Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Who was the best college team that never existed?

USC announced this week that it was vacating victories from the brief O.J. Mayo era, a form of self-flagellation for the improper cash and gifts the talented guard received while in school.

The Trojans won 21 games in 2008, but now they didn't. It was one of the more memorable vacated seasons in all of 2008. That USC squad doesn't compare to the team that was seconds away from the national title two years ago, the Memphis Tigers. Memphis and star guard Derrick Rose won 38 games that year and advanced to the national title game, where the Tigers lost in overtime to Kansas. Unfortunately for Memphis and future historians trying to decipher the asterisks that litter the NCAA record book, that season never happened either, as violations forced the school to vacate every victory.

This happens periodically, every few years, or whenever John Calipari takes a new job. For Calipari, the 2008 Tigers were his second team to receive the ultimate in erasing punishment, following in the now-invisible footsteps of his 1996 Massachusetts team, another Final Four entrant lost in a sea of illegal cash and NCAA retribution.

Not quite enough teams have earned this punishment to fill out a 64-team bracket, but there would at least be a decent Elite 8. So here are some of the best teams who now only exist in the memories of fans and NCAA investigators.

* The 1997 Minnesota Gophers. Bobby Jackson, John Thomas, Eric Harris, Sam Jacobson, Courtney James. A dozen years later those names are as familiar to Gophers fans as the players on the current roster. Led by Clem Haskins, that team electrified old Williams Arena, sparked by Jackson's tenacious defense and high socks. Tutor-gate wiped out that team's season. A Pulitzer Prize-winning series in the St. Paul Pioneer Press eventually revealed that a woman named Jan Gangelhoff wrote hundreds of papers for basketball players over the years, including for guys on that 1997 team. Gangelhoff - who died in 2005 - was more prolific than Nora Roberts, completing more than 400 pieces of homework for players, or, 400 more pieces of homework than Jackson probably completed during his college career.

On the court, though, that team thrived, and it makes sense, since few of the players were likely burdened by classroom concerns. They devoted all their attention to the hardwood. Although Jackson was the MVP of that team, Jacobson might have been the most intriguing player.

A fan favorite, Jacobson went to Park-Cottage Grove High School in Minnesota, where he was one of the leading scorers in the state's history. Known for his great leaping ability, fans expected great things from him in the maroon and gold. He had a decent career, averaging 13 points. But fans were often frustrated, primarily because Haskins always seemed to be pulling him after about four minutes of action, attributing it to a vague breathing problem Jacobson suffered from, which severely limited his endurance. He went on to a brief career in the NBA, including a short stint with the Lakers.

I remember a story from his time with the Lakers when Shaq called Jacobson the team's best three-point shooter, which might have been part of Shaq's act but still made me beam with pride. That's a Minnesota kid Shaq's talking about! Jacobson played five games with the Lakers, scoring 18 total points. Still, he got himself a basketball card. But I'm not sure what's going on in that Beckett card above. I guess it's supposed to show him soaring, displaying his impressive vertical leap. But the odd angle of the photograph almost makes it look like his feet remain planted to the ground, turning him into a grotesque giant who dunks without jumping.

The Gophers went 31-4 that season, losing to Kentucky in the national semifinals. They returned to campus depressed, but surely grateful their 25-page report on the Gettysburg Address had already been completed by Gangelhoff.

* The 1977 Minnesota Gophers.

Looking through the history of the Gophers program, it's a wonder they haven't been called the UNLV of the Midwest. The program's had it all, from the famous brawl with Ohio State to a rape scandal. And even without Calipari, the Gophers have managed to have a pair of seasons expunged by the NCAA. The 1977 team went 24-3, but retroactively forfeited every game due to violations involving star Mychal Thompson. That team had already been cursed. Violations from the previous regime - led by hard-ass coach Bill Musselman - meant they were ineligible for the postseason, despite their sterling record. Big names dotted the roster. From Phil Saunders, better known today as Flip, to Ray Williams, to future top draft pick Thompson, to future Hall of Famer Kevin McHale, that was probably the best team in school history. They're surely the best 0-27 team in NCAA history.

* The 1985 Memphis team. Also a Final Four squad. Also vacated after a myriad of NCAA violations. As a kid, I enjoyed watching that team whenever they appeared on TV, as I was a big fan of their star Keith Lee, a dominant low-post presence with a sweet left-handed shot who went on to a middling NBA career. Villanova beat the Tigers in the Final Four semifinals, before going on to upset Georgetown for the title. A guy named Baskerville Holmes played for Memphis, one of the most famous names in NCAA basketball history. Holmes was a tragic figure on a team filled with them. In 1997, he killed his girlfriend and then himself. The coach, Dana Kirk, served time in federal prison for tax-related problems. Most impressively, Kirk's teams graduated six players in his seven years at the school.

* Michigan in 1992 and 1993. The Fab Five. Webber's timeout. The long shorts. The trash-talking. The losses to Duke and North Carolina. All gone, at least officially. Off the court, the Wolverines were done in by the antics of booster Ed Marin. On the court, they fell to a Duke dynasty and a balanced North Carolina team. Bill Walton - who's usually not known for outlandish statements that have little basis in reality - once said the Fab Five were one of the most underrated and underachieving teams in history. Of course, they weren't either of those things, and not just because there's no NCAA record that they ever existed.

Underachieving teams don't make it to two consecutive finals and an overrated team wouldn't still be remembered by the majority of college basketball fans 18 years after they first stepped foot on the Michigan campus.

I might revisit this post in two or three years, right around the time the NCAA vacates Kentucky's 2010 Final Four appearance. The only question left then will be, where will Calipari go next?


Hayden said...

Sure is painful revisiting the 1997 scandal, though that was a really fun run to the Final Four.

Shawn Fury said...

They could have beaten Kentucky that game. Got worn down. Was Sanden on that team? I see he was on the roster, but another thing had his stats and only listed him starting in the 1997-1998 season. And where is the big fella these days?