Dave's Sports Views

Analysis, humor and opinion on the sports world

Location: Dallas, Texas, United States

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

How we got here: Five magical days

So college basketball fans have arrived again at our favorite day of the year. All the speculation is over, the picks have been turned in, and the commentators can finally begin to discuss actual games. By the end of today, the field of 64 will be trimmed to 48, then to 32 tomorrow, then to 16 by the end of the weekend. We die-hards know it doesn't get any better than these next four days.

And here are five days that got us to March 16, 2006, that made us the die-hard fans we are, in chronological order:

1) March 26, 1979 -- If March Madness were a human, this would be the date on its birth certificate. This was the day that the tournament became an event and the sport joined our national consciousness. No big domed stadiums for this game. It was played at a college arena in Salt Lake City, Utah. There, Michigan State defeated Indiana State 75-64 to win the national championship. Magic Johnson and Larry Bird staged a duel for the ages, with Johnson's powerhouse Spartans from East Lansing defeating Bird's undefeated but underdog Sycamores from Terre Haute. The game earned the highest TV ratings in NCAA history, and everyone who watched it knew we were looking at the future and the transformation of pro basketball, to be led by these two giants of the game (a third, Michael Jordan, would have his finals moment three years later). We loved Magic for his skill and artistry on the court and his smile off it; we loved Bird for his unique vision and sixth sense for the game. They played contrasting styles with only one element in common. Both knew how to beat you. Only one of them could win on this night, but in the end, these two future NBA champions made us all winners.

2) March 14, 1981 -- Every college fan should have celebrated the 25th anniversary of this historic day, when the tournament's top two seeds, DePaul and Oregon State, and defending champion Louisville were all eliminated in the second round. It's clearly the first two rounds, where you have multiple games competing for your attention and the network manically switches back and forth to keep you updated, that make this tournament the most special. It's when you see the teams that you haven't heard of, that you couldn't even find on a map, take their shot at glory. This isn't a best-of-seven; the winner moves on and the loser is out. And if an underdog can beat a top seed, it will be like their own national championship. Never was that more apparent than when St. Joe's upset DePaul 49-48 and, minutes later, Kansas State beat Oregon State 50-48. (Remember THIS Sports Illustrated cover?) Earlier in the day, Arkansas' U.S. Reed had taken out the champs with a halfcourt shot at the buzzer, 74-73. While none of the victors could be considered small-time schools, in a 48-team field, these were Davids slaying Goliaths, and for those that watched, it could hardly get any better.

3) April 4, 1983 and April 1, 1985 (TIE) -- The early-round upset is like a great salad or appetizer. The upset in the final is the most scrumptious dessert. And when North Carolina State took out Houston, 54-52, and Villanova stunned Georgetown, 66-64, they completed magical runs through the tournament and carried college basketball fans on our backs with them. Both coached by colorful Italians that you would have invited into your homes for dinner, and led by hard-working seniors who often played second-fiddle to conference rivals, the Wolfpack and Wildcats won our hearts along with the games. We didn't notice them eke out opening-round wins, over Pepperdine and Dayton, respectively. We started to watch after second-round upsets of UNLV and Michigan. We had joined the bandwagon by the time they dispatched titans Virginia and North Carolina to get to the Final Four. We never expected them to finish the job, given the virtual coronations awaiting their finals opponents. But in the end, Jim Valvano dashed around the Albuquerque court searching for someone to hug, and Rollie Massimino gathered his staff in a group embrace in Lexington while long-time trainer Jake Nevin, stricken with ALS, just grinned from his nearby wheelchair. Kansas completed the 1980s trinity of major upsets by beating Oklahoma in 1988, and by then, we were practically expecting it.
(Footnote: Villanova won their title against the first-ever 64-team field, which also paved the way for these fun little office pools we all don't want to admit we're in.)

4) March 18, 1990 -- Most fans without an allegiance pull for the underdog, particularly in college basketball. But the tournament hasn't had a little guy as beloved as Loyola Marymount. This wasn't a lower seed that had just happened to come from a major conference. This was a previously obscure school from Los Angeles, with two outstanding players -- one of whom was taken from them tragically, 11 days before the start of the tournament. When Hank Gathers collapsed and died during the West Coast Conference tournament semifinals on March 4, it not only ended the life of a promising basketball talent, it left his team in uncertain shape for the NCAA tournament. Gathers and teammate Bo Kimble had lifted the Lions into the nation's elite, playing a manic style of full-court pressing and 3-point gunning that was both fun and effective. Ranked in the Top 20 for most of the year, Loyola was dropped to an 11th seed in the West region by the loss of Gathers, a wonderful post player who complemented Kimble and his teammates' outside games. Kimble paid tribute to his friend by shooting (and making) his first free throw left-handed in every game, starting with the Lions' opening-round win over New Mexico State. Then they took the court against defending champion Michigan in the second round, exactly two weeks after Gathers' death. Kimble made the free throw again, and that was just one of many Lions shots to find the net that day. Loyola made a record 21 3s, 11 by Jeff Fryer, in a high-octane 149-115 victory that will likely always hold the tournament record for most points. The Lions then beat Alabama before losing to eventual champion UNLV in the Elite Eight. No one would care if they had busted our brackets.

5) April 6, 1992 and April 5, 1993 (TIE) -- The Wolverines were back in the national picture two years later. Steve Fisher, who had led Michigan to an unexpected title as an interim coach in 1989, had now recruited the most famous college basketball class in history. Maybe they weren't the best recruiting class ever, but no one transcended the game like the Fab Five of Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson. The quintet started the 1992 final against Duke as freshmen, and the 1993 final against North Carolina. They lost both times, but their playground swagger and their knee-length shorts became staples of the college game, for better or worse. Even the most fundamental-loving fan among us still gets a little excited when we see an athletic, creative play, and no group played the game with more flair than these five. Both times they faced veteran teams coached by men who favored a bit more structure in their teams, and the contrasts made for two compelling finals. The Fab Five hung with Duke for a little more than a half, before wearing down as the Devils marched to their second consecutive title, 71-51. The second time around, Michigan had UNC on the ropes, but the Tar Heels took a late 73-71 lead behind Donald Williams' shooting. We all can still visualize what happened next: Webber dribbling the ball up court, dribbling into the corner, realizing he's trapped, and calling a time out. But his team has none. Technical foul. The Heels make the free throws and win 77-71. The fundamentalists snicker. Didn't Webber know his team was out of time outs? Well, maybe in the back of his mind, but on this stage, it can be hard to think the game. Many before and since have failed, too. When Webber left for the NBA at the end of his sophomore year, it was the end of one era, and the beginning of another. For better or worse.

OK, so I've cheated and picked seven days. If you asked me to list my 10 most memorable tournament games, I'd give you 12. Or 15. Last year alone produced some of the best basketball we've seen. And I'm sure I'll have a few games to add to the list again.

The point is: It's here. It's the day we get ready for all year. Come noon Thursday, we'll be watching. Jimmy V, Jake and Hank will be, too.



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