The 35th anniversary of the greatest college basketball game ever played passed quietly this week. That's a shame, because a classic like Maryland vs. North Carolina State, in the 1974 Atlantic Coast Conference tournament championship game, should never be taken for granted, much less forgotten.
Especially today, as the two teams meet to open this year's tournament in Atlanta. A win would keep Maryland's hopes alive for an at-large bid to the 65-team NCAA tournament despite finishing in seventh place in the regular season and having a losing record in the conference.
Seventh place? Losing record? Sixty-five teams? At-large bid? All were alien concepts on March 9, 1974, at Greensboro Coliseum in North Carolina, when N.C. State edged Maryland, 103-100, in overtime. Then as now, Maryland was in with a win and out with a loss. The difference? That day, Maryland was ranked fourth in the nation. N.C. State was No. 1.
By NCAA tournament rules, with its 25-team field filled only by conference champions and top independents, the loser that day went home. No bubbles, RPI or bracketology back then.
"It was before ESPN and before all the things out there now," recalled Monte Towe, then the tiny-yet-brilliant guard for N.C. State, now a Wolfpack assistant coach. "Now, with the multiple bids out there for the ACC, a lot of people can't relate to it."
A lot of people had better relate to it, though. If not for that game, March Madness as we know it does not exist. A number of games have been accorded that honor, including the Magic Johnson-Larry Bird showdown in the 1979 NCAA title game, the subject of When March Went Mad: The Game That Transformed Basketball, a new book by Seth Davis of Sports Illustrated and CBS Sports.
No disrespect to book or author, but the game had already been transformed five years earlier.
For one, Maryland-N.C. State was a better game - deeper talent, more drama, individual and collective excellence from beginning to end - and the Wolfpack's David Thompson was a greater and more electrifying college player than Bird or Johnson. The game loses nothing in viewing today.
Second, it led directly to a major expansion of the field the next season to 32 teams, with at-large bids to prevent teams like Maryland from being punished again.
Too late for that Terps team, coached by Lefty Driesell and starring Tom McMillen, Len Elmore, John Lucas and company. McMillen does find one consolation: "In a way, it opened up a chance for Maryland to win its national championship. That was probably one of the legacies of that whole crazy tournament. It opened up the NCAAs to a whole lot of ACC teams."
Now, he added, "You have a losing record and you can make it in. There are a lot of second chances, which is really good."
McMillen's alma mater has one of those second chances today, a seventh-place team in a league that had just seven teams in 1974, with a 7-9 ACC record that hasn't eliminated it yet.
It's an ironic legacy that doesn't detract from the glory of that 1974 game one bit.
Starting today, listen to David Steele on Thursdays at 9:30 a.m. and Mondays from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. on Fox Sports 1370 AM.