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The NC State championship season that changed NCAA hoops forever

NC State’s David Thompson, Monte Towe, Mo Rivers and Tommy Burleson celebrate after the 1974 Wolfpack defeated Marquette to win the NCAA men’s basketball championship.
NC State’s David Thompson, Monte Towe, Mo Rivers and Tommy Burleson celebrate after the 1974 Wolfpack defeated Marquette to win the NCAA men’s basketball championship. newsobserver.com

Around these parts, the 1973-74 NCAA basketball season is remembered as the year a team from Tobacco Road dethroned a dynasty.

Authors J. Samuel Walker and Randy Roberts argue that it was much more: the moment when a tournament was reborn as an American institution that came to be called March Madness.

In “The Road to Madness,” they make a persuasive case. The tournament had just 25 teams in 1974, and several of the very best college squads weren’t even invited. Neither was ever true again.

N.C. State fans, of course, will particularly enjoy the account of the Pack’s journey to the championship – sidetracked by an early-season drubbing by seven-time defending champion UCLA, but redeemed by a thrice-from-behind, double-overtime victory over the Bruins in the national semifinals in Greensboro, and a title win over Marquette.

Readers expecting a detailed account of heart-stopping hardwood action – and there was plenty in that postseason – may be disappointed. The State-Maryland overtime game for the Atlantic Coast Conference championship and the league’s sole NCAA berth, maybe the best college game ever played, gets four pages. The East Regional final between State and Pitt, including David Thompson’s terrifying head injury, rates one page. And the State-UCLA showdown also goes by in a bit of a blur.

But Walker and Roberts execute some nice backdoor cuts.

There are entertaining portraits of key people in that season’s saga: Thompson, the best ACC performer ever, and his volatile, plaid-clad coach, Norm Sloan; UCLA’s laced-up, legendary mentor, John Wooden, and his free-spirited star, Bill Walton; and two of the game’s most colorful coaches, Marquette’s Al McGuire and Notre Dame’s Digger Phelps.

An added surprise is Tom Scott, the Davidson athletics director who, obscure to the masses, was the key driver of the rules change that really created March Madness.

The authors also offer an intimate glimpse at the inner workings of the NCAA under Walter Byers, its executive director for more than three decades. Byers was a man rigid and demanding of his charges and maybe too meticulous in defense of arcane rules. But he was a leader of some vision and a master of the deal, especially when negotiating television rights. The story of how the TV contract for the tournament grew, from its first appearance in 1954 (rights: $7,500), through its days when it lost out to The Martha Raye Show, to its first six-figure contract with a syndicator in 1963, and on to its billion-dollar days with CBS – is fascinating. Byers did much to build a monster that later he came to regret.

Walker and Roberts do make the case that the 1973-74 season was pivotal. It solidified NCAA basketball’s television appeal, and the interruption of UCLA’s title streak boosted recruiting elsewhere and led to more nationwide parity.

Most important, the rule that had limited each conference to one participant in the NCAA tournament, under assault for years by Davidson’s Scott and others, finally became untenable. Several of the nation’s elite teams – Maryland, Southern Cal and Indiana among them – weren’t allowed to play for the national title, and the howls of protest were impossible to ignore. The Terrapins, with Tom McMillen, Len Elmore and John Lucas, probably were better than many national champions – and snubbed the consolation prize, the National Invitation Tournament, in disgust after losing the ACC final.

The NCAA changed the rule quickly afterward to allow two teams per league, and within five years there was no limit at all – and a field of 48 teams, now up to 68 – allowing conference pride, traditional rivalries and the best players in the game to be an integral part of what is now an annual March affliction.

Eric Frederick: 919-829-8956. On Twitter: @Eric_Frederick

Nonfiction

The Road to Madness: How the 1973-1974 Season Transformed College Basketball

By J. Samuel Walker and Randy Roberts

The University of North Carolina Press, 192 pages

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