Remembering the 1990 Final Four in Denver: 4 Things to Know

Written By Ken Pomponio on 04/01/2022
1990 DENVER FINAL FOUR 040122

A Colorado Division I men’s basketball team hasn’t played in the NCAA tournament’s Final Four since 1955.

That was 33 years before the NCAA was even granted the “Final Four” trademark.

A Final Four, though, has been played in Colorado. It was contested in Denver on March 31 and April 2, 1990.

Now, 32 years later, 2022’s Final Four participants have gathered in New Orleans. And Colorado’s online sportsbooks are gearing up for a final weekend of March Madness betting (yes, we know it’s April).

So as we look back to 1990, here are four factoids to know about the Mile High City’s first and (so far) only turn as the Final Four host.

March Madness Promo - Bet $5 Win $200 + $1,050 Bonus

McNichols Arena served as the site

No, millennials and 2000s California transplants, the 1990 Final Four wasn’t contested at Ball Arena. 

And we’re just not getting cute with semantics. Pepsi Center also isn’t the correct answer, either.

Groundbreaking for the Pepsi Center, which opened in 1999, was still seven years away.

Try the west side of I-25. 

And instead of “The Can,” the 1990 Final Four — featuring Arkansas, Duke, Georgia Tech and UNLV — was played at the venue known affectionately as “Big Mac.” 

Big Mac was the nickname of McNichols Sports Arena, the then-15-year-old home of the NBA’s Denver Nuggets. The arrival of the Colorado Avalanche from Quebec was still five years away.

Named after former Denver mayor William McNichols, Big Mac was located just south of Denver’s old Mile High Stadium.

The attendance for the 1990 NCAA tourney championship game between Duke and UNLV is listed as 17,675. McNichols’ alleged basketball “capacity” at the time was 17,022.

Fire code violation or not, those numbers are significant because it marked the last time an NCAA men’s Final Four game was played in a sub-20,000-seat arena.

Witness the attendance figure from the 1991 national title game. That was played before 47,100 fans in Indianapolis’ Hoosier Dome — then home to the NFL’s Colts.

Starting in 1997, the Final Four moved strictly to larger indoor stadiums capable of hosting football games as well.

As for McNichols Arena, it was demolished in 1999. It was making way for a parking lot for the new Broncos stadium, now known of course as Empower Field at Mile High.

Coach K wasn’t quite Coach K

Retiring Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski will be making his record 13th Final Four appearance this weekend.

The 1990 Final Four marked Krzyzewski’s fourth trip to the national semifinals. It was his fourth visit in five years, in fact, dating back to his Final Four debut in 1986.

But the then-43-year-old Krzyzewski wasn’t quite yet Coach K — the Hall of Fame Coach K.

Krzyzewski’s Blue Devils were making their seventh straight NCAA tournament appearance in 1990. 

But they had yet to win a title.

Duke had come out on the losing end of all three of its previous national championship game appearances, including 1986’s loss to Louisville under Krzyzewski. 

Spoiler alert: 1990 would make it 0-for-4 for Duke in the title contest (see below).

And national college hoops onlookers were wondering if the Duke coach with the hard-to-spell last name would ever win it all (see even further below).

1990 Denver Final Four ball 040122
Photo by Ken Pomponio

The national title game was a dud of record proportions

UNLV 103, Duke 73.

The April 2 final score from Big Mac says it all.

The 1990 national championship game was no contest.

While coach Jerry Tarkanian was chewing on his trademark towel, his Runnin’ Rebels were rolling.

UNLV hit 61.2 percent of its shots. And 8-of-14 3-point attempts.

The Runnin’ Rebels finished with 24 assists and a record 16 steals.

Four of UNLV’s five starters scored in double figures, led by guard Anderson Hunt (29 points) and forward Larry Johnson (22).

Duke, meanwhile, shot a respectable 42.6 percent. The Blue Devils also won the rebounding battle (33-31) and made more free throws (20) than UNLV attempted (17).

But running any semblance of a coordinated offense proved to be a major problem against the more-athletic Rebels. Duke finished with only 11 assists — and a brutally ugly 23 turnovers.

In the end, it added up to the largest men’s title game blowout (30 points) in NCAA tourney history.

By comparison, only six of the other 81 championship games have been decided by 20-plus points.

UNLV also remains the only team to top the century mark in the title contest. Only six other teams have eclipsed the 90-point mark in the championship.

The stage was set for the Duke dynasty

UNLV’s title game romp was its 11th straight victory that season.

The Runnin Rebels, returning much the same cast and crew, went on to win their next 34 games in the 1990-91 season.

That brought top-ranked UNLV back to the Final Four. And, as fate would have it, a semifinal matchup against Duke in Indy.

Hunt again scored a game-high 29 points for the Runnin’ Rebels. 

But Christian Laettner answered with 28 points for the Devils. And Duke trimmed its turnovers from 23 to 14.

It added up a 79-77 win for the Blue Devils, who entered the contest as eight-point underdogs.

Simply put, it’s one of the most shocking upsets in Final Four history.

Duke went on to beat Kansas 72-65 in Monday’s championship game.

That would be the first of five national titles for Krzyzewski and Duke over the next 25 years.

The Blue Devils also made three additional Final Four appearances during that span, losing twice in the title game.

Duke only missed the NCAA tournament once during those 25 seasons. That came in 1994-95 when Krzyzewski missed all but the first 12 games due to back surgery.

Coach K had truly become Coach K.

UNLV, meanwhile, was slapped with NCAA rules-violations sanctions shortly after its 1990 title. And Tarkanian, towel and all, was forced to resign in 1992.

The Runnin’ Rebels have been back to the NCAA tournament eight times since losing in the ’91 Final Four. But UNLV hasn’t won a game past the second round.

Trivially speaking …

We finish with four more bits of 1990 Final Four trivia:

  • The ’90 NCAA tournament and Final Four were the first to feature fractional-second game clocks in the final minute of each period.
  • The 1989-90 UNLV squad, of the Big West Conference, remains the last non-power conference team to win the men’s NCAA basketball tourney title.
  • The Denver Final Four was part of a record run for three Duke players. The following season, Greg Koubek became the first player to play in four Final Fours. Laettner and Brian Davis matched the feat in ’92 with the Blue Devils making their fifth straight appearance in the national semifinals.
  • Aside from 1990, 1983 (Albuquerque) and 2017 (Glendale, Ariz.) are the only other Final Fours to be hosted in the Mountain Time Zone.
Photo by AP / Ed Reinke
Ken Pomponio Avatar
Written by
Ken Pomponio

Ken is a fourth-generation Coloradan and career sports journalist with more than 30 years covering the gamut from the preps to the pros. A lifelong Front Range resident and son of 1960s Denver Broncos season-ticket holders, he is a long-time sports betting enthusiast whose insight and passion shine through in his coverage at PlayColorado.

View all posts by Ken Pomponio