In 1974, Maryland and N.C. State played an epic basketball game in the ACC Tournament final. State was ranked #1; Maryland was #5. The game lived up to its billing – the Wolfpack narrowly won 103-100 in overtime. It remains the standard for ACC hoops, and it’s tough to beat in a discussion of the greatest college basketball games.
Few games in any sport can be credited with causing a specific change that will affect the course of the sport. The 2009 NFC Championship Game led the NFL to reconsider its overtime format. Another ACC Championship game in 1982 is often pointed to as the impetus for a shot clock in the college game. That 1974 N.C. State – Maryland game is generally considered the final straw that brought about a decision that would change the nature of the NCAA Tournament and the college basketball postseason.
Prior to 1974, college basketball’s NCAA Tournament was an exclusive affair limited to only conference champions. It’s hard to think of the NCAA Tournament as anything but the monolithic end-all of college hoops, but it wasn’t always so. The NIT, today’s parting gift for bubble teams, was actually a viable competitor to the NCAA Tournament back in the day. You can see why: a tournament that only included conference champions excluded some pretty good teams. (If you look at this season’s Final Four, only two of the four won their conference tournaments.) As recently as 1974, teams that finished ranked among the top 10 were part of the NIT field.
Though other great teams (including #2 Southern Cal in 1971) had been excluded from the NCAA Tournament in the past, college hoops lived with this arrangement as a fact of life. The loss by Maryland was the tipping point that forced the guardians of the sport to question whether it was just that a top 5 team, far better than most conference champs, would be excluded from the national championship process because they lost in overtime to the #1 team. The NCAA Tournament was expanded to 32 teams in 1975, and the era of the at-large bid began.
College football is now working through some of the same questions college basketball faced nearly 40 years ago. As football begins to consider a fundamental change to its postseason, the areas of contention are familiar to anyone who has followed the BCS/playoff discussion. How many teams? On campus or neutral sites? Should participation require a conference championship?
Just because this is well-worn ground doesn’t mean that it’s not worth having these discussions again. Did basketball get it right when it reacted to the 1974 ACC Championship with a larger national bracket? It did start the NCAA Tournament down the path of becoming one of the nation’s most popular sporting events. Teams across the nation have something to play for towards the end of the year even if they’re not the cream of their conference. Allowing at-large teams gave greater meaning to the regular season rather than have a single weekend of conference tournaments determine the participants of the national tournament.
There are downsides to the direction college basketball has taken. Critics claim that the magnitude of the NCAA Tournament has distilled the season down to a few weeks.* We’ve just about neutered the major conference tournament. These tournaments made waves that would change the game in the ’70s and ’80s. Now coaches of national contenders wonder what the point of a conference tournament is. The decision to expand the tournament also opened the door to bracket creep. The size of the field has been increased eight times since 1975. There is support from some of the game’s more respected figures to go even further to 96 teams and beyond – teams much more interested in a participation trophy than a realistic shot at a national title.
Turning back to the issue of at-large teams in a football playoff (of any size), it seems like only a matter of time. If the BCS Championship is, in practice, a playoff of two, we’ve already answered the at-large question this past January. Whether Alabama’s loss to LSU in November has the same lasting impact on its sport that the 1974 ACC final had will be evident in the playoff format that eventually emerges. Regardless, it’s tough to find a playoff that hasn’t eventually faced and answered this question with a larger field and the inclusion of at-large teams. College football, with the Alabama-LSU example fresh in its collective consciousness, should go ahead and allow for at-large teams from the outset no matter the format.
* The point that the NCAA Tournament frenzy makes the first 3+ months of the hoops season
meaningless less-interesting is repeated often enough that even playoff proponents don’t bother quibbling with it anymore. I wonder though how much it has to do with the general popularity of the sport and the sheer length of the regular season. The NBA regular season is a numbing 82-game trudge towards the playoffs. The NFL season is much more compelling on a week-to-week basis. Given a relatively scarce inventory of 11 or 12 regular season games in college football, each week still has weight.