The men’s college basketball offseason offers an opportunity not only to reflect on the previous season, but to look back at nostalgic moments in the game’s history. But sometimes those conversations are complicated by a boundless time frame. How can one compare players or teams from the 1980s to players or teams from the past few years? The game has changed — dramatically — and that makes it difficult to have any fruitful conversations.
Which is why we’ve decided to launch a series that focuses only on the past 25 years of men’s college basketball. Any team, player, coach or moment that was part of the sport between the 1998-99 and 2022-23 seasons is eligible. The rest? That’s someone else’s problem.
For this second installment of the series, we’ve compiled a list of the most significant “What if?” moments in college basketball over the past 25 years.
For some schools, an injury changed a season or even the entire program. For others, it was a missed — or a made — shot or a decision made by a high-profile recruit.
Either way, all fan bases know the pain of the “What if?” game. But we’re not here to just bring up bad memories. We’re here to help you heal. Here are the top moments that could have changed the sport for better, or worse, in the past 25 seasons.
Sure, the NBA’s all-time leading scorer had every reason to pick the pros over college in 2003, but last year he told Diana Taurasi and Sue Bird on “The Bird & Taurasi Show” that he would have picked North Carolina or Duke (if he couldn’t pick his beloved Ohio State) had he decided not to turn pro. Could you imagine James during that 2003-04 season? He would have either played next to J.J. Redick, Duke’s all-time leading scorer, or boosted the core of a Tar Heels squad that won a national title a year later. Whew.
… Gordon Hayward had hit the game winner against Duke in the 2010 national title game
There is possibly no greater “What if?” moment than the sight of the former Butler star nearly connecting on a half-court winner at the end of regulation in the 2010 national title game against Duke, only for it to clank off the front of the rim. If he’d made the go-ahead jump shot, Butler would have completed the game’s first true David-over-Goliath victory in the national championship and changed the history of the sport.
… Steph Curry had taken the last shot against Kansas in the 2008 Elite Eight
With seconds left to play in Davidson‘s 59-57 loss, Curry passed on a contested 3-pointer and instead dished to teammate Jason Richards, who missed the potential winning 3. If Curry had taken and made that shot (he was 4-for-16 from beyond the arc that night) against the eventual NCAA champion, he might have decided to turn pro that year, instead of the following year, and been drafted by a team not named the Golden State Warriors.
… Kenyon Martin had been healthy for the 2000 NCAA tournament
Martin was averaging 18.9 PPG, 9.7 RPG and 3.5 BPG when he suffered a broken leg during the Conference USA tournament quarterfinals in 2000, an injury that cost Cincinnati a top seed in the tournament and a shot at the program’s third national title. The Bearcats got outrebounded in a loss to Tulsa in the second round, leaving their fans to wonder how a healthy Martin would have changed their fortunes that year.
… Refs had properly called the foul, instead of a travel, against Allan Ray in the 2006 Sweet 16 against UNC
After his team’s miraculous comeback in the final minutes of the game, and down 66-63, the former Villanova star drove to the basket and scored, after it appeared he’d also been fouled. Instead of giving Ray the bucket and the free throw — a chance to tie the score with 10 seconds to play — officials called a traveling violation, clearing the way for the Tar Heels to eventually win it all. All video evidence, however, shows Ray taking just two steps.
… Kendall Marshall hadn’t broken his wrist during the 2012 NCAA tournament
Everything changed for North Carolina when its star point guard suffered a season-ending wrist injury during a double-digit win over Creighton in the second round. The Tar Heels lost to Kansas in the Elite Eight, never getting a chance at a rematch against eventual champ Kentucky — which beat UNC by a point earlier in the season.
… Memphis hadn’t gone cold from the free throw line in the 2008 national title game
Before Mario Chalmers hit the magical trey that sent the Kansas-Memphis national title matchup to overtime in 2008, Memphis couldn’t find a way to make a free throw. The Tigers missed four of five in the final 75 seconds of regulation before losing in overtime.
… Brandon Ashley had been healthy in 2014
The Arizona star was averaging 11.5 PPG and 5.8 RPG when he suffered a season-ending foot injury on Feb. 1, 2014, during an upset loss at Cal. Would he have been a factor in helping Arizona — also featuring future pros Aaron Gordon, Nick Johnson, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and T.J. McConnell — beat Wisconsin in the Elite Eight, to reach the Final Four? We’ll never know.
… Roy Williams had stayed at Kansas
After Kansas’ 81-78 loss to Syracuse in the 2003 national title game, Williams said “I could give a s— about North Carolina right now” when asked about the possibility of leaving the Jayhawks for the Tar Heels. Clearly conflicted about the opportunity to return to his alma mater, Williams ultimately chose UNC, and Kansas hired Bill Self — two significant moves that have resulted in multiple national titles for both programs.
… Officials had called a shot clock violation against Wisconsin in the 2015 Final Four
With 2:41 to play in Kentucky’s 71-64 loss to Wisconsin, Badgers star Nigel Hayes scored on a putback that appeared to find the rim after the shot clock had hit zero. Although officiating had been criticized throughout the contest — see: the no-call when Trey Lyles smacked Wisconsin’s Josh Gasser earlier in the game — Hayes’ bucket tied the score at 60 and Kentucky never regained the lead.
… Robbie Hummel had been healthy for the 2010 postseason
During the 2009-10 season, Purdue stars Robbie Hummel (15.7 PPG), E’Twaun Moore (16.4 PPG) and JaJuan Johnson (15.5 PPG) formed the strongest trio in the Big Ten and college basketball. That is until Hummel suffered a season-ending ACL tear a month before the NCAA tournament, which dashed Purdue’s national title hopes and ended one of the most promising seasons in the school’s men’s basketball history.
… Billy Donovan had taken the Orlando Magic job in 2007
Two months after he led Florida to its second consecutive national championship, Donovan accepted the NBA job, before changing his mind a few days later and returning to Gainesville. Over the next eight seasons, Donovan would capture three SEC regular season titles, three SEC Coach of the Year honors, three more Elite Eight appearances and another trip to the Final Four in 2014 before he left for the NBA.
… John Wall had picked North Carolina
Earlier this year, the former NBA All-Star told the “Run Your Race” podcast that he considered signing with North Carolina over Kentucky for college until a negative encounter with Tar Heels legend Tyler Hansbrough made him change his mind. Hansbrough refuted Wall’s claims, but whatever the reason, John Calipari’s trajectory at Kentucky would have been very different without Wall, who averaged 16.6 PPG during his single season in Lexington and helped the Wildcats reach the Elite Eight that year.
… Fab Melo had been eligible for the 2012 NCAA tournament
In the 30 games that the late Fab Melo (7.8 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 2.9 BPG) played during the 2011-12 season, Syracuse was undefeated. The Orange’s three losses that season — including a loss to Ohio State in the Elite Eight — were without Melo, who had been suspended due to academic issues. Syracuse fans will never know how far their team might have gone that year if Melo had been available (that season’s wins were also later vacated by the NCAA due to an academic investigation).
… Jodie Meeks had stayed and played for John Calipari’s first Kentucky team
Meeks turned pro after averaging 23.7 PPG for Kentucky in the 2008-09 season and secured second team All-American honors. Meeks made $30 million in the NBA, but a return to Kentucky for his senior season would have given Calipari’s original Kentucky team the sharpshooter (Meeks made 41% of his 3-point attempts in the 2008-09 season) it desperately needed and a potential catalyst for a national championship run.
… UConn hadn’t been a 9.5-point underdog against Duke in the 1999 national title game
The Blue Devils had won 32 consecutive games when they entered this national title matchup as nearly double-digit favorites to cut down the nets. The massive spread — along with chatter Huskies players heard about local outlets selling national championship gear for Duke even before the game began — served as motivation for a UConn team that pulled off one of the greatest upsets in college basketball history to capture the 1999 national title.
… Wichita State had been given a better draw in the 2014 NCAA tournament
An undefeated Wichita State team (34-0) was rewarded on Selection Sunday with a second-round matchup against a Kentucky team stacked with NBA talent. Shockers fans thought the committee’s decision was punishment for its non-Power 5 schedule. After defeating WSU 78-76, Kentucky would reach the Final Four.
Gonzaga led by 17 late in the first half and by 14 midway through the second. But UCLA’s comeback — coined “Heartbreak City” — robbed the Bulldogs of a trip to the Elite Eight that might have elevated Mark Few’s profile and prompted him to consider other coaching opportunities earlier in his career.
… Brandon Davies had been allowed to play in the 2011 NCAA tournament
The BYU standout (11.1 PPG, 6.2 RPG in 2010-11) was ruled ineligible by the school for an “honor code” violation on the same day that the program was ranked No. 3 in The Associated Press poll, a few weeks before the tournament. Jimmer Fredette and Co. finished the rest of the season 5-3, a stretch that included an 83-74 overtime loss to Florida in the Sweet 16.
… Samir Doughty hadn’t been called for a foul against Kyle Guy in the 2019 Final Four
As Auburn led 62-60 with 0.6 seconds on the clock, Doughty put his hands up, stepped forward and made slight contact with Guy behind the line. Officials called a foul, the Virginia star hit all three free throws, and the Tigers lost their chance to play in the national title game, in one of the most controversial developments in NCAA tournament history.
… Bill Self had not missed the 2023 NCAA tournament
The longtime Kansas head coach had led his team to a 9-2 finish in its last 11 games of the regular season and a top-five finish in the AP poll. Kansas seemed positioned to vie for its second consecutive national championship until Self’s health challenges sidelined him for both the Big 12 and the NCAA tournaments, where the Jayhawks lost to Arkansas 72-71 in the second round.
… The NCAA had held a 2020 NCAA tournament
The challenges around COVID-19 impacted multiple seasons in college basketball, but the elimination of the 2020 NCAA tournament created an unprecedented moment in college basketball history. Teams such as Kansas, Gonzaga, Baylor, Dayton (which ended its season on a 20-game winning streak) and other contenders that year have all been left to wonder what would have happened if COVID hadn’t cost the sport its postseason tournament.
… Jon Scheyer had gone to Illinois
Long before he was a second-team All-American who led the Blue Devils to the 2010 national championship and then their head coach, Scheyer was a five-star prospect from Illinois who considered staying home. Although then-Illinois head coach Bruce Weber’s brother was Scheyer’s head coach in high school, the talented guard chose to play for Coach K, a decision that might have helped Illinois avoid a lukewarm chapter after its 2005 national title game appearance.
… The NBA’s age limit hadn’t compelled players to go to college
In 2005, the league announced it would require all draftees to be 19 years old and one year removed from high school — a change that helped create the one-and-done era that exists. Without the rule, players like Kevin Durant, Derrick Rose, Anthony Davis and Zion Williamson might have never played college basketball.
… Aubrey Dawkins’ putback had gone in versus Duke in the 2019 NCAA tournament
Zion Williamson and the 2018-19 Duke team nearly missed the NCAA tournament’s second weekend when the UCF star who finished with 32 points, nearly scored on a winning putback with 2.1 seconds left, allowing Duke to record a 77-76 victory. Had Dawkins completed the game-winner and led his father’s current team to a win over his alma mater — Johnny Dawkins was a star at Duke in the 1980s — it would have been one of the most magical moments in NCAA tournament history.