NCAA Basketball Tournament:
The NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament begins. Known as March Madness, the tournament rivals the Super Bowl as the most anticipated sporting event of the year. Not only is it widely discussed, it is by far the most bet on event in sports. National powerhouses from elite conferences are bracketed with unknown teams from minor conferences. Everybody seems to have an opinion. It’s estimated that between $9 and $12 billion a year are wagered on the tournament. Compare that to the Super Bowl which only $4 billion is estimated. How did the NCAA tournament get so big? Where did it all begin? Is this good for college athletics? Are we really rewarding the best teams?
We’ll begin with how it all started. The NIT started in 1938, followed by the NCAA Tournament in 1939. Oregon’s “Tall Firs” captured the first NCAA Championship, winning an 8-team tournament that pitted the best teams from each geographical area against each other. Oregon won the West Regional with Ohio State prevailing in the East. They met in Evanston, Illinois where Oregon prevailed 46-33.
The consensus among experts, at the time, was that the NIT Champions Long Island Blackbirds (24-0) were the real National Champions. Since the two teams never met we’ll never know, but the Long Island Blackbirds are largely forgotten while the 1939 Oregon Webfoots (29-5) are often celebrated as the first National Champion. The NCAA Tournament was probably second to the NIT until at least 1941. During the war the Red Cross put on a charity game that pitted the NCAA Champion against the NIT Champion between 1943 and 1945. The NCAA Champion won every time.
It still wasn’t absolutely clear until about 1950 that the NIT was second in quality. Bill Bradley, Hall of Fame Basketball player, stated “In the 1940s, when the NCAA Tournament was less than 10 years old, the National Invitational Tournament, a saturnalia held in New York at Madison Square Garden by the Metropolitan Intercollegiate Basketball Association, was the most glamorous of the post season tournaments and generally had better teams.” Not sure that’s entirely accurate. Several teams played in both tournaments and the result is a mixed bag. Colorado won the NIT in 1940 only to go out in the first round of the NCAAs. In 1944 Utah was knocked out in the first round of the NIT, then received an invitation from the NCAA to participate in their Championships and won it. That year Utah did play NIT Champion St. Johns in the Red Cross Game and beat them.
It seems likely that Oklahoma A&M (now Oklahoma St.) led by Bob Kurland was the best team in the country in 1945 and 1946, and Adolph Rupp’s Kentucky Wildcats were the best in 1948 and 1949. Both teams won back to back NCAA Championships. After 1950 most (but not all) of the best teams opted for the NCAAs. The NCAA only took conference champions and the best independents. This left many quality teams for the NIT. The NIT was held at Madison Square Garden, so many schools felt the New York exposure was better for their future. City College of New York won both the NCAA and NIT Championship in 1950, This was the last year that the NIT hosted the best team in the country in their tournament.
In 1951 the NCAA expanded their field from 8 to 16 teams, two eight team regionals, which seem to solidify their standing as the premier tournament. Kentucky and Adolph Rupp won their 3rd title in 1951. The 1950s saw the NCAA Tournament explode in stature. Bill Russell led the San Francisco Dons to consecutive championships in 1955 and 1956 losing one game in two years. North Carolina became the 2nd NCAA Championship team to complete an undefeated season (31-0) in 1957.
The tournament expanded to 22 teams in 1953, then 24 in 1954. It stayed between 23 and 25 teams until 1975 when the NCAA began allowing 2nd place finishers in conferences in, expanding the field to 32. In 1979 the field was expanded to 40, followed the next year to 48. This expansion was a result of a decision to allow unlimited number of teams from each conference. The consequences of this rule were shown immediately. UCLA with a 4th place finish in the PAC 10 and a 17-9 overall record knocked out #1 ranked DePaul in the 2nd round, then advanced to the Championship Game before falling to Louisville (59-54) in the Finals. The NCAA Tournament would never be the same, mediocre teams now had a chance at the Championship.
The field expanded to 52 teams in 1983, then 64 in 1985. They added a play-in game in 2001 between the two weakest conference champions (as decided by a committee) making teams invited 65. In 2011 the current format was implemented, pitting the four weakest conference champions, and the four weakest at-large schools in four play-in games played the Tuesday and Wednesday before the main tournament began on Thursday.
Big controversies erupt every year as “The Committee” decides who are the last few schools to make the tournament. Why not? No matter how you make the field you have a shot at being the “National Champions”. In 1983 North Carolina State finished 4th in the ACC, ended the regular season 17-10, but then ran off nine consecutive wins in the ACC Tournament and the NCAA to capture the “National Championship” with a win over #1 ranked Houston Cougars, who entered the game 31-2. A 17-10 team is obviously not as good as a 31-2 team, yet somehow they are the National Champions of 1983.
Villanova in 1985 finished 4th in the Big East, entered the tournament 19-10, then shocked the college basketball world by winning the tournament, beating conference rival Georgetown (who entered the game with a record of 35-2) in the Finals. 1988 it was very similar. Kansas completed the regular season 21-11, losing to Big 8 Champion Oklahoma twice during the regular season. Kansas then went on a run in the Tournament culminating in an 83-79 win over the Sooners (35-3) in the Championship Game. Again, an inferior team by any argument would claim a National Championship because they won at the right time.
Just nine years later, in 1997 saw the Arizona Wildcats win their only National Championship after finishing 5th in the PAC 10, with a regular season record of 19-10. They defeated #2 ranked Kentucky (35-4) in the Final. The fifth best team in the PAC 10 cannot be the best team in the country, yet somehow history only remembers who won the NCAA tournament of 1997.
The latest version of a similar scenario was 2014 when a 7 seed (UConn) defeated an 8th seed (Kentucky) in the Title Game. Nobody truly believed that these teams were the best in the country.
Situations like these never happened before 1975. Before 1975, the worst record ever for the eventual champion was Kentucky’s “Fiddlin’ Five” in 1958 (23-6). 6 losses is a far cry from what we are crowning as National Champions today.
When John Wooden’s UCLA Teams won their 10 championships in 12 years their records were, 30-0, 28-2, 30-0, 29-1, 29-1, 28-2, 29-1, 30-0, 30-0, and 28-3. That’s less losses over 10 seasons than Kansas had in their “Championship Year” in 1988. For UCLA, all those years except for the last (1975) they were clearly the best team in college basketball.
Even the schools that were totally unexpected winners before 1975 were quality champions. Loyola of Chicago was an upset winner in 1963, defeating 2-time defending champion Cincinnati in the Championship Game, but their final record was 29-2. They could still easily be considered the best team in the country with such a record.
Probably the biggest upset ever in the tournament prior to 1983 was Texas-Western’s stunning win in 1966, but they were ranked #3 in the country entering the tournament, finishing with an overall record of 28-1. It is not hard to crown a Champion with only one regular season loss. (This story had a movie made about them called Glory Road)
Originally the tournament was built to decide a National Champion, trying to find out who was the best college basketball team in the country. Who was the best? That was the reason for this great sporting event. This has now changed.
From 1939 to 1954 the tournament was not a fully developed event. As late as 1954 Adolph Rupp had an undefeated team that he chose not to enter in the tournament, three of his best players were ruled ineligible due to graduating the year before (this is an interesting story on its own that we’ll cover at another time). Rupp’s Kentucky team was ranked #1 at the end of the regular season. At this time, the NCAA Tournament was still not gathering best teams to its ranks.
From 1955 to 1974 the NCAA Tournament Winner had valid arguments to claim they were the best team in college basketball. They were all either Conference Champions, or the top independents. The best teams were playing each other and it was a golden time for crowning a true National Champion. The best team in the country was the winner of the NCAA Tournament.
After 1974, and especially after the expansion to 48 teams in 1980, it’s a little murkier. Many years the best teams do win; Indiana (1976), Kentucky (1978,1996,2012), North Carolina (1982,2005,2008), Georgetown (1984), UNLV (1990), Duke (1992, 2001,2010), UCLA (1995), Kansas (2008). But that was not always the case. Regularly sub-par teams claimed the NCAA tournament with such a broad selection process.
The 68-team tournament is much harder to win than the 1960s style 23 to 25 team tournament. This is exciting, allowing more teams to make the “Big Dance” and a broader audience appeal. The downside of that is the teams that win are generally good teams that are near the top of the Power 6 Conferences, but not necessarily the best teams. Routinely the top ranked teams in the country do not make it to the final weekend. The four #1 seeds have only met in the Final Four once, in 2008. Meaning low seeded, inferior teams by their regular season records, are making it farther than the best teams in the country. The Final Four is not nearly as good as it once was. It is obvious the NCAA Tournament will never go back to the 1955-1974 model, too much money is involved. But we have also lost ability to reward the best teams. Just something to think about