If you hopped into a time machine and traveled back 30 years, what would the NCAA tournament look like?
I went back and watched the 1990 NCAA tournament selection show and several games from that season’s NCAA tournament to find out what was different — from the selection show, the TV broadcasts, the teams, the strategy and the uniforms.
Here’s what I learned.
1. The selection show broadcast
Jim Nantz, James Brown and Billy Packer handled the studio duties for CBS Sports while Tim Brant was the one who revealed the NCAA tournament bracket to the world.
Today, Nantz is 60, meaning he was exactly half his age in 1990. He sounds pretty much the exact same as he did then.
One of the biggest differences in the selection show broadcast in 1990 compared to today is the choice in background music. The 2019 NCAA tournament selection show had what could be described as sort of a dramatic techno/hip-hop beat, whereas the 1990 selection show’s background music sounded like the song you might hear when you’re on hold (the background music starts around 2:13).
Check it out for yourself:
When Brant introduced the first region in the 1990 selection show, No. 1 seed UConn was already shown on the graphic before he mentioned the Huskies by name. Even if many hardcore basketball fans at the time thought UConn would be the No. 1 seed in the East, there wasn’t any build-up to the moment.
The 1990 broadcast also never showed each region in full as the bracket was unveiled on live TV. It showed eight teams at a time and Brant never offered a prediction of a first-round upset, a second-weekend Cinderella or a Final Four dark horse, like you might see on the selection show broadcast today.
By the way, here’s the studio Brant used to unveil the bracket. He was in Kansas City, which is where the NCAA was headquartered before moving to Indianapolis in 1997.
In 1990, the NCAA tournament featured 64 teams, just as it had since 1985. So you might be a little surprised to see that certain seed lines had a slash between two teams, like Southern and Texas Southern on the No. 14 seed line below.
That’s not because Southern and Texas Southern were playing in the First Four.
The First Four didn’t exist yet.
That’s because those conference championship games hadn’t been decided at the time of the selection show, so the winning team would be seeded in that spot in the bracket. Today, the selection show airs after all of the conference championship games are over.
2. The conferences
There’s a pretty good chance that your favorite school played in a different conference in 1990.
Heck, your favorite school may now be two or three conferences removed from the conference in which it competed in 1990.
The first game that CBS’ Jim Nantz mentioned on the 1990 selection show was the Big 8 final.
The conference has since expanded by 50 percent.
In 1990, there was the Southwest Conference with powers Arkansas and Houston, UNLV — which earned a No. 1 seed and won the national title that year — was a member of the Big West.
Dayton and Xavier were in the Midwest Conference.
How about this: Of the top 16 seeds (the top four seeds in each region), seven schools played in a different conference (UConn, La Salle, Arkansas, Syracuse, UNLV, Missouri and Louisville) than they do now and three others played in the same conference they do now but the conference now goes by a different name (Kansas, Oklahoma and Arizona).
So by name or affiliation, 10 of the best 16 teams in the country in 1990 now play in a different conference.
Try to explain the conference affiliations of 30 years ago to a 12-year-old, die-hard college basketball fan and just wait for a puzzled look to appear on his or her face.
3. The free throws
OK, on to the games. Back in 1990, eight players would line up for free throws, along with the shooter. It immediately jumps off the screen when watching replays.
However, this isn’t even that archaic of a rule. Starting in the 2008-09 season, only six players would line up outside the lane when free throws were taken.
It’s quite a sight to see all five St. John’s players lined up around the lane as Duke shoots free throws with the lead late in the second round of the 1990 NCAA tournament.
4. The impact of two skilled big men
In 1990, there was a much greater emphasis placed on frontcourt play, especially the idea of having two big men you could pair together on the court.
When North Carolina upset Oklahoma, CBS’ Brent Musburger said, “An unbelievable job here this afternoon by the Tar Heels. Their big men had fouled out of the game, Williams and Lynch were gone, and somehow the Tar Heels prevailed.”
The idea of going with a smaller lineup likely wouldn’t be as daunting today.
During a second-round game between LSU and Georgia Tech, one commentator referred to LSU’s imposing frontcourt duo of 7-footers Shaquille O’Neal and Stanley Roberts the “Great Wall of China,” and there was a mention of “Clemson’s Twin Towers.”
On the play below, O’Neal and Roberts both got a hand on this Georgia Tech shot.
Today, you’re likely to hear about the importance of a “stretch-four” or even a center who handle the ball some and make an 18-foot jumper. In 1990, many teams prioritized having two imposing big men who could play together, dominating the glass and protecting the rim.
In this set against Syracuse, Virginia utilized two bigs on the right block to set a double screen for their point guard.
5. The broadcasts
Guess what, as strange as it might seem, the time and score of the game wasn’t always displayed on the screen.
If you were to go back to 1990 in a time machine, you’d have to get used to seeing a lot of screen time like the screenshot below: no time, no scores, no sign of how many timeouts are available.
If you were flipping channels, you may not even know who’s playing at first.
Now, the broadcasts would fairly regularly show viewers the score and how much time was remaining, but those visual elements weren’t yet a constant presence.
In a close game, producers might add the game clock in a black box to the lower, righthand corner but this was as close as you’d get to the modern-day time and score components.
You’d also get graphics like the one below, which shows Virginia’s scoring in a pie chart that’s represented inside a cartoon basketball hoop. Graphics like this one would use a handful of bright colors with a strong contrast between them and all-caps, block lettering fonts with a shadow present behind them.
6. This was the peak of warm-up jackets
If you’re a current student who were to wear your school’s warmup jacket from 1990 to class or a home game next season, you’re probably going to get a lot of compliments.
Just check out some of the warmups from the 1990 NCAA Tournament.
In fact, we could probably expand this section to just stripes, in general.
Jerseys had stripes.
Shorts had stripes.
Socks had stripes.
Warmups had stripes.
The band wore stripes.
Where’s Waldo? look-a-likes in the stands wore stripes.
Streaks, observations and fun facts
In March of 1990, the following statements were true:
- No. 4 seed La Salle entered the NCAA tournament with the best record in the country (29-1).
- No. 1 seed UConn had just won its first-ever Big East title and received its first NCAA tournament bid since 1979. A 47-year-old from Eastern Mass named Jim Calhoun was in his fourth year on the job and the UConn men’s basketball program had zero national championships to its name, only to later win four in a 16-year span.
- Speaking of 1979, fellow No. 1 seed Michigan State had just won its first Big Ten title in 1990 since 1979.
- No. 9 seed California made its first NCAA tournament appearance since … it played in back-to-back national championship games in 1959 and 1960. So take the length of time between now and the 1990 NCAA tournament, and that’s the same amount of time it had been since the Bears had even been in the tournament.
- No. 5 seed Clemson finished atop the ACC regular-season standings, before Duke did so in seven of the next 10 years. Perhaps the only stranger regular-season result from the ’90s was when Maryland, North Carolina, Virginia and Wake Forest finished in a four-way tie atop the conference standings in 1995.
- No. 8 seed North Carolina set a record in 1990 with 16 straight NCAA tournament appearances. The Tar Heels would make the tournament 11 more times in a row after that, with their 27-year streak brought to an end in 2002. With an upset of No. 1 seed Oklahoma, North Carolina made the Sweet 16 for the 10th year in a row under Dean Smith (the streak ended after 13 years), which is one of the more impressive NCAA tournament streaks ever.
- Hey, there’s current Monmouth coach King Rice, before shooting key free throws for North Carolina against Oklahoma!
- And there’s TV/radio personality Mike Francesca:
- St. John’s coach Lou Carnesecca is probably the first and only coach to wear this sweater while coaching:
Other miscellaneous facts and figures I came across:
- Temple went just 2-7 in non-conference play in the 1990 season and earned a No. 11 seed.
- Virginia coach Terry Holland coached in his final season with the ‘Hoos before returning to Davidson, where he played and previously served as head coach, to be the school’s athletic director. Nowadays, it’s not unusual to hear about a college head coach move from a coaching to administrative role at a school but it seems unlikely that in 2020 we’d see an active head coach join a different school as a first-time AD.
- No. 11 seed Loyola Marymount was just weeks after star Hank Gathers collapsed and passed away. The year before, he led the country in scoring and rebounding. It’s hard to fathom how such an event would be consumed and discussed today with more forms of media and the ability for news to travel almost instantaneously.