Tuesday, April 4, 2017
The Head of the Class
Sports are defined by eras. Usually, they change due to rule changes or player retirements. In some instances, they revolve around a singular team. Those squads can usher in new eras without notice for years.
When going back in the history of men's college basketball, I believe you could encapsulate the beginning of the modern era with one of three distinctive starting points. The most recent (and obvious) one would be the 1984-1985 season, the first one where the NCAA tournament was expanded to 64 teams. If you want to go a little earlier, you could look at the 1978-1979 season. That's the one that culminated in the championship matchup featuring Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. For the longest thread, take everything after the 1974-1975 season. That, of course, marked the end of the dominant UCLA run (10 titles over 12 years).
Before Monday night's game, North Carolina was one of the five most historic programs in the history of the sport. There have been lulls (as with any of the other "bluebloods"), but the Tar Heels have experience some modicum of success since the mid-1920s (they had a pre-tournament championship back in 1924). The program's prestige, though, has risen to another level over the last 35 years.
After UCLA's dominant stretch was broken, schools with that previous history started to find a foothold again. Indiana took full advantage in 1976. Kentucky got back on top in 1978 (after losing the 1975 title game to the Bruins). After falling in the final game in 1977 and 1981, Dean Smith finally guided UNC to its first championship since the late 1950s. With the 2017 trophy in the fold, Carolina ties Duke for the most titles since the end of the 1975 tourney.
There has been controversy with that prestige. If you're a fan of the sport, you'd have to be in denial to not acknowledge the NCAA investigation into allegations of long-running academic fraud. To this point, there has been no resolution ... and no indication that one is around the corner. This does leave a cloud over a storied history that only has improved with age. If sanctions come down, results disappear, and titles get stripped, how big of a hit does that prestige take?
The more immediate impact of Monday's win for UNC? It prevented another devastating loss. After losing last year's title game on a buzzer-beating three, the Tar Heels had redemption on their minds the entire season. Losing to a Gonzaga program that many find inferior would only compound last April's loss to a Villanova team that many thought was inferior. But they ended up joining the list of teams that found motivation in the most crushing of moments.
If the NCAA ultimately rules against UNC, a bitter feeling may mix in with some of the sweetness of this win. Until that day, the Tar Heels have done their best to keep up with the most prolific programs in the sport's modern era.