We’re just getting started on March, prime time for the college basketball season, but on Wednesday we couldn’t help but look back for a day.
Wednesday marked the 25th anniversary of the death of Hank Gathers, a former All-American at Loyola Marymount who collapsed on the court and passed away hours later in a West Coast Conference semifinal game against Portland. There were a number of poignant articles about Gathers posted yesterday-longtime Philly hoops scribe Dick Jerardi of the Philadelphia Daily News had an outstanding one here, while ESPN’s Myron Metcalf also had an excellent story here. For those who never saw Gathers and those LMU teams play over three years from 1987-88 to 1989-90, they missed a superlative player and some all-time entertaining teams from a special time in college basketball history.
If you grew up on college basketball in the end of the 1980s, there was no shortage of great players and great teams. Sean Elliott, Danny Ferry, Chris Jackson, Danny Manning, Gary Payton and Lionel Simmons were just a few of the names from that time, and the players came from literally every corner of the country.
There was no more stylish or distinctive player than Gathers, though, and no team more distinctive than Loyola Marymount. Gathers was just 6-foot-7, but regularly played in the post, outworking much bigger defenders. He led the nation in scoring and rebounding in 1988-89, and his Loyola teams ran at speeds that would be unrecognizable today. Along with his friend and teammate Bo Kimble and a cast of others, the Lions were the team that should end every discussion of shot clocks and pace of play issues. With a 45-second shot clock, LMU averaged 110.3 points per game in 1987-88 and 112.5 a year later, but that was just a warm-up for the 1989-90 team that averaged an NCAA-record 122.4 ppg.
For many of us kids on the playground at that time, it wasn’t Duke and Carolina, or Kentucky’s first and second teams that we wanted to be like. We wanted to be Hank and Bo, playing like Loyola, running up and down the court every second of the game.
Twenty-five years later, can still remember that night well, listening to an AM radio show on a Sunday night and a call-in interview with the late NBA superscout Marty Blake. The call was proceeding normally when Blake broke in, panicked, and told the audience that Gathers had collapsed again. While it was known the big man had collapsed before, the fear in Blake’s voice indicated this was a scarier deal. A couple hours later, Gathers was gone.
For us as kids who idolized him and his teams, as well as fans who had become Loyola Marymount fans because of their style of play, the loss of Gathers was a blow. It was a tragic end to one of the most prolific careers in the sport. A magical NCAA Tournament run to the Elite 8 by LMU without Gathers was effectively the end of the Loyola run as well, as Kimble, three-point bomber Jeff Fryer and coach Paul Westhead all departed after that year. Those teams, and that player. Many of us have missed them all ever since.
- Four conference tournaments were in action Wednesday. A contest that was a classic example of what March is about came in the NEC quarterfinals, where third-seeded Bryant got an off-balance three from Joe O’Shea just to send its game with No. 6 Sacred Heart to overtime, and the Bulldogs finally won in double OT, 91-85. Hoopville’s Phil Kasiecki was there for a dandy and has this report.
Elsewhere in the NEC, top seed St. Francis (N.Y.) got past rival LIU 79-70, No. 2 Robert Morris took care of Wagner 91-68 and No. 5 St. Francis (Pa.) knocked out defending champion and fourth seed Mount St. Mary’s 73-58. The semifinals on Saturday will feature the two St. Francis schools facing off as well as Robert Morris hosting Bryant.
- The top seeds all won in the America East quarterfinals, though third seed Stony Brook got a tussle from Binghamton before winning 62-57. The best game was the 4/5 matchup, where No. 4 New Hampshire came back to beat No. 5 Hartford in overtime. Outstanding year for the Wildcats, who won just six games all of last year but now are 19-11 heading into their semifinal at No. 1 Albany, which eliminated Maine 83-66. Stony Brook takes on No. 2 Vermont (a 66-39 winner over Maryland-Baltimore County on Wednesday) in the other semi.
- Minor upset in the Big South, where No. 9 Longwood defeated No. 8 Presbyterian 65-61. No. 6 UNC-Asheville (80-70 over Liberty) and No. 7 Gardner-Webb (72-64 winner over Campbell) also both advanced.
- The OVC has one of those awkward brackets with eight teams but the top two seeds getting byes to the semifinals. It started Wednesday with No. 5 Morehead State (79-74 over SE Missouri State) and No. 6 Eastern Illinois (78-66 over SIU-Edwardsville) both advancing.
- In regular season games, Notre Dame earned a notable road win and continued Louisville’s slide with a 71-59 win. Hard to say if this one says more about the Irish or the Cardinals at this point.
- LSU is a team committed to frustrating all who watch it. The Tigers hosted Tennessee on Wednesday and were defeated-handily. The Volunteers won 78-63, shooting nearly 70% in the second half. Against an undersized Tennessee team, there’s really no excuse for LSU to be out-rebounded.
- Tulsa looked like an NCAA tourney team in late January, but the Golden Hurricane just struggles to score too often, and it happened again Wednesday night in a 56-47 loss to Cincinnati where TU shot just 34% and was a hideous 4 of 13 from the foul line (Cincy wasn’t much better at 8-for-15). Another solid win for the Bearcats, while Tulsa just doesn’t have enough quality wins. This was a golden chance at home.
- Michigan State turned back Purdue 72-66 in a slugfest. Five players were injured at some point in the game, though all but MSU’s Branden Dawson returned. The Boilermakers are still fine for an NCAA tourney bid. Illinois may or may not be in the tourney, but the Illini didn’t hurt themselves with a 69-57 win over Nebraska.
- Miami (Fla.) is not there yet, but the Hurricanes did pick up a nice 67-63 win at Pittsburgh without point guard Angel Rodriguez, who was out with a wrist injury. At 19-12 overall, few true quality wins and 2-8 on the road, Pitt should be an NIT team.
- Pac-12 rivalry games saw Oregon edge Oregon State 65-62 in Corvallis while UCLA trimmed USC 85-74. The Bruins are locked into the 4 seed in the conference tourney, which sets up a possible semifinal with Arizona.
- Three of the top four teams in the Mountain West won on the road by varying margins. Boise State comfortably handled San Jose State 68-51, Colorado State defeated Nevada 78-62 and San Diego State won at UNLV 60-58. Utah State was the only team to lose, falling hard at Wyoming 76-53. What it means going into the final regular season games: Boise State and SDSU are tied for first at 12-5, while Colorado State a game back at 11-6.
- The NCAA announced that the top four seeds in the NIT’s eight-team sub-brackets will be the first four teams left out of the NCAA Tournament field. While it’s a fair idea that makes sense and doesn’t really hurt anything, the NIT continues to lose any separate identity that once had and assumes an exceedingly more corporate feel, which is typically what the NCAA prefers anyway, unfortunately.
- Conference tournament play kicks into full swing. Leagues in action include the Atlantic Sun, MAAC, Missouri Valley, OVC and Patriot League. Premier games include the Atlantic Sun semifinals, with top-seeded North Florida hosting No. 5 Lipscomb and a terrific matchup featuring No. 2 Florida Gulf Coast and No. 3 South Carolina Upstate. USC Upstate won both meetings earlier this year.
The Patriot League quarterfinals are on tap, and they should be quality in a league that was closely bunched all season. No. 1 Bucknell faces an 8 seed in Holy Cross that could easily outplay that seeding. The 3/6 matchup is excellent with No. 3 Lehigh hosting defending tourney champion American.
- The MAAC and MVC both play their first round games with three in the Metro Atlantic and two in the Vallley. Quinnipiac is a strong 6 seed in the MAAC and opens with Marist, while No. 7 St. Peter’s opens against No. 10 Fairfield and is coming off a win over top seed Iona. The OVC also is down to six teams and plays its second round games with No. 3 Belmont against Eastern Illinois and No. 4 Tennessee-Martin-one of the surprise teams of this season-against Morehead State.
- Temple can’t afford a slip-up at pesky East Carolina (7 p.m. EST, ESPNU). Unlike the last few years, bubble teams are not dropping one bad game after another down the stretch.
- Wisconsin has already clinched at least a share of the Big Ten title, but the Badgers’ games at Minnesota (7 p.m. EST, ESPN) are typically spirited.
- The second of two huge games in the Atlantic 10 this week has VCU at Davidson (9 p.m. EST, ESPNU). This one may be the difference-maker in the at-large resume for the Wildcats if they can win it.
- Memphis and Connecticut (9 p.m. EST, ESPN2) have been something of disappointments this year, but both also have the athletes to meet again late in the AAC tourney.
- UC Davis can wrap up the outright Big West regular season title if it can beat improved UC Riverside.
- Huge game in the Sun Belt, where Georgia State and Louisiana-Monroe are two of the three teams tied for first. The third team is Georgia Southern, which hosts Texas-Arlington.
- Sacramento State is closing in on the Big Sky regular season title. The Hornets can clinch at least a tie with a win at Southern Utah.
Have a terrific Thursday.