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


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

Billy Packer, who had been a star guard at Wake Forest and was starting to become a national voice on college basketball at the time of the Maryland-N.C. State game, had been leading the cavalry, talking up a bigger tournament field at every opportunity.

Packer said what transpired between the Terrapins and Wolfpack proved to be a catalyst for change.

"I think that game was absolutely pivotal," Packer said. "The reason for it was the lead-up to the game. You've got to remember what Maryland had done to UCLA that year in Pauley [losing by a point] and what N.C. State had done [going undefeated]."

The biggest proponents of keeping the tournament exclusive to conference champions were UCLA coach John Wooden and the school's athletic director, J.D. Morgan. They had allies in television executives who knew the Bruins were the only team to bring in ratings and advertising dollars.

"They [the television executives] said if UCLA ever goes down and is not this power, college basketball can forget about any presence that it would have on television," Packer recalled. "The only reason people watched was to see if there was anybody that could beat UCLA."

As a member of the NCAA tournament selection committee from 1969 to 1974, Morgan had fought to keep the field small. It meant UCLA received an opening-round bye, then usually played two games against teams from the West Coast before going to the Final Four.

Aside from UCLA, the power in college basketball was typically east of the Mississippi.

"J.D. Morgan kind of ruled his own deal out there. He had Wooden, so what did he care what anybody did in terms of the national scene?" Packer said. "He was holding all the power, because he had the team that looked like as long as Wooden was coaching, it wasn't going to make any difference."

Shift of power

The legendary coach was nearing the end of his career, having led the Bruins to nine national championships in the previous 10 years. With Morgan coming off the committee after the 1973-74 season and N.C. State athletic director Willis Casey coming on, the power on the committee shifted east.

Specifically, it shifted to Casey and the Big Ten's Duke.

Though not officially on the committee until 1975, Duke was a behind-the-scenes power broker who had actually run the NCAA tournament while working as the right-hand man to NCAA boss Walter Byers. Duke also had been commissioner of the Big Eight. Casey had learned under N.C. State coaching legend Everett Case.

"They were really the two power players on the national scene," Packer said. "They represented the two power leagues. They normally competed. But in this particular case, Wayne really having a handle on the inner workings of the NCAA and Willis being an absolutely terrific negotiator formed an incredible team."

Packer doesn't know for sure, but said he wouldn't be surprised if Casey used his own team to build a hypothetical, but clearly effective, case for tournament expansion. With the only blemish on their record an early season loss to UCLA, the Wolfpack would end the Bruins' reign with a victory in the NCAA semifinals -- in Greensboro -- before beating Marquette in the final.

"I'm sure Willis said, 'Suppose we lost to Maryland? How crazy is this? We have to be arguably the third-best team, and you're having a tournament where the third-best team in the country doesn't even get a chance to participate,' " Packer said.

"And here's Maryland, one basket away from beating UCLA on their home court, they lose by a point on their home court and they go nowhere. Their argument had tremendous basis to make a good case. That argument was made by coaches from time to time, but they had no power."

Duke was already making the case that year after Michigan and Indiana tied for the Big Ten title. Without a tournament of its own, the Big Ten had a one-game playoff in Champaign, Ill. The Wolverines won and advanced to the NCAA tournament.

But that game received little, if any, attention outside the Midwest.

The N.C. State-Maryland game was of national interest, mainly because of Thompson, the 6-4 leaper who became perhaps the first ACC star to gain a following of fans outside of North Carolina. Maryland's most dominant personality was its coach, Driesell.

But Packer maintains that Casey and Duke played as crucial a role in expanding the field as Thompson and Driesell.

"I don't think all of a sudden this game is played and guys are coming out of the game saying, 'There ought to be more than one team.' It was a combination," Packer said. "Maryland-State was no more important to the resolution of the problem than the names Casey and Duke."

The NCAA selection committee, with Casey on board and Duke about to join, forwarded its proposal to the executive committee of the NCAA. It easily passed, and for the 1975 tournament, the field was expanded to 32 teams.

The Terrapins were one of two ACC teams selected (North Carolina was the other), and advanced to the regional final for the second and final time in Driesell's 17-year career in College Park before losing to Louisville. It seemed only fitting for the team most responsible for the expansion to receive one of the first at-large bids.

UCLA won the 1975 NCAA title, giving Wooden 10 championships in a 12-year run, and the 65-year-old coach announced his retirement the night the Bruins beat Louisville and Wooden disciple Denny Crum in the semifinals. Two nights later, UCLA beat Kentucky in the final. The dynasty was over. There would be no repeat champion until Duke won in 1991 and 1992.

One of best ever

As for the 1974 ACC tournament title game between Maryland and N.C. State, it remains one of the best college basketball games ever played. (Some believe it was eclipsed by Duke's overtime, 104-103 win over Kentucky in the 1992 East Regional final in Philadelphia.)

When Driesell returned to Maryland in late January a few weeks after announcing his retirement from coaching earlier this year, the 1974 game against N.C. State was one of the first things he was asked about. Nearly three decades had not dimmed Driesell's memory of the game or his feelings about its outcome.

"A lot of people said it was the best game ever played in the ACC tournament," Driesell said. "It was a great game. Somebody asked me, 'Was that the biggest disappointment you've ever had as a coach?' If your team plays well and plays hard, you're happy."

As a coach, you're even happier if your team gets into the NCAA tournament. Thanks to Maryland and N.C. State, there are now a lot more coaches and teams who have the chance to make the field of 65 when this year's selections are announced Sunday.

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