Imagine, if you will, a time and place where college basketball players stayed four years. You had to win your conference tournament or you couldn’t play in the NCAA Tournament. Arenas were stuffed full of maniacal fans, and the pressure to win nearly drove coaches crazy.
That was the Atlantic Coast Conference basketball Tournament when I was growing up.
Today, the tournament means nothing other than the entertainment value of seeing your team play another game. If your team is good, they’re going to the NCAA Tournament the following week any way. If they’re bad, they could run the table and qualify for the NCAA’s the next week, but the odds of that happening are right up there with ordering a unicorn from Amazon, so in all likelihood, the season ends.
But go back to 1970. No matter how good you were, you had to the win the tournament or you went home. Before 1975, all conferences only got one bid to the NCAAs. Players couldn’t leave early for the ABA or NBA. Freshmen were ineligible. Heck, you weren’t even allowed to dunk. Getting a ticket to the event was like winning the lottery. The atmosphere was electric.
The 1970 tournament is the first one I really remember, and it featured a South Carolina team that had gotten through the ACC with a perfect 14-0 record. They had John Roche, Bobby Cremins and a host of players the rest of the league really hated. They were cocky, physical and very good. They were ranked No. 3 in the country and the only other team in the field ranked was No. 19 N.C. State.
They met in the finals back when the title game was on a Saturday night. The game was televised by C.D. Chesley and you found yourself humming along to “Sail With The Pilot” during commercials for Pilot Life Insurance. The Wolfpack slowed the ball down (this was also before the shot clock) and the game went into overtime. Twice. Although South Carolina was clearly the better team, Vann Williford and NC State prevailed
If you weren’t an ACC basketball fan then, this game converted you. South Carolina, even though ranked No. 3, 14-0 in the ACC and 25-3 overall, didn’t go to the NCAAs.