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BENNER: Of many shining moments, one could have shone brightest

March 30, 2013

When the Men’s Final Four convenes in Atlanta this week, the competition taking place in the Georgia Dome will be enhanced by a celebration the NCAA is orchestrating in honor of the event’s 75th anniversary.

Let the record show that Oregon won the first tournament in 1939. The championship game took place on Northwestern’s campus. Barely anyone noticed.

That’s because the early years of the NCAA tournament were eclipsed by the better-known National Invitational Tournament. It took another 15 years or so for the NCAA tournament to ebb into the national consciousness.

Later, it hit full-blown major status due to three factors. First, in 1979, Earvin “Magic” Johnson’s Michigan State Spartans and Larry Bird’s Indiana State Sycamores so captivated the country that the title game that year still has the highest television ratings ever.

Second, from 1980 to 1885, the tournament field expanded from 40 to 64 teams, which made it a true national event. And third, a fledgling network named ESPN began televising those early-round games and the tournament became must-see TV from Boise to Bangor.

Atlanta will be the 30th Final Four I’ve attended, a blessing of occupation, circumstance and the hometown’s place in the rotation. Every one of them has been an outstanding experience—there are few moments in sports that compare with the atmosphere of the national semifinals—but some are more special than most.

Indeed, it would be hard to top my first Final Four in 1976 at Philadelphia’s Spectrum. In fact, it hasn’t been surpassed since. That’s because Indiana defeated Big Ten rival Michigan to complete the perfect, 32-0 season. The Hoosiers remain the last unbeaten team to win the title.

In 1980, Indianapolis set the standard for hosting the Final Four—something it has done in every Final Four it has staged since—at Market Square Arena. Two Big Ten teams, Purdue and Iowa, got there but neither made the title game. The championship went to Louisville, led by Dr. Dunkenstein, Darrell Griffith, and two of his Indy-native Louisville teammates, Poncho Wright (Marshall) and Roger Burkman (Franklin Central). UCLA, coached by Larry Brown, lost the title game, but the UCLA Song Girls (oh, my) stole the show.

In 1984, at Lexington‘s Rupp Arena, I contracted food poisoning on the eve of the national semifinals (IU grad gets sick in Kentucky … go figure), but I was able to persevere and cover Villanova’s incredible upset of Georgetown for the championship. That was the no-way, no-how game. But somehow, some way, ’Nova triumphed.

In 1987 at New Orleans, everyone remembers “The Shot” from Keith Smart that delivered the championship to IU over Syracuse. But I also recall how Indiana, in the national semifinal game and led by 33 points from Steve Alford, beat the Runnin’ Rebels of UNLV at their own game, 97-93. It was Bob Knight at his absolute coaching best.

In 1991, Indy’s first Final Four at the RCA (Hoosier) Dome, Duke met undefeated UNLV in the semifinal, a team the Blue Devils had lost to by 30 points in the 1990 championship game at Denver. Few gave the Dookies a chance, but they scored a titanic, 79-77 upset, then went on to beat Kansas in the final, a game punctuated by a gravity-defying dunk from Duke‘s Grant Hill.

In 1998 at San Antonio, Utah lost to Kentucky in the championship game, but the guy who won every press conference by a lopsided margin was former Ball State and then current Utes coach Rick Majerus. Majerus passed away last year, but no Final Four coach has ever been more entertaining.

The last Final Four I covered for the local daily, at the RCA Dome in 2000, was memorable for two reasons: the comeback of Michigan State’s Mateen Cleaves from an ankle injury in the championship-game victory over Florida, and the national emergence of the Spartans’ young coach, Tom Izzo who, then and now, exudes class.

Finally, the best—and, in a gut-wrenching way, the worst—Final Four memory: those couple of seconds that the half-court heave of Butler’s Gordon Hayward hung in the air at Lucas Oil Stadium in 2010. The shot hit the backboard and rim, then bounded away. ESPN later did an analysis that said had the shot hit the backboard 3 inches lower, it would have gone in, and Butler would have beaten Duke.

And we would have had the all-time One Shining Moment in the tournament’s 75-year history.•

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Benner is senior associate commissioner for external affairs for the Horizon League college athletic conference and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at bbenner@ibj.com. He also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.

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