The NCAA basketball tournament started only 61 years ago, making it a relative youngster among America's great sports championships. It began in 1939 with eight teams and didn't expand to a Sweet 16 until 1951. With so few teams involved, the chance for monumental upsets likely was reduced.
But over the years, there have been four games that stick out as being rather unexpected, starting with Loyola of Chicago's 1963 title and including Texas Western in 1966, North Carolina State in 1983 and Villanova in 1985. While Butler was well-regarded in preseason polls, a Bulldogs victory over Duke in the NCAA championship game tonight at Lucas Oil Stadium almost certainly would be viewed as the fifth member of the list of greatest title upsets of all-time.
Let's take a quick look back at the history to set the mood for tonight's game:
1963: It always seemed strange to me that Cincinnati didn't start winning NCAA title until after Oscar Robertson was in the NBA. The Bearcats' wins in 1961 and '62 both came over an Ohio State team that included Jerry Lucas and John Havlicek and were considered upsets. But by the time they were going for their third straight title, the Bearcats of Tom Thacker and Ron Bonham were as close to a dynasty as anyone since Kentucky won three of four titles from 1948-51.
For whatever reason, Loyola of Chicago, which was led by Jerry Harkness, caught my fancy when I was in sixth grade. They certainly were at the top of the rankings with Cincinnati by season's end, but as a small school, were given little hope against the Bearcats' juggernaut. Midway through the second half, it seemed the experts were right as Cincinnati built a 45-30 lead. That's about the time I fell asleep, and I'm still kicking myself because I never got to see the Ramblers' comeback for a 60-58 overtime win.
1966: Growing up in Albuquerque as a fan of the New Mexico Lobos, I was well-acquainted with what a great team Texas Western (now UTEP) had in 1965-66. The Miners were 17-0 when they arrived in Albuquerque to face the Lobos and great center Mel Daniels, who led by something like 18 points at halftime. It was too good to be true. The Miners came back in the second half and won in OT, 67-64. Just after they achieved the No. 1 ranking, they lost the final regular-season game at Seattle.
The Miners had to scrap their way through the NCAA tournament, twice winning in overtime to face Kentucky and coach Adolph Rupp. Of course, that game in which coach Don Haskins used an all-African-American starting five against Rupp's all-white team and won is credited with accelerating the pace of integration in collegiate sports all over the country. The symbolism was clear-cut going into the game, and I was rooting like crazy for Texas Western that night and they delivered, 72-65.
1983: Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski says a "Cinderella" is a team with several losses that pulls stunning upsets to reach the title game. That was Jim Valvano's 1983 North Carolina State team that won the ACC tournament to get into the NCAA and pulled out a miracle finish to beat UNLV in the second round. I picked up the Wolfpack in the West Regional for Newsday and followed them to the Final Four in Albuquerque, which was a treat because every press conference was a laugh riot with Valvano and his players.
Still, the main attraction was the semifinal between the Houston team with Hakeem Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler and Michael Young known as Phi Slama Jama and an equally entertaining team from Louisville. N.C. State was given no chance against the Cougars in the final, but they controlled the pace, uglied it up on defense and won, 54-52, on a Derrick Whittenburg airball that Lorenzo Charles caught and dunked at the buzzer. Personally, I'd say that is the formula Butler must follow to win tonight.
1985: In the middle of the 1984-85 season, I was fortunate enough to be thrown into covering St. John's great Final Four team with Chris Mullins, Walter Berry, Bill Wennington and Mark Jackson. But after winning at Georgetown in midseason, St. John's lost the next three meetings with the Hoyas, ending in the national semifinals. It was Georgetown's third straight trip to the Final Four with Patrick Ewing, and the Hoyas were going for their second straight title against a Villanova team that was a bit of a surprise to get that far.
Imagine, the Hoyas took 53 shots compared to 28 for Villanova. But the Wildcats made 22 of those attempts and were 22 of 27 at the foul line compared to 6 of 8 for Georgetown. No doubt, Hoyas fans always will blame the refs for Georgetown's 66-64 loss, but Villanova deserves all the credit in the world for what I described in my game story as the equivalent of Don Larsen's "Perfect Game" in the 1956 World Series.
Four years later, I was sitting in front of my TV at home when the 1989 Seton Hall team coached by P.J. Carlesimo very nearly pulled off what would have been one of the all-time great upsets against Michigan. Never mind that Steve Fisher had stepped in as interim coach when Bill Frieder was fired. It's the only time I really can recall when a ref called an incidental foul at the end of a championship game. It put Michigan's Rumeal Robinson at the line with three seconds to go. He made both for an 80-79 win that was a bitter ending to what had set up as a fairy-tale finish.
But that's life. Sometimes, the dream dies hard.