The NCAA Basketball Tournament is among us. This tournament is a looking glass for human hope, excellence and positive social change. It is, in short, a microcosm of the human existence, with all of its exuberance, tragedy and triumph. The NCAA Basketball Tournament is American sports.
The excitement and tradition of “March Madness” or the NCAA Basketball Tournament as we know it today has been shaped by many significant events in NCAA tournament history: The first NCAA men’s basketball tournament was held in 1939 with the first NCAA tournament championship game held at Northwestern on March 27, 1939. Only eight teams competed in two regions. Oregon defeated Ohio State in the championship game, and the West region held a third-place game.
Although the NCAA basketball tournament now determines the national champion, that was not always the case. Until the 1950’s, the NIT was considered a more prestigious tournament than the NCAA basketball tournament, and teams often chose to enter the NIT and bypass the NCAA tourney. Because of this dichotomy, two of the best centers of the 1940’s never met in an NCAA basketball tournament. George Mikan’s DePaul team traditionally entered the NIT, while Bob Kurland’s of Oklahoma.
In 1973, with the championship game held on Monday night for the first time, UCLA behind Bill Walton’s 44 points on 21 of 22 shooting, won its seventh straight championship, defeating Memphis State. NC State, led by David Thompson, ends UCLA’s title run in 1974, defeating the Bruins in the national semifinals in double overtime.
The following year, the NCAA tournament expanded to 32 teams, and then allowed more than one school from each conference to participate. Prior to this ruling, the restriction prevented several great teams from competing in the tournament, including the 1974 Maryland team. They finished the season nationally ranked #4, yet lost the ACC Conference final game to top-ranked NC State prior to the start of the tournament. After that, the NCAA began to allow more than one team per conference to participate. In 1976, Bobby Knight’s Indiana Hoosier squad completed an undefeated season with a victory over Michigan in the championship game. The Hoosiers are the last team to go undefeated and win the title.
The tournament expanded to 40 teams in 1979, and teams were seeded for the first time. “Magic” Earvin Johnson leads Michigan State over Larry Bird and Indiana State to win the national championship. The game drew the attention of millions throughout the country; its 24.1 TV rating remains the highest ever for a college basketball game and is still considered one of the greatest match-ups in NCAA Tournament history.
Expansion followed in 1980 to 48 teams, and then in 1983, to 53 teams. In what many believe is the greatest Cinderella story in college basketball, North Carolina State’s Lorenzo Charles dunks the ball as time expires in the 1983 championship game to lead the Wolfpack to a 54-52 win over heavily favored Akeem Olajuwon and Houston. Perhaps no one figure in college basketball history more personified the spirit of March Madness than Coach Jim Valvano. His underdog North Carolina State Wolfpack did what many consider a miracle by making an incredible run through the 1983 Tournament. Culminating in the defeat of the highly touted “Phi Slamma Jamma” squad from the University of Houston, Valvano was rocketed into the media limelight and quickly became the symbol of exuberance and enthusiasm. He discovered soon afterward that he had bone cancer, and for a short time became a commentator for college basketball. Before his death at age 47, he was named the recipient of the Arthur Ashe award for courage at the first ESPN ESPY awards. It was at this time he announced the formation of the V Foundation for cancer research.
In 1985 the tournament expanded to 64 teams. A Villanova Wildcat team shot a 22 for 28 field goal percentage to defeat Patrick Ewing and defending champion Georgetown in the championship game. Villanova remains the lowest seed (#8) to win the championship. In 1991, Duke upset undefeated UNLV in the semifinals and went on to win the national championship. In 1997, Arizona, led by Mike Bibby, Jason Terry and Miles Simon, becomes the first school to defeat three #1 seeds en route to the national championship, winning against Kansas, North Carolina and Kentucky.
The NCAA Tournament’s popularity has grown to rival that of the World Series, the Olympics and the Super Bowl. CBS Sports in 1999 negotiated an 11-year, $6 billion agreement for television, radio, Internet, corporate marketing, licensing, publishing, home video and Hoop City rights for the Division I men’s basketball championship.
Today the NCAA basketball tournament is one of the most watched tournaments of the year. Always exciting you never really know who is going to end up on top!