Santa Clara University has rarely had a great basketball team, but there was a time in the 1990’s when they changed the outlook of their program. Led by Steve Nash, the Broncos reached three NCAA Tournaments in four years. This is the story of the mid-1990’s Santa Clara University men’s basketball team.
After making two NCAA Tournaments in the 1960’s and one more to begin the 1970’s, the SCU Bronco’s stumbled through numerous seasons of mediocrity, mixed with the occasional glimmer of hope. They failed to make the tournament until 1987 where they lost in the first round. After back to back 20-11 seasons, the Broncos were barely a .500 team at best for the next three years. SCU’s longtime coach Carroll Williams retired following the 1991-1992 season and Dick Davey took his place. Davey had his eye on a potential cornerstone for the Bronco’s revival, a basketball prodigy from Canada named Steve Nash.
Steve Nash was not a statistical wizard his freshman year, but he led his freshman peers in points scored. He was the youthful spark the Broncos needed for their revival. Junior forward Pete Eisenrich led the team averaging 14.4 points, and 6.4 rebounds per game while senior guard Mark Schmitz (13 ppg) and junior forward DeWayne Lewis (12.9 ppg) followed close behind. After beating San Jose State, they traveled to Los Angeles to take on 16th ranked UCLA. Although the Broncos lost 69-60, it proved to be a turning point for the program as they realized that they could play with the best. The Broncos fought their way to a 19-12 record, a WCC Championship and a berth in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1987.
There the Broncos stunned fifth ranked Arizona 64-61 in the first round. Though they lost to Temple in the next round, the Bronco’s realized that better days were ahead.
The Broncos struggled throughout the 1993-1994 season losing to San Francisco in the first round of the WCC Tournament and failing to make the NCAA Tournament. However, not all was lost. They only barely lost to 6th ranked California in the first game of the season and came back to beat them two games later. Steve Nash began to dominate the competition, averaging 14.6 points and 3.7 assists per game. DeWayne Lewis made the most of his senior season, averaging 12.5 points and 5.7 rebounds per game. Pete Eisenrich led the team with six rebounds per game while contributing 10.5 points per game.
The Broncos were determined to return to the NCAA Tournament in 1995. They finished the regular season 21-5 with Nash averaging 20.9 points and 6.4 assists per game while being named the WCC Player of the Year. Sophomore guard Marlon Garnett was second scoring 13.9 points per game and junior forward Kevin Dunne averaged 9.4 points and 6.2 rebounds per game. Though the Broncos lost to Loyola Marymount in the first round of the WCC Tournament, they still made the NCAA Tournament due to being WCC regular season champions. They lost in the first round to Mississippi State.
One Last Chance
Santa Clara was on a mission in 1996 to win the WCC Tournament and to get past the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Unlike previous years, they had help from two centers. Senior Brendan Graves (6’10”) averaged 9.5 points and 7.2 assists per game while junior Drew Zurek (6’9”) averaged seven points per game. With the help from those two big men, Nash (17 ppg) and Garnett (12.8 ppg) had more room to make plays on the perimeter. The team relied almost entirely on guards and centers with virtually no freshman seeing any playing time. For the second consecutive year, Steve Nash was named the WCC Player of the Year.
They began the season upsetting fourth ranked and defending national champion UCLA 78-69. Third ranked Villanova put a damper on their upbeat mood the next day, defeating the Broncos 77-65. The Broncos didn’t let their slump last for long, beating Michigan State 77-71 the next day. The Broncos stayed focused the whole season, never losing more than one game in a row. They finished as regular season WCC champions for a second season in a row. They faced off against Pepperdine in the first round of the WCC Tournament but the Broncos lost to the Waves 63-60.
The Broncos had 13 days to mull over their loss in the WCC Tournament and to get their minds right for the NCAA Tournament. They faced off against a Maryland squad which featured four future NBA players including Keith Booth and Laron Profit. They defeated the Terrapins 91-79 and were finally moving on to the second round of the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1993. They lost to fourth ranked Kansas 76-51, ending Steve Nash’s collegiate career. Nash’s impact on the program was so big that in 2006, he became the first Santa Clara student-athlete to have his jersey number retired. Nash would be drafted 15th overall by the Phoenix Suns in 1996 and would be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2018. Even though Dick Davey remained the head coach until 2006, the Bronco’s have not been back to the NCAA Tournament since Nash graduated.