The 1979 NCAA Tournament has a special place in college basketball lore. The championship game, featuring Michigan State and Magic Johnson against Indiana State and Larry Bird remains the highest-rated NCAA final to date and is rightly seen as a watershed moment for basketball at both the college & NBA level. But the 1979 NCAA Tournament deserves to be remembered for something else—the beginning of a phenomena that continues today and it’s the gutted bracket.
Office pool players today know the gutted bracket—the one where favorites fall like dominoes—as the bane of their existence. But in 1979 the whole concept was unheard of. Parity hadn’t really taken hold in college basketball and the whole concept of seeding a bracket was unheard of.
Previous years had seen national ranking almost ignored, thus creating situations like the one the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers faced, where their reward for going undefeated was a regional with three other Top 10 teams, including second-ranked Marquette stashed in. 1979 brought seeding and began the process to a more balanced bracket.
In three regionals it didn’t matter all that much—the chalk held, with the top two teams playing in the regional final. But not in the East Regional, where fans looking forward to a North Carolina-Duke final in Greensboro had more than a few surprises ahead of them.
The Tar Heels and Blue Devils had shared the ACC regular season championship and UNC then won the league tournament. North Carolina reached the NCAA final and lost in 1977. Duke did the same in 1978. They seemed destined to play a fourth time and see which program could get a shot at redemption and they could count on a packed house in a regional final that would be played in their own backyard.
There were other compelling storylines in the East, particularly viewed with the perspective of history. Georgetown was seeded third, as John Thompson had the program growing to national prominence. Syracuse was in the 4-spot. Jim Boeheim was still the coach all the way back then and the Orange were led by the Louie-n-Bouie Show: Louie Orr and Roosevelt Bouie, who along with Dale Shackleford led the ‘Cuse in scoring. Syracuse and Georgetown weren’t league rivals yet—the Big East Conference had been agreed upon, but not yet begun. But both teams would be good opposition for the ACC favorites in the regionals. Or so the story went.
If you were digging for a Cinderella—a concept not really known in college basketball at the time, you could look at a coach who would soon become very familiar with the term. Jim Valvano would become a national legend in 1983 with N.C. State, but in ’79 he had brought Iona to the NCAA Tournament for the first time, led by center Jeff Ruland. Or there was sixth-seeded Rutgers. Just three years removed from the Final Four, their 6’9” post man James Bailey was helping popularize the alley-oop dunk, allowed back into the college game two years earlier.
The 1979 NCAA Tournament field was 40 teams, so it was 10 teams per regional. If you really wanted to scrape the bottom of the barrel you could look at #9 Penn. The Quakers had won their eighth Ivy League title in ten years and had an exciting backcourt combination of Tony Price and Tim Smith. At the end of the ladder was St. John’s, led by Lou Carnesecca, on his way to a long career on the bench in Queens.
On the tournament’s opening night there was a mild hint that something might be in the works. The lower-seeded teams won both games. Penn jumped out to a 41-29 lead on Iona and held on for a 73-69 win, while St. John’s eliminated seventh-seeded Temple 75-70. But the winners had North Carolina and Duke waiting for them.
Saturday afternoon in Raleigh would prove to be one of the darkest days in the history of basketball in the state of North Carolina. The Penn-North Carolina and St. John’s-Duke games were a doubleheader at the same venue in Reynolds Coliseum. Duke had been something of an out-of-nowhere team a year earlier—a group immortalized in John Feinstein’s book Forever’s Team—so they should have known to be wary. But the Redmen (the team nickname was years from being changed to the more politically correct Red Storm) pulled an 80-78 shocker. And the Price was right for Penn, who administered a 72-71 defeat to North Carolina, completing the day that would become known as “Black Saturday.”
Further north in Providence the other two second-round games were being played, and even the #3 seed wasn’t safe. Rutgers knocked off Georgetown 64-58. It would take Thompson two more years to go deep into the NCAAs, when his 1980 team reached the regional final and not until the recruitment of center Patrick Ewing would he make the Final Four and win a national title. Of the regional’s early favorites only Syracuse survived, an 89-81 winner over UConn.
The prospect of St. John’s-Rutgers and Penn-Syracuse didn’t exactly thrill the folks of Greensboro when the four teams gathered to decide who would go to the Final Four. Only 9,102 attended the Sweet 16 games. By contrast, both Bird and Magic had 17,000-plus on hand for their games and the West Regional, headlined by UCLA and ultimately won by DePaul, had over 15,000.
St. John’s got a big game from guard Reggie Carter, who knocked down 22 points and the Redmen overcame 53 percent shooting from Rutgers and a 19-pooint night from Bailey to win 67-65, their second straight two-point win. Syracuse couldn’t cash in its surprising favorite status, as Price scored 20 points, grabbed seven rebounds, led his team to a 13-point halftime lead and ultimate 84-76 win.
The unthinkable had occurred—not only were the top two seeds out, not only were other favorites gone by the wayside, but the last two teams in the bracket were playing for the Final Four! It was the #9 and #10 seeds for a trip to Salt Lake City. I suppose “chalk” by this point would have meant a St. John’s win, but Price wasn’t going to allow that. The Quaker lead had 21 points, while Carter couldn’t repeat his heroics from the regional semi-final. A 64-62 win in front of little more than 7,200 people sent Penn on to the Final Four.
It was the last time an Ivy League team has made the Final Four. And the 1979 NCAA Tournament was the first time a bracket was gutted beyond all recognition.