March Madness captures the attention of sports fans across America but there was a time when that wasn’t the case.
One of the turning points came in the early ’70s and is the looked at in “The Road To Madness: How the 1973-74 Season Transformed College Basketball” by J. Samuel Walker and Randy Roberts (The University of North Carolina Press).
“It wasn’t anything for years,” Roberts said. “It was second to the NIT. How did it grow into the institution it is today?”
The tournament still was far from its current popularity although it had come a long way since the 1954 NCAA title game was shown late on tape delay in Philadelphia despite La Salle playing for the title.
“Part of what I found most interesting was not just the season itself but a lesson on the history of the tournament,” Walker said. “How it grew from a not very important event in the sports world. It didn’t rank with the World Series, Masters’ or NFL Championship Game prior to the Super Bowl.”
UCLA’s run of seven straight titles was snapped when Norm Sloan’s NC State team, led by David Thompson, came back from a seven point deficit in the second overtime of the semifinal game. It was also notable for being Bill Walton’s last game as a Bruin.
“The tournament as it existed was more interesting because players stayed longer and were more identified with their schools,” Roberts said.
The regular season had iconic moments. Notre Dame ended UCLA’s 88-game winning streak and became number one until a week later when UCLA beat Notre Dame. And Duke squandered an eight point lead in 17 seconds at the end of regulation (with no three point line) as North Carolina pulled off a comeback win in overtime.
In the ACC tournament, NC State beat Maryland 103-100 in overtime to advance to the NCAA tournament. That was back when only the conference champion would go to the Big Dance. “Only the winners of the Tournament got to go,” Roberts said. “Probably three or four of the best teams in America were ACC teams but only one team could go.”
That meant Maryland, one of the top five teams in the country, had to stay home while a Texas team with a losing record was in. Maryland, with John Lucas, Len Elmore and Tom McMillen, is considered the best team not to make the tournament.
“Maryland might have ended up winning it,” Roberts said.
“There was a groundswell of support for more than one team per conference,” Walker said. “No one envisioned what it would be but the turning point was the decision in ’74. The argument versus was a team that doesn’t win its own conference could win the national title.”
In addition to having strong teams, a number of notable coaches were involved in the tournament. Penn was led by Chuck Daly, Providence by future Big East pioneer Dave Gavitt and St. Joseph’s was coaches by Jack McKinney, later Magic Johnson’s first coach with the Lakers. “There were great coaches and excellent teams,” Walker said. “One person I didn’t know anything about was Ted Owens, the Kansas coach. He made the Final Four twice. You don’t hear much about him but I had a wonderful conversation with him.”
John Wooden’s Bruins lost three times in the regular season but were still a formidable threat in March. UCLA beat Dayton in triple-overtime in the round of 16 but couldn’t pull out the classic double overtime game against NC State.
“You almost wish NC State and UCLA had met in the final game,” Roberts said.
Indeed, NC State had one more game to play against Marquette. The title game lacked the drama of the semifinal although it’s notable for legendary Al McGuire picking up two technical fouls late in the first half. NC State built a big lead in the second half and won 76-64.
“Of the NC State guys I spoke to, none thought they’d lose to Marquette,” Walker said.
“The Road To Madness” is a look at a season that might have been lost between the UCLA dynasty and the Magic-Bird title game in 1979.