Who are the most underrated national champs of all-time?

Everyone remembers the champs. From the first NCAA champions in Oregon in 1939 to last year’s UConn team, hoopheads can tell you who won.

Problem is, some are more remembered than others in history. The 1951 Kentucky squad coined the Fabulous Five.  The UCLA teams of the early 1970s were arguably the most dominant of their era. Right after, the 1976 Indiana team still remains the last undefeated champion in Division I college basketball.

In between the ones that are always brought up, there are the champs that don’t come to mind. At least not at first, anyway.

So who are they? TBBC looks into who are the most underrated champions all-time and why.

1989-90 UNLV

Record – 35-5

Coach – Jerry Tarkanian

What everyone remembers – That four of their starting five would eventually be drafted into the NBA. The team that was hounded by the NCAA arguably more than any program in college basketball history — with reason — had horses with the centerpiece of forward Larry Johnson (in his first season of Division I ball out of Odessa College), veteran point guard Greg Anthony, reliable forward Stacey Augmon, do-it-all utility man George Ackles and sharpshooter Anderson Hunt, who was the Big West Player of the Year as a sophomore, prior to Johnson’s arrival on campus.

The Runnin’ Rebels (you can’t leave off the ‘runnin”) demolished Duke in the largest margin of victory in NCAA Championship Game history, 103-73. Prompting the memorable “chair lean” from Tark.

What everyone doesn’t remember – This team played rough, but they also scored in bunches . The Runnin’ Rebels eclipsed 100 points in 15 games and scored 90-plus in another eight. And after dropping a 107-105 decision to LSU on Jan. 27, UNLV finished the season winning 22 of their final 23 games, with a 78-70 loss to UC-Santa Barbara on Feb. 25 the only blemish. They dominated opponents, winning by an average of 15 points per game.

Why are they underrated? – They’re a victim of their own doing. Despite the run UNLV had, everyone remembers the 1990-91 UNLV team that ran over everyone on their way to an undefeated regular season and a loss to the same Duke team in the national semifinals a year later. That dominant run — followed by an epic collapse  — made that squad more memorable than the team that won it all.

1994-95 UCLA

Record – 31-1

Coach – Jim Herrick

What everyone remembers – The return to prominence for one of the more storied college basketball programs in history and brought the program its first NCAA title since the legendary coach John Wooden got his last in 1975.

Oh, and those two words that weren’t in Mizzou’s vocabulary: STOP BALL.

What everyone doesn’t remember – Despite the record, the Bruins had a rough start to conference play….they lost their Pac-10 opener to Oregon 82-72. They were arguably one of the dullest (I mean that with love) champions of the 90s, but one of the best single-game performances came at the hands of Ed O’Bannon with 30 points and 17 rebounds in the national title game, an 89-78 win over Arkansas.

And their schedule wasn’t easy, with seven regular season games against Top 25 teams and five of their six games in the NCAA Tournament as well — which is impressive in the 64-team field.

Why are they underrated? –  Most teams that won it all in the 90s had some sort of future-pro star power. This one simply didn’t. Herrick took a cast of talented players, none of which would have much of a career in the NBA, to the title. Tyus Edney’s staggered four seasons in the league were the most of any Bruin from this team.

1973-74 North Carolina State

Record – 30-1

Coach – Norm Sloan

What everyone remembers – The Wolfpack will always be known as the team that interrupted The Dynasty of the John Wooden-coached UCLA teams of the late ’60s and early ’70s. They upset the Bruins 80-77 in their national semifinal contest and took out Marquette in the national title game. David Thompson was the NCAA Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player along with earning his first of two national player of the year awards.

What everyone doesn’t remember– Before their Final Four win over UCLA, for the most part, N.C. State stayed at no. 2 in the nation behind UCLA. The Bruins made sure that they stayed there with an 84-66 beat down of the Wolfpack early in the season.

In fact, N.C. State was thisclose to not even making the NCAA Tournament, needing overtime to beat no.3 Maryland 103-100 in the finals of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament. The NCAA tournament only took 25 teams that season, and only began to include at-large teams in 1975.

Why are they underrated? – They get lost, like most teams of the 1960s and early 1970s, in the shuffle of the UCLA juggernaut. Thompson was far-and-away the star, but N.C. State also had 7-4 center Tom Burleson’s 18 points and 11.7 boards per game and 5-7 point guard Monte Towe was one of the best floor generals in the game at a time when assists weren’t seen in the same light as they are now.

1997-98 Kentucky

Record – 35-4

Coach – Tubby Smith

What everyone remembers – Ask anybody who knows that team, they first thing you’ll normally hear out of their mouths is “it was Rick Pitino’s team.” Pitino left after reaching his second straight NCAA Final in 1997, taking the Boston Celtics head job, and as a result, Smith inherited a gold mine. Aside from that, the team was the third straight Wildcat squad to make it to the Final Four, cementing itself as the team of the 1990s (Getting thrashed by UNLV gives UK the edge here, Duke fans….)

….And so does this:

What everyone doesn’t remember – Despite the “Tubby just had to roll the balls out in practice” schtick, this was a team full of players that just knew their role. The Wildcats took an early-season loss to the team that beat them in the 1997 NCAA Final, Arizona. The roster also featured four first round picks in Jamaal Magloire, Nazr Muhammed, Scott Padgett and Michael Bradley (though Bradley would transfer to Villanova after  the 1998-99 season.

The team was as balanced as any in its era, with Jeff Sheppard the team’s leading scorer at 13.7 points per game. In fact, only 4.9 points separated Sheppard and the team’s sixth-leading scorer, Heshimu Evans (8.8 ppg). Four players also averaged at least four rebound per game — the most was Mohammed’s 7.2.

Why are they underrated? – They were at the tail end of a dynasty that the original architect didn’t finish. Everyone remembers the 1996 team as one of the most dominant teams of the era, and that hurts when remembering the best teams of the 90s. But when looking at the numbers, the ’97-’98 team holds their own. The Wildcats won all three of their Southeastern Conference tournament games by double-digits, including a 99-74 drubbing of no. 16 Arkansas in the semifinals and an 86-56 pasting of no. 15 South Carolina in the finals. Impressive considering their strength of schedule was 9th in the nation.

1976-77 Marquette

Record – 25-7

What everyone remembers – Al McGuire in his awesome suits were retiring at the end of the Warriors’ (as they were known until 1994) season. Butch Lee hitting spinning lay-up after spinning lay-up. Lee, the Most Outstanding Player of that tournament, headlined that team, which played in one of the more amazing endings to a Final Four game in history against UNC-Charlotte (more on that below).

What everyone doesn’t remember – ….And it’s incredible really. Jerome Whitehead pulls in the three quarter-court pass from Lee with three seconds to go just inside the free throw line, turns, one dribble, and stuffs it home for a 51-49 win over the 49ers and a trip to the title game against North Carolina.

It also wasn’t an easy road for the Warriors, who were in their second Final Four in four years. They played no. 11 Cincinnati in the first round, Kansas State in the second, then no. 9 Wake Forest in the Elite Eight, UNC-Charlotte — no. 17 at the time — in the semifinals, then finished with no. 5 North Carolina in the title game.

Also, a soon-to-be prominent coach named Rick Majerus (R.I.P.) was an assistant on that team.

Why are they underrated? – It’s a team that, like N.C. State, gets lost in the shuffle of the 1970s. They weren’t necessarily spectacular, but they averaged 70 points per game without a three-point line and had two Top 20 NBA Draft picks in Lee and Bo Ellis on the roster. They also didn’t finish all that high in the polls, ranking between no. 6 and no. 15 for most of the year.

It was one of the more impressive stories in college basketball history, with the small, Jesuit school in Milwaukee sending their retiring coach out as the ultimate winner. It’s stuff that sports movies are made out of.

Got a better idea? Did we forget anyone? Hit us on Twitter at @David_Harten or @TBBChronicles or with an email at TBBChronicles@gmail.com.

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