Monday, March 21, 2005

The Wayback Machine

Darvin Ham smashes the backboard
Darvin Ham breaks the backboard against North Carolina.
(Sports Illustrated Cover, March 25, 1996. Photo:Joel Washington/Washington Post)

Who is your favorite school's "best team ever"? If you're favorite school is North Carolina, Duke or Kansas, this question gets a bit complicated as you have multiple championship teams to pick from. If you're a fan of UCLA, you could debate for hours whether Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's Bruins or Bill Walton's Bruins were better.

Now, in case this is your first time at Cheap Seats, I'm a Texas Tech guy. We haven't won any national titles in the revenue sports, so it's a little easier to pinpoint a best ever Texas Tech men's basketball team. We have fewer candidates to choose from.

Most pundits probably think this year's team, which on Saturday beat Gonzaga to make the Sweet 16, is the best. However, Bobby Knight's current group, while they have made great strides over the dark days of Tech's Big XII existence, isn't the best ever. At least not right now.

For the best team in Texas Tech history, you have to go back to 1996. Back when the mainstreaming of "alternative rock" was nearly complete. Back when the best players in college hoops were Tim Duncan and Marcus Camby. Back when Michael Jordan was leading the Bulls to the first title of their second three-peat. Back when
The Holywriter was just a high school newspaper columnist telling "Nothing But The Truth."

Texas Tech has never been a basketball powerhouse. Prior to 1996, Texas Tech only had a grand total of 2 tournament victories (not counting a regional consolation win in 1961): a win over the Air Force Academy in 1962, and a win over Syracuse in 1976, in Jim Boeheim's first season. After 1976? First round losses to Boston College in 1985. Georgetown in 1986, and St. John's in 1993.

Nobody knew who these guys were. Granted, The 1995-96 Red Raiders, coached by James Dickey had a good nucleus of Jason Sasser, the second leading scorer in school history and Wooden Award finalist in 1996, and Tony Battie that was complemented by Cory Carr, Darvin Ham, Koy Smith, and Stan Bonewitz. But when they tipped off their season, their last in the Southwest Conference before they would be absorbed into the Big XII, they were largely off the national radar screen.

Then they did the unthinkable. They dropped only one game out of conference (to Eastern Michigan in a tournament in El Paso), finished a perfect 14-0 in SWC play, won the Southwest Conference Postseason Classic (and the automatic bid), and garnered a #3 seed in the East regional, still their highest seeding ever.

It was the first weekend of the tournament, where the Raiders really shined. After an easy first round game against Northern Illinois, they took down Dean Smith's North Carolina Tar Heels, breaking a backboard in the process, and made the Sweet 16 for the first time since the advent of the 64 team field. They also garnered another prestigious honor: the cover of Sports Illustrated.

Sadly, the SI cover jinx kicked in and Allen Iverson's Georgetown team buried the Red Raiders with his 32-point performance. And despite SI's contention that Texas Tech was a breakthrough program, the Red Raiders were unable to capitalize on the momentum of that one great year and sunk into the Big XII cellar until Bob Knight arrived to turn the program around. (Although in fairness to Sports Illustrated, even if Texas Tech had beaten the Hoyas, John Calipari's UMass Minutemen probably would have finished off the Raiders in the next round, and the step up from the Southwest Conference to the Big 12 probably would have hurt the Red Raiders anyway.)

Texas Tech's tournament run also launched the NBA Careers of Jason Sasser, who went to Sacramento in the 1996 NBA draft, Darvin Ham, who won a ring last year as a bench player with the Detroit Pistons, and Tony Battie, who spent most of his Celtics career as a target of Bill Simmons before winding up with the Magic last year. The pro-caliber talent on the 1996 Sweet 16 team is what separates it from the 2005 Sweet 16 team.

For right now, the 1996 Texas Tech Red Raiders are the best in school history. Bobby Knight's crew must beat West Virginia and launch a new crop of Red Raider alums in the NBA in order to surpass it.
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