Here comes January and another year that ends in a 3, and you know what that probably means? A national champion in college basketball who is memorable for . . . something. Because that’s what always seems to happen, from infamous timeouts to landmark upsets to historic performances that still light up in the record book.
Ten years ago in 2013 . . .
The Final Four came with a strong whiff of good and bad history — and emotion.
Rick Pitino became the first and still only man to coach a champion at two different schools, when he put the Louisville trophy next to the 1996 title he won at Kentucky. Though tarnished history came with the trophy as Louisville later became the first national champion to have its title officially vacated by the NCAA.
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Then there were the Cardinal stories that tugged at the heart: The fallen teammate who suffered one of the most horrendous injuries ever seen in the NCAA tournament, and the reserve who had the weekend of his life in front of his gravely ill father.
Kevin Ware’s leg exploded when he planted his foot in the Elite Eight for a compound fracture that shocked all who were watching but gave Louisville a cause. The next week in Atlanta, with the championship won, the basket was lowered so Ware could balance himself on crutches and cut down a share of the net. Meanwhile, Luke Hancock came off the bench to score 20 and 22 points and win the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four, while his cancer-stricken father watched from the stands. William Hancock was gone 11 weeks later.
Twenty years ago in 2003 . . .
Jim Boeheim has more than 1,100 victories at Syracuse but only one national championship. This one. The Orange win their semifinal against a Texas team making the program’s lone Final Four appearance in the past 75 years, and edged Kansas 81-78 in the final, sealing the title with a blocked shot at the end. “I don’t think about validation or anything like that,” Boeheim said afterward. “I’m the same coach I was just a few minutes ago.”
Also part of the storyline was the imminent departure of the Kansas coach. As was widely speculated, Roy Williams soon headed for his alma mater at North Carolina. That move would work out OK.
Thirty years ago in 1993 . . .
Final Fours don’t get much higher voltage than this: Bluebloods North Carolina, Kansas and Kentucky and the last bow of Michigan’s Fab Five, all gathered in the New Orleans Superdome. A quartet like that had to come up with something unforgettable. They did.
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There were under 20 seconds left in the championship game and Michigan had the ball, down 73-71 to North Carolina. Chris Webber tried to rush the ball upcourt, was trapped, saw no way out and signaled for a timeout. Except . . . the Wolverines didn’t have any left. Not one. Technical foul. The last chance was infamously gone, and the final was 77-71. “Probably cost us the game,” a disconsolate Webber said afterward. It was a loud echo of the pass Georgetown’s Fred Brown threw to the wrong team in the final seconds of the 1982 title game. Also in the Superdome, also against North Carolina. Two blunders for the ages, two Dean Smith titles. “I think Coach Smith might move here,” Tar Heels center Eric Montross said that night. “You can call it lucky, you can call it fortunate,” Smith said. “But it still says national championship.”
Forty years ago in 1983 . . .
Four decades later, this remains the ultimate Cinderella story of survive and advance.
To just get into the NCAA tournament field, 10-loss North Carolina State had to beat Wake Forest by one, North Carolina in overtime and Virginia by three in the ACC tournament. To stay around in March, the Wolfpack had to get by Pepperdine in two overtimes and UNLV and Virginia by a point. Sheer magic, but would it ever expire? So it seemed, at last, in the national championship game when they trailed No. 1 Houston by seven points in the second half. But then came the rally, and then Lorenzo Charles’ winning dunk at the buzzer, and then Jim Valvano’s immortal mad dash around the court that will live as long as there are replays. The fairy tale never gets old.
Fifty years ago in 1973 . . .
This was the peak moment of the Bill Walton era. Walton took 22 shots in UCLA’s 87-66 win over Memphis, He missed one. He had four offensive goal-tending calls, violating the no-dunk rule at the time, or else he would have been 25-for-26.
Walton’s 44 points — still a championship game record — pushed the Bruins’ dynasty forward to a staggering high place. The game capped a 30-0 season, secured John Wooden’s mind-boggling seventh consecutive national title, and was No. 75 in UCLA’s 88-game winning streak.
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Sixty years ago in 1963 . . .
These were only the early days of the 1960s civil rights movement and Black players were not that common in major college basketball, Loyola Chicago started four, blazing the trail that Texas Western would famously follow three years later, when they sent out five to win the 1966 title. Besides being ground-breakers, the Ramblers of ’63 were also very good, taking a 24-2 record into the NCAA tournament.
They beat Mississippi State in a Sweet 16 game at Michigan State, when the Bulldogs literally had to slip out of town to travel to East Lansing to participate because of a state injunction against playing integrated teams. Illinois fell to Loyola, then Duke. That left only one last power to topple: top-ranked and two-time defending champion Cincinnati. The Bearcats were on an historic mission to become the first three-peat title winner ever in the NCAA tournament.
Only five Ramblers played that night, but they never tired enough to be stopped. Loyola rallied from 15 points down in the second half to force overtime, then won the title 60-58 on Vic Rouse’s putback with one second left. It would be 55 years before the Ramblers returned to the Final Four.
Seventy years ago in 1953 . . .
The NCAA tournament was only 15 years old but already Kansas and Indiana were clearly two of the hallowed names. They met in the title game before a highly pro-Jayhawk crowd in Kansas City and were tied at 68 when Indiana’s Bobby Leonard was fouled with 27 seconds left. Only a 67-shooter at the line, his free throw gave the Hoosiers a victory and the championship, and inspired one of the most memorable quotes in Final Four history.
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Indiana coach Branch McCracken said he had expected Leonard to make the free throw because he had “ice water in his veins,” Leonard was asked for a response. “It sure felt warm,” he said, “running down my leg.”
Eighty years ago in 1943 . . .
Madison Square Garden was the place to be in college basketball. On March 29, St. John’s crushed Toledo 48-27 for the NIT title. The next night on the same floor, Wyoming beat Georgetown 46-34 for the NCAA tournament championship, led by Ken Sailors, whose idea about how to shoot the ball over his taller brother back home had helped start a revolution. He just elevated when he fired. It came to be called the jump shot.
Times were different then. The NIT was just as prestigious as the new-fangled NCAA event and St. John’s claimed it was every bit as good, or better, than Wyoming. To raise money for the war effort, the two met two days later — yep, in Madison Square Garden — and Wyoming won 52-47 in overtime.
The first two months this season suggest the high potential for something memorable in 2023. Kansas could be the first repeat champion in 16 years . . . Purdue could reach its first Final Four in 43 years and give the Big Ten its first title since 2000 . . . Houston — six Final Fours in its past, no titles — could get its long-sought first championship . . . Connecticut could go from unranked to the top of the sport . . . Tennessee or Alabama could reach their first Final Fours . . . Arizona or UCLA or Gonzaga could bring the West its first championship this century.
But one thing we know won’t happen. The NIT and NCAA champions won’t be meeting in Madison Square Garden.