1980: It was the first that no #1 seeds had made the Final Four. #2-seed Louisville arrived as the favorite to win it all, with just a short trip northward for its fans to cheer on Darrell Griffith and the Doctors of Dunk. The old Market Square Arena was the host, a building that probably wouldn’t qualify to get a 1st/2nd Round weekend today. Two Big Ten teams were on hand here to represent the home conference. Iowa, then coached by Lute Olson snuck in. And Purdue was the home state team. The Boilermakers had upset Indiana and Bob Knight in the Sweet 16, while Digger Phelps’ Notre Dame squad was ousted in the second round. The fourth team was a familiar name on an unlikely path—UCLA. The Bruins weren’t far removed from the Wooden Dynasty, but they had only been a #8-seed, before a stunning upset of top-ranked DePaul got their road started.
Louisville & UCLA won good, but not great games, to make the final. The Bruins led 50-45, before the Cardinal defense took over and led the way to a 59-54 win that gave Denny Crum the first of what would be two national titles. The coach of UCLA would become familiar to NCAA & NBA fans—Larry Brown, on the first stop of his many travels.
1991: This one’s special to me. I was going to school in Indiana and made the trip to the Hoosier Dome for the Saturday semis, although I was still a little hungover from a losing bout with a bottle of Jim Beam the night before. It was well worth the trip and the fifty bucks paid to get in. Roy Williams was making his first Final Four appearance with Kansas and took on his old school (as an assistant) and future school (as current head coach) in North Carolina. The Jayhawks won 79-73, though future ESPN analyst Hubert Davis had 19 points for the Tar Heels. The nightcap is what this day is remembered for. Undefeated UNLV lost its bid for a perfect season when Duke pulled a 79-77 upset that sent us all into a screaming frenzy. Another future analyst was on the floor in Greg Anthony, then of UNLV and now of CBS. Anthony fouling out with five minutes to go was likely the decisive factor.
Duke won its first national title on Monday over Kansas, a game most remembered for an incredibly athletic alley-oop slam from Bobby Hurley to Grant Hill. Christian Laettner was named Most Outstanding Player.
1997: Three #1 seeds were here in North Carolina, Minnesota and defending national champ Kentucky. But it was fourth-seeded Arizona who stole the show and the championship. The Wildcats beat UNC 66-58 to start the day. Afterward, Dean Smith announced his retirement. After Kentucky knocked off the Golden Gophers 78-69, the All-Wildcat championship game proved to be one for the history books. It went overtime, before Arizona finally prevailed 84-79. It was an ironic crown for Lute Olson. After so many years of tournament troubles when he had a #1 or #2 seed, it was a year no one was expecting that he finally ran the table. But that’s the reward of consistency. Knock the door enough times and it opens when you least expect it. After the title game, Kentucky coach Rick Pitino announced he was leaving to coach the Celtics. The big individual performance was from Miles Simon, who bagged 30 points in the final.
2000: It was a year of upsets. Two #8 seeds had made it in Wisconsin and North Carolina (yes, the Heels were really an eight-seed that year). Fifth-seeded Florida seemed a positive powerhouse by comparison and they beat UNC in one semi. Michigan State was a conventional #1 seed and they advanced past Wisconsin in a 53-41 defensive war and then finished off the Gators in the final to win Tom Izzo’s only national title. One notable future pro was on the court during this weekend—only it wasn’t someone headed for the NBA. Julius Peppers, recently inked to a big-money deal by the Chicago Bears was a reserve for North Carolina.
2006: The signature year when we talk about chaos, thanks to #11 seed George Mason making the Final Four. They aren’t the only team seeded that low to make it this far. LSU's 1986 squad is tied for the honor. But being a midmajor and taking out the consensus #1 team in UConn makes Mason the biggest Cinderella team to ever crash the Final Four. Florida was here again, the first time since their ’00 appearance and they ended the Colonials’ run. UCLA easily beat LSU in the other semi. A rather anticlimactic Final Four ended when Florida easily won the title game, the first of two straight crowns for Billy Donovan.
We can see this town’s legacy as being the host in surprise years. 1980 & 2006 are the only years that have seen a #1 seed fail to make it. Arizona is the only team to beat three #1 seeds on its way to a national title. In total, three #8 seeds have played here, plus a #11. This is another year of surprises in the tournament. Only one #1 seed is on hand in Duke. Two #5 seeds are here and a midmajor is part of the party. One other thing we’ve seen in this review of history is that Cinderella storylines don’t always make for dramatic games or finishes. In that regard, here’s hoping this year matches up to finishes like 1991 or even 1980, rather than the dullness of ’06.
Tomorrow the team overviews start with Michigan State. We’ll look at Butler on Wednesday, West Virginia on Thursday and Duke on Friday. Over at The Baseball Notebook the NL East preview is up right now and the NL Central follows tomorrow. See you here then.