Here are nine of my most memorable NCAA Tournament games, in no particular order, followed by my four all-time favorite tournament games:
2017 Final Four— I’m in Las Vegas, watching the Final Four with a friend of mine who has a boatload of money on Oregon (+4) vs North Carolina. I’m not going to tell you how much $$$ he had on Oregon, but it was more than $10,000 (I saw the ticket).
I’m a nickel/dime bettor, total small-timer; this was a different world. I remember sitting there munching on Doritos watching the game, I seemed more nervous than he was. Oregon loses but covers, losing 77-76. My friend was very casual about the whole thing.
He also bet the underdog in the other game, but a lot less $$, South Carolina vs Gonzaga and he won that bet too. If I won that much money I’d be strutting around like Gene, Gene, the Dancing Machine but serious gamblers are smart and take things in stride.
Funny thing about that night: it was the only time in the last 35 years that both favorites won at the Final Four, but neither one covered the spread.
2016— Yale 79, Baylor 75— It is fun seeing people you know coaching on TV; Yale coach James Jones went to college at Albany, couple of years behind me. He was a good ballplayer, but he is a great coach. Other than Pete Carril, he is the best coach in Ivy League history, and it was a lot of fun to see his team pull a big upset against a basketball blue blood.
2023— Marquette 78, Vermont 61— Same deal here; friend of mine is an assistant coach with Marquette- they had a great season this year. I’m hoping that some D-I program comes to its senses in the next few weeks and gives him a head coaching job. He’s earned it.
1989— Georgetown 50, Princeton 49— This was back when ESPN had the tournament; Bob Ley was the studio host and Dick Vitale did the analysis. Georgetown was a power back then; they were a 22-point favorite in this game, but they were life-and-death against Princeton.
At halftime, Dickie V says that if Princeton wins, he’ll stand on his head on the ESPN set; it was classic TV, totally unscripted. It was hilarious, but Georgetown escaped by a point, and America took a great sign of relief that no one was standing on his head on live TV.
1998— Valparaiso 70, Ole Miss 69— Scott Drew is the Baylor coach; brother Bruce is the coach at Grand Canyon- their father Homer Drew coached Valparaiso for a long time.
His full-court out of bounds play (to Bryce Drew, I think) got Valpo a walk-off win in this game. To this day, that play is still used all over America. One of the best-ever endings to a tournament game.
2023— Furman 68, Virginia 67— Furman hadn’t made the NCAA’s since 1980, hadn’t won a tournament game since 1974; they made couple foul shots with 0:12 left to pull within 67-65, then the Virginia player tries a full-court pass to kill the clock, but it gets picked off, and Furman sticks a 3 from the right-wing with 0:02 left to pull a very unlikely upset.
The camera shot of CBS’ play-by-play guy Kevin Harlan calling all this, then holding his arms out after the game-winning shot, so neither of his analysts says anything to ruin the moment, was just great to see.
2019— Murray State 83, Marquette 64— Back when I was still picking games on this blog, I took the over in this game, Ja Morant against a Big East team. Game was 42-35 at halftime, a good pace, but then Marquette scored 9 freakin’ points in the first 10:00 of second half and when they fell behind, they refused to press Murray State, and lost meekly to a freakin’ OVC team and the game fell several points under. Had they pressed, Murray State would have hung 90-100 points on them.
I laugh about it now, but that night in my living room, I was NOT HAPPY; probably lucky I didn’t have a damn stroke. How could a Big East team quit against an OVC team? To this day, when I see that fraud Steve Wojciechowski in ESPN”s studio stealing money, it makes my blood boil. Anyway, that night is a big part of why I don’t pick games much anymore.
2016— National title game, Villanova-North Carolina, I’m sitting in the Westgate SuperBook having a Cherry Coke and some pizza. The guy next to me is a younger guy who says he has a lot of money on Villanova and the under. We strike up a conversation but he is very nervous as the game comes down the stretch. Things get quiet.
Kid of North Carolina makes a tough shot to put UNC ahead and puts the game over the total; the guy next to me ain’t happy, but then Villanova hits a shot at the buzzer to win the national title and get the guy a split on his bets.
Never seen someone so happy to break even.
2010— I’m at the MGM Grand sportsbook for the first Saturday of the tournament; me and apparently every Kansas fan west of the Rockies. Jayhawks were a #1-seed, a big favorite over Northern Iowa. Ton of people wearing blue/red in the MGM Grand.
Game is early on, some kid makes a shot— the three young guys next to me start hugging each other. I ask one of them “Is that your brother? Why are you so happy?”
I had no idea you could bet on which team got to 15 points first; that obscure basket won the guys their bet and they were celebrating.
Anyway the game goes on and go figure, Northern Iowa hits a shot from the corner at the end and upsets Kansas, big upset. Lot of sad people were walking around, wearing blue/red.
My four all-time favorite NCAA Tournament games:
2006— When the brackets came out, I went on a local radio show here in Albany and gave my quick thoughts on what would happen. I had decided that Northwestern State would upset Iowa in a #3-14 game and I said so on the radio. Fairly bold prediction.
As luck would have it, Northwestern State does pull the upset, winning 64-63. Now that was a fun day.
1990— Loyola Marymount 111, New Mexico State 90— During the WCC tournament, LMU’s star Hank Gathers collapsed and died on the court during a game. It was horrible; they called off the tournament, and LMU got the automatic bid because they finished first.
When the brackets came out 8-9 days later, LMU had the very last time slot in the first round, the midnight Friday game on CBS. Their opponent was New Mexico State, a team that would run with the hyper-fast breaking Lions, coached by Paul Westhead.
Back then, I picked games in the Albany newspaper and I had done very well that year; I really wanted to risk my entire (fictional) bankroll on LMU in his game— there was no way they were losing this game. I didn’t risk my bankroll, just made the normal pick, but I tried to impress that upon the readers. LMU was going to win.
LMU’s Bo Kimble shot his first free throw lefty, in honor of his fallen friend, but Kimble also had four fouls at halftime, and the game was tied. I was queasy about my pick, but LMU exploded in the second half, won by 21, then won two more games in one of the most famous runs in NCAA history. That team was so much fun to watch.
1990— Jerry Tarkanian’s Rebels dispatched LMU in the West Region final, then they played Duke in the national title game, and they crushed Duke, 103-73. Then the weasel from the NCAA had to hand Tarkanian the national championship trophy, after they had harassed the guy for years (NCAA later wrote Tarkanian a $2.5M check to settle a dispute).
Sweet 16 of the West Region is being played in Las Vegas tonight, 33 years after that great night. The NCAA embraces Las Vegas now because more than anything, they love making money.
1974—NC State 80, UCLA 77, 2OT— When Michael Jordan was growing up, his favorite player was David Thompson, a great player for NC State. I was a big Wolfpack fan; friend of my parents lived in Raleigh, and he told me all about Thompson. I used to listen to their games on the radio on WBT in Charlotte.
UCLA beat the Wolfpack in December; this was when Bill Walton was a senior- they had won seven national titles in a row. Every kid in my school who liked basketball was a UCLA fan, except for me; the rematch in the Final Four.
UCLA led by 7 in overtime, but State rallied and won, then beat Marquette in the national title game and I was hooked for life on college basketball.
Dunking was illegal back then in college ball, which is a tribute to how great a player Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was. Had Thompson been able to dunk, we would have some amazing highlights to watch on YouTube these days.