Tigers, Red Raiders hopeful, though history is not favorable to those who have danced just once
While the Auburn Tigers and Texas Tech Red Raiders are understandably euphoric about earning their first trips to the NCAA Final Four, tournament history indicates that the odds of either winning it all are very long.
Currently, 34 teams have made only one Final Four appearance since the tournament’s inception in 1939, and only two of those have won it all. Those teams were the 1943 Wyoming Cowboys and the 1966 Texas Western (now University of Texas-El Paso) Miners.
Of the remaining 32, only eight—Dayton, Florida State, Gonzaga, Indiana State, Jacksonville, Seattle, Seton Hall and Washington State—made it to the final while the other 24 were one-and-done.
Considering how they are playing coming into championship weekend in Minneapolis, Minnesota, there is every reason to believe that Auburn or Texas Tech could become the third school to go all the way in their first waltz at the Big Dance.
Certainly Bruce Pearl’s Tigers should be confident considering that to earn their way to U.S. Bank Stadium they only had to beat the three winningest programs in college basketball history—Kansas, North Carolina and Kentucky.
“I knew this group wanted to make history,” Pearl said. “I knew they wanted to play good basketball and represent Auburn. And to do so in such an impressive way against the best teams and coaches in college basketball makes it even more rewarding.
“But we understand that we’ve got two more games to play in order to win a championship, and we’re going to try to continue to focus on that.”
To do that, the Tigers will have to beat Virginia, which is making its third trip to the final but has never played in the title game. Should they win that one, oddsmakers will most likely favor Michigan State, which has 10 Final Four appearances and two national championships, as their next opponent.
But what if a miracle happened? What if Auburn (30-9) and Texas Tech (30-6) were to meet in the final? Well it would certainly add another interesting chapter to the NCAA Tourney history book.
When Wyoming won its title in just the fifth installment of the tournament, only eight teams were invited, and the Cowboys beat Georgetown 46-34. Clem Haskins’ 1966 Texas Western team prevailed in a 22-team tournament (for some reason the East and Mideast brackets had six teams while the Midwest and West brackets had only five teams) and made more history than just winning the school’s only national championship.
The 1966 final against Adolph Rupp’s Kentucky squad known as “Rupp’s Runts” was also notable because Haskins started five African Americans for the first time in NCAA championship history. In the Final Four played in Cole Field House the University of Maryland, Kentucky dispatched Duke in one semifinal while Texas Western downed Utah, setting up the final matchup which the Miners won 72-65.
Texas Tech earned its Final Four spot by beating Northern Kentucky, Buffalo, Michigan, and Gonzaga, another of the teams that, despite its long basketball history (the Bulldogs are making their 21st straight NCAA appearance dating back to 1999), has only one Final Four to its credit.
Still, after Texas Tech’s 75-69 win in the Elite Eight, Red Raiders coach Chris Beard admitted he wants his team to go where Gonzaga has gone before.
“We have a lot of respect for their program,” Beard said. “Their coach had some very nice things to say about our team, and we don’t take those things for granted. We’re trying to build a program at Tech like a Gonzaga.”
Well, to be honest, they’d like to take things a couple of steps further than Gonzaga ever has this weekend in Minneapolis.
Here’s a look at a few more of the interesting tidbits and oddities about those Final Four first-timers:
THE ONE-AND-DONES: The complete list of 24 schools that have made it to the Final Four but not the championship game includes Charlotte, Drake, Duquesne, George Mason, Georgia, Iowa State, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Mississippi State, New Mexico State, Notre Dame, Penn State, Pennsylvania, Pittsburgh, Princeton, Rutgers, Santa Clara, Southern Methodist, South Carolina, St. Bonaventure, Saint Joseph’s, Virginia Commonwealth, Wake Forest and Western Kentucky. But unfortunately for UMass, Minnesota, Saint Joseph’s and Western Kentucky, their appearances were late vacated due to NCAA violations.
JUST ONE SHORT: Seven of the eight one-timers that made the finals did so in the span from 1939 to 1989. Since then only the 2017 Gonzaga team which lost to North Carolina 71-65 in Glendale, Arizona, has been added to the list. The others were Washington State (1941), Seattle (1958), Dayton (1967), Jacksonville (1970), Florida State (1972), Indiana State (1979) and Seton Hall (1989).
THE INDEPENDENTS: College basketball has not always been divided into—and dependent on—conference affiliations, and the 1970 Final Four is a perfect example. That year Jacksonville, New Mexico State and St. Bonaventure, all independents, made their only appearances, joining stalwart UCLA, which of course took the title. UCLA took out New Mexico State in one national semifinal while Jacksonville, led by 7-foot-2 center Artis Gilmore, beat St. Bonaventure in the other. UCLA won the final 80-69, but it was a good run for Jacksonville, which beat Western Kentucky (making its only NCAA appearance), Iowa and Kentucky to reach the Final Four. You could call it the era of the independents as, starting with Texas Western in 1966, at least one independent made it to the Final Four every year but one until 1979.
MAGIC VS. BIRD: The 1979 Final Four gave us perhaps the most memorable one-timer in the Indiana State Sycamores led by Larry Bird. With “Larry Legend” firing away, Indiana State went through its Missouri Valley Conference schedule unbeaten then ran through Virginia Tech, Oklahoma, Arkansas and DePaul to set up an epic final against Earvin “Magic” Johnson and Michigan State. The Sycamores came into the Special Events Center on the campus of the University of Utah 33-0 and the Spartans 25-6. It was to be the first of many meetings in the Magic vs. Bird rivalry, and Johnson prevailed in this one 75-64 as MSU claimed its first men’s basketball national championship. Johnson had 24 points and 7 rebounds, Greg Kelser added 19 points and 8 rebounds and Terry Donnelly had 15 points for Jud Heathcote’s Spartans. Bird led ISU with 19 points and 13 rebounds but was only 7 of 21 shooting from the field. At the time, the game had the highest Nielsen Ratings of any in the history of American basketball and is still one of the highest rated to this day.
So the Tigers and Red Raiders could indeed make history this weekend in Minneapolis. But even should they fall short, they can now proudly say they will have done something a lot of other teams still dream about.
Beard put it best when asked by the moderator if he had anything else to say to close out his press conference after the Gonzaga win.
“Texas Tech is going to the Final Four!” he proudly proclaimed.
And no matter how it turns out, that’s something to be very proud of. H&A
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