The development of the NCAA Tournament as a time of Madness had taken place in phases since 1975, a year that marked both the end of the UCLA dynasty and the inclusion of multiple teams from each conference in the event. The 1983 N.C. State basketball team represented the culmination of that development.
1979 marked the first year one regional (the East, won by Penn) was gutted by upsets. 1980 marked the first year a Final Four was filled with dark horses. 1981 saw the first instance of a wild opening weekend throughout the bracket. All that was left was for a shocker of a national champion and Jim Valvano’s 1983 N.C. State team filled the bill. The Wolfpack’s ride was shocking both in terms of how unlikely a champion they were, and by the nature of their wins.
N.C. State needed to at least reach the final of the ACC tournament to even make what was then a 52-team field. In fact, most conventional telling of this team’s history say the Pack needed to win the league tournament and automatic bid. We’ll never know for sure, because win it is exactly what they did. N.C. State first upset North Carolina and Michael Jordan in the semis, then beat Virginia and National Player of the Year Ralph Sampson in the final.
Valvano’s team was seeded #6 in the West and in the first round against Pepperdine it looked over, when the Pack trailed by six with 24 seconds left. Though the shot clock and three-point line were being used in several conferences—including the ACC—neither was in effect for the NCAA Tournament.
N.C. State still forced overtime and then won. Two days later they trailed UNLV 70-69. The Rebels were at the line for a one-and-one to clinch it. The front end was missed, and N.C. State got a tip-in from Thurl Bailey with five seconds left to win. The unlikely ride went on to Ogden, UT and the Sweet 16.
After an easy win over Utah, the Pack was rematched with Virginia, the region’s top seed. Sampson’s last run at a title in a celebrated college career was still the biggest storyline. Sampson had 23 points/8 rebounds, but his supporting cast was non-existent and his team went 10/19 from the foul line. With guard Derek Whittenburg scoring 24 points, the Pack led 63-62 in the closing seconds and then stopped Virginia on a final possession where Sampson never saw the ball.
The Final Four saw State roll past another upstart in Georgia to win on Saturday and get their place in the final. Houston would be a heavy favorite. The Cougars were a #1 seed in the Final Four for the second straight year. Akeem Olajuwon was dominating the interior and Houston had put on a dazzling display in Saturday’s 94-81 win over Louisville, a game called “The Jamfest for the Ages” for how above-the-rim it all was.
Valvano forced a slowdown game, but Houston still led 52-45. Once again, a State opponent couldn’t hit their free throws and the Pack tied it 52-all and had the ball in the closing seconds. After a near-turnover, Whittenburg led a desperation 30-footer fly. It came up short, but Lorenzo Charles slipped in and dunked it home. The dunk, and Valvano running around the court remain perhaps the NCAA Tournament’s most lasting image.