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Season of Change

The year that sparked college basketball’s march to madness

David Thompson of North Carolina State skies above UCLA’s Bill Walton during the 1974 Men’s Final Four. Rich Clarkson / NCAA Photos

Imagine seeing the longest win streak in Division I men’s basketball come to an end. Then, a seven-time defending national champion team’s reign is doused in double overtime. And finally, what was arguably the greatest college basketball game ever played takes place.

Now, imagine it happening in one season.

The Road to Madness

Authors: J. Samuel Walker and Randy Roberts

Publisher: The University of North Carolina Press (Nov. 1, 2016) 

Pages: 184  

Price: $25

It sounds like a script concocted for the big screen. But each of those events occurred 43 years ago and helped shape the future of the Division I Men’s Basketball Championship.

The 1974 NCAA tournament fielded just 25 teams. It was the last year only one team per conference could play in the championship.

In the book “The Road to Madness: How the 1973-74 Season Transformed College Basketball,” authors J. Samuel Walker and Randy Roberts examine the impact, on and off the court, that one unforgettable season left on the game’s history.

“We thought it was a good story to help people understand how this event has become a sports and cultural institution in our country,” said Walker, who also has written books on the history of American foreign policy and nuclear energy.

Heading into that season, UCLA dominated men’s college basketball. The Bruins were coming off their seventh straight NCAA title, and UCLA was led by senior All-American Bill Walton, who had yet to lose a game in a Bruins uniform.

The UCLA win streak stood at 88 games on Jan. 19, 1974, when the Bruins fell 71-70 at Notre Dame. The Bruins lost two more games during the regular season and then lost 80-77 in double overtime to North Carolina State in an epic national semifinal game.

According to Walker, Los Angeles Times sports columnist Jim Murray equated the upset to “the extinction of the dinosaurs and the fall of the Roman Empire.”

The Wolfpack not only snapped UCLA’s streak of NCAA titles, but also went on to capture the national title against Marquette.

But there’s another twist: North Carolina State, which lost to UCLA by 18 points in a regular-season game, almost didn’t get to play in that NCAA tournament. That’s because it first had to survive No. 4-ranked Maryland in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament final. The Wolfpack, the nation’s top-ranked team, won 103-100 in overtime, a game many consider the greatest college basketball game ever played.

“The pace was frantic,” Walker said. “Even now, you can go back and watch that game and appreciate how good those teams were.”

The loss by Maryland meant it couldn’t compete in the NCAA tournament despite being one of the nation’s best teams. The same could be said for Indiana and Southern California, each left out of the tournament because they weren’t conference champions. The bracket grew to 32 teams the next year.

“It was a combination of factors that led to the tournament expanding. ... No one really envisioned what this event was to become,” Walker said.

About Champion

Champion magazine goes behind the headlines and beyond the scoreboards to celebrate the unique connection between Americans and college sports. Champion is published by the NCAA.

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