25 Years Ago, The Best Sweet 16 Of All Time Captured America’s Imagination

On the eve of the 2015 Sweet 16, there’s nothing wrong with reliving any high-quality Sweet 16 from the NCAA tournament’s glorious past. Yet, this just so happens to be the 25th anniversary of the 1990 Sweet 16.

The 1997 Sweet 16 — with three overtime games and Arizona’s monumental upset of Kansas — could put forth an argument as the best ever. You could comb through the historical record and find other Sweet 16s that will stand the test of time. This is not an open-and-shut discussion, but one could certainly put forth the 1990 Sweet 16 as the very best in this tournament’s spectacular history.

The point to emphasize about the 1990 Sweet 16 — the reason why it can claim to be the very best — is that events which would have been mind-blowing in their own right were actually, improbably, eclipsed by others. Thus begins our look back at two incredible days of basketball theater.


First, let’s simply give you the 1990 Sweet 16, to show which programs have — and haven’t — remained on the map over the long march (and March) of time:

In the East Regional: Duke, UCLA, Connecticut, and Clemson. 

In the Southeast (as it was called then): Minnesota, Syracuse, Georgia Tech, and Michigan State.

In the Midwest: Texas, Xavier, North Carolina, and Arkansas.

In the West: Ball State, Alabama, Loyola Marymount, and UNLV.

Three of the coaches from the 1990 Sweet 16 are still around: Jim Boeheim, Mike Krzyzewski, and Cliff Ellis. Coach K and Ellis both made the NCAA tournament this season. Ellis, then at Clemson, made the Dance at Coastal Carolina.

Of the 16 programs to make the Sweet 16 in 1990, seven returned to the Dance this season: Duke, UCLA, Michigan State, Texas, Xavier, UNC, and Arkansas. Of those seven schools, five — Duke, UCLA, Michigan State, Xavier, and UNC — are in this year’s Sweet 16.


As was said above, the magic of the 1990 Sweet 16 lies in the fact that it exploded all over the place. Stories that would have dominated the headlines in other years were relegated to a relatively brief shelf life.

In the West Regional in Oakland, Ball State — coached by Rick Majerus the previous three seasons before he went to Utah — was taken over by Dick Hunsaker. In a manner akin to what happened with Saint Louis in recent years when Jim Crews took over for Majerus, the Ball State program actually moved forward and improved in March after its architect no longer remained on the bench, calling the shots.

We remember 1990 UNLV as an unstoppable juggernaut, the one that became the even better 1991 team stopped by Christian Laettner in the Final Four. Yet, there was one team which bothered UNLV in 1990, the little ol’ 12 seed from the Mid-American Conference. Ball State taking UNLV to the wire before losing by only two points, 69-67? That would have merited front-page treatment in most years. In this Sweet 16, it was almost a footnote-level story.

For one thing, it wasn’t even the biggest story from the West Regional semifinals.

Yes, the bigger story from the West Regional semis (since UNLV did manage to escape Ball State) was Loyola Marymount’s victory over Alabama in that very rare 11-versus-7 seed matchup. This game was fascinating in its actual on-court details. Alabama — coached by Wimp Sanderson, easily the best coach in the history of the program — was able to slow down Loyola whereas other opponents couldn’t. The Lions scored over 100 points in three of their NCAA tournament games in 1990, but Alabama was wonderfully disciplined in not seeking the quick shot. The Crimson Tide played this game in the low 60s and got the kind of game they wanted.

It was a testament to Loyola Marymount’s quality — even without Hank Gathers, whose death rippled across the nation a few weeks prior — that the Lions could win this slowdown game, prevailing even when their strengths were taken away from them. It so easily could have been Ball State versus Alabama (!) in a 12-versus-7 regional final, but America — by a combined four points, two in each West Regional semi — got the sexy Elite Eight matchup it wanted: Vegas and Loyola, with Jerry Tarkanian going up against Paul Westhead, the “Guru Of Go,” and star player Bo Kimble.

That was JUST the West Regional, folks!


If any regional stayed below the radar, it was the Midwest, played at Reunion Arena in Dallas. These two games are historically noteworthy not for what happened in them, but for what they represented.

North Carolina was an 8 seed playing fourth-seeded Arkansas. As we told you earlier this week in our Sweet 16 primer, 8 seeds have posted a 7-2 record against 4 seeds in nine NCAA tournament meetings. Arkansas’s comfortable win over UNC marked the only time a 4 has comfortably handled an 8. The only other win by a 4 over an 8 was Syracuse’s high-wire act in 1996 against Georgia.

The 1990 Carolina-Arkansas Sweet 16 game is also noteworthy because it marked UNC’s least probable Sweet 16 appearance from 1981 through 1993. This was the year in which Dean Smith was not supposed to make the Sweet 16, but he got there with an upset of top-seeded Oklahoma in the round of 32 on a Rick Fox leaner just before the horn. This Sweet 16 perpetuated one of the great sports streaks of all time, Carolina’s 13 consecutive Sweet 16 appearances from ’81 through ’93.

The other Midwest semifinal is notable because it harkened to a time when Texas basketball — though successful — was successful as a lower-level seed. Today, Texas is expected to be a higher-level seed, something Rick Barnes has failed to do (and which has put his job in jeopardy as we speak). A quarter of a century ago, Texas was a March threat, but always with road uniforms and never home whites.

Tom Penders became a highly-accomplished coach, but he achieved what he did primarily from lower-seeded positions — not just at Texas, but also at Rhode Island, George Washington, and Houston. In that respect, Penders is a cousin (a superior one) of current North Carolina State coach Mark Gottfried, who has the same knack for getting a lower-tier seed to peak in March.

In the 1990 Sweet 16, Penders rode his 10th-seeded Texas team to a win in Dallas over sixth-seeded Xavier, coached by Pete Gillen. Xavier is a school which has made the Sweet 16 its home, reaching the second weekend of the NCAAs five times in the past eight seasons. This marked Xavier’s first Sweet 16, the only one reached under Gillen, who built the foundation on which this program has continued to improve over time. Gillen’s signature accomplishment at Xavier — the feat he was able to achieve on a repeated basis — was to knock off high seeds as a giant-killer in the round of 64. Skip Prosser held the program in place and gave it stability. Subsequent Xavier coaches Thad Matta, Sean Miller, and now Chris Mack have turned X into a Sweet 16 program.


The Southeast Regional in New Orleans provided the tournament with its most controversial moment, also the moment that changed the way the sport kept time and handled endgame shot situations. In this sense, the 1990 Sweet 16 did more to change the face of college basketball than other Sweet 16s before or since.

It’s unfortunate yet undeniable that a few years ago, we wouldn’t have looked at Jim Boeheim as darkly as we do now. However, in the present day as opposed to 2013, it’s impossible to look back at the 1990 Southeast Regional semifinal between Syracuse and Clem Haskins’s Minnesota Golden Gophers and not see two coaches stained by scandal. Say what you want about the NCAA; in Haskins and now Boeheim, that 1990 Gopher-Orange game is even more closely associated with coaches who couldn’t keep their programs on the right track.

Yet, as much as many will link both Boeheim and Haskins to scandals and controversies, the real controversy of the 1990 Southeast Regional came in the nightcap between Georgia Tech and Michigan State.

It’s unfortunate that for a Georgia Tech program mired in misery today, a trip to the Sweet 16 seems like such a remote and distant possibility. Yet, in 1990, Bobby Cremins made a Final Four appearance, the only time he was able to scale that mountain in Atlanta. What’s unfortunate for Cremins — though he probably doesn’t lose sleep over this — is that his one trip to the holy grail of college basketball was made possible by an officiating error and deficient courtside technology.

Before we had tenths of seconds on game clocks and red lights on the perimeter of the backboard, Georgia Tech’s Kenny Anderson released a game-tying jump shot after the horn had sounded in the Superdome. You can find that play later in this video of the final 13 seconds of the Yellow Jackets’ win over Michigan State:

This game, more than any other, led college basketball to adopt the reforms you see today, with tenths of seconds on the game clock and the red light to aid officials in making endgame shot calls. It’s bitterly unfortunate for Michigan State that this officiating error had to come at its expense.

Of all the teams that did not deserve to be jobbed on a clock-related call, Michigan State stood at the top of the list. Four years earlier, coach Jud Heathcote was similarly wronged, as the Kemper Arena clock in Kansas City stood still for a large number of seconds. This ignored error gave Kansas an extra measure of leverage in the 1986 Midwest Regional semifinals. A timing error uncaught by the officials (at least not until enough damage had been done) enabled the Jayhawks to overtake Michigan State in another controversy-soaked Sweet 16. No coach in the past 30 years of college basketball has been wronged more in the Sweet 16 than Jud Heathcote. At least his second unfair loss led to needed changes in the administration of college basketball games.

That Georgia Tech-Michigan State moment would have dominated Twitter in most years, had Twitter been around in the 1980s and beyond. Yet, that story and everything else which happened in the 1990 Sweet 16 took second place to the events in one East Regional semifinal.


In East Rutherford, New Jersey, two of college basketball’s most storied programs, Duke and UCLA, met in one regional semifinal. Blue Devils-Bruins proved to be the one of the least remarkable games of the 1990 Sweet 16.

The other East Regional semifinal — between two programs that had done very little of note in the history of college basketball — is the game remembered more vividly than any other from the 1990 Sweet 16, and quite possibly, the entire 1990 NCAA Tournament.

Two days later in the 1990 Elite Eight, Christian Laettner began to establish his reputation as one of the 10 greatest college basketball players of all time, and very likely one of the three best NCAA tournament players in the event’s history. His off-balance jumper at the buzzer broke the hearts of the Connecticut Huskies and head coach Jim Calhoun, while enabling Duke’s run of five straight Final Fours to continue, culminating in the 1992 season.

Yet, on an electric Thursday night in the Meadowlands — the site of so many delicious college basketball confrontations in the 1980s and early ’90s — Connecticut basketball received a miracle, by George. A March Madness moment for the ages put UConn on the map… and the Huskies never left. Even though UConn could not parlay this shot into a Final Four in 1990, it still enabled Connecticut to gain a national presence it still owns today:

In looking at the play, the remarkable aspect of Tate George’s shot is not the shot itself. It’s the amazingly authoritative and accurate baseball pass by Scott Burrell, a pass far better than Grant Hill to Laettner two years later against Kentucky. Burrell did play baseball, and his experience in that field of endeavor merely produced one of the most extraordinary and iconic occurrences in college basketball history.

Clemson coach Cliff Ellis — like two other coaches from the 1990 Sweet 16, UCLA’s Jim Harrick and Tom Penders of Texas — led four separate schools to the NCAA tournament. The list is an exclusive one: Only 12 men have pulled off such a feat. Ellis, still Dancing in the present day with Coastal Carolina, has been an above-average coach for quite some time.

Ellis very nearly lifted Clemson to its second Elite Eight on that night a quarter-century ago in New Jersey, and one wonders how the history of ACC basketball might have been different if Ellis and his Clemson program had not been haunted by George.

The acutely agonizing aspect of this play from a Clemson-based perspective is that Ellis did not make the mistake Rick Pitino made two years later against Duke: Ellis properly had big tree Elden Campbell guarding Burrell’s inbounds pass. Ellis did what he reasonably could to ensure UConn did not pull off a miracle. Yet, Burrell zoomed his pass over Campbell’s long and raised arms. If Clemson did anything wrong, it was to not crowd George once he turned to the basket to release his shot. Yet, that’s a bit of nitpicking, since crowding a shooter invites the possibility of a foul. Connecticut simply made an amazing play, and THAT is the play Americans remember most from the 1990 Sweet 16.


Jerry Tarkanian’s national championship team at UNLV almost got toppled by a 12 seed from the MAC.

Loyola Marymount’s most remembered team won a slowdown game it didn’t want to play.

Another clock controversy hurt Jud Heathcote and Michigan State, but at least gave rise to needed reforms in college basketball.

All these stories, so large in their own right, could have been remembered as the foremost events of the regional semifinals in the 1990 NCAA Tournament. Yet, they all played second fiddle to a catch-and-shoot masterpiece at the Meadowlands. That, in a nutshell, is the enduring testament to the greatness of the 1990 Sweet 16.

A silver anniversary is being celebrated this week — it’s one packed with golden moments that still resonate quite deeply today.

About Matt Zemek

Editor, @TrojansWire | CFB writer since 2001 |