There won’t be a Final Four this year — Atlanta’s loss after the NCAA Tournament was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. However, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Mark Bradley, a 2015 inductee of the U.S. Basketball Writers Association Hall of Fame, will present his list of the Top 10 Final Fours of all-time. The list will be presented in reverse order, culminating with the greatest men’s basketball championship.
Today: No. 5 — 1974
At the time it was happening — and it happened over a very long time — it was possible to believe UCLA’s reign would last forever. The Bruins won two NCAA titles in succession, then seven more. Had Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (nee Lew Alcindor) been eligible as a freshman, they’d have taken 10 straight. They won twice as many championships without Kareem/Lew as with him.
Come the 1974-74 season, the Bruins of Bill Walton had done something even Kareem’s teams hadn’t — gone undefeated over consecutive seasons. Their winning streak would reach 88 games before ending at Notre Dame on Jan. 19, 1974. UCLA led 70-59 with 3-1/2 minutes to play; it lost 71-70, the Irish scoring the final 12 points. It was so unlike UCLA that you scarcely believe it. Then it happened again — twice.
On Feb. 16 and 17, UCLA lost at Oregon State and then Oregon. Those strange scores from the West Coast arrived so late in the East that your first thought was, “Are these different games?” They were. The Walton Gang had lost as many games in two days as Kareem’s teams had in three seasons. These were mostly the same Bruins as in previous dominating seasons, but whispers held that they no longer got along and that coach John Wooden, the Wizard of Westwood, was so fed up he was mulling retirement.
In the East, another leviathan was rising. North Carolina State went 27-0 in 1972-73 and won the ACC tournament. It was ineligible for the NCAA due to sanctions attached to the recruiting of David Thompson. So coveted was the skywalker from Shelby, N.C., that the pursuit of his services also landed Duke on probation. State, though, signed him and kept him. With the Wolfpack again NCAA-eligible, they entered the next season deemed the biggest threat to UCLA since Houston and Elvin Hayes in 1968. A December game between the two was set in neutral St. Louis by ABC. It was a dud. Even with Walton in foul trouble, UCLA won 84-66. Thompson made seven of 20 shots.
N.C. State wouldn’t lose again, though it came close in the ACC final against Maryland. Some folks consider this the best college game ever. Tom Burleson, the Wolfpack center listed at 7-foot-4, scored 38 points. State won 103-100 in overtime. Had it lost, it wouldn’t have made the NCAA tournament. Only one bid per league in those days.
State arrived at the Final Four — set for Greensboro Coliseum, 79 miles from State’s campus— after a fright in the East Regional final in Raleigh. Thompson, whose vertical leap was measured at 48 inches, jumped to block a Pitt shot. He caught his legs on teammate Phil Spence’s shoulder and flipped in mid-air. He landed on his head and neck. He stayed down for 10 minutes before being stretchered off. He returned near game’s end to wave to the hometown fans, still in uniform but with his head bandaged. He’d suffered a concussion and needed 15 stitches, but he was otherwise OK. He would play in the Final Four without the bandages, though with a noticeably shorter haircut.
History little notes the other participants in the 1974 Final Four. Even Marquette coach Al McGuire likened his team’s semifinal against Kansas to a JV game. The world awaited UCLA-State, and the world was given an epic. The Bruins led by 11 in regulation and by seven in the second overtime. UCLA’s Dave Meyers missed the front end with 1:16 left in the second OT and his team up one. Thompson banked home a shot over UCLA’s Jamaal Wilkes with 50 seconds remaining to put State ahead. Greg Lee missed from the wing. Fouled on the rebound, Thompson made both. Burleson stole a pass for Walton. Monte Towe, the 5-7 guard, made both.
UCLA, who had last lost an NCAA tournament game on March 16, 1963, had been beaten. State would win the most anticlimactic title on record by beating Marquette 76-64 in a game highlighted by referee Irv Brown slapping two technical fouls on McGuire. Sports Illustrated's cover bore a photo of Thompson rising over Walton. “End of an era,” SI proclaimed. That sounded right. It wasn’t quite.
Without Walton, Wilkes and Lee, UCLA won one more for the Wizard, overcoming Louisville in another overtime Final Four semifinal and shading Kentucky for the 1975 title. And then Wooden walked into retirement, a winner of 10 titles in 12 years.
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