This will be a special series in the worst teams of all time, dedicated to college basketball teams who flamed out in the NCAA tournament. These teams for the most part had quality regular seasons, but crashed come tournament time. Only teams that were seeded 1, 2, 15 and 16 will be included in this special series.
There’s a first for everything. Sometimes being first is a good thing. First man on the moon. First person to cross the finish line in the 100 metres. First championship title. Those are good firsts.
Then there are the bad firsts. Such as the first number 2 seed to lose to a number 15 seed in the NCAA Tournament. The 1991 Syracuse Orangemen are the shameful holders of that dubious distinction.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way for Jim Boeheim’s crew. Syracuse was ranked 13th in the AP poll when the season began, with some experts picking the Orangemen to win the Big East, and a possible Final Four appearance.
The talent on the court was solid as well. Forward Billy Owens was projected as a top 10 pick in the upcoming NBA draft. Power forward LeRon Ellis was a rising star with great potential. Shooting guard Dave Johnson was a streaky shooter who could light it up from downtown, when he was on his game.
The Orangemen had positioned themselves to be top contenders in the 1990-91 season. Instead they will go down in infamy.
Firstly, there were off-court incidents that damaged the image of the university. Owens was alleged to have assault a Syracuse man after the victim threw a snowball at Owens car. Owens was not arrested and the man did not press charges.
Johnson was part of a police probe for sexual misconduct of a 14-year-old girl. No charges were laid but suspicion took its toll.
Point guard Adrien Autry was charged with harassing and punching his ex-girlfriend. Charges were later dropped due to a lack of evidence.
Finally, the program itself was under investigation for recruiting violations by the NCAA. Syracuse was eventually put on probation in 1992, banning them from postseason play for two years.
The regular season saw Syracuse overcome those obstacles, as they recorded a solid 26-6 record, including a season sweep of bitter rivals Georgetown gave Syracuse the Big East regular season title. Owens in particular was having an outstanding season, finishing second in the conference in scoring, averaging 23.3 points per game.
Syracuse won the regular season Big East crown and were the top seed in the Big East tournament in New York. If Syracuse would have won, or at least reached the finals of the conference tournament, they would have been assured a number one seed in the upcoming NCAA tournament.
But warning signs of the Orangemen’s impeding doom were imminent. Syracuse drew Villanova in the opening game in the Big East tourney, and were expected to win rather handily. But the Wildcats were desperate as they needed a win just to be a part of March Madness. Syracuse took them lightly, and Villanova responded to being disrespected by shocking the Orange 70-68, thus knocking Syracuse out of the Big East tournament. That loss dropped Syracuse to a number two seed in the tournament.
The Orange were set to travel to College Park, Maryland on the campus of the University of Maryland, where they were set to face Richmond in the first round. Cole Field House was a venue where history had been made on numerous occasions. No other basketball arena has seen more top ranked teams fall to defeat than Cole Field House. This included Texas Western’s all black starting five knocking off the number one ranked Kentucky Wildcats all white starting five, in the 1966 NCAA Championship game. Syracuse also made history at Cole Field House, but for the wrong reasons.
Coming into the 1991 NCAA tournament, no number 2 seed had lost to a number 15 seed. Syracuse came into the game as massive favourites and were expected to squish the Spiders of Richmond. But the Spiders weaved a tangled web against the Orange, frustrating Syracuse at every turn. The neutrals at Cole Field House began cheering for Richmond as the game progressed, sensing a major upset was brewing. The Spiders held a 44-36 lead at halftime, but knew Syracuse would come out storming in the second half. But Richmond held firm keeping Syracuse at bay for the most part. The Orange tried everything but just couldn’t overtake the Spiders. Despite Owens scoring a game high 22 points, Richmond shocked Syracuse 73-69, becoming the first number 15 seed to advance in the NCAA tournament.
There were three reasons why Syracuse lost this game. Richmond shot 49% from the field, consistently beating Syracuse’s vaunted zone defense. The Orange only shot 45.5% from the field. The charity stripe was kinder to Richmond, as they hit 81.8% from the free throw line, compared to Syracuse hitting 73.7% of their free throws. Finally, Richmond’s bench outscored Syracuse’s subs 18-3, showing the lack of depth that hurt Syracuse in the long run.
The failings of the Syracuse players continued at the NBA level. Billy Owens was drafted third overall by the Sacramento Kings in the 1991 draft. However, Owens held out demanding more money. The Kings decided that he wasn’t worth the headache, so they shipped him to Golden State for shooting guard Mitch Richmond. Owens was expected to give Golden State some size and rebounding while playing alongside Chris Mullin and Tim Hardaway. While Owens did put up decent numbers with the Warriors, his pouting to go with his knee injuries hurt Golden State down the road. The Warriors went from contenders to pretenders during Owens tenure. After spending time with Miami, Sacramento, Seattle, Philadelphia, a second turn at Golden State and finally Detroit, before retiring in 2001, never living up to his full potential.
LeRon Ellis was taken 22nd overall by the Los Angeles Clippers in the 1991 draft. His career was not what you call memorable. Ellis played 29 games for the Clippers in his rookie year, before heading to Italy where he spent the 1992-93 season. Ellis returned to the NBA in time for the 1993-94 season where he played for the Charlotte Hornets. After 50 games with the Hornets, Ellis went to Spain to continue his “storied” basketball journey. Ellis had one last crack in the NBA, as he signed with the Miami Heat during the 1995-96 season. After 12 games, Ellis disappeared into the world of obscure NBA players where many exist, but few are remembered.
Dave Johnson was drafted 26th overall by the Portland Trailblazers in the 1992 draft. He spent one year in Portland before being released. Johnson signed with the Chicago Bulls, where he appeared in 17 games before departing to parts unknown.
The 1991 Syracuse Orangemen. A legacy that no one wants to have.
You can follow me on Twitter @jstar1973