This post is one of the most difficult pieces I’ve ever had to publish.

Not because I’m sharing some rough personal news or writing about an event that has caused me emotional stress. But rather because it has been percolating in my head for roughly two months, rewritten multiple times, and I’ve spent hours doing research on it.

And I’m still not sure I’m satisfied with it.

But, since I spent hours yesterday trying to, finally, wrap it up, I’m going to go ahead and post it and be done.

First, background.

Waaaaaay back in early January, the SEC Network aired an edited and enhanced[1] replay of the legendary February 1990 game between Loyola Marymount and LSU. If you don’t recall the magic of that day,[2] you might want to do a quick reset by reading Luke Winn’s retelling of the game from a couple years back:

The Lost Art of Scoring: Revisiting the 1990 LSU-Loyola epic

I recorded the game and have, in small chunks, watched it while running on the treadmill. It is so awesome. Loyola had the late Hank Gathers, Bo Kimball, and a bunch of guys who showed no fear in running-and-gunning for 40 minutes. Or more, if needed.

LSU had sophomore Chris Jackson, who led the nation in scoring as a freshman and could do just about anything he wanted on the court. They also had 7-footer Stanley Roberts, who had been ineligible as a freshman, and was not just tall, not just huge, but also pretty damn good. And, just to make it interesting, they had a freshman named Shaquille O’Neal. The guys surrounding those three were long, athletic, and capable of hitting shots and playing defense.

While watching this game, I kept thinking about how little the Shaq-led LSU teams did in the NCAA tournament. In 1990, the one year Jackson and Roberts were both on the roster with Shaq, the Tigers lost eight games in the regular season and earned a #5 seed in the NCAA tournament, losing to #4 seed Georgia Tech in the second round. Now, that Tech team was pretty good. It made the Final Four and had a few NBA players on its roster, notably Kenny Anderson.

But, still…LSU had two 7-footers, who were both massive while still being athletic. And a guard who was nearly un-guardable.

The next two years, Shaq was on his own. In 1991 LSU lost in the first round to eleventh seed UConn. In 1992, his final year at LSU, the Tigers lost to #2 seed Indiana in the second round.

So the Shaq era was a bit of a bust when it came to winning in March. No surprise given who the coach of that team was. Dale Brown was a coach who always seemed too clever for his own good, generally getting in the way of his most talented teams in March.

So I began wondering, what was the biggest waste of future talent for an NCAA team? Or, put the other way, what was the lowest return of NCAA tournament success based on NBA talent on the team?

That’s where I ran into issues. I think I keep looking at this too broadly. My focus should really just be on that 1990 LSU team compared to other single seasons. But I keep wanting to rope the entire Shaq era into the discussion.

Anyway, here are some other teams I thought of.

  • The 1990 Syracuse team. Derrick Coleman, Billy Owens, and LeRon Ellis. It was ranked #1 for the first two months of the season, but lost to Minnesota in the Sweet 16.
  • 1991 Arizona. Chris Mills, Brian Williams, and Sean Rooks among others. Lost to Seton Hall in the Sweet 16.
  • 1998 Kansas. Two first team All-Americans in Raef LaFrentz and Paul Pierce. Lost to Rhode Island in round of 32.
  • 1984 North Carolina. Michael Jordan, Brad Daugherty, Sam Perkins, Kenny Smith, and Matt Doherty. Lost to Indiana in Sweet 16.
  • And Georgetown only got to the second weekend of the tournament once, an Elite Eight appearance in 1989, out of three years of Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutombo. Mutombo was injured much of 1991, so let’s take the 1990 team, which lost to Xavier in the second round.

Late Addition

Good grief. After I posted this, I checked back to some notes I scribbled down a few weeks ago and saw that I forgot a very important team: 2007 Texas. Kevin Durant, one of the greatest freshman in NCAA history. DJ Augustin, who is still playing solid ball in the NBA. AJ Abrams, who was a great shooter. Then a bunch of terrific pieces around them.

And this team lost to an eleven seed, USC, in the second round. BY NINETEEN POINTS.

Not the same collection of talent as LSU, nor as experienced as the ’98 KU team. But, man, this is likely the most Rick Barnes team in the history of Rick Barnes teams.

I’m sure there are other teams that I should have considered, but I went with the ones that immediately jumped into my head. Feel free to throw your own suggestions my way.

Here’s where I start to struggle. How do I separate these teams? Do I look more at how the players performed in college or the pros? Does it matter who you lose to and when, or just that you don’t reach the Final Four? Which is the bigger deal, a team that clearly underachieves or one that just has a bad day at the wrong time?

After much thought, I decided to go with the overall underachievers angle. I’m not thinking about the biggest tournament upsets. And I’m trying my hardest to consider the players at their college level of skill and effectiveness. So 1984 Michael Jordan was a first team All-American. But we was not yet MICHAEL JORDAN.

Of course, now that I’ve finally posted this, I might read it in a week and think it’s complete garbage. Keep that in mind.

So, based on the list above, here are the biggest underachievers I could think of in the last 30 years.

And it’s easy: 1990 LSU. Almost all the other teams listed above were Bad Days At The Worst Time situations. But LSU in 1990? That team should have been un-freaking-guardable. Yet they lost nine times. They played played in the SEC conference, of which Arkansas was not yet a member, which featured a probation-hampered and rebuilding Kentucky team, and Florida was not the power that Billy Donovan would turn them into 20 years later. Yet somehow Georgia, not LSU, won the regular season title. And then LSU lost to Auburn in the first round of the conference tournament.

Again, this team had a guard that could shoot from anywhere on the court, get to the rim any time he wanted, and two massive 7-footers playing in an era when you couldn’t batter guys inside the way you can now. And they lost nine times, including the first weekend of the NCAA tournament.

Absolutely terrible.

Of the other teams I mentioned, only Georgetown really comes close to squandering as much talent. But ‘Zo and Dikembe never played with very good guards, so you could pack the defense inside and just wait for their guards to shoot them out of a game while running the bigs to death on offense. Still, two NBA All-Star caliber 7-footers and you lose to Xavier?

Now if I talked about the worst tournament loss, that’s clearly KU in 1998. LaFrentz never panned out in the NBA, but he was a monster his senior year. And Pierce, before becoming an NBA Hall of Famer, was damn-near unstoppable in his final year in Lawrence. In the Rhode Island game, LaFrentz had 23 points and 14 rebounds. Pierce scored 22. The rest of the team, though, was dreadful from the floor, especially in the second half, and Tyson Wheeler and Cuttino Mobley carved up the KU defense to squeeze out the win. Terrible loss, but that was a great team all season, losing just two games when they were at full strength by a total of three points before the URI game.

The 1990 Syracuse and 1991 Arizona teams were both loaded with future NBA guys, but never really put all their talent together. And each team made the second weekend of the tournament, so their losses weren’t as bad as the KU loss.

Finally, the 1984 Indiana win over North Carolina is the ultimate Bad Day At The Wrong Time game. Carolina was sooooo much more talented than IU. Seriously, look at that roster. It’s ridiculous. But Bobby Knight got his Hoosiers to play unbelievable defense for one day, benefitted from Kenny Smith not being 100%, and pulled off the shocker. That game, almost as much as the three national titles Knight won, is a huge part of his legend at IU. Other than Steve Alford – WHO WAS A FRESHMAN! – there was not a great player on that squad. But, for one day, everyone locked into the role perfectly and they pulled the massive upset.

The biggest thing about that game, though, is it cost us a potential second UNC-Georgetown title game in three years. IU lost to a mediocre Virginia team in the Elite 8. Of course that same team I call mediocre pushed Houston to overtime before losing by 2 in the national semifinal. Houston then fell to the Hoyas in the title game.

If UNC beats IU, are they able to beat UVa for the third time that season? If so, I bet they get by Houston. And then we have a rematch of the classic 1982 title game. Only this time Jordan isn’t a bit player, UNC has Daugherty, Perkins, and Doherty to throw at Patrick Ewing, and (if healthy) Kenny Smith would laugh at the Hoya pressure.

AND THEN…let’s say UNC beats Georgetown in ’84. Villanova over Georgetown probably doesn’t happen the next year, because Patrick Ewing either goes pro after his junior year or the Hoyas go undefeated in ’85 to avenge three years of coming oh-so-close.

OK, one more thing: college basketball was freaking ridiculous from the mid–80s to the mid–90s. There were so many teams loaded with future NBA talents who stayed together for multiple years. Think about all the underachievers/upset victims above. Then throw in the teams that were nearly great but still made it to the Elite 8 or Final Four (Houston, Duke before Laettner). Then add in the UNLVs and Louisvilles and Laettner Duke teams that did win it all. Mercy.

Even when our generation got to college, it was crazy if a guy left after two years. I’m firmly in favor of players having the right to declare for the NBA draft any time they want. But, I have to say, the college game was so much better back when guys stayed until they were physically mature, their games had developed, and they had confidence based on experience, not just raw talent. They knew their systems better and, thus, the game was more pleasing to watch as the game was more about five guys working together than setting up isolations for the most talented scorer.[3]

Now players today are waaaaaay more athletic than they were back then. So the highlights are better today, but the overall aesthetic of the game was better then.

Good grief. 1900 words. I need to stop letting these things sit in my head for eight weeks before I write them up!

  1. Edited because some portions of the game were cut out. Which was kind of insane because one roughly three-minute stretch that got pulled featured about 40 points being scored, combined. Enhanced because there are interviews with both coaches and a few players.  ↩
  2. And to be honest, I never saw the game live. At the same time, I was in Allen Fieldhouse watching #2 KU beat #9 Oklahoma.  ↩
  3. One of the common complaints about the NBA by fans who prefer the college game is, “I hate how the just play one-on-one in the NBA.” Ironically, I think the college game has become more isolation-oriented while the best NBA teams rely on more complex offenses designed to use cuts and screens to get players open rather than just clearly out and watching.  ↩