What if Kenyon Martin didn’t break his leg? How one freak injury altered college basketball

“What if Kenyon Martin didn’t break his leg?”

It’s a hypothetical question Cincinnati men’s basketball fans still ask 20 years after Martin suffered a season-ending injury against Saint Louis in the 2000 Conference USA Tournament.

The Bearcats entered the postseason with a 28-2 record and looked to clinch a No. 1 seed in the 2000 NCAA tournament. Cincinnati held a No. 1 ranking in the AP Top 25 for 12 weeks that season, including the final regular-season poll.

Steve Logan, a sophomore guard on that team, believes Cincinnati would have made a Final Four run with Martin on the floor. It’s not subject to debate.

“I definitely think so, without question,” Logan told Sporting News. “No disrespect to any other team out there, or nothing like that. I just felt like that 2000 team had national championship power.

“We had five or six guys who felt like they could play NBA ball the following year,” he said. “There were a lot of competitive practices and a lot of basketball IQ in that arena every day.”

Martin, an All-American power forward who was also Sporting News’ Player of the Year, was the leader with 18.9 points and 9.7 rebounds. He was the best player in college basketball, his signature moment coming when he scored 21 second-half points in a 64-62 comeback victory against DePaul. That game is remembered for Cincinnati coach Bob Huggins giving simple instructions during a timeout: “Get Kenyon the ball!”

“Kenyon put on a hell of a show,” Logan told SN. “We were down. Every time he touched the ball, he scored. He blocked shots. He rebounded. We really felt like we came into our own at that DePaul game.”

A week later, the unthinkable happened. Martin fell awkwardly after setting a screen on Saint Louis’ Justin Love just three minutes into a C-USA quarterfinal matchup on March 9, 2000.

“When I think about that injury my first thought on it was, ‘Is he OK?'” Logan said. “That was our brother. When I see him laying down there and he couldn’t get up, I was worried about his health.

“Then, shortly after that we were trying to figure out how we can make a run.”

That run never materialized. The Billikens upended the Bearcats 68-58 in the C-USA Tournament. Martin’s injury prompted the NCAA to drop Cincinnati to a No. 2 seed in the Southeast Region. After scoring a first-round victory over UNC-Wilmington, the Bearcats lost 69-61 to Tulsa, a No. 7 seed coached by Bill Self. Michigan State went on to win the national championship under coach Tom Izzo.

Two decades later, it’s still fair to wonder how that tournament would have been altered had Martin stayed healthy. It would have had a wide-ranging impact, not only for Cincinnati, but for college basketball at large. College football, too.

Sporting News takes a deep dive into the chain reaction that would have unfolded if Martin did not break his leg.

Bob Huggins stays at Cincinnati

The Bearcats went 123-41 over Huggins’ remaining five seasons in Cincinnati, twice winning the Conference USA Tournament and making the NCAA Tournament every season. But Cincinnati never advanced past the Sweet 16 and Huggins — who was arrested for driving under the influence in 2004 — resigned after the 2004-05 season.

Perhaps that downward spiral doesn’t occur if Cincinnati wins the national championship with Martin leading the way. The NBA Draft picks keep coming in, and the program maintains a steady run with more trips to the Elite Eight and occasional Final Four. The Bearcats have had four players drafted since Huggins left in 2004-05. Two of those four Bearcats players — Jason Maxiell (2006) and James White (2007) — were among the 13 future NBA picks who played for Huggins.

Is that scenario believable?

“It’s hard to say speaking on his career, but I feel as though the city embraced him,” Logan said. “He did a great job there coaching the kids and raising the kids. … Without question if he wins a national championship, he’s probably there forever.”

Kenyon Martin stays on same path — with one exception

Martin was the No. 1 pick in the 2000 NBA Draft. He averaged 12.3 points and 6.8 rebounds as part of a 15-year career. For those who like to point out how college basketball is a huge risk for superstar players, the gruesome injury did not change Martin’s career path, for better or worse. He was the same solid player at the next level, and four years at Cincinnati didn’t hurt Martin’s NBA career.

“That’s the beauty of it,” Logan said. “That’s the positive of it. When he broke his leg he was able to get surgery the right way to heal his body so he could go on to his NBA career. That’s what we were worried about at the time.”

There is one notable difference, however. Perhaps his son, Kenyon Martin Jr., doesn’t elect to skip college. Martin Jr., a four-star recruit in the class of 2020, opted not to play at Vanderbilt and will enter the 2020 NBA Draft after a year of post-graduate training at IMG Academy. Would thIs outcome have changed had that injury not happened?


(Getty Images)

Kenyon Martin was Sporting News’ Player of the Year in 1999-2000.
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Mick Cronin winds up at Indiana

Cronin was an assistant at Cincinnati during that tournament run, but ended up as an assistant in Louisville from 2001-03 before taking the Murray State job. He returned to the Bearcats in 2006.

A national championship, however, perhaps keeps Cronin at Cincinnati long enough for him to take an alternate path: Maybe he ends up at Dayton after Oliver Purnell leaves for Clemson after the 2002-03 season and, after Indiana ditches Mike Davis after the 2005-06 season, ends up as coach of the Hoosiers. Hey, it’s not all that different than Archie Miller — just without the damage inflicted from the brief Kelvin Sampson era.

The Big 12 chooses Cincinnati — not West Virginia

Fast forward to the Big 12’s decision to add new schools to its membership in 2012. Cincinnati and Huggins, riding the momentum from their 2000 national championship, continue to be second-weekend regulars in the tournament; the football program also maintains its success in the late 2000s under Brian Kelly and Butch Jones.

Perhaps that improved football-basketball combination is enough to entice the Big 12 to extend an invitation to Cincinnati, as opposed to fellow Big East school West Virginia (which made the Final Four under Huggins just three seasons before jumping ship to the Big 12).

The Bearcats left the football-gutted Big East in 2013 to join the newly formed American Athletic Conference, where they have stayed since. Cincinnati — which attempted to position itself to join the Big 12 in 2016 — is still burning to join a power conference. That 2000 basketball national championship could have made that possible.

Cincinnati vs. Ohio State becomes must-see TV

Cincinnati lost the Crosstown Shootout to Xavier in 1999. Two years later, Thad Matta took the job with the Musketeers, and he won two of three against the Bearcats before taking the Ohio State job.

Now picture Cincinnati and Ohio State, both fully operational and competing for recruits such as Greg Oden and Mike Conley. The Bearcats throw the weight of that 2000 national championship — not to mention the head-to-head victories against the Buckeyes in the national championship game in 1961 and ’62 — to prompt an every-year series between the two schools. It emerges into one of the nation’s best in-state rivalries in the mid-2000s and must-see TV between the two programs. Would this work? Ask Logan.

“I regret not playing them all four years I was in school,” Logan said. “I would have loved to play Ohio State, at least one time.”

The Buckeyes have won all four meetings with the Bearcats since 2006. Cincinnati also is 5-10 in the Crosstown Shootout since Huggins left. The former Cincinnati coach was 8-8 in that rivalry game.

Rick Pitino leaves Louisville early

Huggins’ final season at Cincinnati matched Pitino’s fourth season at Louisville — a team that made the Final Four. The Cardinals’ roster consisted of players such as Francisco Garcia and Taquan Dean. Cronin recruited those players, and they might have considered Cincinnati if the Bearcats were coming off that national title run.

Louisville’s rebuild might have taken longer if Cincinnati remained a more significant roadblock, and it’s not unfathomable to suggest Pitino might have chosen a second chance in the NBA if that were the case. Instead, the Cardinals advanced to the Sweet 16 or better six times from 2006-14 and, winning the 2013 NCAA Tournament. The Bearcats have one Sweet 16 appearance since Huggins’ resignation.

Florida’s rise is delayed

Florida took advantage of Cincinnati’s second-round loss on that half of the bracket in 2000. Billy Donovan led the first of four Final Four runs and went through Duke and North Carolina to get to the title game. That foreshadowed back-to-back national championship runs in 2006-07. The Gators are the last team to do that.

Does that happen without the national championship game exposure? What if Florida loses to the Bearcats in the Final Four instead? Those are scenarios that might have delayed the rise of an SEC powerhouse.

Bill Self might not land at Kansas

Tulsa made a run to the Elite Eight with the help of a second-round victory against Cincinnati. That allowed Self, a third-year coach at the time, to move up the coaching ladder to Illinois, where he stayed for three seasons before taking the job at Kansas. Self replaced Lon Kruger, who took a job with the Atlanta Hawks in the NBA.

The Bearcats shouldn’t have been a No. 2 seed to begin with. Had they been properly seeded, the Golden Hurricane might have caught Michigan State in the second round instead. Perhaps that results in some other double-digit-seed team making the Sweet 16, and their coach — namely Gonzaga’s Mark Few or Seton Hall’s Tommy Amaker — getting better looks at the Illinois job. Amaker is the more interesting of those candidates since he took the job at Michigan after the 2000-01 season. Now, about Michigan State. …

Sparty never wins Tom Izzo’s first title

The Spartans took advantage of the No. 1 seed in that tournament and cleared a championship path that went through Cleveland and Detroit. Michigan State could have still made that run as a No. 2 seed. We’ll give Tom Izzo the benefit of the doubt and say it could make the championship game.

But what if the Spartans lost to the Bearcats?

Michigan State still would have been a contender, and a Big Ten powerhouse — but picture Izzo with eight Final Four appearances and no national championships. For comparison, Guy Lewis has the most Final Fours trips (five, all with Houston) without a title.

Big Ten title drought extends back even further

A Big Ten team hasn’t won the national championship since Michigan State in 2000; a drought that is 20 years and counting. What if the Spartans didn’t claim the title that season? Perhaps they would have lost to Cincinnati in the championship game.

That would extend the Big Ten’s title drought back to Michigan in 1989. Big Ten teams have lost seven consecutive national championship games since the Spartans’ title run in 2000, including Michigan State in 2009 and Michigan in 2013 and ’18. The conference could set a record for most teams in the tournament this year, but a 30-plus year drought would be one of the sport’s biggest talking points.

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