By Sam McPherson
Bay Area men’s college basketball has a very rich tradition on the national scene, even if no school in the Bay Area has made the Final Four in almost 20 years. That’s because—believe it or not—three different universities in the greater San Francisco metropolitan area have won four NCAA Tournament championships since the onset of the current title-awarding process in 1939.
Yes, you can read that again if you’re new to the college basketball scene, because it is true. What follows below is merely an attempt to organize the best men’s college basketball teams this area has seen into a Top 10 list, because to understand the present you must grasp the past.
To make this list, a school generally had to qualify for the Final Four—no matter what era or format the NCAA Tournament took in that year. Nine different local university teams hold this distinction, filling up our Top 10 pretty quickly. The tenth team may surprise you, but it really should not, considering its star power.
That being said, here we go with the Top 10 Bay Area men’s college basketball teams ever.
- #10: The 1992-93 California Golden Bears only went 21-9, but the team featured the second-best basketball player to ever come out of the Bay Area (Jason Kidd). Cal upset two-time defending national champion Duke in the second round of the NCAA Tournament to make the Sweet Sixteen for the first time since 1960. This team also featured Lamond Murray, who enjoyed a 13-year NBA career himself.
- #9: The 1951-52 Santa Clara Broncos make this list because although they only posted a 17-12 overall record, they made the Final Four after kicking off their NCAA Tournament run with a win over UCLA in the West Region semifinals. The Bruins were coached by some guy you may have heard of: John Wooden. That alone warrants inclusion on this list, in truth.
- #8: The 1956-57 San Francisco Dons were the two-time defending national champions, but the roster was very different from the ones that won it all. Nevertheless, the Dons still finished first in the West Coast Conference and made the Final Four. There, USF lost to Kansas by 24 points before recovering to beat Michigan State in the NCAA’s third-place game (something no longer played today). The Dons’ 21-7 record was a solid encore to the team’s previous two seasons.
- #7: The 1945-46 California Golden Bears posted a 30-6 record and only had to win one NCAA Tournament game to reach the Final Four. Cal promptly lost two straight there, losing to eventual champ Oklahoma State by 17 points in the semifinal. In the third-place game, the Bears lost by 18 points to Ohio State.
- #6: The 1997-98 Stanford Cardinal were a very good team, posting an overall 30-5 mark on their way to the school’s first Final Four appearance since 1942. Stanford got there unexpectedly after finishing second in the Pac-10: The Cardinal upset Purdue in the Sweet Sixteen before falling behind No. 8-seed Rhode Island in the Midwest Regional Final. But Stanford overcame a six-point deficit in the final minute of the game to win and make the Final Four (see Mark Madsen’s early dance moves that later made him famous with the Los Angeles Lakers right here). The Cardinal then pushed eventual NCAA champ Kentucky to the limit in the National Semifinal before losing by a point.
- #5: The 1959-60 California Golden Bears were the defending national champions, and they fought all the way back to the title game against Ohio State where they lost by 20 points. But Cal posted a 28-2 mark and had nothing to be ashamed of, as the Buckeyes were in the first of three straight NCAA title games. The Bears did beat top-ranked Cincinnati in the National Semifinal, and those Bearcats were the second of five straight Final Four teams. That Final Four may have been one of the toughest collections of teams in history, in fact.
- #4: The 1941-42 Stanford Cardinal won the NCAA championship, even though they really didn’t have a Final Four as we know it now. The Cardinal finished 28-4 and beat Dartmouth in the title game by 15 points. Stanford won the West Regional with wins over Rice and Colorado. This was so long ago, the Cardinal were champs of the Pacific Coast Conference (and the University of Idaho was a member!).
- #3: The 1958-59 California Golden Bears won the NCAA Tournament with Final Four victories over Cincinnati (see above) in the semifinals by six points and West Virginia in the title game by one point, respectively. The Pete Newell-coached Bears also beat local rival St. Mary’s College in the West Regional Final by 20 points on their way to a 28-4 overall record. Cal’s season included first place in the PCC, too.
- #2: The 1954-55 San Francisco Dons won their first of two consecutive NCAA titles, posting a 28-1 record. Their closest tournament scrape was a one-point victory over Oregon State in the West Regional Final. The Dons won their other four NCAA Tournament games by a combined 66 points. Star Bill Russell averaged 21.4 points and 20.5 rebounds per game.
- #1: The 1955-56 San Francisco Dons and Russell defended their title successfully and went a perfect 29-0 in the process. They beat Wooden and UCLA in their first NCAA Tournament game, and then USF rolled Utah, Southern Methodist University and Iowa by an average of 15 points each. It’s very difficult to top perfection, obviously.
It’s hard to argue with the top selection, really, especially considering what was to come in Russell’s NBA career both as a player and a coach. He has no peer in terms of Bay Area college basketball legend status, and that’s why Russell and his USF teammates are at the top of this exclusive list—they won back-to-back titles, and the Dons posted a perfect season.
It will be a long time before any Bay Area men’s college basketball team tops these USF accomplishments.
Sam McPherson is a freelance writer covering all things Oakland A’s. His work can be found on Examiner.com.