In the rafters of the Don Haskins Center in El Paso flies the only NCAA men’s Division I basketball national championship banner in the state of Texas, commemorating the historic season as the first all-black starting five to win a title.
It’s been there since 1966 and rare has been the occasion when another Texas team came close to joining that club, which has had just one member for more than 50 years.
So, while this year’s Final Four teams come into San Antonio to play for a championship, it’s worth reflecting on who isn’t here, and that’s any team that could come close to calling this a home game.
The absence of Texas teams winning titles does feel a little bit odd. But if you told most sports fans that little bit of trivia, they’d pause to reflect, and then they’d nod slowly in a “that makes sense” kind of way.
It’s not as jarring as a basketball state like Illinois having just one title to its name in the form of Loyola-Chicago (in SA for the Final Four this year) way back in 1963.
The top three sports in Texas are high school football, college football, and pro football with college basketball way down the list, but it’s still a big state with a solid basketball culture.
Basketball-Reference.com lists 35 active players in the NBA born in the state of Texas including LaMarcus Aldridge, Jimmy Butler, Avery Bradley, and DeAndre Jordan. Other greats from the past were also born and raised from the Lone Star State like Larry Johnson, Stephen Jackson, TJ Ford, and Spud Webb.
The Longhorns are a major recruiting powerhouse, churning out lots of NBA players. And they’re part of a Big 12 Conference that features major college programs Baylor, TCU, and Tech as well.
The longer the Lone Star State goes without another championship, the weirder the drought becomes.
Texas Tech came close to the Final Four this year. Even as a No. 3 seed, not many expected the Red Raiders to get to the Elite 8 before bowing out to defending champion Villanova.
The last time a Texas team came that close was the 2008 Texas Longhorns. That squad felt like a team of destiny. The Sweet 16 and Elite 8 were in Houston and the Final Four was in San Antonio. Even as the No. 2 seed, most felt that virtual home games to win the title could vault the Longhorns to the promised land. But they didn’t even get to the Final Four as they were bounced by Memphis in the regional final.
In all, only five Texas teams have ever played in the Final Four: Texas Western (UTEP), Texas, Houston, SMU, and Baylor.
SMU and Baylor’s trips preceded the 1966 championship season.
The Longhorns got to the Final Four twice in the 1940’s, in 1943 and 1947. But in those years, there were only eight teams in the tournament.
That goes for Baylor’s trip as well in 1950. By the time SMU made its run in 1956, the tournament had expanded to 25 teams.
In the two years following Texas Western’s title, Houston advanced to the Final Four each year.
In the modern era, the Cougars have had the most cracks at winning it all, notably with the Phi Slama Jama teams featuring Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler. They made the Final Four in 1982, 1983, and 1984, playing in the national championship game in the final two years of their run.
Sadly, the closest they got to the title was in 1983, when North Carolina State pulled one of the greatest upsets in NCAA Tournament history with the greatest finish on top of that to steal the title away.
To their credit, the Cougars got back to the championship game the following year, but they lost to Georgetown 84-75.
The last Texas team to reach the Final Four was the Longhorns. Coincidentally, they played their Sweet 16 and Elite 8 games in San Antonio to get there.
The Longhorns lost in the national semifinal to eventual champion Syracuse, led by Carmelo Anthony.
When I worked as a sportscaster in El Paso, I heard of a legend that no Texas team could ever win a national championship until Don Haskins died. But even after his death in 2008, the Curse of the Bear lives on.