The best time of the year for college basketball fans? The NCAA tournament, of course.
As the NCAA tournament tips off this week and 68 teams vie for the coveted national championship, I can’t help but think back to 1974. It was the year that college basketball came of age and started a timeline for me that no other sport has.
Of course we always remember when our football or baseball teams are good but there’s plenty of drought years that aren’t very memorable. Nothing has the backdrop of the NCAA basketball tournament because we’re fans no matter how our favorite college teams are faring that year. Our memories follow the tournament.
I was 11 in January 1974 and college basketball at that time was like Bill Murray stuck on Groundhog’s Day.
UCLA had won the last seven national championships and was sporting an 88-game winning streak when they went to South Bend in January 1974.
I watched the first half of the game at Sody’s barbershop in Streator, IL, where my dad took me for my haircut, and I watched the second half at home.
UCLA was ranked No.1 and Notre Dame was undefeated and ranked No.2. Digger Phelps’s Fighting Irish squad trailed by double digits with more than three minutes left. No way could Notre Dame win but they made an incredible comeback when there was no three-point shot or shot clock and the desperation shots by UCLA and pandemonium remain in my memory
It forever cemented me as a college basketball fan and made me look forward to the NCAA tournament that year—the first time the final was to be contested on primetime television.
After school I went to a friend’s home to play for a few hours but rushed home that night to my room and a black and white television to watch high-flying dunk artist David Thompson and North Carolina State, who dethroned UCLA in the semifinal, defeat Marquette in the title game.
The NCAA tournament would never be the same after that because 1975 marked the first time more than one team from a conference could compete in it. The expansion to 32 teams at the time would represent a major change for college basketball and provide more competition so teams like UCLA don’t have a free run to the Final Four.
I won’t forget that first true 32-team multiple conference-team tournament in 1975 when undefeated Indiana coached by Bobby Knight got upset in the Elite Eight because it’s star Scott May was injured before the tourney.
Basketball fans wouldn’t stand for it today but back then but there wasn’t much television coverage until the Elite Eight and Final Four. I only got to see Notre Dame lose to Maryland in the Sweet 16 because it was broadcast on public television in Chicago. We didn’t see expanded coverage until ESPN entered the tournament picture in the 1980s and now today we see every game.
The 1970s tournaments were memorable with Indiana coming back a year later in 1976 to win the title undefeated against Michigan. I had to miss the game to attend high school orientation but it’s a milestone that will be challenged this year by undefeated Kentucky seeking to go 40-0.
Throughout my high school years, the NCAA tournament was the highlight of my year as me and my friends had our own version of a tournament pool long before they were in vogue. And yes we called it March Madness because it coincided with then-name of the Illinois High School Association basketball championship – a moniker that started in Illinois in the 1930s but would be adopted by the NCAA in the 1980s.
The 1979 title game between Michigan State and Magic Johnson and Larry Bird and Indiana State is one of the tournament’s most memorable games as the stars began their journey to the NBA and changed the basketball landscape.
My college years featured the arrival of Michael Jordan to basketball and upsets by Indiana, North Carolina State and Villanova that made it an unpredictable period in the tournament and my prowess for handicapping the tournament having picked No. 3 seed Indiana to win it, tabbed No. 6 team North Carolina State with 32 teams left and No. 8 seed Villanova with 16 teams left after they beat my pre-tourney pick Michigan.
I wouldn’t have winners again until I got No. 4 seed Arizona to win the 1997 title at 30-1 and No. 3 seeds Syracuse in 2003 and UCONN in 2011. I had UCONN as my pick for the 2014 tournament but passed on them at 100-1 when they lost their last game of the year to Louisville by 33 points. When they got by the first weekend of the tournament, I jumped back on their bandwagon despite their No. 7 seed.
So who is my pick this year? I admit I haven’t watched as much college basketball as I have in the past but I will go with history and say undefeated Kentucky won’t win as the experts predict.
I haven’t seen anyone do it since Indiana and Bobby Knight in 1976 and Kentucky isn’t that Indiana team and Coach John Calipari isn’t Knight. I wouldn’t be surprised if Notre Dame stops the streak just as they did to UCLA 41 years ago.
As for my pick, I’ll go back to a team that won for me in the past – No. 2 seed Arizona.