Appraising the 75th Anniversary NCAA Tournament Lists From a Big East Perspective

Posted by Will Tucker on January 17th, 2013

We’ve been meaning to devote the proper attention to the lists of top players, teams and moments in NCAA Tournament history released by the NCAA last month to commemorate 75 years of March Madness. Reader Sean Revell sent us a very compelling infographic of his creation (pictured below), which distills the unceremoniously dry, sterile data tables of the NCAA press release into an engaging visual timeline.

The NCAA's lists, in more visual terms, courtesy of Sean Revell

The NCAA’s lists, in more visual terms, courtesy of Sean Revell

The image serves as a good springboard for some analysis of the lists from a Big East perspective. The league’s current members acquitted themselves well in the list of individual performances, accounting for more players (14) in the Top 75 than any other league save the ACC, which placed 16 former stars on the list. But only three Big East teams were deemed worthy of the list of Top 25 tournament teams, placing the league in the middle of the pack below the Pac-12 and ACC, with six teams apiece. Obviously, it’s impossible to please everyone with a list like this, and revisionism and presentism are unavoidable in an era where March Madness is more culturally visible and digitally accessible than ever before. But it’s worth some attempt at measured scrutiny, so here are a few thoughts on which Big East players and teams should have made the cut:

Three Big East players snubbed (note that DePaul and Marquette were not in the Big East at the time of these players):

  • Mark Aguirre (1979, 1980, 1981): In his first year at DePaul, Aguirre became one of only two freshman since 1975 to score more than 50 points in two Final Four games (the other being Carmelo Anthony). He won a Naismith Award in 1980, was The Sporting News’ Player of the Year in 1981, and became a consensus NCAA first team All-American over his final two seasons. He scored 19 points in a 76-74 Final Four loss to Larry Bird’s Indiana State Sycamores, en route to making the 1979 All-Tournament team.
  • Allen Iverson (1995, 1996): AI led his Georgetown team to a Sweet Sixteen and an Elite Eight in his two seasons of college basketball, averaging 23 PPG, 4.6 APG and 3.2 SPG for his career. Although he never advanced beyond the Elite Eight, he helped the Hoyas reach their first NCAA tournament since 1989, and averaged almost 28 PPG through four games in the 1996 Tournament.
  • Dwayne Wade (2002, 2003): Carmelo Anthony may have been the last Big East star standing in the 2003 Final Four, and he’s recognized on the NCAA list accordingly. But it was Wade in the Elite Eight who amassed 29 points (on 69% shooting), 11 rebounds and 11 assists in Marquette‘s blowout win over Tubby Smith’s #1 ranked overall top-seeded Kentucky –– the heavy favorites who had won 26 games in a row. In doing so, he became only the fifth player to notch a triple-double in an NCAA Tournament game since the statistic became officially recognized in 1987. He averaged 21.8 PPG, 6.6 RPG and 6.0 APG through five games in the 2003 Tournament, leading Marquette to its first Final Four since Al McGuire’s team claimed the school’s only title in 1977.

Three Big East teams snubbed:

  • 1978-79 DePaul: The Blue Demons made their first Final Four since 1943, led by freshman Chicago native Mark Aguirre and senior guard Gary Garland, who were both named to the 1979 All-Tournament team. Before losing by a bucket to Indiana State in the Final Four, DePaul took down David Greenwood’s one-seeded UCLA squad. Their win over Penn to claim third place won the dubious distinction of most combined disqualifications in a Final Four game (six players in total fouled out), which should count for something.

The three largest chronological lapses in the Top 25 Teams list are between 1960-66, 1984-89, and 1997-2003. While neither of the following teams fielded by these (current) Big East programs displayed the regular season dominance that characterizes much of this list, you can make a case for either to occupy the void from 1984-89 based on their tournament performances.

  • 1985-86 Louisville: Pervis Ellison made the list of the Top 75 NCAA Tournament players, but his team failed to earn similar distinction. Despite starting the season 11-6 and getting swept by Kansas, Denny Crum’s Cardinals roared back to win 17 consecutive games en route to their second National Championship and fourth Final Four in seven seasons. They conquered the Tournament field with ease, winning five games by an average margin of 13.6 points before meeting Naismith Player of the Year Johnny Dawkins and Duke in the championship game. The gritty 72-69 win, in which Dawkins was held scoreless for 11 minutes in the second half and “Never Nervous Pervis” dominated the final 60 seconds, proved Louisville had matured into the nation’s best team. The team boasted three future NBA first-rounders, headlined by future number-one overall draft pick Ellison.
  • 1984-85 Villanova: Whereas Louisville’s early stumbles gave way to a dominant March, the Wildcats left the Big East Tournament with a semifinal loss, a 19-10 overall record and an eight-seed in the upcoming NCAA Tournament. The Wildcats continued winning in dramatic fashion all the way to an unlikely championship match-up with Georgetown. The Hoyas, buoyed by a senior Patrick Ewing who had already been to two National Championship games, has been called “perhaps the most intimidating team in the history of college basketball.” That Nova shot a Tournament record 79% on its way to shocking the world and capturing its first championship makes their improbable win even more historic. And the fact that Gary McLain was “wired on cocaine” during the fairy tale run and subsequent honorary visit to President Reagan’s White House makes the team all the more emblematic of the 1980s. To keep them off this list is a disservice to the parity and egalitarian format of college basketball that’s captured the hearts and imaginations of sports fans for decades.

Revision: reader Stu commented on the omission of the 1988-89 Seton Hall team from this list. That Pirates squad is as deserving of recognition as any of the historic Big East teams. After being picked seventh in the league in the preseason, PJ Carlesimo coached the Pirates to a 24-5 regular season with wins over Kansas and Kentucky, a second place finish in the Big East, and a three-seed in the Tournament. There, Seton Hall continued to surpass all expectations, handing Bobby Knight’s Indiana and Jerry Tarkanian’s UNLV what were, at the time, the worst NCAA Tournament losses the programs had ever suffered. Their championship bout with Michigan was the first title game to go to overtime since 1963, and it became infamous for its conclusion. A touch foul called on the floor by Referee John Cloughtery sent Michigan guard Rumeal Robinson to the free throw line, down one point, with three seconds on the clock. His free throws sealed the game and deflated a Seton Hall fan base that had been heartbeats away from its first national championship, only seven years removed from a 6-23 season. ’89 Seton Hall deserves acknowledgement for its dramatic rise and heartbreaking fall, forever etched in the Big East canon.

Will Tucker (116 Posts)

Kentucky native living and working in Washington, D.C. I write for RTC’s American Athletic Conference microsite in my spare time. Aside from college hoops, other sources of spiritual fulfillment include road trips, tacos, and bourbon. I try to incorporate all of them into my writing.


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2 Responses to “Appraising the 75th Anniversary NCAA Tournament Lists From a Big East Perspective”

  1. Stu says:

    1988 – 1989 Seton Hall Pirates team that was robbed in the final seconds of the NCAA Tourney Final.

    Biggest Snub from the main list and your snub list.

  2. Will Tucker says:

    Great suggestion, Stu.

    Handed Indiana and UNLV (what was) their worst tournament losses in history; mounted a huge Final Four comeback against Duke; watched a Nat’l Title slip away at the discretion of a ref––and all of that after being picked 7th in the Big East.

    ’88-89 Seton Hall definitely belongs on this list.

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