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Would A Kentucky-Duke NCAA Final Be The Highest-Rated Ever?

Ben Cohen of The Wall Street Journal wrote a short piece on Sunday night saying that it was time for this NCAA Tournament to just cut to the chase and give the public what it wants–a Kentucky-Duke battle for the national championship. Earlier in the weekend I had texted a couple friends to throw out this hypothetical–would a Kentucky-Duke title bout get the best TV ratings in NCAA history?

I want to preface this by saying that as a Wisconsin fan, I’m hardly thirsting for the ‘Cats and Blue Devils to play on Monday Night. If I could get my way this weekend, the Badgers would be joined in Indianapolis by Wichita State, Gonzaga and Michigan State. But from a standpoint of marquee appeal and historical storylines, it’s tough to imagine a matchup much richer than Kentucky and Duke.

This is what a Kentucky-Duke final has going for it…

2015 Final Four*Let’s start with the obvious, which is the huge brand name appeal of both programs, extending well beyond their fan bases. Each incites emotional reactions among fans, both good and bad. The reasons for the passion are different, but it’s intense.

*Both teams would be pursuing history–Kentucky, of course, would look to become the first unbeaten national champion since 1976. Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski would be after his fifth national championship, tying him for second on the all-time list.

*Kentucky would be looking to get its perfect season at the expense of Coach K, who was an assistant at Indiana in 1975, working with all the players who achieved perfection the next season. Krzyzewski would be aiming to tie Adolph Rupp on the all-time list…who coached at Kentucky.

*Then there’s all the highlight footage that would hype the game. The Grant Hill-to-Christian Laettner pass and shot that won the 1992 East regional final for Duke over Kentucky would lead the list. But there’s also Kentucky’s rally from 17 down in the second half to beat Duke in the 1998 Southeast Regional final. There’s the Wildcats’ Jack Givens going off for 41 points to beat the Blue Devils in the 1978 national title game. Great moments, every single one.

So would all this add up to the highest-rated national championship game ever? The current standard is the 1979 title game with Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, when Magic’s Michigan State team beat Bird’s Indiana State Sycamores for the crown.

March Madness was just “the NCAA Tournament” back then, and not a three-week national sports feast–and we can be reasonably assured that a lot of bracket pools would be on the line with two such chalk favorites playing in the championship game. All of which augurs in favor of a ratings record.

But on the flip side, the world of television has changed. In 1979, people had a choice between CBS, ABC and NBC and that was it, save for maybe a documentary on PBS. Nowadays, there’s everything under the sun available to watch, plus what’s on your DVR. It seems fair to guess that in 1979, anyone even vaguely interested in the basketball game probably watched it. Today, that fringe viewer probably goes somewhere else.

My own personal guess–Kentucky-Duke would narrowly nip Magic-Bird for the honor of highest-rated national TV game ever. It’s also my personal guess that this is the title game we will actually get–but as my bracket record attests, that’s the surest evidence that we’ll probably never get to find out.

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The Road To The 1982 Final Four

The 1982 Final Four produced one of the great national championship games, as North Carolina and Georgetown went down to the wire before Dean Smith won his first title. With Louisville and Houston also in New Orleans, it showcased a dazzling array of talent–James Worthy, Patrick Ewing, Sam Perkins, Sleepy Floyd, Michael Jordan, Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon were all on college basketball’s center stage. Here’s a look back on the road all four teams took to get there.

NORTH CAROLINA

The Tar Heels had lost the NCAA final to Indiana in 1981 and brought most of the key personnel back, along with one notable addition–the freshman Michael Jordan. It’s no surprise that North Carolina was ranked #1 to start the season and with a 27-2 record that’s how they entered the NCAA Tournament.

March Madness historyUNC was led by first-team All-American Worthy, with 16 ppg, and then Perkins who scored 14 ppg and was second-team All-American. It was a potent two-headed monster at the forward position, with Jordan kicking in 14 a game in the backcourt, and Jimmy Black ably distributing the ball and running the show.

North Carolina staged a season-long battle with Virginia at the top of the national polls and in the ACC. The two teams tied for the regular season title and then Carolina won a controversial 47-45 game in the tournament final–controversial because Smith went to the Four Corners offense with nine minutes left in a close game. In the long run, the outcry triggered the coming of the shot clock. In the short run, the victory got UNC the top seed in the East Regional.

The NCAA Tournament was a 48-team bracket, meaning the top four teams in each regional got byes into the second round. North Carolina got a tough fight from drastically undermanned James Madison, being fought to a draw on the boards and allowing 57 percent shooting. But they survived and advanced, 52-50, to the regionals in Raleigh.

Alabama was waiting in the Sweet 16. The Tide knew something about causing heartache for #1 teams, having come the closest to stopping Indiana’s unbeaten season in 1976. This one was another good game, but Carolina had too much balance–all five starters, including Matt Doherty, ranged from 11-16 points and the result was a 74-69.

Villanova, the Big East regular season champ, was waiting in the final, having nipped 2-seed Memphis 70-66 behind great interior play from John Pinone and Ed Pinckney, who combined for 35 points/22 rebounds. But once again, North Carolina’s complete balance was too much. The five starters were all between 11-15 points in a 70-60 win.

No one player really stood out for the Tar Heels, but Worthy’s combined 30 points in the two games made him high scorer, so he was a logical choice for the region’s Outstanding Player. But these collection of immensely talented individuals were all submerged into a team concept and that team was going to Smith’s seventh Final Four–and looking for his first national title.

GEORGETOWN

John Thompson made the splash of the recruiting season prior to the 1981-82 campaign. It was Ewing, not Jordan, who drew all the hype and when Ewing chose the Hoyas, the program was primed to reach its first Final Four. The big center scored 13 ppg and was a feared shotblocker, made all the more effective by the waves of attacking defenders that Thompson ran in and out on the perimeter.

Eric “Sleepy” Floyd was the best offensive threat and the shooting guard knocked down 18 ppg en route to first-team All-American recognition. The floor show was ran by the combination of Eric Smith and Fred Brown. Georgetown finished second to Villanova in the Big East, but the Hoyas dominated ‘Nova in the conference tournament final, earning Georgetown the #1 seed in the West with a 26-6 record.

After a workmanlike 51-43 over Wyoming, the Hoyas went to Provo, where a chalk regional with all four favorites awaited. Floyd was red-hot in the round of 16 against Fresno State, shooting 7-for-9 from the floor. Georgetown’s defense dominated, holding Fresno to 41 percent shooting and controlling the glass in an easy 58-40 win.

Oregon State won the Pac-10 and head coach Ralph Miller had been national Coach of the Year. The Beavers put on a defensive display of their own, holding third-seeded Idaho to 42 percent shooting, while guard Lester Connor knocked down 24 points. Oregon State looked ready to be a worthy challenger to Georgetown in the regional final.

Only they weren’t. Floyd continued to light it up, hitting nine of his twelve shots, and the team shot an amazing 70 percent. The defense didn’t go anywhere, holding Connor to 13 and Oregon State to a 38 percent shooting effort. The Hoyas were up 42-25 by the half and coasted to a 69-45 victory. Floyd was an easy regional MOP choice and Thompson was going to the Final Four.

LOUISVILLE

The Cardinals were the only team in New Orleans that didn’t have at least one future NBA legend on its roster, but they had plenty of talent by the college standards of the day. Derek Smith, Lancaster Gordon, Jerry Eaves and Rodney McCray were the cornerstones of a team that had depth, defensive skill and leaping ability on the glass. Louisville’s Denny Crum was also the only coach in the Final Four who had a national title on his resume, winning it two years earlier.

Louisville went 20-9, an abnormally large number of losses for a top team in the early 1980s, but Crum also played a stacked non-conference schedule to prepare his team for March. They entered the NCAAs as the #3 seed in the Mideast Region (the bracket that has since evolved to become today’s South regional).

The Commonwealth of Kentucky–and in fact, the entire college basketball world, looked forward to a battle between Louisville and sixth-seeded Kentucky in the second round. This was at a time when UK still refused to play the Cards and it was a national story. But Kentucky no-showed against Middle Tennessee State, shooting just 38 percent. Louisville settled for an anticlimactic 81-56 rout of MTSU to move into the regionals in Birmingham.

Two great centers awaited–one was Sampson and top-seeded Virginia, the other was Randy Breuer, the 7’3″ big man from Minnesota that Louisville had to deal with in the Sweet 16.

Breuer was as advertised, getting 22 points/12 rebounds. But Louisville outperformed the Gophers everywhere else, shooting 58 percent and getting 23 from Gordon as they won 67-61. In other Sweet 16 game, UAB, relying on some home cooking, upset Sampson’s Cavs 68-66 behind 23 points from Oliver Robinson.

UAB was coached by Gene Bartow, who had succeeded Wooden at UCLA and taken the program to the 1976 Final Four, but was never really appreciated. Crum was also a former Wooden assistant. So these old hands of the dynasty went head-to-head for a Final Four trip.

Robinson again got his points, scoring 20, although Louisville made him work harder, in a 9-for-21 shooting effort. The Cards were more efficient, shooting 60 percent. Robinson got Outstanding Player honors, but Louisville got the ticket to New Orleans in a 75-68 win.

HOUSTON

The talent jumps off the page–Clyde Drexler, a 15 ppg scorer. Akeem Olajuwon (it was only later in the NBA that he would change his first name to “Hakeem”), a still raw freshman. And that was only the beginning. Larry Micheaux was a good interior player, Michael Young a good wing shooter and in the college world of 1982, Robert Williams was the best of them all. He averaged 21 ppg, and also effectively quarterbacked the offense.

Perhaps the mystery is not why this team made the 1982 Final Four, but why they only went 21-7, finished the season unranked, trailed Arkansas in the old Southwest Conference and ended up a #6 seed in the Midwest Regional.

The Cougars had to play the opening round and shot 70 percent in beating Alcorn State 94-84. Then Houston upset Tulsa, with second-team All-American and future NBA mainstay Paul Pressey 78-74. Williams led the way with 26 points and Houston went to St. Louis for the regionals.

It was a gutted bracket, with Missouri the only one of the top four seeds to survive. DePaul, the regional favorite, had been ousted by Boston College and SWC rival Arkansas had fallen to Kansas State.

Houston met up with Missouri and it would be one of the best games of the tournament. Ricky Frazier scored 29 for the Tigers, but the Cougars answered with North Carolina-esque lineup balance, five players between 11-16. Missouri center Steve Stipanovich got 12 rebounds, but Houston answered with Drexler and Akeem both getting 10-plus boards. The result was a 79-78 Houston win.

Boston College had edged Kansas State 69-65 behind 20 points from little guard Michael Adams. Houston contained Adams in the regional final, although the inside-out combo of Jay Murphy and John Bagley nearly did the Coogs in, combining for 49 points.

Houston got 25 from Williams and outscored Boston College from the free throw line 33-16, with reserve guard Reid Gettys hitting ten straight free throws to help secure the 99-92 win. Williams was the Outstanding Player and the Final Four was next.

THE 1982 FINAL FOUR

The early game was North Carolina-Houston and Perkins was the star of the show. He scored 25 points and grabbed 10 rebounds. Jordan added 18 and the Tar Heel defense contained Houston, holding them to 42 percent shooting. Olajuwon was a non-factor, and while Drexler played well, he wasn’t a difference-maker. North Carolina won 68-63.

In the late afternoon, Georgetown and Louisville played a defensive war, with the difference being the Ewing helped the Hoyas clean up a lot of the misses. The big center had ten rebounds, keying a decisive edge for his team as Georgetown won 50-46.

The national championship game was a classic, replete with outstanding performances and great storylines. Worthy was electric, scoring 28 points on 13/17 shooting. Ewing was dominant, with 23 points/11 rebounds of his own. Thompson made a coaching decision early that was, at best, questionable.

Ewing, at his coach’s instruction, drew five obvious goaltending calls in an attempt to intimidate the Tar Heels. Against a young, untested team, this might have worked. The veteran North Carolina players shrugged their shoulders and accepted the free points, every one of which they would need.

Floyd knocked down 18, but without the same efficiency he showed in the regional. The 9-for-17 shooting certainly wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t scorching. Jordan had 16 and ultimately hit the game’s biggest shot that put North Carolina up 63-62. Georgetown had one last chance to win it, but Fred Brown froze up and threw the ball straight to Worthy at the top of the key.

The lasting image of the game is Thompson hugging Brown. The lasting legacy is that Smith finally had a national title and the reputation of the man who would eventually be renowned as the greatest basketball player ever was just getting started.

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The Road To The 1977 Final Four

The 1977 Final Four was the year Al McGuire rode into retirement in a blaze of glory with the Marquette Warriors. It was also a year when Jerry Tarkanian made his first appearance on college basketball’s big stage, when Cornbread Maxwell led upstart UNC-Charlotte and when Dean Smith’s North Carolina team might have won it all if not for an untimely injury. Here’s a look back on the road all four teams took to Atlanta.

MARQUETTE

Marquette finished 20-7, which was a high number of losses for an NCAA tournament team in the days when the bracket was only 32 deep. In fact, no team had ever won a national championship with so many defeats and a conventional reading of history says that MU’s bid was in danger right up to the very end.

March Madness historyIt should be noted that Marquette did finish 7th in the AP’s final poll of the regular season, so that might be overstated (the NCAA Tournament was not seeded until 1979 so we don’t know what the committee thought). But certainly no one was thinking this would be the team that would do what a better Warriors’ squad couldn’t three years earlier or in 1976, and that’s get Al to the top of the heap.

Butch Lee was Marquette’s top player, scoring 20 ppg and he was a good passer. Bo Ellis kicked in 16 points/8 rebounds a game, and Jerome Whitehead’s 11/8 further strengthened the interior. Point guard Jimmy Boylan ran the show. The Warriors beat Cincinnati 66-51 in their first round game, turning around a three-point halftime deficit behind 17 points from Ellis.

It was on to Oklahoma City and the Midwest Regionals, where #16 Kansas State, champions of the Big Eight (now the Big 12) awaited. Marquette was outrebounded, but Lee took the game into his own hands. He went 12-for-23 from the floor, taking nine more shots than anyone else in the lineup and finished with 26. Marquette survived 67-66.

Wake Forest beat Southern Illinois 86-81 in the other Sweet 16 game. The Demon Deacons were ranked ninth, but being outrebounded in victory themselves, they perhaps weren’t in the best position to exploit a Marquette weakness. Wake led by four at the half in the regional final, but Marquette took over.

Ellis, Lee and Bernard Toone all led the way, combining for 57 points and MU won 82-68. Lee took him Outstanding Player honors and McGuire was going back to the Final Four for the second time in his career.

NORTH CAROLINA

The Tar Heels won the ACC title, edging Wake and Clemson in the regular season and then capturing the conference tournament, behind point guard Phil Ford. The All-American averaged 19 ppg and was an extraordinary playmaker. Walter Davis was an outstanding talent on the wing, averaging 15 ppg and being effective both distributing and rebounding. Mike O’Koren and Tommy LaGarde both chipped in further scoring and controlled the paint.

North Carolina finished the regular season ranked #5 and went to the East Regional, where they were on a collision course with third-ranked Kentucky. The Tar Heels got a tough fight from Big Ten runner-up Purdue in the first round.

The Boilermakers had a freshman center in Joe Barry Carroll would lead them to a Final Four of their own by his senior year, along future NBA guard Jerry Sichting, who was in the regular rotation for the 1986 Boston Celtics, one of the great champions of all time. But Ford drilled 27 points and UNC won 69-66.

North Carolina went to College Park, home of the then-conference rival Maryland Terrapins for the East Regionals. UNC played a terrific Sweet 16 game against Notre Dame, and Ford was again electric. He scored 29 points and with the game tied 77-77, knocked down the free throws that won it. Meanwhile, Kentucky pounded VMI 93-78, with star Jack Givens and unheralded Truman Claytor shooting the lights out, combining for 55 points.

Both the Tar Heels and Wildcats came out blazing in the first half, and North Carolina led 53-41 by halftime (so much for the notion you need a lower shot clock to increase scoring–you just need teams that know how to execute an offense).

North Carolina took a big blow though, when Ford hit the deck and hyperextended his shooting elbow. The Tar Heels still survived this game, winning 79-72 thanks to some amazing free throw shooting. They went 33-for-36 from the line. John Kuester went 13-for-14, scoring 19 points and turning into Outstanding Player honors, probably making him the only player in history to win such an award simply for shooting free throws.

The Heels were on their way to Atlanta, but Ford’s health was the question mark looming over them and the entire college basketball world.

UNC-CHARLOTTE

Cedric “Cornbread” Maxwell, would one day become a solid NBA player for the Boston Celtics, playing a key role in two championship teams and winning MVP of the 1981 NBA Finals. He made his first big national splash in 1977, averaging 22 points/12 rebounds and leading Charlotte to a 25-2 record.

The 49ers were coached by Lee Rose, who would later coach the 1980 Purdue team with Joe Barry Carroll that made the Final Four. Rose had another 20-ppg scorer in Lew Mass, and the team went to the Mideast Regional unheralded and not ranked among the nation’s best 16 teams.

Charlotte got a relatively easy first-round game with Central Michigan, another fruit of the bracket being unseeded, and the 49ers were nearly upset. The game went to overtime, but Maxwell’s 32/18 line was too much for CMU in a 91-86 win. It was on to Lexington for the regionals, where they would play sixth-ranked Syracuse and top-ranked Michigan also loomed. No one was planning on seeing Charlotte in Atlanta.

A young Jim Boeheim was coaching Syracuse and he was surprisingly blitzed by the 49ers, who rolled to an 81-59 win, making 21 free throws while the Orange got only three points from the line.

The other Sweet 16 game was the one that provided the thrills. Michigan got all it could handle from in-state rival Detroit, hungry to make a name for itself with a feisty young coach named Dick Vitale. The Wolverines survived 86-81 thanks to an amazing 26-rebound performance from Phil Hubbard.

Michigan was the solid favorite in the regional final. In addition to Hubbard, a second-team All-American, they had a quality inside player in John Robinson. And neither was even the best player–Ricky Green was a first-team All-American and this group had reached the national championship game one year earlier.

Charlotte’s defense forced Green into 4-for-13 shooting and with Cornbread in the paint, Hubbard and Robinson couldn’t muscle their way around quite so easily. Maxwell had a 25/13 game, while Hubbard/Robinson combined for just 25/11. The 49ers led 40-27 at the half and pulled the 75-68 upset.

Vitale, in his later books, would modestly take credit for the result, insisting that Michigan was drained from its Sweet 16 battle with his Detroit team. That may be so, but it’s still Cornbread Maxwell who got Outstanding Player of the Mideast Regional.

UNLV

This was the second year since the retirement of John Wooden at UCLA, and Tarkanian’s Runnin’ Rebels were the rising power in the West. UNLV had missed a chance to go head-to-head with UCLA in 1976 when the Rebs lost an overtime Sweet 16 game to Arizona. Tark’s team came back strong in ’77 and went 25-2.

UNLV ran the floor aggressively, with 22-ppg scorer Eddie Owens leading a lineup that had six double-figure scorers. The lineup included Reggie Theus, who would one day be a good NBA scoring guard with the Chicago Bulls. Robert Smith was the floor leader, Glen Godrezick handled the low post and Sam Smith added to the scoring effort.

The NCAA Tournament bracket did the fourth-ranked Rebels no favors, matching them up with #8 San Francisco in the first round. The Dons, the alma mater of Bill Russell, had another great center in Bill Cartwright. They went 29-1 and Bob Gailland got national Coach of the Year. If Tarkanian, who loathed the NCAA, felt like they were out to get him, he had just cause.

UNLV answered the bell though with a 121-95 win. Theus led all scorers on either team with 27, while Owens had 22. The Reb defense limited Cartwright’s shot attempts and they advanced to Provo for the West Regionals.

Utah, ranked #14, was waiting in the Sweet 16 and 21 points from Smith led the way in an 88-83 win. Another possible meeting with UCLA in a regional final got derailed when the Bruins were stunned by Idaho State 76-75. UCLA’s Marques Johnson was the national Player of the Year and they had future pros in David Greenwood and Kiki Vandeweghe in the rotation. But a kid from Idaho State named Steve Hawes trumped them all, with 27 points/12 rebounds. Basketball fans would again miss a UCLA-UNLV battle.

UNLV was able to control Hawes the same way they controlled Cartwright–by limiting his shot attempts. Hawes shot 70 percent from the floor, but only had ten shots. UNLV did trail 52-51 at the half, but took over after intermission. Owens finished with 24 points. Combined with his 16 from the Utah game, it was enough for Outstanding Player honors and UNLV’s 107-90 win sent them on to Tark’s first Final Four.

THE 1977 FINAL FOUR

Semi-Final Saturday would be a great day for college basketball fans. It started with Marquette-UNC-Charlotte. Maxwell had a solid game, a 17/12 line, but Whitehead was the star inside player of this game. The MU big man finished with 21/16 and then made the game’s biggest play–he caught a length-of-the-floor pass and laid it in at the buzzer for a 51-49 win.

Ford played in the North Carolina-UNLV game, but his shooting was obviously affected by the injury, going just 4-for-10. O’Koren stepped up with 31 points. North Carolina was sloppy in the first half, but only down six at the break. The Heels eventually won 84-83, with Kuester’s free throw shooting again putting the game away down the stretch.

On Monday Night, McGuire roared up to the old Atlanta Omni in a motorcycle for his last game on the sidelines and his players were ready to send him out a winner. Ford, in spite of constant treatment for his elbow, couldn’t get his shooting touch back and went 4-for-10. At the risk of being a killjoy on the McGuire story, it’s hard to imagine North Carolina not winning the national championship with a healthy Ford.

But injuries are a part of the game and a part of it being “your year” is when those injuries work in your favor. 1977 was McGuire’s year. Whitehead again controlled the glass on Monday Night, with 11 rebounds. Lee scored 19 and won Outstanding Player of the Final Four. Marquette’s 67-59 win and the sight of McGuire, ever the tough guy, crying on the sidelines as the clock ticked down, remain one of the endearing images of college basketball history.

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The Road To The 1976 Final Four

The 1976 Final Four is best remembered for when Bob Knight’s Indiana Hoosiers capped off a perfect season with a national championship. But there were three other stories there too, from UCLA in the post-Wooden era to an upstart from the East to a conference runner-up for the first time. Here’s a look back on the teams of the 1976 Final Four–Indiana, UCLA, Rutgers and Michigan and their roads to Philadelphia.

INDIANA

Indiana had three great players, starting with national Player of the Year Scott May, who averaged nearly 24 ppg. Kent Benson, a future #1 overall pick in the NBA draft scored 17 ppg and held down the middle. Quinn Buckner, who had a long pro career ahead of him, ran the floor.

March Madness historyAfter rolling to a second straight undefeated regular season and Big Ten title, Knight’s Hoosiers blasted St. John’s to open the 1976 NCAA Tournament, with 33 points from May keying the 90-70 rout. These were the days of just 32 teams in the field, so the victory put Indiana into the Sweet 16.

The road went to Baton Rouge for what was then called the Mideast Regional. It was a stacked bracket. The tournament was not formally seeded, with geographic considerations being paramount. The result was four of the teams in the final regular season Top 10 were all in Louisiana. That included second-ranked Marquette.

Indiana first had to deal with SEC champ Alabama, coached by Knight’s friend and future Olympic assistant C.M. Newton. The Tide gave the Hoosiers the scare of their life, leading by five points late in the game. May, who finished with 25 points/16 rebounds, hit a big jumper and Indiana was able to survive 74-69.

Marquette, coached by the legendary Al McGuire, had gotten past Western Michigan 62-57 in spite of being badly outrebounded. The regional final between the nation’s 1-2 teams was close for a half, and IU led by a point at the break. But McGuire got two technical fouls, and Benson delivered an 18 points/9 rebound effort. May kicked in 15 and the Hoosiers won 65-56.

Benson was named the regional’s Outstanding Player, something I have to take exception with. If you want to give him Player of the Game for the regional final, I get that. But May wasn’t far behind Benson in that game, and May was vastly superior in the Alabama game.

Moreover, it was May’s clutch play in the round of 16 that saved Indiana’s perfect season. If the award is really for the regional weekend as a whole, which its name implies, then Scott May should have gotten the trophy.

MICHIGAN

The idea of opening the NCAA Tournament up to multiple teams from the same conference was only two years old and Michigan became the first beneficiary, not needing to beat out Indiana in the Big Ten race.

Michigan was coached by Johnny Orr, who had won a Big Ten crown here in 1974, and had an offense that combined both explosiveness and balance. Rickey Green led the way with 20 ppg. Phil Hubbard and John Robinson controlled the interior and scored a combined 29 ppg. Wayman Britt and Steve Grote were also double-digit scorers.

The Wolverines were sent to the Midwest Regional where they barely survived Wichita State, escaping 74-73, as Green struggled to a 4-for-17 shooting game. But they were on their way to Louisville, where Notre Dame, Missouri and Texas Tech would join them.

Michigan and Notre Dame hadn’t yet renewed their football rivalry yet–that would be two years later. So this Sweet 16 game would have to do, and it was a good one. The Irish got 31 from All-American and future NBA scoring machine Adrian Dantley. But Michigan got 20 from Green, with the rest of the starting lineup all in double figures and they won 80-76.

Missouri’s Willie Smith electrified the other regional semi, dropping 30 on Texas Tech to key an 86-75 win. And Smith didn’t stop in the final, pouring in 43 points on the Wolverines. Michigan again answered with balance–Green had 23, Robinson hit 21 and Hubbard scored 20. Smith took home the region’s Outstanding Player award, but with a 95-88 win, the Wolverines took home a Final Four trip.

UCLA

Gene Bartow had the unenviable task of replacing John Wooden, who had retired after his 10th national championship in 12 years in 1975. The Bruins were carried by All-American Richard Washington and his 21 ppg, along with prolific scorer Marques Johnson, who had 17 ppg. But there wasn’t any depth in scoring to back them up. Andre McCarter was a nice floor leader, but UCLA didn’t look unstoppable as they won the Pac-8.

The geographic emphasis of the regional brackets meant that UCLA had, as they always did in the Wooden years, a distinct advantage given the weakness of basketball in the west. The Bruins got 25 from Washington and 19 from Johnson in dispatching San Diego State 74-64 to reach a regional round that would be at home for them in Los Angeles.

UCLA churned out an efficient 70-61 win over Pepperdine in the round of 16. Basketball fans were eyeing a potential changing-of-the-guard battle with third-ranked UNLV in the regional final. Jerry Tarkanian had the Rebel program on the move upward and they looked ready to challenge the Bruins.

But UNLV didn’t get that chance. An electrifying game with Arizona went to overtime and it was the Wildcats who got a 114-109 win. Six players overall scored 20-plus points and two more had 18. Herm Harris led everyone with 31.

Arizona didn’t have much left for UCLA–this was a non-conference game then, with Arizona and Arizona State not having joined up with the Pac-8 yet. Richard Washington again had an excellent game, a 22/10 line, as he locked up Outstanding Player in an 82-66 win.

RUTGERS

The historic legacy of Indiana’s 1976 season leads us to forget that Rutgers also came into the Final Four undefeated. Phil Sellers, a second-team All-American, averaged 19 ppg, as did Mike Dabney. Eddie Jordan and Hollis Copeland were each double-digit scorers.

Rutgers had to survive against Princeton in the opening round, shooting just 38 percent. Jordan saved them with 16 points and the Scarlet Knights escaped 54-53. The East regional would be in Greensboro, and it would be the softest of the four–none of VMI, DePaul or UConn were ranked among the 16 best teams in the country in the final regular season poll.

The Scarlet Knights played defense against UConn in the Sweet 16, holding the Huskies to 41 percent shooting and all five starters scoring from 14-19 points. Rutgers won 93-79, while VMI nipped DePaul in overtime by forcing Blue Demon center and future pro Dave Corzine into a 6-for-15 shooting night.

Dabney and Jordan took over the regional final, each scoring 23 points. VMI’s Will Bynum, fresh off his 34-point game against DePaul, came up with 22 more here, but he didn’t have help, while Rutgers had plenty. They won 91-75 and punched their ticket to nearby Philly, with Jordan bringing home MOP honors.

THE 1976 FINAL FOUR

Phil Sellers didn’t have a vintage NCAA Tournament and it continued in the national semifinal against Michigan. The Wolverines forced Sellers into a 5-for-13 game, and Rutgers shot 39 percent as a team. Hubbard and Robinson controlled the boards for Michigan and they won 86-70.

The showcase game was Indiana-UCLA, although “showcase” wasn’t defined quite as clearly as it is today, when CBS picks which Saturday game they want to show in the 8:47 PM ET slot. The changing-of-the-guard moment wasn’t all that dramatic–Bobby Wilkerson hauled in 19 rebounds for Indiana and they won comfortably, 65-51.

For the first time ever, we had two conference rivals playing for the national championship. The final score shows Indiana’s 86-68 win, and it might be easy to look at that, along with the perfect season and assume the result was a foregone conclusion. It wasn’t–Wilkerson went out with a concussion and Michigan led 35-29 at the half.

But the Wolverines couldn’t get Hubbard and Robinson unleashed down low, while May and Benson took over. May went for 26/8, while Benson added a 25/9 night. Buckner, not normally a scorer, popped in 16 points and grabbed eight more rebounds, and Indiana pulled away into history.

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The Washington Redskins Blunder Badly In Letting Colt McCoy Walk

All reports are that the Washington Redskins have decided against bringing back Colt McCoy next season. I think this is a significant mistake, and as a Redskins fan I don’t know if I’m more depressed, furious or just plain crushed by this news.

Before going further, I want to remove one potential misconception. My strong desire to have McCoy back in burgundy-and-gold is *not* rooted in any animosity towards Robert Griffin III. RG3 is a lightning rod flash point in a lot of these discussions and I prefer to stay away from that.

Joe Gibbs Washington RedskinsI like Robert, he’s a high-character player and a hard worker  who got royally screwed by his first head coach and now plays for a blowhard incompetent boss. What he can do when he’s healthy is a matter of record. But what’s also a matter of record is that his capacity to stay healthy has to be subject to serious skepticism.

Wishful thinking is not a plan. A plan would be having a quarterback with a similar skillset to RG3, who has his own demonstrated ability to run an offense and is reasonably interchangeable with Griffin. Colt McCoy fits the bill perfectly.

McCoy’s physical tools are obviously not on par with RG3’s, but McCoy is capable of playing on the move—rolling pockets, mixing in some read-option, etc. If RG3 is hurt or doesn’t play well, you can insert McCoy in without changing the offense. Kirk Cousins doesn’t give you that same luxury.

Furthermore, it was obvious all last season that RG3 has deeper problems than just staying healthy. He wasn’t confident anymore, the swagger of 2012 and even 2013 (when he took far too much blame) was gone. He looked like someone who no longer trusted his body, no longer played on instinct and was just overthinking everything in spades. It’s perfectly understandable, given what the kid’s lower body has been through. But it’s also a serious problem.

Cousins has his own mental hangups as well, and it’s that he shrinks into a shell every time he makes mistake. In terms of skill-set, Cousins could be a poor man’s Andrew Luck—throw a nice ball down the field, make mistakes, but overcome them with big plays over the top. But skillset’s not enough—Cousins lacked Luck’s mental toughness at putting mistakes behind him.

Thus, Colt McCoy might not have had the same physical tools as either of the other two quarterbacks, but he was the one guy whose head was screwed on right and who played football like he knew who he was and what he was trying to do.

But apparently, all that is out the window, because he doesn’t have enough of a skillset to impress the Redskin coaches or front office. You know, last I checked, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady weren’t proto-type athletes. And the last I checked, they worked out okay as starters. Is it so unreasonable to think that Colt McCoy could have sufficed as the foil for RG3 and potential starter if the latter can’t himself worked out of his funk? I don’t think so.

So instead we have two quarterbacks with opposite skillsets, and for whom the only common thread is they each need a sports therapist more than an offensive coordinator. And the quarterback who played the best in 2014 is gone. Yes, it’s really difficult to understand why the Washington Redskins can’t win. I think I’m just going into a corner somewhere and weep.

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