Kentucky and North Carolina each had new coaches, but the results on the court were awfully familiar. These two bluebloods were joined in San Antonio by new teams from the West, as Stanford and Utah made it. Here’s a look back on the paths all four programs trod to reach the 1998 Final Four.
Tubby Smith’s Kentucky team didn’t look as talented on the surface as the ones that Rick Pitino cruised to the title with in 1996 or went to overtime in the national final of 1997. Jeff Sheppard was the best player, with Nazr Mohammed and Scott Padgett each averaging 12 points/7 rebounds per game down low. But Tubby’s ‘Cats still rolled uncontested to an SEC title, both regular season and tournament, and then through three games of the NCAA Tournament.
In the regional final at St. Petersburg, Kentucky and Duke added another chapter to their storied legacy, one that included a sizzling NCAA final in 1978 and one of college basketball’s all-time great games in 1992. Kentucky fell behind by 17 points in the second half and their season looked over. But point guard Wayne Turner kept causing problems with his penetration, ended up with eight assists and the Wildcats clawed their way back. In the final two minutes, Cameron Mills and Padgett hit monster three-point shots to win an epic 86-84 decision.
Utah was in their sixth NCAA Tournament in the last eight years under Rick Majerus. The previous two years had seen them eliminated by Kentucky, first in the Round of 32 (1996) and then in the Elite Eight (1997). In 1998, the Selection Committee finally put the Utes on the far side of the bracket from the Wildcats.
Andre Miller was the team’s best player at the point and he delivered 28 points/7 rebounds in a tough 75-69 win over Arkansas in the second NCAA Tournament game. Michael Doleac provided the inside presence and posted 25/9 in a tough Sweet 16 win over West Virginia. Both Utah stars were shining in the regional final against Arizona. Doleac went for 16/11, while Miller posted an18/14/13 triple-double in a truly magnificent individual performance. Utah blew out the top-seeded and defending NCAA champion Wildcats in a 76-51 win.
Bill Guthridge had been a long-time assistant to Dean Smith and Guthridge was handed the reins of the program after Smith retired in October. The Tar Heels were loaded. Antwan Jamison averaged 22/11 and was National Player of the Year. Vince Carter knocked down 16 per game, with point guard Shammond Williams averaging a 17/3/4 line. UNC was ranked #1 in the final poll before the NCAA Tournament.
They still needed overtime to survive Charlotte, 93-83, in the Round of 32, thanks to a 32/5/5 line from Williams and 24/7 from Carter. At the regionals Jamsion took over. North Carolina had to face a pair of rising powers—Tom Izzo’s Michigan State and Jim Calhoun’s UConn would win the next two national championships. But Jamison overwhelmed both teams, with 20/14 against Sparty and 20/11 against the Huskies, both double-digit victories that sent North Carolina into another Final Four.
Stanford was in the NCAA Tournament for the fourth straight year under Mike Montgomery and the Cardinal was big and physical, led by Mark Madsen and Tim Young down low. Arthur Lee led the way in the backcourt. Stanford got a 3-seed in the Midwest and used their size to power their way through the first two rounds. Meanwhile, top-seeded Kansas went out on the first weekend and the Midwest bracket was wide open.
A 67-59 win over 2-seed Purdue set up a regional final game with 8-seed Rhode Island. The Rams were coached by Jim Harrick, who had led UCLA to the 1994 national championship, only to be chased out of Westwood over an NCAA investigation. Stanford trailed this game by six with less than a minute to play when they pulled off a stunning rally and won 79-77 in regulation. There was bitterness and controversy over late-game officiating in the immediate aftermath, but it wasn’t stopping the Cardinal from going to the Final Four.
SAN ANTONIO: THE 1998 FINAL FOUR
The semifinals were each a Blueblood vs. Western Challenger, with most people expecting North Carolina and Kentucky to cruise into a Monday Night showdown. But the Utes and Cardinal didn’t go quietly.
In fact, Utah didn’t leave at all, at least not on Saturday. North Carolina shot a miserable 3-for-23 from behind the arc and the Utes led by 15 in the second half. The Tar Heels roared back to within two with a couple minutes left. Miller capped off another splendid game, where he finished with 16/14/7, by getting the points that closed out the 65-59 win.
Kentucky-Stanford was an incredible basketball game from start to finish and it ended up in overtime. Sheppard finished with 27 points. Miller had 26. Kentucky made the one extra play needed in an 86-85 survival. It marked their third straight year in the national final.
Somehow, for the third straight year, Utah and Kentucky still managed to find each other in the bracket. The Utes were a sentimental favorite with basketball lifer Majerus looking to finally reach the mountaintop. When they led 41-31 at the half and still clung to a four-point lead with six minutes left, it was right there. But with Sheppard getting 16 and Padgett adding 17, the Wildcats pulled away down the stretch. The 78-69 win gave Kentucky it’s second title in three years and under two different coaches.