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Marching into Madness, the highs and lows of the NCAA Tournament

Updated on January 25, 2021
RJ Schwartz profile image

When he's not writing poetry or political articles, Ralph fills his time by researching various topics that are influencing society today.

Each spring American are tempted, nearly drawn by some unseen force to turn their attention away from everything they cherish to focus on the NCAA basketball tournament. March Madness has become a synonymous term with the tournament especially in the last decade with the unpredictability and excitement of upsets, busted brackets, and Cinderella stories

NCAA and the NIT

When the college basketball tournament first began back in 1939, there were only 8 teams which competed. The tournament was actually the underdog show to the National Invitational Tournament (NIT) which was considered the preeminent event, mainly because it was held in the infamous Madison Square Garden and brought the participating teams media attention. In the early days, team could participate in both events and one team actually won both the NCAA and the NIT in the same season; the City College of New York was hailed as heroic for the feat that is until the following season when several members of that winning team were arrested for taking bribes from gamblers to shave points. The first NCAA winner was the Oregon Webfoots coached by Howard Hobson. The team won the finals 46-33, beating Ohio State with John H. Dick posting 15 points as the leading scorer. In the early 1950’s the field was increased to 16 teams and by the early 1970’s had 22 to 25 teams participating. In 1975 the field again grew to 32 teams and as its popularity rose it jumped up to 64 teams in 1985. Currently the tournament has 68 slots.

John Wooden
John Wooden

The Greatest Teams

With all those tournaments and all those teams, there has been amazing shots, magical moments, and incredible team efforts. But, the one subject that will certainly start a heated discussion is, which team over the course of all the tournaments was the best. The teams with the strongest claim to this moniker are the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers 32-0, coached by Bob Knight, a man known for his basketball and his temper also the 1972 UCLA Bruins who went 30-0 that year. The Bruins didn’t just win in 1972 they dominated every opponent under Coach John Wooden. With Bill Walton leading the team, the Bruins won every game except for 2 by double digits. The 1972 UCLA Bruins went undefeated again with Walton helping to cement the season by scoring an amazing 44 points in the championship game. The final team that could be considered is the San Francisco Dons, who finished the season undefeated in 1956 led by Bill Russell, the man whom some claim turned shot blocking into an art form.

Wisconsin's amazing victory over then undefeated Kentucky
Wisconsin's amazing victory over then undefeated Kentucky

Those Who Just Missed

Although there were other teams which finished with undefeated seasons; North Carolina Tar Heels in 1957 and UCLA in 1964, neither team would play at the level of the aforementioned teams. North Carolina does deserve some accolades for participating in what many still call the greatest championship game ever played. In that game, the Tar Heels won 54-53 in triple overtime, beating Wilt Chamberlin’s Kansas Jayhawks to take the crown. The 1982 Tar Heels tried to live up to their school legacy with basketball superhero Michael Jordan leading a team which would produce 12 future NBA draft picks to the title, however their 32-2 record wasn’t quite enough.

In 1985 when the bracket expanded to 64 teams, Villanova took home the crown with one of the greatest upsets in championship game history by defeating Georgetown 66-64. With a 30-3 record and Patrick Ewing leading the team, the Hoyas looked like a sure thing facing the 25-10 Wildcats. The Wildcats put on a show making 79% of their shots from the field and playing smothering defense holding the Hoyas to 29 of 53 baskets. Speaking of Wildcats, but the ones from Kentucky gave 2015 fans a great show on their way through the season and into the tournament. Taking their 38-0 record into the semi-finals against Wisconsin, John Calipari’s team seemed to be on their way to the best season in history. However the Badgers, led by Frank Kaminsky, made a huge comeback to defeat them. The Badgers were summarily defeated by the Duke Blue Devils in the championship game, but their victory is considered one of the greatest wins in school history.

Coach K
Coach K


Duke’s coach Mike Krzyzewski is currently the all-time leader in tournament victories, leading his team to cutting down the nets 88 times. He’s tied with UCLA’s John Wooden for most Final Four appearances with 12, although Wooden’s 10 Championships appears to be untouchable; Krzyzewski has 5 to date. When we review the total number of championships won by schools, UCLA leads with 11 followed by Kentucky with 8, and North Carolina, Duke, and Indiana all tied with 5 each. The most school appearances in the Final Four have North Carolina barely above UCLA and Kentucky with 18 trips.

Individual records for the tournament in any single game the most points were recorded by Austin Carr who scored 61 in a 1970 game for Notre Dame. In that same game Carr also set the record for field goals with 25, and field goal attempts with 44. The three point land record is held by Jeff Fryer of Loyola-Marymount who banged out 11 in a game versus Michigan in 1990. Temple’s Fred Cohen grabbed 34 boards in a 1956 game versus Connecticut making him the rebound king. Shaquille O’Neil blocked an amazing 11 shots for LSU in 1992 in a game against BYU. None of the records have been even approached in the last 15 years and with the team focus we see today, may stand for a very long time.

Lew Alcindor
Lew Alcindor

Greatest Players

The three most dominant players in Final Four history do not hold any of the records. Kareem-Abdul Jabbar, or as he was known in college as Lew Alcindor is considered the greatest college basketball player in history. As a player he led the UCLA Bruins to three consecutive championships, winning the MVP each of those seasons. Bill Walton, another UCLA legend led the Bruins to a record 88 consecutive victories, won consecutive championships and was MVP both of those seasons. The third player, Christian Laettner played in four consecutive final fours, scoring 407 points in 23 games. He won two consecutive titles, won an MVP and was later a member of the US Olympic team. His game winning shot in the 1992 Duke victory over Kentucky is considered the single most memorable moment in NCAA Tournament history.

The Greatest Final Shot


So with the 2016 Final Four right on our doorsteps, we’ve already been host to epic upsets and busted brackets. The last contenders square off tomorrow, with the early game of No. 2 Oklahoma vs. No. 2 Villanova followed by the late game of No. 1 North Carolina vs. No. 10 Syracuse with the Championship game being played on Monday. The Tar Heels are predicted by the odds-makers to be the last team standing but then again, this is the Final Four, where fierce competition leads to dreams coming true for some while others walk away with an emptiness that may never be filled. It’s why they play the games and why they call it March Madness.


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