College Basketball’s Greatest “What-ifs”
Through the first weekend of March Madness, we’ve already seen some incredible shocks this postseason. #1 seed Baylor University lost to the #8 North Carolina Tar Heels, a pair of double digit seeds are facing each other in the Sweet 16 as #10 Miamitakes on #11 Iowa State, and #15 St Peter’s made the sweet 16 knocking off #2 Kentucky and #7 Murray State. But what if St. Peter’s didn’t prevail in overtime against Kentucky? Or what if Baylor completed their 25 point comeback over North Carolina? That would be remarkable, but not significant enough to make this list. This list are the moments that didn't just have ramifications for that moment, but for the season, even years down the road in some cases. These are my biggest “what if” moments in college basketball.
What if Gordon Hayward made THAT shot
Everybody has that one moment in sports where there was a particular game that sparked their interest. Duke vs Butler for the 2010 National Championship was that game for me. I remember exactly where I was watching this game. Butler was playing in front of a “home” crowd, given the Final Four was being held in their backyard in Indianapolis. They were the five seed making a miracle run out of the West and defeating Tom Izzo’s Michigan State Spartans to earn a spot in the finals against the Duke Blue Devils. Led in large part by future NBA draft picks Shelvin Mack and Gordon Hayward, Butler was looking to win it all. However, Duke was stacked. They had a roster of future NBA players like the Plumlee brothers,a trio of 600 point scorers Nolan Smith, Kyle Singler, Jon Scheyer, and coached by legendary Coach K. That team had SEVEN players to get selected in the NBA draft during their respective draft years, not including the ineligible Seth Curry. It wasn’t going to be an easy game by any means for either team.
Yet this game was close for the whole 40 minutes with no team ever leading by more than 6 points throughout the game. Down to the wire with Duke up 61-59, Duke center Brian Zoubek intentionally missed his second free throw, leaving the ball in Gordon Hayward’s hands with 3.6 seconds left. He brought the ball up the right side of the court and put up a prayer from half court. The shot hit the backboard, then off the rim and Duke won the title. If Hayward made that shot, he would have become something of a folk hero. He was the leading scorer for every game Butler played in the tournament, would have undoubtedly earned Most Outstanding Player, and the narrative around Butler for the next season making a second straight title game appearance would have been much different. The narrative would have gone from “the clock struck midnight in Butler’s Cinderella story too soon” to “Butler may have run out of magic as an 8 seed, but we all remember that game winner from last year”. Plus, he would have never had to buy a drink at a bar in Indianapolis ever again.
What if Christian Laettner got ejected vs Kentucky
Christian Laettner, arguably, is the best college basketball player of all time. He’s also arguably one of the most hated if you weren’t on his team. Hell, ESPN did a 30 for 30 called “I Hate Christian Laettner”. But this guy had so many big moments in his career, including two buzzer beaters in overtime of March Madness, once in 1990 against UConn and the other in 1992 against Kentucky en route to a national title. Duke vs Kentucky’s matchup in 1992 was voted as the best college basketball game of all time. However, some may argue, and most forget, that Laettner should never have been in the gameto take that shot to send Duke to the final 4.
In the 1992 Elite Eight, Duke took a 73-68 lead into the last 8 minutes of the game against Kentucky. Laettner received a pass in the post, went to the basket and was ultimately fouled. On the floor was Kentucky center Aminu Timberlake, who pushed Laettner a few minutes prior after Kentucky made a three point shot. Laettner loses his cool for a second and proceeds to stomp on Timberlake’s chest. Laettner was ultimately given a flagrant 1, but could have easily been given a flagrant 2 and thrown out of the game. If he gets thrown out, the shot that we see every March Madness season never happens. Duke potentially loses, and another powerhouse (who we’ll get to in a second) potentially wins a title. Personally, I like the fact that the refs didn’t take the game into their own hands, but you let me know what you think on theplay.
What if the Fab Five stayed together all four years
One of the greatest basketball teams to never win a title, the Michigan Wolverines’ Fab Five consisted of five freshmen recruited in the 1991 high school class to play in Ann Arbor. Juwan Howard, Jimmy King, Ray Jackson, Jalen Rose, and Chris Webber were the freshmen that made up this core. They didn't just break down opponents, they broke down barriers in college basketball. the first team to start five freshmen in a game, they became national stars both on and off the court. They were nationally recognizable figures and EVERYBODY wanted to be like them. Baggy shorts, black socks, the confidence and swagger, there’s nothing these guys didn't have. Except a national title. They were outmatched by the aforementioned Laettner and Duke in 1992 (funny how things play out) and lost through a heartbreaking controversy in 1993, as Webber called a timeout when Michigan had none left, effectively costing them the game.
After the 1993 Final Four, Chris Webber declared for the NBA draft, breaking up the group for good. Jalen Rose and Juwan Howard followed suit after the 1994 season and made the jump to the NBA. After that, the group was never the same, as Webber distanced himself from the group and notoriously had beef with teammate Jalen Rose for years after the fact. There was a lot of drama and tension between the five of them after that, but what could have happened if Webber stayed? They would have been unanimous front runners for the 1994 and 1995 national championship. They could’ve immortalized themselves in NCAA history even more. Regardless of how much this core paved the way for the next generation of players and their style of play, there’s always going to be unanswered questions of what could have been.
What if Sam Perkins ended NC State’s season
This is the only what if where the person in question is not on the team that would have been affected. The OG Cinderella story, NC State Wolfpack should not have been a team to win anything on paper. Some big mouthed Italian guy from New York, a group of talented players, but in a terrible slump. NC State was projected out of the big dance going into the ACC tournament. They had to win the ACC tournament to make the 52-team NCAA tournament. The Wolfpack faced North Carolina, led by Michael Jordan and Sam Perkins. With 3 seconds left in a tied game, Perkins gets a good look from 27 feet out to win the game. Ultimately, he hit the rim, leading to NC State winning the game in OT and running into the hearts of America throughout the NCAA tournament.
Let’s look at this if NC State loses. There is no miracle run, no tournament, and they do not become the original Cinderella story. They were dubbed the cardiac kids. Their NCAA run included all but two games that was decided either by one possession or in overtime. Lorenzo Charles does not have the putback dunk to beat the buzzer against Houston to win the national title. Jim Valvano likely does not gain as much national recognition as he did. He could’ve even been in the hot seat considering he would’ve missed the tournament in back to back seasons after a first round exit in his first year. But later on down the road, we may never have gotten the legendary speech at the ESPY’s as Jim Valvano may not have had the platform he did. No Arthur Ashe award. His battle with cancer and speech gave so many people hope, with the Jimmy V foundation raising over $290 MILLION since its foundation in 1993. He was a national championship winning coach turned ESPN commentator. Could that all have never happened if NC State didn’t have the platform they had throughout the tournament? Some of it maybe not. Or at least not to the extent that it happened. But one thing is for sure: when all hope seems lost, don’t give up, don't ever give up.