The ramp-up to March Madness is in gear, with conference regular season championships being finalized this week, the league tournaments going next week, fights for at-large bids and seeding in full-force and finally Selection Sunday going on Sunday, March 15. As we get set for another great college basketball run, here’s brief look back on the seminal moments in the development of March Madness history as we know it.
TheSportsNotebook.com sees the modern era of college basketball as essentially beginning in 1976. It was the first year after John Wooden retired. The UCLA legend had captured his 10th national title in 12 years in 1975, and his retirement opened the door for parity. Thus, we can consider the first non-Wooden March—won by Bob Knight’s undefeated Indiana Hoosiers—as the first step of the new era.
A forgotten point about Knight’s Indiana team is that they faced a stacked regional. The three opponents in the regional (Alabama, Western Michigan and Marquette) were all ranked in the final AP Top 10. We don’t know what order they were seeded in, because…well, there weren’t any seeds at that time.
The stacked bracket of the 1976 Mideast Region would certainly not happen today—Marquette was ranked #2 in the nation and we had a 1 vs. 2 battle in the round of eight. What’s even less remembered is that Alabama had Indiana seriously in the ropes in the final two minutes of their Sweet 16 game before Scott May rescued the Hoosiers.
That means the next step in the NCAA Tournament’s evolution is to implement seeding and bracket balance. That happened in 1979.
1979 was the most important year in the development of March Madness history. There was seeding and of course there was the legendary Magic Johnson vs. Larry Bird showdown in the championship game. The highest-rated college basketball telecast ever didn’t live up to expectations, as Magic’s Michigan State team handled Bird’s Indiana State with room to spare. But the buildup to the game put college basketball on everyone’s radar.
Still two other things happened in 1979. The first is an occurrence that’s commonplace today, but was unheard of in ’79, and it’s a gutted bracket. The East Regional had North Carolina and Duke as its top two seeds. They were both upset in the second round on the same court in Raleigh, a day still called “Black Saturday” in the state. The two lowest-seeded teams in the bracket, 9th-seeded Penn and 10th-seeded St. John’s, ultimately met to go to the Final Four. Penn won.
The second is that the field expanded from 32 teams to 40 teams. By pushing past the five-round format, the NCAA had created the structure where eventually everyone would be playing on the Thursday/Friday of the first week.
It’s one thing to have a gutted bracket, but how about a gutted Final Four? We got that in 1980. While Louisville, a 2-seed, made it to Indianapolis and won the national championship, the other three participants were seeded #5 or lower in their respective regionals.
Even though we had seen one regional gutted by upsets and a Final Four filled with darkhorses, the whole notion of “the magic of the upset” that defines March Madness for so many, hadn’t yet taken hold. Let’s move on to 1981.
Eight of the nation’s top 16 teams lost on the first weekend, but it was the way it all went down that captured everyone’s imagination. DePaul, the top-ranked team in the country, lost to St. Joe’s on a last-second basket. The TV networks quickly moved to Louisville-Arkansas, where the Razorbacks won by a point on a half-court desperation heave from U.S. Reed. There was no time to catch your breath before NBC took us to the West Regional, where top seed Oregon State fell to Kansas State on a baseline jumper from Rolando Blackman with two seconds left.
In a matter of minutes, the country’s two best teams, along with the defending national champion, had been eliminated on last-second shots. That’s March Madness.
There was still one thing missing, and it was a Cinderella national championship. Enter Jim Valvano and N.C. State. The footage of Valvano’s 1983 N.C. State team winning on a last-second dunk is right up there with Christian Laettner’s game-winning shot in the 1992 Duke-Kentucky game as the most iconic image of March Madness. N.C. State concluded an improbable run from the 6-seed to win it all.
1985 completed the evolution. The field expanded to 64 teams, creating the bracket structure that we all know today. Villanova stunned Georgetown in the championship game, winning the crown as an 8-seed and further validating the notion that March was a place where everyone had a chance.
The decade of 1976-85 were the transformational years of March Madness. Wooden’s retirement paved the way for parity. The bracket was seeded, the field expanded, there was an epic Magic-Bird finale, and the magic of the upsets started rolling in at every level of the tournament. Our March would never be the same.