A funny thing happened to me during my drive to work the other day. I found myself defending Christian Laettner — the ultimate sin for any fan of the University of Kentucky basketball program.
Due to the seriousness of this offense, I feel that I must explain myself.
The origins of this inexplicable occurrence took place on Monday night when Villanova’s Kris Jenkins rose up and drilled a buzzer-beating three-point shot to secure the school’s first national championship in 31 years — while simultaneously crushing the hearts of North Carolina fans everywhere.
The shot had all the ingredients that make a leather ball going through an iron hoop something of legend. It was a moment that will earn Mr. Jenkins a spot in NCAA Tournament highlight reels for as long as Earthlings are playing roundball. It was a fitting conclusion to a well-played game between two squads equally deserving of calling themselves champions.
The shot was also an answer to the also great (but soon-to-be-forgotten) shot by UNC’s Marcus Paige, which had tied the game on the previous possession.
It was a great game won by a great shot. One of the greatest shots in NCAA Tournament history. One of …
It should have come as no surprise in the era of 24/7 sports coverage that it the talking heads began putting Jenkins’ game-winner into “context” almost immediately. Was this the greatest shot in NCAA Tournament history?!
I usually don’t let stuff like that get to me. I understand it’s the nature of the business. There’s only so much sports to talk about and a lot of airtime to fill. So naturally, there must be a “discussion” about whatever happened as to whether that was the “greatest ever” fill-in-the-blank. Jenkins’ shot was merely the latest example.
But — as you’ve already been made aware — my typical apathy toward these conversations was obliterated when I heard Bill Simmons and Chuck Klosterman on the former’s podcast discussing Villanova’s win and Jenkins’ shot. Inevitably, the conversation turned to Simmons saying something close to Jenkins’ shot being the greatest he can remember along with UNC’s loss being the toughest he can remember and Klosterman half-way agreeing with him.
This got to me.
These are two guys with opinions that I respect. I thought they — of all people — wouldn’t be so shortsighted. Instead, they fell victim to the recency bias that litters sports talk television and radio.
And that’s when something entirely unexpected (and blasphemous) happened. I became defensive about the shot that I hate more than any other shot that’s ever been taken. I needed the pain of Kentucky’s loss to Duke in the 1992 Regional Final to get the respect it deserved.
“What about Laettner?!,” I cried aloud to no one in particular.
I didn’t understand my feelings. I still don’t. Shouldn’t I be excited about another shot dethroning Laettner’s as the go-to-greatest-shot-ever? Shouldn’t I want a game to be so great that it becomes the one basketball fans talk about as the best they’ve ever seen instead of the one that my team lost 24 years ago?
I guess I should. But I don’t.
No disrespect to Villanova and Jenkins — or any of the other great games that have ended on great shots — but Kentucky vs. Duke in the 1992 NCAA Tournament remains the greatest college basketball game that’s ever been played, and it was won by the greatest shot in this history of the tournament.
It’s not particularly close. Here’s three reasons why.
1. David v. Goliath
The storyline leading up that game reads like something straight out of a Hollywood script.
Duke was the defending national champion and college basketball’s top-ranked team throughout the entire 1991–92 season. Kentucky was playing in the postseason for the first time in three years after major NCAA violations under the previous coach had prohibited the program from postseason play.
And while Kentucky had enjoyed a successful season, no one gave them much of a chance to upset the mighty Blue Devils. At stake for the Wildcats was a chance to let the college basketball world know that its storied program was well on its way back to relevancy. At stake for Duke, however, was a shot at becoming the first back-to-back national champions since the UCLA dynasty of the 1970’s.
Kentucky was desperately trying to slay the dragon. Duke was desperately trying to remain king of the hill.
None of these dynamics were at play in the 2016 national title game. Villanova was an underdog against North Carolina, but the team had just beaten a very good Oklahoma squad by 44 points — !!!!@#@!#$#@% — two days earlier. Any team capable of something that absurd is presumably capable of beating anybody.
2. The shot before “The Shot”
It’s doubtful many people remember this, but both games involved spectacular shots that ultimately set the stage for Jenkins’ and Laettner’s game-winners.
For Kentucky in 1992, senior guard Sean Woods threw up a 12-foot running prayer over Laettner’s outstretched hands that miraculously banked in. For North Carolina in 2016, senior guard Marcus Paige threw up a double-clutch prayer from beyond the three-point line that found the bottom of the net.
A couple of key differences here that make Woods’ “shot before the shot” more impressive than Paige’s. Woods’ gave Kentucky a lead with 2.1 seconds remaining in the game. Paige’s shot tied the game with 4.7 seconds left. Kentucky had every right to believe they had won their game after Woods’ prayer was answered. They had slain the dragon. The best-case scenario for the Tar Heels was overtime. Kentucky’s reward for stopping Duke on the next play would have been the Final Four. North Carolina’s reward for stopping Villanova on the next play would have been getting to play at least five more minutes of basketball.
3. The Shot
The clutch shots by Woods and Paige set the stages for Laettner and Jenkins. Villanova had nearly five seconds to go the length of the floor and get one last look at the basket. Duke and Laettner had two seconds to do the same. If Jenkins misses, the game continues in overtime. If Laettner misses, Duke’s season is over.
In the 2016 game, Jenkins followed his point guard down the floor and stepped into an uncontested shot.
Laettner, on the other hand, jumped to catch a full-court pass, dribble faked to his right, turned around and drained the game-winner with a hand in his face.
Don’t get me wrong. This year’s national championship game was great and will deservedly go down in history as one of the greatest tournament games ever played.
But the best ever? Let’s pump the brakes on that one.
The only rational advantage that the 2016 game and Jenkins’ shot has over the 1992 East Regional Final is that it was a championship-winning one. Duke did go on to win its second National Championship a week later, something that never happens without Laettner’s heroics.
So, if and when you’re asked if the 2016 NCAA National Championship was greatest tournament game ever played, you now know how to respond. First, you say “no.” Then you tell them about Kentucky vs. Duke in 1992.
Originally published on The Cauldron at Sports Illustrated.