Rupp Arena are a constant reminder of the accepted standard, one exceeded only at UCLA. At least UK acknowledges Final Four teams.
As ballyhooed as this season's collection of elite Kentucky freshmen are, they're still nine NBA careers away from living up to the 1995-96 Wildcats, aka "The Untouchables."
Another preseason No. 1 selection by the AP, Sports Illustrated wasn't quite so sure. Chemistry was a justifiable question, since seven Cats returned who had started multiple games for the prior year's SEC champion and Elite Eight participant.
Stud freshmen Ron Mercer and Wayne Turner—the latter a 36-PPG man in his senior year of high school—and Ohio State transfer Derek Anderson joined this mix in the offseason. In all, nine of the Untouchables would wind up playing in the NBA.
Kentucky routinely routed less-talented opponents without mercy, since its second five was usually better than the other team's starters. See the video above, which chronicles the Wildcats hanging 86 points on LSU—in the first half.
Only four of UK's 34 wins were by single-digit margins, and two of those were in the Final Four. Kentucky avenged a November loss to UMass, whose coach, John Calipari, is now held in much higher esteem in the Commonwealth. In the final, the Wildcats shrugged off a leaky roof and a double-double from Syracuse's John Wallace to claim title number six.
From SI's preseason preview article on chemistry among pro-caliber collegians: "A player with an eye on the pros is like a mutagen—a cell that has stopped acting like its peer cells and just grows for its own sake. Just as mutagens cause cancer in the human body, they can have a cancerous effect on a team." Coach Rick Pitino somehow avoided any corrosion and crafted a golden season.
Just so Big Blue Nation and its future NBA lottery picks know what they're up against this season.
5. Indiana 1975-76
You try bringing six of the top eight players back from a team that was undefeated until the Elite Eight—and then may have only lost because its All-American forward was struggling with a broken arm—and see how far under the radar you get to fly.
The 1974-75 Hoosiers never dropped lower than third in the AP poll, but Scott May's injury left him at a fraction of his normal effectiveness. The door was open for UCLA to claim John Wooden's last national championship.
The following season opened with what—a healthy May permitting—would have been the presumptive 1975 national title matchup, a duel between Bob Knight's Hoosiers and new coach Gene Bartow's Bruins. IU prevailed by 20 in a game that could have been decided by twice that. May scored 33, reminding everyone of what he had left on the table while he struggled to recuperate the previous March.
Indiana started the season No. 1 and never looked back. No matter who came, the Hoosiers turned them all aside. That included 10 different opponents who were ranked at the time, and those opponents were turned aside by an average of 11 points per game. All five of IU's NCAA tournament victims were ranked 17th or better in the final AP poll.
Just like NC State vs. Maryland had changed the makeup of the NCAA tournament field, Indiana's grueling road to the title caused a change in the way that field was seeded. We're approaching 40 years without an undefeated national champion.
Again, just so BBN and its hypeman coach know what they're up against this season.
4. Georgetown 1984-85
Entering the senior year of one Patrick Aloysius Ewing, Sports Illustrated put Georgetown's star center on its November 26, 1984 cover. He wasn't alone, however. Ewing posed with his coach John Thompson...and the President of the United States, Ronald Reagan. Those pictures usually pop up after the season rather than before.
The two biggest Hoyas were posing with the Commander-in-Chief because they had just won the school's first national championship, getting it done in Ewing's second trip to the national title game. The '84-'85 team had to retool to replace departed key cogs like glowering forward Michael Graham and perimeter stopper Gene Smith.
No matter. Versatile, skilled and still plenty intimidating, Georgetown stormed to a 30-2 record with the two defeats coming by a combined three points. St. John's and Syracuse would both absorb multiple losses later in the season, with the Johnnies being 18-point victims in the Final Four.
A third Big East team, Villanova, had slipped through the tournament as an eighth seed, winning its first five games by a total of 28 points. By comparison, the Hoyas beat Georgia Tech in the Elite Eight and St. John's in the semis by 24 combined. The resultant championship game looked more lopsided going in than David vs. Goliath.
It took 78.6-percent shooting from the field, but the Wildcats toppled mighty Georgetown and left Ewing with only one national title to show for his three trips to the final game.
That SI cover portrayed one man who had earned a repeat victory in a general election and two others who were hoping for a repeat in a knockout tournament. The Hoyas—and Villanova—proved that stranger things often happen in sports than in politics.
3. UNLV 1990-91
Perhaps no college basketball program symbolized the "Me Decade" ethos of the 1980s as much as coach Jerry Tarkanian's UNLV Runnin' Rebels. The perpetually embattled Tark pulled in players with the kind of swagger and attitude needed to survive—and thrive—under constant NCAA and media scrutiny.
Offcourt scandal blended with on-the-court highlights to create one of the most polarizing crews in the game's history.
Led by junior college stud Larry Johnson and elastic defender Stacey Augmon, Tark's sharks devoured everyone in their path en route to the 1990 NCAA championship. That included a 30-point mauling of Duke in the title game, a margin that remains a record today.
Johnson, Augmon and backcourt standouts Greg Anthony and Anderson Hunt returned to take a shot at a repeat, and picking anyone else seemed a sucker bet. The Rebs went wire-to-wire atop the AP poll, primarily because no one could knock them off.
At 34-0, UNLV stood at its second straight Final Four, once again sneering at the goody-goody boys from Duke, this time in a semifinal. The Blue Devils, however, came out with some attitude and swagger of their own, determined not to let Vegas be its typical flamboyant self.
Duke's staff estimated that the players took as many as 20 charges, a total that anyone who watched the Rebels slash to the tin at will all season would find easy to believe.
After Duke's 79-77 win, the starters all left. Tarkanian only coached one more season before deciding that leading NBA millionaires in San Antonio had to be less stressful than the 20-year colonic exam he'd been subjected to by the NCAA. He lasted all of 20 games.
Duke would go on to vanquish another swaggering group of tough guys in 1992, but at some point, they themselves became the team everyone loved to hate.
For a couple of seasons, UNLV wasn't just on college basketball's front page, it was on the back page and everywhere in between. It hasn't been back since. Similarly, no team from outside the six "major" conferences has won a title since the Rebels transcended the Big West.
2. UCLA 1966-67
UCLA was already a dynasty in 1966, but there was something lurking. Something—okay, someone—big and ominous that would go on to change the game.
That someone's name was Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor Jr., known today as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. He was a 7'1" mystery since the program shielded him from the already-hot Los Angeles media spotlight. And he didn't travel alone on the Bruin freshman team in 1965.
Future UCLA stars like Lynn Shackelford, Lucius Allen and Kenny Heitz joined Alcindor on a freshman team so good that it made the Bruin varsity squad No. 2 on its own campus while it stood No. 1 in the country. When those freshmen were eligible in 1966, all seemed lost for the rest of the nation over the next three seasons.
For that first season, the rest of the nation was correct. Only four opponents played the Bruins within 10 points, and some of those had to slow the game to a crawl to accomplish the feat. Alcindor's 29 points and 15.5 rebounds per game paced UCLA to a perfect 30-0 season and a national title that kick-started a run of seven straight.
In an effort to curb the onslaught of talented big men like Alcindor, the NCAA banned the dunk following the 1967 season. The rule stayed in place for a decade, but in that time Alcindor took home three NCAA titles, and fellow Bruin behemoth Bill Walton added three of his own.
The best-laid plans...
1. Michigan 1991-92
Chris Webber. Jalen Rose. Juwan Howard. Jimmy King.
All four were McDonald's All-Americans, and along with King's fellow Texan Ray Jackson, they comprised a recruiting class the likes of which had never been seen before.
Michigan coach Steve Fisher's run to a national title in the first six games of his head coaching career was looking like a fluke after a desultory 14-15 season in 1990-91. Recruiting was beginning to look like Chinese arithmetic to fans who watched Fisher lose Michigan legacy Eric Montross to North Carolina. The coach needed something truly major to keep Wolverine basketball a national brand.
Landing a record four All-Americans qualified.
The "Fab Five," as the incoming crew was dubbed, brought a different kind of swagger to a college basketball landscape that had just bid farewell to the menace of UNLV. Each player had his favorites on the burgeoning hip-hop scene, and they regularly broke huddles with a profane Scarface lyric.
The Fabs stampeded through overmatched opponents before a home showdown with defending national champion and top-ranked Duke. The Blue Devils took a 17-point first-half lead, but Michigan roared back with a 14-0 run to take the lead early in the second. Duke survived by three in overtime, but Michigan had put the nation on notice.
From there, Michigan got everyone's best game. Sometimes the freshmen prevailed, sometimes not. The Wolverines took a 20-8 record into the NCAA tournament as one of the most scrutinized No. 6 seeds in history. They won five straight games by a total of 30 points, including toppling Michigan's hated archrival Ohio State to reach the Final Four.
The kids even led Duke by a point at halftime of the national championship game, but were devoured in the second half of a 20-point defeat that cemented back-to-back titles for the Blue Devils.
Association with a rogue booster would later expunge a lot of the Fab Five's accomplishments from the record books, doing substantial damage to the program. In fact, UM would not make the Final Four again until 2013. But, anyone who was there in 1991 knew that something big was going down.
Say it with me one more time: Just so BBN and its six McDonald's All-Americans know what they're up against this season.
For more from Scott on college basketball, check out The Back Iron. Now playing: the Conference Calling 2013-14 preview series.