DAYTON, Ohio — So the NCAA Tournament begins Tuesday night in Dayton. Let's hope it's memorable.
Come to think of it, a lot of memorable feats in the tournament began in Dayton. Tuesday night’s Prairie View A&M-Fairleigh Dickinson First Four tipoff is the 122nd NCAA men's game in UD Arena. That’s plenty of chances for significant things to happen. And they have.
Turns out this place was made for March. “Appreciate . . . the aura that is here in Dayton,” Temple coach Fran Dunphy mentioned when he got here for the First Four this week.
This is where the legend of Notre Dame’s Austin Carr really took off, on March 7, 1970. Carr scored 37 points – in the first half. He finished with 61, an NCAA game record that still stands. So do his tournament average of 52.7, and NCAA Tournament career average of 41.3.
This is where college basketball’s last perfect season really began, with a loss on March 22, 1975. Kentucky took down No. 1 and unbeaten Indiana (with injured star Scott May no factor) 92-90 in what might have been the greatest regional final ever played – at least until Duke-Kentucky came along in 1992. The Hoosiers would run the table in 1976, and to this day say it was that loss that drove them to never blink again.
This is where one of the defining moments in the growth of the tournament began to form – on March 18, 1978. Before the sophomore Magic Johnson could face Larry Bird for the 1979 national championship, the freshman Magic Johnson suffered what would be his only tournament loss, to Kentucky, 52-49 in the regional championship.
Kentucky went on to the 1978 title. Michigan State and foul-plagued Johnson – who was 2-for-10 that day with six turnovers -- went home from Dayton to East Lansing and vowed they’d be back. “I think Coach (Jud) Heathcote learned something from it,” Bob Chapman, senior on that ’78 team, said years later for the book Magic Moments. “When you have the thoroughbreds, you don’t pull back on the reins.”
In a way, this is where the modern version of March Madness started, on March 15, 1985. The field had been expanded to 64 teams that year, making room for all manners of underdogs. Would that mean more upsets, more close calls . .. would it mean madness? Look what happened on one day in Dayton.
No. 13 seed Navy and David Robinson buried No. 4 LSU 78-55.
No. 5 seed Maryland had to fight for its life to escape No. 12 Miami Ohio 69-68 in overtime.
No. 1 seed Michigan barely held off No. 16 Fairleigh Dickinson 59-55.
And in the last game of the night – almost an afterthought with all the mayhem that came before – No. 9 seed Dayton got to play a home game against this unimposing eighth-seed team from the Big East, with 10 losses.
The Wildcats eked out a 51-49 victory. “A difficult game,” Rollie Massimino called it. Seventeen days later, they shocked Georgetown in one of the biggest title game upsets ever. A fairy tale born in Dayton.
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Speaking of fairy tales, this is where the validation of George Mason began on March 17, 2006. The critics howled at George Mason getting an at-large bid. The Patriots needed to at least put up a good showing in Dayton. They did a lot better than that. They beat Michigan State by 10 points, and two days later knocked off North Carolina by five.
“We’re not in awe,” coach Jim Larranaga said in Dayton. Obviously. Two big fish on one weekend. George Mason would not stop until the Final Four.
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This is where the First Four took its first bow in 2011. Some wondered, why even make room for extra teams? And then from the maiden First Four came VCU beating USC 59-46, an 11 seed riding to the Final Four.
This is where President Obama brought the British prime minister to show him what this basketball fuss is about on March 13, 2012, and they watched Western Kentucky rally from 16 points down in the last five minutes to beat Mississippi Valley State 59-58. Then they and the Secret Service left. Affairs of state, presumably, but they should have stayed for the second game. BYU came from 25 points behind to beat Iona 78-72 in the biggest comeback in the history of the NCAA Tournament.
The NCAA plays here for the central location, the organization and also for the simple fact Dayton loves its college basketball. Remember those one-game play-in opening rounds, when it would Niagara-Florida A&M, or Arkansas Pine Bluff-Winthrop? Few of the teams brought many people, so it was up to Dayton to raise a crowd. The average attendance was 7,554. That’s more than 286 schools averaged for their home games this season.
So the First Four is still here. Lots of fans in this arena the next two nights. Lots of memories of March beginnings, too.