Australia markets closed

Twenty years later, Kenyon Martin's injury remains college basketball's biggest 'what if'

As Michigan State players mobbed each other in jubilation after capturing the 2000 national title, Steve Logan kept torturing himself with the same agonizing thought.

The Cincinnati sophomore believed that it should have been him and his teammates donning commemorative caps and T-shirts, and schmoozing with Jim Nantz and Billy Packer during the trophy presentation.

For the previous two hours, Logan had studied Michigan State from his sofa as though he were scouting an upcoming opponent. He tried to envision what the matchups would have been if the Spartans and Bearcats had met for the national title.

Logan came away more certain than ever that Cincinnati had been college basketball’s best team that season before everything changed in a freakish instant. Kenyon Martin broke his right leg days before the start of the NCAA tournament, robbing the Bearcats of the nation’s most dominant player and dooming their hopes of winning the program’s first championship since its 1960s heyday.

“No disrespect to Mateen Cleaves, MoPete [Morris Peterson] and those guys, but they didn’t have enough to beat us, man,” Logan said. “They didn’t. That was our championship. Our team my sophomore year was the best team I've ever been on in my life.”

Twenty years have passed since Martin’s injury waylaid Cincinnati, yet how far the future No. 1 overall pick could have taken the Bearcats remains one of college basketball’s biggest what-ifs. It’s the college hoops equivalent of injuries to Greg Oden and Brandon Roy quashing a potential Portland Trail Blazers dynasty or the 1994 Major League Baseball strike annihilating the Montreal Expos’ best shot at a World Series run.

Cincinnati Bearcats' Kenyon Martin (R) fights pressure from Saint Louis Billikens' Chris Heinrich (L) as he looks for the open shot during the first half of play March 4 at the Shoemaker Center in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Reuters)

Cincinnati was 28-2 and ranked No. 1 in the country when Martin went down during the opening minutes of the Conference USA quarterfinals. Only four of the Bearcats’ victories had come by fewer than 10 points and only one had come by fewer than seven.

Predictive metrics corroborate that a healthy Cincinnati was elite. According to data provided by Ken Pomeroy, the Bearcats finished the regular season as the nation’s second-best team, a tick behind Stanford but well ahead of the rest of the top five of Michigan State, Duke and Temple.

[Yahoo Fantasy: Enter the free Tourney Pick'em $25K Best Bracket Contest]

Ask any Cincinnati player or coach if they believe the Bearcats would have won the title if Martin doesn’t get hurt, and their confidence may surprise you.

“No doubt, whatsoever,” former Cincinnati coach Bob Huggins said.

“We feel strongly that we win that championship,” former Cincinnati guard DerMarr Johnson said.

Added then-Cincinnati assistant Mick Cronin: “You’ve gotta remember we had a guy that wasn’t going to let us lose.”

How good were Martin and Cincinnati?

Cincinnati’s quest to win the 2000 national championship began with a pivotal meeting the previous spring. Martin, a projected late first-round pick in the 1999 NBA draft, sought Huggins’ advice on whether to turn pro right then or return to Cincinnati to try to improve his stock with a dominant senior season. 

“What do you think I should do?” Martin asked. 

“If you come back to school, I think you’ll be the No. 1 pick in the draft next year,” Huggins told him. 

Although Martin had already established himself as a powerful leaper, dominant rebounder and intimidating defensive presence, Huggins believed the rising senior was capable of doing more. The Cincinnati coach envisioned playing through Martin on offense the following season instead of just having him set picks, reverse the ball and crash the glass. 

Martin gained the confidence that he could be a go-to scorer that summer while leading the U.S. team to a gold medal at the World University Games in Spain. On an American team made up of a dozen of the nation’s top college players, Martin emerged as the star of stars, averaging a team-high 20 points per game in medal-round wins over Canada, Spain and Yugoslavia.

“He had always been this raw, athletic, tough defender and shot blocker, but with us he got to take on new responsibilities and he flourished,” said former Gonzaga guard Matt Santangelo, one of Martin’s roommates in Spain. “It was eye-opening for him. I think he realized, ‘I’m not the Kenyon Martin of two years ago anymore.’ ”

Anytime Martin reverted to old habits during practice before his senior season, Cincinnati coaches reminded him they needed him to be more selfish. Cronin, then a young assistant under Huggins, resorted to punishing Martin if he passed up a chance to score.

“You can’t make me run for that!” Martin would say.

“No, you’re not allowed to pass it unless you’re double-teamed,” Cronin would tell him.

Cincinnati's Kenny Satterfield (L) listens to Kenyon Martin during a game against the UNC Tar Heels. (Credit: Jonathan Daniel/Allsport)

The rewiring of Martin’s mindset eventually clicked and he blossomed into the dominant scorer Huggins hoped he could be. That elevated Cincinnati from a defensive-oriented top-15 team to a favorite to win the national title.

Surrounding Martin that season were four other key returners from the previous year’s 27-win team: All-conference small forward Pete Mickeal, Logan, a promising point guard, and big men Jermaine Tate and Ryan Fletcher. Cincinnati also addressed its holes in the backcourt with a loaded recruiting class featuring future lottery pick DerMarr Johnson, fellow McDonald's All-American Kenny Satterfield and New York’s Mr. Basketball Leonard Stokes.

Though Cincinnati’s rotation included five future NBA draft picks and a couple other guys who went on to play pro basketball, Huggins refused to allow the Bearcats to coast on talent alone. He challenged them to play with the same hunger, fury and desperation as his earlier teams loaded with junior college prospects, undervalued recruits and transfers in need of a second chance.

Mickeal’s first glimpse of the effort Huggins demanded from his players came during a recruiting visit in 1998. The national junior college player of the year peeked in the gym and saw Martin, Melvin Levett and Ruben Patterson puking in trash cans in between sets of four-minute sprints.

For Stokes, the work ethic required to play for Cincinnati became clear during the first day of weight lifting his freshman year. The slender 180-pound guard’s jaw nearly hit the floor when his broad-shouldered veteran teammates effortlessly bench pressed up to 300 pounds.

“Practices were so competitive that the trainers were always breaking up scuffles,” Logan said. “At times, it was brutal. If you weren’t taking care of your body, you were in trouble.”

Cincinnati’s swagger, reception

Cincinnati ascended to No. 1 in the AP Top 25 by the second week of the 1999-2000 season and mostly remained there until March. The Bearcats proved themselves worthy of their ranking early that season by outlasting Gonzaga, manhandling North Carolina and throttling Oklahoma.

The big, brash Bearcats and their surly, scowling coach were already an intimidating pairing, but being one of the first programs to partner with Jordan Brand only added to their swagger. Cincinnati would arrive at the arena in matching black Jordan Brand jumpsuits and burst out of the tunnel in its iconic wide-shouldered jerseys with the chunky block stripes down the sides. 

Doubt would begin to creep into the minds of overmatched opponents at the sight of the long, athletic Bearcats. Then Martin would add to it early in the game, sneering at opponents to not even bother venturing into the paint and then backing that up by swatting a layup attempt into the third row.

“People were literally scared of us from the tip,” Johnson said. “A lot of that had to do with the fear Kenyon put in people. He was a total monster.”

At a time when Cincinnati had been cast as the villain of college basketball, the Bearcats’ dominance only fanned the flames. Opposing fans showered them with boos, obscenities and insults, much of which targeted Huggins’ high-voltage outbursts and low graduation rates, or the arrests of a handful of former Cincinnati players.

Stokes recalls fans taunting the Bearcats by calling them “Criminatti” and dressing as a chain gang. A “Huggs’ Thugs” sign at UNC Charlotte remains emblazoned in Mickeal’s mind.

“They’d say we were jailbirds or we didn’t go to class,” Logan said. “We’d be looking at each other like, ‘Where are they getting this stuff from? Why are they portraying us like that?’ All that stuff was false, but we looked at it as motivation. It was fuel for us to beat you and beat you bad.”

As Cincinnati tore through Conference USA with startling ease, the opponent Huggins seemed to fear most was complacency. He’d scour the film of a 20-point win for a missed box-out or defensive rotation and highlight it as proof the Bearcats should’ve won by 30.

Not until late February was Cincinnati at last truly tested. 

Not only did 13th-ranked Temple come to the Shoemaker Center and hand the Bearcats their second loss of the season, the defeat set off an explosive nose-to-nose confrontation between Mickeal and Huggins. The senior forward took great pride in his defense and felt unfairly targeted when Huggins called him out for surrendering 22 second-half points to Temple’s Mark Karcher.

With Mickeal still suspended 10 days later and unable to help lock down DePaul star Quentin Richardson, Cincinnati fell behind the rival Blue Demons by as many as 17 and still trailed by 10 with just under four minutes to play. It was then that Huggins gathered his team during a timeout and threatened to bench anyone who hoisted a shot before Martin touched the ball at least once.

In the next three minutes and 46 seconds, Martin cemented himself as college basketball’s player of the year with a one-man tour de force that left Dick Vitale hyperventilating at the broadcast table. Martin scored 10 of his 33 points during that stretch, blocked a pair of shots and assisted on Johnson’s go-ahead pull-up jumper with 2.6 seconds left.

“Kenyon just took over the game in every way,” Huggins said. “He was a man among boys out there.”

Across the city of Cincinnati, the marvelous comeback reinforced the burgeoning sentiment that this might be the Bearcats’ year. Little did anyone know that only a week later Martin would have a cast on his right leg and require a wheelchair to move around. 

Kenyon Martin goes down

The injury that shook college basketball occurred three minutes into an innocuous Conference USA quarterfinal in Memphis. Martin bumped into Saint Louis guard Justin Love as he went to set a screen, sending him sprawling to the floor and grotesquely twisting his right foot underneath him. 

Medical personnel rushed to Martin’s side as he tearfully writhed in pain, his fibula broken and several ligaments torn. A pro-Cincinnati crowd fell silent, save for a traumatized ripple of gasps when the scoreboard showed the replay. 

“I’ve been in arenas where there were terrible injuries and people were hushed, but never like that,” said Dan Hoard, then a sports anchor for the Fox affiliate in Cincinnati and now the radio voice of the Bearcats. “You could hear Kenyon screaming, and once you heard that, you didn’t hear anything else.”

As Huggins knelt beside Martin, he worried that he made a mistake the previous spring advising the senior-to-be to bypass NBA riches and return to Cincinnati. Martin eased his coach’s fears by making it clear that not being able to deliver Huggins’ first national championship was more disappointing than any potential damage to his draft stock.

Recalled Huggins, “All he kept saying was, ‘I wanted to win this for you. I wanted to win this for you.’ ”

Cincinnati had demolished Saint Louis by 43 points on senior night only five days earlier, but the shell-shocked, shaken Bearcats lost the rematch 68-58. The outcome seemed trivial after Huggins updated his players about Martin’s condition at halftime. Reality further sunk in midway through the second half when Cincinnati’s leader returned to the bench in a wheelchair to support his teammates.

“After they gave us the news, a couple of us were crying,” Logan said. “I wasn’t worried about the game. I wasn’t worried about the season. All I was worried about was if my brother was OK.”

It didn’t get any easier for Cincinnati to focus on basketball when the team returned home from Memphis that night. Banners popped up throughout the grief-stricken city of Cincinnati thanking Martin for the memories or wishing him a speedy recovery. 

Sensing the emotional toll that Martin’s injury had taken on his players and the community, Huggins devised a wild plan to lift everyone’s spirits. He called Hoard the morning of Selection Sunday and asked the sports anchor, “If I pop out of a coffin, do you guys want to use it on your show tonight?”

Once Hoard realized that Huggins was serious, he scrambled to find a coffin and he recruited three colleagues to come to a nearby church dressed in black suits. A camera crew filmed the quartet theatrically weeping while carrying the coffin and lamenting the early demise of the Cincinnati basketball season.

“At the end, Huggins pops out of the coffin and says, ‘Why the long faces? We’re not dead yet!’ ” Hoard recalled with a laugh. “Had we done it today, it would have been the most viral thing on the Internet.”

Whatever optimism Huggins’ stunt inspired was overshadowed by anger over an unprecedented decision by the NCAA tournament selection committee. Instead of awarding Cincinnati the No. 1 seed it had earned, the committee penalized the Bearcats a seed line for Martin’s injury.

Committee chairman Craig Thompson said Cincinnati’s No. 2 seed was a product of concerns that the Bearcats would struggle to replace Martin’s 18.9 points and 9.7 rebounds per game and his defensive presence. In the only meaningful glimpse the committee had of Cincinnati without Martin, the Bearcats responded poorly to his absence against Saint Louis. 

“After a lot of debate, the committee came to a decision that this was not the same Cincinnati team,” Thompson said this week. “This was the best player in the country, and he was not going to play in the NCAA tournament. I think it was the right decision.”

On the day the NCAA tournament bracket was unveiled, Huggins described Cincinnati’s No. 2 seed as “totally ridiculous." Twenty years later, we now know that Huggins should have been just as annoyed with the brutal draw the Bearcats received.

How it all unraveled in the tournament

Cincinnati’s reward for overpowering 15th-seeded UNC Wilmington in the first round was a second-round date with a vastly underseeded 30-win mid-major coached by future Hall of Famer. Bill Self’s Tulsa team climbed as high as No. 13 in the AP Top 25 late in the regular season and clobbered the only two power-conference teams it saw before March by a combined 34 points. 

Modern data provided by Pomeroy ranks Tulsa as the seventh-best team in the nation entering the NCAA tournament, yet the Western Athletic Conference champions received a No. 7 seed in the South Regional on Selection Sunday. The committee had no access to predictive metrics in 2000 and in retrospect fell victim to conference bias. 

Cincinnati still had the talent even without Martin to overcome a tough early draw, but these Bearcats were still shaken by the loss of their star and had not yet had time to figure out how to play without him. For the previous five months, they had played through him on offense and had funneled guards attacking off the dribble to him on defense.

“We tried to take the attitude that we were going to do this for Kenyon, but we were used to doing things a certain way,” Johnson said. “If we had more time to get used to playing without Kenyon, we probably would have gone deeper than we did.”

Kenyon Martin (L) of Cincinnati Bearcats sits on the bench during round one of the NCAA tournament game against the NC Wilmington Seahawks. (Jonathan Daniel/Allsport)

Against Tulsa, Cincinnati shot an anemic 35.2 percent from the field in a 69-61 loss. So eager were the other Bearcats to step up in Martin’s absence — and in some cases prove to NBA scouts they too could carry a team — that they forced tough shots and did not pass the ball as freely as they had all season. 

“Sometimes the best approach is to move the ball and let everyone touch it,” Mickeal said. “That’s something we did not do. We did not share the ball. We played individually. And we lost the game. That’s reality. We played selfish and we lost.”

If Cincinnati was truly undone by selfishness in Martin’s absence, then that’s a cruel irony. The most admirable quality the Bearcats displayed all season was their willingness to sacrifice for each other.

Martin had to be goaded into taking over as the go-to scorer because deferring to his teammates was in his DNA. Mickeal ceded that role to Martin without complaint even though it had been his the previous season. The supremely talented Johnson could have been the centerpiece of an offense as a freshman had he chosen another school. Logan and Satterfield split time at point guard when either could have flourished as a full-time starter somewhere else.

That’s what irks Huggins most about how Cincinnati’s bittersweet 1999-2000 season ended — not the impact on his own legacy. Yes, the future Hall of Fame coach lost by far his best chance to win a national title when Martin got hurt, but Huggins aches more for the players he feels were robbed of a chance at immortality.

“Everyone on that team sacrificed a great deal to do what we wanted to do,” Huggins said  “Those guys sacrificed so much and wanted it so bad.”

The silver lining for the 1999-2000 Bearcats is that they’re still revered in Cincinnati as though they won a championship. Not just Martin, either. His former teammates, too.

Fans bombarded Logan and Stokes when they attended a Cincinnati game together earlier this season. Johnson can hardly go out to eat in Cincinnati without a stranger telling him, “Man, your team should have won it!” Mickeal still feels the love even though he hasn’t returned to Cincinnati since college.

“To this day I walk through the airport and guys will be like, ‘Hey! Cincinnati! Bob Huggins! Bearcats!’” Mickeal said. “All these years later, people still remember that team.”

Of course being remembered is no substitute for being a champion, something the Bearcats remain confident they would have achieved were it not for Martin’s injury. 

Shortly after he became friends with former Michigan State star Mateen Cleaves when they both played in the G-League, Stokes decided he could wait no longer to bring up the 2000 NCAA tournament.

“You know you have my ring, right?” Stokes joked, drawing a bemused chuckle from Cleaves. When Cleaves fired back by listing the other members of Michigan State’s talented starting five, Stokes threw a haymaker.

The former Cincinnati guard insisted, “If Kenyon doesn’t get hurt, we win that thing in a landslide.” 

More from Yahoo Sports: