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The Coolest (and Lamest) Looks in March Madness History

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Perhaps no sport has endured greater and more frequent aesthetic shifts than college basketball. Every five years or so, the entire game seems to undergo a visual overhaul. Shorts change length. Compression garments multiply. Each passing year brings a new wave of accessories, shoes, and other things that immediately become signifiers for their respective eras. If you're looking at a college basketball player and their uniform—particularly the home white—is extremely shiny, that's the late ‘90s or early 2000s, baby!

In today's world, on both the men's and women's side, you're going to mostly see shorts that end above the knees, layered on top of leggings or leg sleeves. The uniforms have skewed pretty safe in recent years, while the sneakers are going to cover every color of the rainbow. This in itself is a fairly large shift. As recently as five years ago, players were only hitting the court with shoes that matched their school's color scheme.

The 2019 natty was, in many ways, the last of its kind. In addition to being pre-COVID, pre-transfer portal, there were also no neon green or bright pink kicks to be found.

NCAA Men's Final Four - National Championship - Texas Tech v Virginia

The 2019 natty was, in many ways, the last of its kind. In addition to being pre-COVID, pre-transfer portal, there were also no neon green or bright pink kicks to be found.
Jamie Schwaberow/Getty Images

Compare the above shot from the 2019 championship to a photo from Saturday's Big 12 championship, where we've got Iowa State players rocking blue and purple Nikes.

KANSAS CITY, MISSOURI - MARCH 16: Jamal Shead #1 of the Houston Cougars shoots against Robert Jones #12 of the Iowa State Cyclones during the first half of the Big 12 Men's Basketball Tournament championship game at T-Mobile Center on March 16, 2024 in Kansas City, Missouri.  (Photo by Jay Biggerstaff/Getty Images)

There is, of course, nothing wrong with this, and there's obviously a generational factor at play too. But it wasn't that long ago that the uniforms were just that: uniform. When Ty Lawson and Tyler Hansbrough won the 2009 ship, they beat a Michigan State squad that was basically all wearing the same shoes!

There appears to only be a slight variation between Lawson (North Carolina #5) and his teammates' shoes, as well. You'll also notice that you can see every players' shins—not the case anymore, due to the leggings revolution.

If we agree that college basketball is now in its postmodern fashion era, we must go back and pay respect to the forefathers of the modern era: the Fab Five. Jalen Rose, Chris Webber, Juwan Howard, Ray Jackson, and Jimmy King took the world by storm in 1992 when they showed up as freshmen at the University of Michigan and not only dominated the college basketball circuit, but also looked impossibly cool while doing it. The shaved heads, baggy shorts, and black socks might seem unremarkable now, but it was a downright revolutionary look at a time where hip huggers and long, white tube socks were the standard.

The Fab Five never won it all, but their impact went far beyond their collegiate careers.

Michigan Fab Five, 1993 NCAA Finals

The Fab Five never won it all, but their impact went far beyond their collegiate careers.
John W. McDonough/Getty Images

Once the Fab Five hit, it took basically an entire generation for the shorts to get hiked back up. As shorts got longer, hip-hop grabbed ahold of America, and personal image became a bigger part of sports more generally, college basketball mirrored many of the trends enveloping the country. All to say: you can't talk about the marriage of basketball and hip-hop without mentioning GQ Style Hall of Famer Allen Iverson. It's possible that no basketball player has ever been fresher than Iverson was in this particular Georgetown jersey with the Jordan 11 Concords on his feet.

Put it in the Louvre

Memphis v Georgetown

Put it in the Louvre
Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

One thing you're definitely not going to see in this year's tournaments are players wearing cutoff T-shirts under their jersey like AI did here. Same goes for the overwhelming amount of fabric Adam Morrison had poking out from his Gonzaga jersey during the mid-2000s.

Speaking of that era: we'll go ahead and call that the peak of the baggy shorts mountain. Starting in 2003 with T.J. Ford's Final Four fit and ending when the current Boston Celtics coach took athletic shorts to places they've never been (the ankle), there was a roughly seven-year stretch where everyone looked like this.

T.J. Ford was true to this.
The 2007 Ohio State Buckeyes, a sight to behold.

NCAA First Round - Lexington: Ohio State v Central Connecticut State

The 2007 Ohio State Buckeyes, a sight to behold.
Andy Lyons/Getty Images
Oregon's Tajuan Porter and Aaron Brooks in 2007.

NCAA First Round ? Oregon v Miami (OH)

Oregon's Tajuan Porter and Aaron Brooks in 2007.
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images
This was in 2010, the same year Mazzulla's beloved The Town came out.

It's all about optimization now, and whatever apparel company supplies the team's uniform will handle the shorts as well as the athletic-fit undershirts. As long as we all agree to never, ever revert back to the sleeved jersey era (although Louisville did win a championship in them), everything will remain relatively easy on the eyes.

NCAA champion Peyton Siva, we're sorry you had to wear this.

Michigan v Louisville

NCAA champion Peyton Siva, we're sorry you had to wear this.
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
Presenting Obama with a sleeved jersey makes this a perfect 2013 time capsule.

Obama Welcomes NCAA Champion Louisville Cardinals Basketball Team To White House

Presenting Obama with a sleeved jersey makes this a perfect 2013 time capsule.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

The women's side has had its own share of March Madness style icons as well. While we're talking sleeved jerseys, we should acknowledge that in 1982, the Louisiana Tech women's team won the whole damn thing while wearing sleeved jerseys—that they left untucked! With collars! Powder blue and red is an absolutely gorgeous color scheme for any team playing any sport at any level, but wearing these bad boys while going 35-1 is in a category of its own.

<h1 class="title">Louisiana Tech vs Cheyney State, 1982 NCAA Women's National Championship</h1><cite class="credit">George Tiedemann/Getty Images</cite>

Louisiana Tech vs Cheyney State, 1982 NCAA Women's National Championship

George Tiedemann/Getty Images
<h1 class="title">Louisiana Tech University vs University of Tennessee, 1982 NCAA Women's National Semifinals</h1><cite class="credit">George Tiedemann/Getty Images</cite>

Louisiana Tech University vs University of Tennessee, 1982 NCAA Women's National Semifinals

George Tiedemann/Getty Images

That Mulkey you see wearing #20 and calling for the ball is in fact Kim Mulkey, the current LSU women's coach who owns one of the more…interesting closets in the entire coaching universe. Her Tigers are a three-seed in this year's tourney, and the further they advance, expect their coach's outfits to become increasingly audacious.

A decade after the Lady Techies' dominance—and at the same time the Fab Five were embracing the shaved head look that was all the rage at the time—Lisa Leslie was rocking the braids while leading the country in blocks and field goal percentage.

29 Jan 1993:  Lisa Leslie of the Southern California Trojans stands at the foul line during a game against the UCLA Bruins.  Southern California won the game 73-60. Mandatory Credit: Ken Levine  /Allsport

Lisa Leslie

29 Jan 1993: Lisa Leslie of the Southern California Trojans stands at the foul line during a game against the UCLA Bruins. Southern California won the game 73-60. Mandatory Credit: Ken Levine /Allsport
Ken Levine

Tennessee rounded out the ‘90s with a threepeat, cutting down the nets in 1996, 1997, and 1998 while expertly using powder blue themselves. If you’re sitting here in 2024 thinking, There's no way powder blue and a slightly cartoonish shade of orange can work together…think again!

Chamique Holdsclaw repping an iconic '90s jersey.

Chamique Holdsclaw #23

Chamique Holdsclaw repping an iconic '90s jersey.
Ezra Shaw
The Lady Vols' white uniform, shown here on Tamika Catchings, was also very well done.

Tamika Catchings #24

The Lady Vols' white uniform, shown here on Tamika Catchings, was also very well done.
Andy Lyons

Moving into the 21st century, two names spring to mind right away when it comes to women's March Madness aesthetics. The first is Arike Ogunbowale, one of the best dressed athletes on the planet. During her time at Notre Dame, Ogunbowale hit a national championship-winning shot while pulling off the rarely seen, hard-to-execute long sleeve look.

One of the biggest shots in college basketball history came from someone wearing long sleeves.

Notre Dame v Mississippi State

One of the biggest shots in college basketball history came from someone wearing long sleeves.
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Ogunbowale took both the style and Best Player in the Country torches from A'ja Wilson. Before she was a two-time MVP in the WNBA—and before she popularized the one leg rolled up thing with her shorts—Wilson was known for the karate headband that also took the NBA by storm in the latter years of the 2010s.

<h1 class="title">COLLEGE BASKETBALL: MAR 04 SEC Women's Tournament - South Carolina v Kentucky</h1><cite class="credit">Icon Sportswire/Getty Images</cite>

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: MAR 04 SEC Women's Tournament - South Carolina v Kentucky

Icon Sportswire/Getty Images

This year, we're celebrating JuJu Watkins' trademark bun and Angel Reese's lashes, while waiting to see which player from the men's bracket makes an aesthetic impact now that the committee has left out Indiana State and their sartorial hero Robbie Avila. Gone are the days of coaches like Jay Wright pulling up to every game with an Italian-tailored suit, but as we saw from last year's festivities, some programs bust out their best athleisure wear in March. Just ask Kansas State head coach Jerome Tang.

The shoes really put this over the top.

Florida Atlantic v Kansas State

The shoes really put this over the top.
Al Bello/Getty Images

The beauty of March Madness is that it's pure entertainment no matter what happens. Whether a team full of underdogs with immaculate aura makes a run, or a bunch of swagless dorks band together to play the best six games of their life, this next month is going to give us plenty to talk about. Just remember: no team has ever won a men's championship wearing Under Armour.

Originally Appeared on GQ