There is a difference between the best games in college basketball history (same with any other sport) and the most IMPORTANT games in the story of college hoops.
1992 Kentucky-Duke is, for most, the best college basketball game ever played. It did contain some importance. It led to Duke’s back-to-back titles. It fueled the rise of Kentucky back to national prominence. Yet, when discussing important games separately from best games, the scope and scale of impact must go far beyond the two teams on the court. Through that simple prism, here are several supremely important college basketball games and days.
I won’t rank them all, but I will present the top two games at the end of this piece.
1979 Bird-Magic National Championship Game: Indiana State-Michigan State
There is no question that this game — which became a national story in ways few other national title games ever have — propelled college basketball into the 1980s and the large-scale NCAA Tournament we have today. This game was more of a godsend for the NBA, since it provided the ultimate showcase for the two players who saved and transformed professional basketball at a dark point in time for the league, but it did also catapult college basketball into a new era.
One of the turning points in the evolution of both college basketball and the Final Four was the move to domed stadiums, which began to take root at the enormously successful 1982 Final Four in New Orleans, which put over 61,000 people in the seats and led to the 1984 Final Four in Seattle, which began a series of return visits to domed stadiums. By 1996, the Final Four had made its last visit to a conventional arena in East Rutherford, New Jersey. From 1997 onward, the Final Four lived exclusively in domes. Trace that back to 1979 Bird-Magic.
March 18 and 20, 1983; April 4, 1983 — North Carolina State in the 1983 NCAA Tournament
North Carolina State’s 1983 NCAA title was significant for several reasons, the two most important ones being the Cinderella appeal of a March Madness story and the centrality of purposeful fouling to force opponents to shoot pressure-packed free throws.
North Carolina’s dash to the title as a No. 6 seed gave hope to other programs that they could win this tournament from a lower-seeded position, Villanova becoming another manifestation of this possibility in 1985, and Kansas a few years later in 1988. This was part of the 1980s’ central role in boosting the potency and magic of March Madness in the popular imagination.
The other part of the N.C. State run in 1983 was the Jim Valvano use of purposeful fouls to force opponents to handle the pressure of front ends of 1-and-1s. Another coach might have used this tactic, but Valvano became the one who adopted it on a regular basis in this tournament, chiefly on the three days mentioned above: against Pepperdine, UNLV, and Houston in the national championship game.
This is why Free Throw Awareness Month is so important.
1974 ACC Tournament final: North Carolina State-Maryland
This is one of the best games ever played, but it is also one of the most important. The 1974 Maryland team which lost this game was not allowed into a small NCAA Tournament field of 25 teams. People grasped how dumb it was that losers of conference tournaments weren’t given easy access into the Big Dance. That flaw was promptly fixed, and 11 years later, the NCAA field had grown to 64 teams, a 39-team increase from 1974.
January 20, 1968: UCLA-Houston
The eventual move to domes for Final Fours. The syndication and national distribution of college basketball inventory. The staging of huge sports events in football stadiums (something done in tennis as well as college basketball). So many aspects of the business of sports in America were given a boost and transformation by the staging of a basketball game in front of more than 52,000 fans in the Houston Astrodome.
If this game had never occurred, the 1971 Final Four likely wouldn’t have come to the Astrodome, and the shift to dome-based Final Fours in the 1980s might never have gotten off the ground. The NCAA Tournament might be unrecognizable. Also, the way college basketball is televised might have needed a lot more time to evolve.
1973 National Championship Game: UCLA-Memphis State
This was the first national title game played on Monday night, at the first Final Four in which the national semifinals were played on Saturday. Good plan, NCAA. This change remains a hit 46 years later.
March 14, 1981
Kansas State upset Oregon State. St. Joseph’s stunned DePaul. Arkansas shocked Louisville. Three upsets tore through the NCAA Tournament in a very short time.
That wasn’t new, but what WAS new is that NBC Sports was able to capture each of those events live and beam them to a national audience.
This was a seminal day in the history of sports television. Technology began to evolve to the point where “whiparound coverage” of games could become a reality. Life would never be the same for fans and television producers.
No event benefited more from this evolution than the NCAA Tournament.
This was the day March Madness became reality on many levels.
And now, the two most important college basketball games ever played:
2) 1966 National Championship Game: Texas Western-Kentucky
The ripple effects from this game — chiefly the recruiting of African-American athletes at Kentucky and other Southern schools — were and are evident. The obvious nature of the changes created by Texas Western’s seminal triumph with an all-black starting lineup does not diminish or dilute the enormity of the occasion. This game’s impact on college basketball is not overrated, 53 years later.
Why is this not No. 1 on the list? Because another game is historically underrated:
1) 1963 National Championship Game: Cincinnati-Loyola (Chicago)
The 1966 national title game is the game more people remember — especially since it became part of a movie, “Glory Road” — but when one uses the expression, “standing on the shoulders of giants,” the 1963 title game set the example which gave the 1966 game a bigger platform.
The Loyola-Chicago Ramblers had four black starters, and the Cincinnati Bearcats had three. Seven of the 10 starters in this game were black, and they staged a classic game with a riveting finish.
Maybe you would rate the 1966 game over 1963 — fair enough. The bigger point: No matter how you rank or order these games, they do deserve to occupy the top two slots for their social impact on college basketball.
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