The city of Minneapolis had been the epicenter of the sports world from late 1991 to the end of March in 1992. The Twins had made—and won—the World Series the previous October. The Super Bowl, won by the Washington Redskins, was held there in January. Finally, the Metrodome would host the 1992 Final Four. Duke, Indiana, Michigan and Cincinnati came to the Twin Cities. Here’s a look at the road they all took to get there…
Mike Krzyzewski was old hat at the Final Four by 1992. This was the sixth time in seven years he had brought Duke to this stage and for the first time he was a defending NCAA champion. Duke was looking to become the first team since the UCLA Dynasty in 1973 to win a repeat championship.
The Blue Devils were loaded, with the key players of the 1991 title team back in tow. Christian Laettner averaged 22 points/8 rebounds per game and won National Player of the Year honors. Bobby Hurley ran the offense, averaging seven assists per game and he could also shoot the rock—42% from three-point range and 13ppg.
Sophomore Grant Hill was coming into his own as an all-around player and averaged 16 points/6 rebounds/4 assists. Brian Davis and Thomas Hill rounded out a lineup where everyone hit a double-figure average in points. Duke opened the season ranked #1 in the country. They held that ranking wire-to-wire, went 28-2 and won the ACC’s regular season and tournament titles. Duke was an easy choice to be the #1 seed in the East Regional.
The Blue Devils opened March Madness with an 82-56 tuneup win over Campbell, where the Devil defense only gave up 16 points in the first half. They did a similar number on Iowa in the Round of 32, jumping out to a 48-24 lead at intermission. Brian Davis finished with 21 points/10 rebounds in a 75-62 win. Duke was on its way to Philadelphia for the regionals.
It was a chalk bracket, with the top four seeds all advancing. Duke beat Seton Hall 81-69 in the Sweet 16 on the strength of free-throw shooting—the Blue Devils went 24/31 from the line compared to only 8/14 for the Hall. On the other half of the bracket, 2-seed Kentucky got 30 points from Jamal Mashburn in an 87-77 win over a Massachusetts team coached by John Calipari.
The stage was set for a regional final that would take its place on the short list on the greatest college basketball games of all time. Duke shot a sizzling 65 percent and got 28 points at the foul line. Kentucky answered by shooting 57 percent and drilling twelve treys. Hurley dished ten assists and scored 2. Thomas Hill knocked down 19. Mashburn went off for 28/10 and Wildcat guard Sean Woods scored 21—including a jumper that put Kentucky ahead 103-102 with two seconds left in overtime.
Duke looked finished, but Grant Hill rifled a perfect three-quarters court pass to Laettner who caught it at the foul line. He then capped his 31/7 night with a turnaround jumper at the buzzer to win 104-103. Laettner was named the region’s Most Outstanding Player and the Blue Devils were back in the Final Four.
Michigan basketball had started to slip after their improbable run to the 1989 NCAA title. They went out in the Round of 32 in 1990 and then had a losing season in 1991. Head coach Steve Fisher had to prove he could get the job done and he brought in the most heralded recruiting class in college basketball history. Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson were called the “Fab Five” and it wasn’t long before they formed an all-freshman starting lineup.
Webber was the best player, averaging 16/10, with Rose not far behind posting an 18/4/4 line. Howard joined Webber as a strong post presence with an 11/6. Michigan had the ups and downs of youth, but they still finished the season 20-8, took third in a competitive Big Ten and were a 6-seed in the Southeast Regional.
Rose led the way past Temple with 19 points/8 assists as the Wolverines won 73-66. Then they caught a big break when 3-seed Arizona was upset by East Tennessee State. Michigan took advantage, getting 30 from Webber, another 19-point game from Rose, who added 10 assists, and 14 from King. The win was easier than the 102-90 final made it appear.
There were no bracket breaks in Lexington. The Wolverines would have to go the region’s top two seeds to get to Minneapolis. Rose had another big game against Oklahoma State, with 25 points/11 assists. Webber was quiet, but Eric Riley came off the bench to grab ten rebounds and Michigan’s edge on the glass was key to their 75-72 win.
A familiar foe awaited in the regional final. Ohio State had won the Big Ten and in the Sweet 16 ousted North Carolina behind 21/9 from Lawrence Funderburke. The 80-73 win set up the biggest basketball game in the storied history of the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry.
Webber bounced back with a 23/11 game. Ohio State’s star Jim Jackson scored 20 points, but only shot 9-for-21. Michigan’s 54%-43% edge in shooting from the floor was the difference in a thrilling 75-71 overtime win. Rose delivered another solid performance, with a 20/6/4 line and secured Most Outstanding Player honors. The freshmen were going to the Final Four.
Indiana was seeking its first Final Four since their national championship season of 1987. Bob Knight’s program won Big Ten titles in 1989 and 1991 and came into 1992 with big expectations. They were ranked #2 in the preseason polls and were led by Calbert Cheaney, who averaged 18 points/5 rebounds per game from his small forward spot.
Cheaney was supported by four other starters who all scored in double-figures. Eric Anderson, a senior, and freshman Alan Henderson rounded out a three-forward frontline. Damon Bailey and Greg Graham led the way in the backcourt. The regular season didn’t quite meet expectations—a late hiccup cost the Hoosiers the Big Ten title—but they still finished 23-6 and were seeded #2 in the West for the NCAA Tournament.
Henderson controlled an overmatched Eastern Illinois team with 19 points/11 rebounds in the 94-55 win that opened the Dance. That set up a big battle with 7-seed LSU, who was led by Shaquille O’Neal in the low post. Shaq was unstoppable in the Round of 32 game, with 36 points/12 rebounds. But he was also alone. Cheaney knocked down 30 to answer. Hendeson added another 19. Indiana outscored LSU from the free throw line, 23-12. That was the difference in the 89-79 win that sent to the Hoosiers to Albuquerque.
One year earlier, Indiana had knocked out Florida State in the Round of 32. This time, the Hoosiers and Seminoles met in the Sweet 16. Third-seeded FSU had a future pro in the backcourt with Sam Cassell, and he got 19 points in this game. Once again, Indiana’s balance trumped the lonely battle of an opposing star. Anderson poured in 24 points and Graham added 19. Cheaney, steady as she goes was good for 17/11. Another big free-throw scoring advantage, this time 25-10, was again key to the 85-74 win.
Indiana opened the regular season by losing to UCLA. They took full advantage of the chance for revenge against the region’s top seed. Cheaney and Bailey combined for 45 points, while Henderson grabbed twelve rebounds. Anderson capped off his Most Outstanding Player weekend with 17 more. It was no contest, as the Hoosiers led 44-29 by halftime and coasted into the Final Four with a 106-79 win.
Cincinnati was the outlier among the 1992 Final Four teams. While the other three programs all had recent Final Four appearances, the Bearcats had not been on this stage since a 1959-63 run that included the great Oscar Robertson. Cincy hadn’t even made the NCAA Tournament since 1977.
A tough head coach, Bob Huggins, got the program turned around and his fourth year saw the results. Herb Jones was the best player, with an 18/7 average. Nick Van Exel, a guard with the NBA in his future, averaged 12. Anthony Buford added 15 more and 6’9” Corie Blount was the top rebounder, with six per game. The Bearcats went 25-4, although they only got a 4-seed in the Midwest Regional as reward.
The road started close to home in Dayton, and the swarming defense that Huggins-coached teams have become known for in the ensuing years, was on display. They forced an astounding 33 turnovers in an 85-47 rout of Delaware. Cincinnati showed its rebounding muscle in a Round of 32 win over Michigan State. The Bearcats overcame 27 points from Spartan star Shawn Respert with a 36-25 edge on the glass. The 77-65 win sent Cincy to Kansas City for the regionals.
Cincinnati arrived to a gutted bracket. The Midwest’s top three seeds—Kansas, USC and Arkansas—had all failed to survive the opening weekend. The Bearcats were suddenly the region’s top remaining seed. Jones went for 24/6 in leading Cincy past feisty 9-seed UTEP, 69-67. The other Sweet 16 game in KC saw Memphis and Georgia Tech go to overtime. Afernee Hardaway poured in 32 for the Tigers. Jon Barry, a future ESPN analyst, hit 29 for the Yellow Jackets. It was Memphis who survived, 83-79.
After the excitement of the regional semis, the final was no contest. Cincinnati held Memphis to 36 percent shooting, while hitting 60% of their own shots. Jones was dominant, with a 23/13 line. Hardaway could only get off twelve shots for the Tigers. Behind Jones’ MOP performance, Cincy rolled to an 88-57 win and the Final Four.
THE 1992 FINAL FOUR
Michigan and Cincinnati were the undercard game that opened play on Saturday. Van Exel knocked down 21 and Buford added 18 more for the Bearcats, who led by three at the half. But the Wolverines were too strong underneath. Webber’s 16/11 line keyed a 45-27 rebounding edge. King added 17 more and Michgan pulled out a 76-72 win.
Another good game followed in the marquee Indiana-Duke game. The Hoosiers were ahead, 42-37 at halftime. But Duke got 26 from Hurley and they were getting to the free throw line while Indiana was not. The Blue Devils went 28/42 on the line compared to 12/16 for the Hoosiers. Duke appeared to have the game in hand until a flurry of three-point shots by Indiana’s Todd Leary cut the lead to 81-78 and IU got the ball back. Duke finally kept the ball out of Leary’s hands, made the stop and won the game.
History was going to be made on Monday night—either a repeat champion or an all-freshman startling lineup would prevail. Webber had another good game, with 14/11 and the freshmen led by a point at the half. But for the third time in this Final Four, the team trailing at halftime ultimately won the game. In this case, quite easily. Laettner finished with 19/7. Hill added 18 and Hurley’s seven assists helped seal his MOP weekend. Duke rolled to a 71-51 win and college basketball had its first repeat champ of the post-John Wooden era.