UConn and Duke had been eyeing each other up from the top of the polls all through the regular season. At the 1999 Final Four, they brought a couple Big Ten sparring partners with them, and then got down to business for a Monday night heavyweight fight. Here’s a look back at the road UConn, Duke, Michigan State and Ohio State took get to St. Petersburg in 1999…
The Huskies had never made a Final Four in the history of the program, but under head coach Jim Calhoun, they were knocking on the door. Seven NCAA Tournament berths the previous nine years included three trips to the Elite Eight. The ‘99 UConn basketball team was ready to break the door down.
Rip Hamilton, a future NBA star with the Detroit Pistons, was the leading scorer with 22ppg and an All-American. He was joined in the backcourt by Khalid El-Amin, who knocked down 14ppg. Kevin Freeman and Jake Voskuhl did the dirty work inside. UConn was ranked in the top four all season long, including ten weeks at #1. They won the Big East, both regular season and tournament, and earned the #1 seed in the West Regional.
A tuneup game with UT-San Antonio ended with a 91-66 win, as Hamilton knocked down 28 and El-Amin dished 10 assists. UConn concluded their opening weekend in Denver by demolishing New Mexico 78-56, with the guards scoring 21 apiece and the defense holding New Mexico to 26 percent shooting.
The regionals were in Phoenix and fifth-seeded Iowa was up next. UConn was beaten on the boards in this game, but hot 54 percent shooting saved them. Hamilton was good for 24, El-Amin added 21 more and the Huskies won 78-68.
The last step was 10th-seeded Gonzaga. This was the first time the Zags had made a serious splash in the NCAA Tournament and they were America’s darlings, having beaten #2-seed Stanford and #6-seed Florida. And they would give UConn its toughest game of the regional.
In a defensive-oriented game, the Huskies were down a point at the half and they weren’t shooting the ball, ending the game 0-for-9 from behind the arc. But this time they were rebounding. Freeman had 15 boards, Voskuhl added nine more and overall 47-33 advantage on the glass keyed UConn’s 67-62 win. Hamilton’s 21 points secured him Most Outstanding Player honors and Jim Calhoun was finally going to a Final Four.
Mike Krzyzewski was no stranger to the Final Four, but Duke was—at least by its standards—coming into 1999 with a little something to prove. Since the great run of 1986-94, when they made six Final Fours and won two national titles, the Blue Devils had slipped. Coach K missed most of 1995 with back problems and that turned into a lost year. They were a marginal NCAA team in 1996. A good 1997 team suffered a first-weekend upset. And the 1998 team, that looked poised to return to glory, had been crushed when they blew a 17-point lead to Kentucky in the regional final.
But the ‘99 Blue Devils were loaded and it started with Elton Brand, who averaged 18 points/10 rebounds and won National Player of the Year honors. Trajan Langdon averaged 17ppg on the wings. William Avery was good for 15 a night and handed out five assists. Corey Maggett, Chris Carrawell and Shane Battier rounded out the contributors on a team that was ranked #1 to start the season long.
Just like UConn, Duke stayed in the top four all season long. They blew through a weak ACC, going undefeated and then winning the conference tournament. The Blue Devils got the #1-seed in the East and were slotted to open play in their own backyard of Charlotte.
A sizzling 62 percent shooting night led Duke to a 99-58 rout of Florida A&M, where they had 59 points by halftime. The Round of 32 matchup with a Tulsa team coached by Bill Self was more of the same. The Blue Devils were up 53-23 at intermission, dominated the glass, forced twenty turnovers and won 97-56.
Duke was already good enough, but the East Regional was gutted by upsets. #2-seed Miami (a Big East team at the time), third-seeded Cincinnati, #4 Tennessee and 5-seed Wisconsin had all failed to survive the first weekend. It would be a coronation march through East Rutherford for the Blue Devils.
They beat Southwest Missouri State (today simply called Missouri State) 78-61 behind 24 points/10 rebounds from Langdon and 14/13 from Brand. In the finale against Temple, Langdon sealed Outstanding Player honors with 23 points on 5-for-6 shooting from three-point range. The final was 85-64.
Since their national title run of 1979 with Magic Johnson, Michigan State had only gotten as far as the Sweet 16 twice between 1980 and 1997. They made it that far again in 1998, this time under third-year coach Tom Izzo. And expectations were high for 1999.
Mateen Cleaves was the leader in the backcourt, averaging 12 points and 7 assists per game. Morris Peterson was the producer in the post, with 14 points/6 rebounds. Andre Hutson was a tough rebounder on a team filled with role players who went to the glass, something that would become a Sparty staple in the ensuing two decades under Izzo.
Sparty cleared the field in the Big Ten by three games, won the conference tournament and got the #1 seed in the Midwest. They opened the NCAAs in Milwaukee with a tuneup blasting of St. Mary’s 76-53, behind a 14/12 game from Antonio Smith and 15 more from A.J. Granger.
A Round of 32 game with Ole Miss was tougher. Michigan State trailed by three at the half, but their steady rebounding—a 32-25 edge in this game, keyed by Peterson and Smith—eventually took hold. Cleaves knocked down 18 and the 74-66 win sent the Spartans on to St. Louis for the regionals.
The Midwest Regional had lost several favorites, including 4-seed Arizona and 5-seed Charlotte on the top half of the draw. It was 13th-seeded Oklahoma that would be Michigan State’s foil in the Sweet 16. And it was an ugly game—the Sparty defense held the Sooners to 33 percent shooting in a 54-46 win.
Even though 2-seed Utah had also fallen early, Michigan State wasn’t exactly getting a break by catching #3 Kentucky as the last obstacle on the road to the Final Four. The Wildcats had made the last three Final Fours and won a pair of national titles, including in 1998. The battle-tested ‘Cats led 36-35 at the half.
Michigan State’s interior personnel kept at it though. Peterson won Most Outstanding Player behind his 19/10 performance. Granger and Huston each scored 14, while Smith hauled down seven rebounds. The Spartans won 73-66 and were headed back to college basketball’s biggest stage for the first time since the age of Magic.
The Final Four had been a long time coming for Ohio State. Not since the Fred Taylor era, back in 1968, had the Buckeyes gotten this far. They had come close in 1991-92, on Big Ten championship teams led by Jim Jackson, but came up just short. After an 8-22 season in 1998, there was no indication that ‘99 was to be the year.
But a talented backcourt, with 5’10” Scoonie Penn and 6’6” Michael Redd, combined for 37ppg. Jason Singleton, Ken Johnson and George Reese all cleaned up on the boards. It was enough for Ohio State to go 23-8 and get the 4-seed in the South Regional.
They stayed close to home, with opening weekend in Indianapolis. Redd’s 27-point game and some stellar team defense keyed a 72-58 win over Murray State. Fifth-seeded UCLA was then upset by Detroit Mercy. Ohio State took advantage by holding Detroit to 12 points in the first half and cruising to a 75-44 win.
In a year marked by upsets and gutted regionals, the South was where the chalk held firm, the top four seeds advancing to the regionals in Knoxville. Ohio State faced #1 Auburn in the Sweet 16. The Buckeye defense was aggressive, forcing 18 turnovers. Penn was brilliant, scoring 26 and not committing a single turnover as he ran the offense. Redd put up a 22/10 line. Ohio State’s 72-64 win meant the South would be the only regional not captured by the 1-seed.
St. John’s, in the 3-spot, had beaten 2-seed Maryland, eliminating a Terrapin freshman class that would ultimately win a national title in 2002. The Redmen were the more immediate threat though. Ron Artest had an NBA future ahead of him and Erick Barkley was an offensive threat in the backcourt.
In a terrific basketball game, Ohio State got more great play from the guards. Redd went for 20 points/6 rebounds/5 assists. Penn was even better, with a 22/8/8 line that won him Most Outstanding Player. The final was 77-74 and the Buckeyes were going to the Final Four.
THE 1999 FINAL FOUR
Ohio State faced UConn. The Buckeyes gave the Huskies a good run, only trailing 36-35 at the half. But UConn had too many weapons and they were well-suited to win a battle of the backcourts. Hamilton scored 24 while El-Amin added 18. The two guards combined to shoot 18-for-32. By contrast, Penn and Redd were forced into a combined 10-for-31 game. UConn survived, 64-58.
Duke and Michigan State played out similarly, a competitive game, but one where the favorite just had too much. The Blue Devils won the rebounding battle 44-39—not a huge edge, but plenty against a team that was used to dominating the glass. Brand’s 18/15 led the way to a 68-62 victory.
The heavyweight fight was set. Duke led by two at the half, but UConn was getting the better of play and even though the score was always tight, the Huskies always seemed a step ahead. They would shoot 53 percent on the night, compared to 41 percent for Duke. UConn won rebounding by a 38-27 margin. They got 27 points from Hamilton.
Free throws kept Duke in it. The Blue Devils outscored the Huskies 21-10 at the stripe and got 25 from Langdon and a 15/13 night from Brand. But it wasn’t enough. Freeman and Ricky Moore did the hard work rebounding and Jim Calhoun won his first NCAA title, 77-74. Hamilton would be named Most Outstanding Player.
Both programs have been back many times over. Duke returned and won the national championship in 2001, 2010 and 2015. UConn won it again in 2004, a year they beat the Blue Devils in the semifinals. The Huskies added banners again in 2011 and 2014. Two great heavyweights gave the nation a great Monday night show in 1999.