This is the second post in our ongoing series of the Top 10 What Ifs in college basketball history.
In order to get ready for March Madness, we are counting down the Top 10 What ifs in college basketball history.
If you missed #10 on our list from yesterday, click here to read about the tragedy of Hank Gathers.
Now, for #9 on our list:
Christian Laettner had been ejected for stomping on Aminu Timberlake?
Let’s just pretend, for five minutes, that Duke isn’t one of the most polarizing team in sports…and that, unless you are a Duke fan, you probably love hating them.
For the haters: forget about all of the individual players you’ve disliked who have played there over the last twenty years; forget about what you consider to be the haughty exuberance of their die-hard fans; and most importantly, put Dick Vitale as far out of your mind as physically possible.
It’s important to read this post with an open mind. And that goes, even more so, for the Duke lovers among you.
In case you have been living under a rock for the past twenty years, the 1992 East Regional Final ended like this.
Even without the final game-winner, the game was a classic.
- Five lead-changes in the last 40 seconds.
- Several future pros.
- #1 vs. #2.
The game was an all-time great.
However, one thing many people forget is that Christian Laettner should not have been in the game to make that final shot.
With about 9 minutes left in regulation, and Duke clinging to a small lead, Laettner and Kentucky freshman Aminu Timberlake got tangled up under the basket. Laettner later admitted that Aminu had gotten a cheap shot in, and he was very frustrated.
A few plays later, Laettner got his revenge after converting an And-1.
Timberlake had fallen on the play and was laying on the ground a few feet from Laettner. What happened next surprised everyone. Well, everyone that didn’t know the National Player of the Year behind the airbrushed media stories.
Laettner deliberately walked over to the fallen Timberlake, stood over him for a second, and then lightly stomped on his stomach.
The crowd went into a frenzy. The announcers didn’t know what to say. America froze.
Did that really just happen?
Did Laettner really let that skinny freshman get the best of him?
Did Laettner really just blow it for his team for a moment of selfishness?
It appeared that the answer would be yes.
But then, the officials came to Duke’s rescue and allowed Laettner to stay in the game by only giving him a single technical foul.
The rest, as they say, is history.
But what if Laettner had been ejected? How different would the landscape of college basketball really be?
First and foremost, Duke would not be Duke.
It’s so easy to forget about how much Coach K had struggled when he first got to Duke. But when Johnny Dawkins came to town, Duke University began to make its presence known in college hoops.
After a few Final Four births in the late 80s, the Blue Devils finally broke through in 1991 against the heavily favored Runnin’ Rebels of UNLV.
But let’s say Laettner was ejected, and Duke ended up losing to Kentucky that evening.
What would have happened to Duke over the next few years? Consider the six years that actually followed the 1992 season, with the hypothetical context of Laettner being ejected and Duke losing to Kentucky.
- 1992 – Duke loses while having the two best players in college basketball on the same team (Laettner and Grant Hill).
- 1993 – Duke stumbles to 24-8 and loses in the second round of the dance by #6 seed California.
- 1994 – Duke reaches the finals where Coach K is out-coached by Nolan Richardson and his “40 minutes of Hell.”
- 1995 – Duke goes 13-18 and misses the tournament when Coach had to miss much of the season.
- 1996 – Duke goes 18-13 and is bounced in the first round.
- 1997 – Duke improves, but is once again bounced in the second round by #10 seed Providence.
- 1998 – Duke gets a one-seed, but is again bounced by #2 Kentucky in the Elite Eight.
When you take time to consider that arch-rival UNC happened to make five Final Fours over the same span, would Coach K have been given the same long leash and benefit of the doubt he received without that second title in 1992?
No longer would Coach K have been the greatest coach alive. Instead, he may just be “that guy that coached his team to one fluke win over UNLV.”
Basically, instead of the Coach K we all know today, he could have been sightly above the 90s version of Jim Valvano. That second title does a lot to legitimize a coach and help smooth over bumps in the road.
But Duke is not the only team whose destiny was changed that day.
What would have happened to Kentucky?
It’s clear that the Wildcats, led by Jamal Mashburn, were one of the best teams in the country in 1992. To say that they would have had a good chance at winning the whole thing would be an understatement of epic proportions.
And if Kentucky won it all in 1992, how does Rick Pitino’s career change?
While he still would have bounced for the NBA eventually, he would still undoubtedly be listed as one of the greatest college coaches in history.
Five Final Fours. Two Championships.
Instead of Coach K, Rick Pitino would have been the Coach of the 90s.
Instead of Duke, Kentucky would have been the Team of the 90s.
Oh, what might have been.
And all because a few officials were scared to throw America’s Golden Boy out of a game.
Top 10 College Basketball What Ifs of All-Time Series (All)
10. What if Hank Gathers hadn’t died in the middle of a game?
9. What if Christian Laettner had been suspended for stomping on Aminu Timberlake?
8. What if Houston hadn’t been upset by NC State?
7. What if the NCAA rules had been different for Pete Maravich?
6. What if Chris Webber hadn’t called timeout?
5. What if Gordon Hayward’s shot hadn’t rimmed out?
4. What if Coach K had been fired from Duke after 3 seasons?
3. What if LeBron had gone to college and the one-and-done rule was never instituted?
2. What if Kentucky had beaten Texas Western?
1. What if there wasn’t a snow storm to keep John Wooden from going to Minnesota?