Maryland's ACC loss in '74 was game's gain

Basketball: N.C. State's storied 103-100 overtime victory denied the Terps an NCAA berth, but it helped spark interest in expanding the tournament's 25-team field.

March 13, 2003|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

GREENSBORO, N.C. -- By the time they had finished playing here that night, the Maryland and North Carolina State basketball teams were too tired to think about how memorable a game they had been a part of, nor did they have any idea how significant its result would become.

They had fought through 40 minutes of regulation and five minutes of overtime before the Terrapins, ranked fourth in the country, succumbed to the top-ranked Wolfpack, 103-100. Their game, in the final of the 1974 Atlantic Coast Conference tournament, was considered by many the greatest ever played in college basketball.

But it mattered little to Maryland.

Nothing was on the minds of Len Elmore and his teammates except yet another loss to N.C. State. It had been the third straight that season to a Wolfpack team led by the indescribable David Thompson and 7-foot-4 center Tom Burleson. It meant that Maryland had been denied a chance of going to the NCAA tournament.

"It was a devastating loss, and we didn't think anything beyond that," Elmore said recently. "You had to concede that they were a better team -- not by much -- but they were a better team. We understood what the rules were [regarding an NCAA bid], and we accepted it."

One year and much debate later, Maryland's loss would become the rest of college basketball's gain. Having been denied an opportunity to play in the NCAA tournament, the Terrapins also turned down a bid to go to New York for the National Invitation Tournament, an event they had won two years before.

Those rejections helped spark interest in expanding the NCAA tournament's 25-team field made up of conference champions and independents.

When the 50th ACC tournament begins tonight at Greensboro Coliseum -- the same building in which Maryland and N.C. State staged their classic showdown nearly 30 years ago -- not as much will be at stake for those hoping to claim a similar prize.

The champion will go to this year's NCAA tournament, and depending on what happens in the course of the four days, at least two other teams also will be invited into the field of 65 that will be announced Sunday. Largely, as things turned out, because of what happened to Maryland in 1974.

"It got the NCAA to thinking, `Hey, we've got to take more than one team from any league,' " said Lefty Driesell, who was in his fifth year as coach at Maryland. "I wasn't fussing at the players or upset, because I thought we played a great basketball game. So did N.C. State. It could have gone either way."

The Terrapins were certainly deserving of an NCAA bid, having finished with a 23-5 record. All five losses were to ranked teams -- a one-point defeat to defending national champion UCLA to open the season, a nine-point defeat at North Carolina and the three to N.C. State. (Maryland had beaten the Tar Heels twice.)

Some have said that the 1973-74 Terrapins -- featuring Elmore, Tom McMillen and point guard John Lucas -- were the best team never to play in the NCAA tournament. But even Elmore concedes there were others as estimable who suffered the same fate.

"I think we were among them," Elmore said. "I think some people will tell you that the USC team with [Paul] Westphal that only lost a couple or three games [24-2 in 1970-71] was also worthy. They were in a conference with UCLA and didn't have a conference tournament. There were probably a few more before us."

That the ACC tournament -- among the oldest of postseason tournaments played at a time when many leagues didn't hold them -- had staged a championship game of such epic proportion was perhaps the final obstacle for those who for years had been championing the notion of a wider NCAA field.

"It opened the eyes," Elmore said. "What they [the NCAA tournament selection committee] probably dreaded the whole time, two teams ranked among the top four or five would play in a conference tournament, not an NCAA tournament. One of them wasn't going. I think it also really minimized the NIT."

The NIT, once considered the most prestigious postseason basketball event in the country, had lost some of its luster by 1974. Conference commissioners, upset with the way the NIT organizers squirreled away most of their profits, formed their own tournament.

The Collegiate Commissioners tournament consisted mostly of conference runners-up and lasted only two years, but its mere presence helped to further weaken the NIT. More importantly, it also showed the need for a larger NCAA tournament field.

"Those two tournaments and the events surrounding those tournaments also led to people fortifying the idea that we ought to have an opportunity for teams other than champions to participate," said Wayne Duke, the then-commissioner of the Big Ten. "It was just a swelling of this movement over a short period of time."

Leading the charge

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