Sunday, March 28, 2010

Go Vols: A Brief History of the NCAA Tournament

Tennessee (orange) and Michigan State know defense wins championships.

Today is probably--highly likely--the first time in my life that I've anticipated a basketball game this late in March. My Tennessee Volunteers play Michigan State at 2:30 or so in the NCAA Mideast Regional final, a first for the Vols. On the opposition side, Michigan State has been to the Final 4 five times in 11 years and nobody who has played for Coach Tom Izzo for four years in East Lansing has failed to go to the F4.

As different as these programs' histories are, the teams are actually quite similar: metal lunchbox players without real stars (since MSU lost its point guard and UT lost its best forward) who play great defense and rebound well. The teams are defined by intensity, toughness and will, not flash and trash (think Kentucky, which is no longer playing).

The Knoxville press talks--perhaps rhetorically, but certainly without any real sense of the history of the NCAA tournament--about UT going farther in the field than it has in 101 years. The tournament didn't begin until 1939, which is 71 years ago. Before that, we had the National Invitational Tournament in New York and Kansas Coach Phog Allen thought that wasn't good enough, so he and the coaches association spearheaded the NCAA tournament.

Here's what's happened to the field since (according to Wikipedia):

"The NCAA tournament has expanded a number of times throughout its history. This is a breakdown of the history of the tournament format:

1939–1950: eight teams;

16 teams;

varied between 22 and 25 teams;

32 teams;

40 teams;

48 teams;

52 teams (four play-in games before the tournament);

53 teams (five play-in games before the tournament);

64 teams;

65 teams (with an opening round game to determine whether the 64th or 65th team plays in the first round).

"To date there has been much speculation about increasing the tournament size to as many as 128 teams [Note: Oh, God! No! Please, no!]. However, there have been no formal talks of doing so, and many consider the current format a huge success. Prior to 1975, only one team per conference could be in the NCAA tournament."

I recall the limited field in 1974 having a direct effect on one major college's conference affiliation: The University of South Carolina under Frank McGuire had the best team in the U.S. and was undefeated until N.C. State knocked it off in the ACC tournament. Only the tournament champion was invited to the NCAA (as was the norm nationally for the few conferences that had tournaments) and that was State, which promptly lost. South Carolina, furious, pulled out of the ACC and eventually joined the SEC (with Tennessee).

I will mention--as a tiny historic footnote--that Eddie Biedenbach (coach at UNC Asheville, where I matriculated for about an hour) was a key player in that N.C. State win, stealing the ball near the end of the game from guard John Roach and scoring on an important layup. In the process of the steal, Biedenbach broke Roach's wrist, but no foul was called. It was little wonder McGuire was in such a, uh, foul mood. UNCA, which is in the Big South Conference with Radford and Liberty, is the only team from that league ever to win an NCAA tournament game: it won a play-in a few years ago because of the 65-team format.

So, today, we consider history and pull for the Vols to be the first team in 71 or 101 years on Cumberland Ave. to reach the Final Four where--because of the upsets that have eliminated three of the four No. 1 seeds and most of the 2s, as well, they have as good a chance as anybody of being the champion. Who'd-a thunk that a week ago?

(Knoxville News-Sentinel photo.)

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