Of all the sporting events canceled because of the coronavirus, the NCAA Tournament hits the hardest. It’s not March without college basketball, so even in the midst of a global pandemic, let’s indulge in some. Hundreds of games from past tournaments are up on YouTube; here are five worth revisiting to keep the March Madness tradition alive.
1990 National Championship Game: UNLV vs. Duke
Some fans took to social media this past season to bemoan the lack of celebration for the 30-year anniversary of the Rebels’ lone national championship. The solution? Celebrate for yourself. UNLV’s championship-game blowout of Duke remains the best moment in Las Vegas sports history, and many still consider the 1990 Rebels to be the greatest college basketball team of all time. Get reminded why by watching Anderson Hunt, Larry Johnson, Greg Anthony and Stacey Augmon combine for 76 points against Christian Laettner, Bobby Hurley and the rest of the hated Blue Devils.
2006 Elite 8: Connecticut vs. George Mason
Loyola-Chicago and Wichita State have captivated the masses as the most recent mid-major teams to reach the Final Four, but there’s been no greater modern Cinderella run than the one No. 11 seed George Mason went on 14 years ago. The Patriots shocked blue bloods Michigan State and North Carolina in the first two rounds, respectively, but their run was expected to end against UConn, the overall No. 1 seed. Instead, George Mason stood toe-to-toe with UConn in a fast-paced contest before prevailing in overtime of a game that showcased everything great about the NCAA Tournament.
2007 Round of 64: UNLV vs. Georgia Tech
Rebels’ fans waited 18 years for this one, the program’s first tournament victory since the end of coach Jerry Tarkanian’s tenure. The win over the Yellow Jackets showcased the 2007 team’s grittiness, as UNLV prevailed despite two of its best players, Kevin Kruger and Wink Adams, suffering off-nights. Wendell White was unstoppable, though, and the whole team played better in a round of 32 win over Wisconsin that delivered No. 7 seed UNLV to the Sweet 16. The Wisconsin game isn’t on YouTube, but the eventual Sweet 16 loss to Oregon is, and is also worth a watch. The Rebels arguably outplayed the Ducks but were undone by unconscious 3-point shooting.
2015 Final Four: Kentucky vs. Wisconsin
Missing the NBA as much as college basketball? This might be the closest thing to a professional game in a recent tournament. Kentucky had a record six players selected in the NBA Draft three months later—including No. 1 overall pick Karl-Anthony Towns —and entered the national semifinal 38-0 on the year. The Badgers weren’t without talent either, as senior superstar Frank Kaminsky had recently been named the consensus National Player of the Year. Kentucky had no answer for Kaminsky’s inside-out game, and the Wildcats fell just short of completing the perfect season.
2016 National Championship Game: North Carolina vs. Villanova
The greatest championship game of the past decade undoubtedly came four years ago in Houston. North Carolina and Villanova spent all season at the top of polls, and showed why in an instant-classic, back-and-forth battle to the finish. And what a finish it was. Hitting a buzzer-beater is one thing. Hitting a buzzer beater to win a national championship is quite another, securing the Wildcats’ Kris Jenkins as a trivia answer for decades to come.
When might sports return?
NCAA President Mark Emmert confirmed what everyone in sports suspected in an interview with ESPN when he said the NBA suspending its season was the “exclamation point” in determining the cancellation of the tournament. The NBA made the announcement on the evening of March 11, and by the next afternoon, the NHL, NCAA, Major League Baseball and virtually every other active sports league followed suit.
There are rumblings that the other major leagues are still following the lead of the NBA, which is reportedly eyeing mid-June as a “best-case scenario” to resume play. Early reports indicated the NHL and Major League Baseball were hoping for only a two- or three-week pause but might now see June as a potential starting point.
If the NHL jumped straight to the Stanley Cup Playoffs, as some have speculated, it wouldn’t be a negative for the Vegas Golden Knights. Vegas would be the No. 1 seed in the Pacific Division playoff pod regardless of whether the league used points or points percentage to determine the bracket. It’s widely expected the league would lean toward the latter to account for a discrepancy in games played from team to team, which would mean the wild-card Nashville Predators would await the Golden Knights in the first round.
Golden Knights aside, the loss of the 2020 NFL Draft has hit Las Vegas hardest. The NFL announced that the public portion of the event—scheduled from April 23-25 on a footprint stretching from the Caesars Forum to the Bellagio Fountains—is off. The league has promised to return to the area for a future draft, but it’s unclear when that might happen. The 2021 NFL Draft is already scheduled for Cleveland. The NFL season—including the debut of the Las Vegas Raiders—is set to start in September and has yet to be affected.
The major leagues could decide to scrap the season altogether, but expect the NHL, NBA and Major League Baseball to do everything possible to avoid that fate. Minor leagues, including the Las Vegas Lights’ United Soccer League and the Las Vegas Aviators’ Pacific Coast League, are likely to use the major sports as a guide and wind up on the same timetable.
Local college athletes have no such hope for their own seasons. The NCAA has canceled all spring and remaining winter sports, while the Clark County School District has “suspended” sports with hopes to re-evaluate before the end of the school year.
This story appeared in Las Vegas Weekly.