Crowning the Most Insane March Madness Tournament in History
All March Madnesses are mad, but some March Madnesses are madder than other.
By Will Strecker, University of Texas at Austin
March Madness, the Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament held every year (in March), is addictively chaotic.
Sixty-four equally hungry teams from across the country throw their hats into the battle royal to end all battle royals. After more than two weeks of exhaustion, buzzer beaters, net-trimmings, happy tears, sad tears, thrown chairs, confetti deluges, sextuple-overtimes and busted brackets, a champion of this test of the human spirit’s indomitability is crowned.
Over the course of decades though, some tournaments stand out from the rest.
All March Madnesses are mad, but some March Madnesses are madder than others. And for one to be in the business of sports as I am, one must be competitive. So, given my competitive nature, it was inevitable that I would do this.
I have narrowed down the most maddening March Madnesses in history and pitted them against each other, head-to-head, in a Meta March Madness tournament to find the maddest March Madness of them all.
After much research, I whittled down the 40-50 tournaments to 16 particularly memorable years. From there, I chose the following eight years as my tournament’s Elite Eight. I seeded them in order from oldest to most recent, and the match-ups reflect the NCAA guidelines of coupling highest vs. lowest seeds: 1973, 1975, 1979, 1981, 1985, 2005, 2006, and 2011.
Game One: 1973 vs. 2011
1973 was the tail end of the John Wooden era and the year the Bruins won their 7th straight national title and their ninth in ten years (they would win one more under Wooden).
Wooden’s resume speaks for itself. His dominance throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s solidified his place among the coaching greats.
And that year, in one of the most incredible individual performances in college basketball history, UCLA beat Memphis State 87-66 in the championship game behind Hall-of-Famer Bill Walton’s 44 points on 21-22 shooting with 13 rebounds.
A tournament that showcased another incredible chapter in the John Wooden dynasty, topped off with a legendary performance from an all-time NBA great makes the 1973 tournament worthy of contention in the best tournaments of all time conversation.
Unfortunately, Walton’s performance and Wooden’s legacy were really the only exciting things in that year’s tournament. And, unfortunately for the #1 seed, in order to be considered the best March Madness of all time, madness must ensue.
Our #8 seed, the 2011 tournament, better befits the chaos needed to advance in my bracket. Not a single top seed made it to the Final Four. Connecticut was the highest seed at #3 seed in its region, Kentucky was a #4 seed, Butler was an #8 seed and Virginia Commonwealth was an #11 seed—only the third time in history that an #11 seed made it to the Final Four.
What’s more impressive about VCU’s advancement to the Final Four is that had the rules not changed and expanded the tournament from 65 to 68 teams that year, they wouldn’t have even been in the tournament.
They were one of the “First Four” teams to play (teams 65-68) and made it all the way to the Final Four. A First Four to Final Four journey is, without question, an incredible feat.
Result: #8 seed 2011 upsets #1 seed 1973
Game Two: 1975 vs. 2006
Coach Wooden was such a recurring figure in the narrowing down process that I feel as if I developed a relationship with the guy. I’ve actually started signing my name as Will Wooden, which actually sounds a lot better than Will Strecker.
Nonetheless, 1975 was John Wooden’s final season as a coach, as he announced his retirement after his team’s victory in the semifinal against Louisville. In an exit fit for a king, Wooden’s squad went on to beat #2 Kentucky in the championship game, 92-85. However, the cherry on the top of Wooden’s legacy—overcoming the favorited Kentucky—is not what pushes the 1975 tournament over 2006.
The Mideast Regional Final (Elite 8 game) between undefeated and #1 ranked Indiana, coached by legend Bobby Knight, and #2 ranked Kentucky, is considered one of the best tournament games in history.
Landing at the #8 spot on USA Today’s “Greatest 63 Games in NCAA Tournament History” list, and widely considered one of the greatest of all time, the Kentucky Wildcats upset the Hoosiers 92-90, giving Bobby Knight’s team the only loss it would suffer between March of ‘74 and December of ‘76.
In what may turn out to be the closest call in my Meta March Madness, the 2006 tournament, who were favorites coming into this matchup, fell just short in the end.
Similar to 2011, 2006 saw numerous upsets: #14 seed Northwestern State beat #3 seed Iowa; #13 seed Bradley beat #4 seed Kansas, then the #5 seed Pittsburgh to advance to the Sweet Sixteen; Montana and Texas A&M, both #12 seeds, beat their #5 seeded opponents; and #11 seed Wisconsin-Milwaukee won as a double-digit seed for the second year in a row, beating Oklahoma in the first round.
But the tournament is defined by George Mason and one of the greatest Cinderella stories in tournament history. The #11 seed made it all the way to the Final Four—the first to do so since LSU in 1986.
Despite all the upsets and the incredible George Mason story, 2006 lacks some of the gloss and historical significance that 1975 gave us. The fact that 1975 is sole proprietor of multiple greatest games in history and the stage from which John Wooden said goodbye to the world of coaching, puts 1975 just ahead of 2006 in my tournament.
Result: #2 Geezers Steal One From #7 New Kids
Game 3: 1979 vs. 2005
If it weren’t for the seeding, 2005 may have stood a better chance to move on to the Final Four. With upsets out the wazoo, #14 seed Bucknell beat #3 seed Kansas, #13 Vermont beat #4 Syracuse and #12 Wisconsin-Milwaukee advanced to the Sweet Sixteen.
The title game pitched the overall #1 seed, Illinois, against #1 seed in the Syracuse Region, North Carolina. Illinois, on a quest to set the record for most wins in a season with 38, was all that stood between NC coach Roy Williams and his first national title. When it was all said and done, North Carolina toppled Illinois, giving Coach Williams his first championship and halting Illinois’ attempt at most wins, instead tying the previous record at 37.
However, #3 seed 1979 has the stuff movies are made of. Not only does it land three games on the aforementioned USA Today list, it sparked a rivalry that would last decades and define the NBA landscape for years to come.
Undefeated Indiana State, led by Hall-of-Famer Larry Bird, met Magic Johnson and his Michigan State Spartans in the championship game. Nursing an injured finger, Bird had one of the most inefficient games of his season and his team couldn’t cap off the perfect season, losing to Magic’s Spartans 75-64.
It was here, on this day in March, that one of the greatest rivalries in sports began. Bird and Johnson entered the subsequent NBA Draft and would compete against one another for titles, rings and MVP awards during the next two decades. What happened here in 1979 left an indelible mark on the sports world forever. Because of its far-reaching impact, 2005 is no match for 1979.
Result: #3 Legends Beat the #6 Aughts
Game 4: 1981 vs. 1985
It’s so hard to declare the 1981 tournament losers here, as March 14th of ‘81 is considered by some to be the defining moment of March Madness. Due to the 48-team format, the top seeds in each region received a bye, which set the stage for chaos in the second round.
On March 14th, two #1 seeds and the defending national champions all lost either by buzzer beaters or in the final seconds.
#1 seed DePaul lost to #9 seeded St. Joseph’s on a layup with two seconds left. Louisville, a team that won the title in 1980 and would produce four Final Four teams from 1980-1986, was upset by Arkansas, losing on a 49 foot, nothing-but-net buzzer beater. And finally, a favorite in the ‘81 tournament, Oregon State lost to Kansas State as the Wildcats drilled a 17-foot jumper with two seconds left. BYU guard Danny Ainge also hit a buzzer beating layup after dribbling the length of the court to beat Notre Dame 51-50.
While 1981 was undoubtedly a great year for March Madness, 1985 was something special. For starters, this was the first year that the tournament expanded to 64 teams. Though the 64-team format has since stood the test of time, in 1985 there were some hesitations surrounding the new format. In its trial year, some worried it might water down the competition or hurt the top seed who no longer had a first round bye.
However, #8 seeded Villanova laid all those questions to rest as they went on the quintessential Cinderella run that’s come to define the March Madness magic. That ‘Nova team not only dismantled Dean Smith’s Tarheels in the Elite Eight and triumphed over a Maryland team led by the incomparable Len Bias, they also knocked off defending champion Georgetown in the title game.
In what is universally considered one of the top two college basketball games of all time, the Villanova team of relative nobodies dethroned a starting five that included four returning starters from the previous year and Patrick Ewing, future NBA Hall-of-Famer, to become the lowest seed to ever win the championship. There’s no better March Madness story.
Result: #4 Cinderella Stories Abound, But #5 Moves On
Semi-Final #1: 1975 vs. 2011
Once again, the #8 seed is pitted against a tournament headlined by John Wooden. Adding to the VCU headline in 2011, that year’s tournament saw three other double digit seeds in the Southwest Region advance: #12 Richmond, #10 Florida State and #13 Morehead State.
Out of the East Region, another double-digit seed, #11 Marquette, advanced to the Sweet Sixteen. With the incredible success the low seeds saw in this tournament, and not a single top-seeded team making it to the Final Four, 2011 captures the essence of March Madness like few years before. Connecticut would go on to win the tournament, giving the school its third title.
Nonetheless, John Wooden will have his revenge against the 2011 tournament that defeated his 1973 effort. Not only was the March 22nd game between Indiana and Kentucky one of the best games in history, but the following week, UCLA, the eventual champions, put on a historic show of their own against Louisville.
Again, this Final Four matchup is typically considered one of the best NCAA tournament games of all time, and comes in as the 28th best on the USA Today list. Rallying at the end of regulation, Wooden’s squad forced overtime, where they came from behind to beat Wooden’s former assistant Denny Crum.
It was after this game that Wooden announced that 1975 would be his last, undoubtedly inspiring his team to topple the favorited Kentucky Wildcats. Even this ensuing championship game against the Wildcats makes most lists as one of the best games of all time, landing in the top 50 on the USA Today list. As great as 2011 was for March Madness, you can’t top a tournament with three historic games, a historic coach and an historic end to his career.
Result: #2 Seed 1975 advances to the Championship
Semi-Final #2: 1979 vs. 1985
For the case of the #3 seeded 1979 tournament, there’s not much more to be said. A rivalry budded between two NBA greats that would continue for years. In the championship game, Bird’s team were the favorites to win and were fighting for a perfect record, but were overcome by Magic’s Spartans in what is considered one of the best basketball games of all time. Still, they face stiff competition in the #5 seeded 1985 tournament.
You can’t imagine a more iconic Cinderella story that encompasses the essence of March Madness like the one Villanova wrote in ‘85. When the odds were against them round after round, they found a way to win and advance.
One David and Goliath story after another led them to the biggest Goliath of them all: Patrick Ewing and the Hoyas. And, in terms of college basketball, Ewing was essentially a demigod, adding another level to the biblical fable.
It’s hard to pick a winner here, but when it comes down to it, the potential winner of this bracket has to exemplify everything we expect in March Madness. Those are large shoes to fill, but if the shoe fits, wear it, and Villanova’s Cinderella fits the mold.
Result: #5 seed 1985 advances to the Championship
CHAMPIONSHIP: #2 1975 vs. #5 1985
The key factors for the 1975 tournament: in three of the all-time greatest basketball games, Kentucky upsets Bobby Knight’s Hoosiers, UCLA forces overtime to beat ex-Wooden assistant Denny Crum, and UCLA beats Kentucky in the championship to win John Wooden his tenth and final championship.
For the 1985 tournament, the key factors are: underdog #8 seed Villanova beats Len Bias’ Maryland Terrapins, Dean Smith’s Tarheels, and, in arguably greatest basketball game of all time, Patrick Ewing’s Hoyas, to become lowest seed to ever win the championship.
The winner of the Meta March Madness Tournament for the maddest March Madness of all time is … the 1985 Villanova Wildcats and their incredible Cinderella run! And the crowd goes wild!
1985 was a dream year for college basketball, and not one that will be repeated any time soon. It has historical importance as the first 64-team year, an archetypal championship run, and it established Ewing’s career motif of near misses. While other years offered stiff competition, 1985 is the Maddest March Madness ever.