By Sam McPherson

It’s been almost 20 years now since the Santa Clara University men’s basketball team played in the NCAA Tournament, and that is kind of a crazy thought for those who remember that the Broncos were once the mighty dragon slayers of March Madness.

Yes, that’s right. Twice in four seasons, Santa Clara pulled off major first-round upsets in the Big Dance, and even though they never made it to the Sweet Sixteen to become true media darlings or even a Cinderella team, the Broncos always were worth watching in the NCAAs.

Santa Clara hasn’t won a West Coast Conference title since 1997, when the Broncos took the regular-season crown but failed to win the conference tournament and secure the automatic bid to the NCAAs. The last time Santa Clara was in the tournament was 1996, when it also won the regular-season WCC title before losing in the first game of the league tourney and still securing an at-large bid, anyway.

This season, the Broncos are just 13-17 as they head into a first-round conference tournament matchup against Loyola Marymount in Las Vegas on Friday. Santa Clara head coach Kerry Keating hasn’t been able to replicate the long-time success of his predecessor, Dick Davey. Barring a miraculous run to the WCC Tournament Championship, there will be no NCAA appearance again for the Broncos.

However, we should always remember where this program was in the early 1990s and what it spawned in terms of national exposure for the West Coast’s smaller basketball conference. In 1993, as the No. 15 seed in the West Region, the Broncos beat highly-ranked Arizona in the first round, 64-61.

(By the way, some then-unknown freshman point guard for Santa Clara scored 10 points and registered four assists in that game. You may know him now: Steve Nash.)

Those Broncos went just 9-5 in conference play that season to finish third before running off three straight wins in the league tournament to snag the NCAA invite. And they made it count: They weren’t the first 15-seed to win an NCAA Tournament game, but Santa Clara did ruin a lot of March Madness brackets that year, for sure.

We also cannot forget 1996, when Santa Clara pulled another first-round upset (albeit not such a dramatic one). As the No. 10 seed in the West Region, the Broncos beat then-Atlantic Coast Conference power Maryland in their opening NCAA game by double digits in a game that wasn’t even close. Nash, now a senior, tossed in 28 points and 12 assists to cement himself as a ready-for-the-NBA star in the making.

As noted, neither time did Santa Clara advance to the Sweet Sixteen. In 1993, Temple beat the Broncos in the second round, and in 1996, it was No. 2 seed Kansas that ended Santa Clara’s dreams. But Nash helped put the school on the map for a few years of glorious fun, and Bay Area basketball fans can never forget those Broncos.

This year’s Santa Clara squad probably won’t be remembered, but that’s okay. The Broncos did beat local rival St. Mary’s in their final regular-season game on Saturday, and maybe that will be the highlight of their season. After all, the Gaels are 21-8 and vying for their own NCAA bid this season.

It’s always good to have a past, however, and Santa Clara definitely has that going for it as the team tries to rebuild for the future.

Sam McPherson is a freelance writer covering all things Oakland A’s. His work can be found on Examiner.com.

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