We will hear the noise a week from Sunday night when the NCAA men’s basketball draw is announced. Bubble teams will cry foul. Schools with double-digit losses will claim they were “snubbed” by the tournament selection committee.
You want to hear about a worthy team that didn’t make it to the NCAA Tournament? Hop into the wayback machine and let me tell you about the 1973-74 Maryland Terrapins.
They might have been the best team in the country. They had three of the top 10 players in the nation. They had six NBA draft picks. They were ranked in the top five all season. In December, they lost a 1-point decision to Bill Walton’s defending champion UCLA Bruins (the team that won 88 straight).
Then they lost the final game of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament, 103-100, in overtime to North Carolina State. Some have called it the greatest college basketball game ever played. Maryland shot 61 percent from the floor in the losing effort.
The Wolfpack, led by David Thompson, went on to defeat UCLA in the Final Four, and won the NCAA championship.
The Terrapins went home to College Park. They were ranked fourth in the nation in the final poll. And they never even made it to the tourney.
It was different then. It was a 32-team tournament and only one team per conference was allowed into the draw. You think there’s some pressure in next week’s conference tournaments?
Go back to 1974 when the ACC had three teams ranked in the top five in the country, and two of them were not allowed to play in the NCAA Tournament.
This was true March Madness. It would never happen today. In 2011, the Big East sent 11 teams to the NCAA Tournament.
“They changed the rules to make it easier,’’ Walton says today. “It’s like what Wilt Chamberlain always said to all the younger players: ‘They changed all the rules to make it easier for you guys, and to make it harder for me.’
“That Maryland team was a great team.’’
The 1974 Terps had 6-foot-9-inch Len Elmore, who had been the successor to Lew Alcindor at Power Memorial High School in New York City. Elmore went on to play for the Indiana Pacers, Kansas City Kings, New Jersey Nets, Milwaukee Bucks, and New York Knicks. Today, he’s a famous basketball broadcaster.
The Terps also had 6-11 Tom McMillen, a Rhodes scholar who’d been on the cover of Sports Illustrated when he was in high school. McMillen went on to play 11 years in the NBA.
The Terps had John Lucas, the best guard in the country, who later played 14 NBA seasons. Elmore, McMillen, and Lucas were all NBA first-round picks. Lucas went No. 1 overall in 1976.
Maryland’s other starting guard was Mo Howard, a Philadelphia high school Player of the Year, who played briefly with the Cleveland Cavaliers and New Orleans Jazz.
Maryland’s fifth starter was Tom Roy, a 6-9 forward who was the highest scorer in New England high school basketball history when he graduated from South Windsor High School with 2,059 points. More than 200 colleges recruited Roy. He was drafted in the third round by the Portland Trail Blazers but did not play in the NBA.
Maryland’s sixth man was Owen Brown, who was drafted by the Phoenix Suns but never played in the NBA. The Terps also had a nice bench player in New York City kid Jap Trimble.
Maryland was coached by the inimitable Lefty Driesell, who went 348-159 in 17 seasons there. Lefty pledged to make Maryland “the UCLA of the East.’’ He took the Terps to the NCAA Tournament eight times.
Twelve years after his best team was denied an NCAA bid, Driesell was ousted when Len Bias died of cocaine intoxication.
My boss, Joe Sullivan, a college basketball honk, makes a case for the 1971 Southern Cal Trojans as a contender for best-team-to-not-make-the-NCAA-tourney. Those Trojans went 24-2, both losses coming against John Wooden’s UCLA powerhouse (64-60 and 73-62). When I asked Bob Ryan the same question, he also cited the ’71 Trojans.
“That USC team was very good,” said Walton, who was a freshman at UCLA in 1971. “As was the Maryland squad. Both of them lost to the eventual champion. They had their chances, as did I.”
USC had Paul Westphal, Jersey legend Dennis “Mo” Layton, and Ron Riley, three NBA players. If not for Sidney Wicks, Curtis Rowe, and the NCAA’s “one-team-per-conference” system, the Trojans might have won a national championship in 1971. But they never got a shot.
The ’71 Trojans were good, but the ’74 Maryland Terrapins stand alone as the greatest team that didn’t play in the NCAA Tournament.