If you are a college basketball fan in the Southeast over 35 ,especially if you reside in Alabama, you are probably familiar with C.M. Newton's 1976 SEC Champion Alabama Crimson Tide and their valiant loss to eventual National Champion Indiana, 74-69 in the Mideast Regional semifinal at LSU's Assembly Center in Baton Rouge. What you may not be familiar with is how close Alabama came to playing Indiana in the National Championship game in Philadelphia's Spectrum in a twist of 'less is more'.
SI Cover after IU-Marquette Mideast Regional Final
Lets go back and revisit some of the nuances of the NCAA tournament in 1975-1976 vs 2009-2010. The 1976 season was the second season of the NCAA taking a second team from a particular conference besides only the conference champion which was the case through the 1973-1974 season.Also, the regionals were truly 'regionals' with the SEC and Big 10 champion playing in the Mideast Regional, ACC champ in the East,Big 8 and SWC in the Midwest, Pac 8 in the West for instance. Ironically, Alabama had been the SEC's first "at-large" team after the 1975 season . Alabama tied Kentucky for the SEC title,but lost both games to the Wildcats and was shipped to Tempe to play Arizona State while Kentucky was the SEC's representative and was placed in the customary Mideast Regional and played a first round game in Tuscaloosa,of all places. Even more cruel for Alabama was sharing the SEC title with Vanderbilt in the 1973-1974 season,but losing both games to the Commodores in the last second all the while Vanderbilt went to the Mideast Regional also in Tuscaloosa. Not only was Alabama unable to participate in the NCAA tournament,they were precluded from playing in the NIT (where Alabama finished 4th the prior year)as well as the new and short lived CCA tournament in St Louis, due to NCAA rules precluding a school which was hosting a tournament game to play in the NIT for among many reasons, concerns by the NCAA that with the host school in New York,the NCAA regional round on their home court may be poorly attended.
However, Alabama did win the SEC outright and advanced to the Mideast Regional in 1976 where of course the dream died in Baton Rouge vs Indiana. Like most issues or policies when there are attempts at improvement ,like expanding the tournament from 25 teams to 32 teams, there are some other rather obvious issues not either seen or modified. Alabama was one of four teams in the AP's final regular season poll top eight that was bracketed in the Mideast Regional. Seeding wouldn't be implemented until the 1978-1979 season three years later which culminated with the epic Bird-Magic showdown in Salt Lake City. Alabama's blowout win over #5 North Carolina sent them to the regional round paired with #1 Indiana while #2 (#2 in the Nation,not regional) Marquette would face Western Michigan, a surprising #14 themselves. Its hard to imagine now a game with #8 Alabama and #5 North Carolina in the first round as well as Marquette and Kentucky squaring off #5 vs #6 the year before in the first round. Today, Indiana and Marquette would have been one seeds and Alabama and North Carolina two seeds not facing one another until the Final Four or regional final depending on placement. The loss to Indiana did at least end Alabama's season as one thing new for the '76 tournament was the elimination of the regional consolation game that season. The Tide didn't have to hang around for two days to face Western Michigan in a preliminary game to the Marquette-Indiana regional final.
Okay. The seemingly "flippant" remark about being 'worth a flip' ? Alabama came within either a bad call or one hundredth of a second of having a coin-toss deciding if the Tide would enter the NCAA tournament as the SEC Champion and go to Dayton, or head to Charlotte as an 'at-large' team in the weak East Region. Maybe for the only time in his life , Tennessee head basketball coach Ray Mears pulled for Vanderbilt as the Commodores hosted Alabama in the regular season finale in Memorial Gymnasium. Tennessee's SEC season was over with the Vols at 14-4 including a split with Alabama. Alabama came down to Nashville from Lexington off a 90-85 loss to Kentucky in the penultimate game at UK's Memorial Coliseum. A win over the Wildcats would have given the Tide the outright SEC title. But the loss to that season's eventual NIT champion Wildcats made the Vanderbilt game extremely important for not only Alabama but the Tennessee Vols,too as a Vandy win would give the Tide the same 14-4 mark as the Big Orange.
Former Tennessee Basketball coach Ray Mears
Mears was in a somewhat similar situation four seasons earlier during the '71-'72 season. With a one game lead in the conference standings at 14-3, second place Kentucky at 13-4 game to Tennessee's Stokely Athletics Center in Knoxville for the season finale. Since UK had won the earlier meeting in Lexington , 72-70 this game boiled down to whom would represent the SEC as conference champion. If Tennessee had won, they would be outright,sole champion. If Kentucky won, they would share the SEC title with the Vols,but participate in the NCAA tournament having swept the Vols. Tennessee would not go to the NCAA as only one team from a conference could go to the Tourney.
Kentucky led 67-62 with under 2:00 left, but the Vols' Mike Edwards made two baskets to cut it to one with :30 left. After getting the ball back and working for a final shot, Edwards was fouled. Tennessee felt he was fouled in the act of shooting, but it was deemed a one and one. Kentucky's Adolph Rupp ,coaching what would be his last SEC game and last regular season game, called time to ice Edwards.Edwards, the 1972 SEC co-MVP, missed his free throw and Jim Andrews of the 'Cats got the rebound and was tied up. Tennessee won the jump ball and UT's John Snow fired up a 12 footer that missed wide at the buzzer. Rupp, fully aware he was being eased out after 42 years ,campaigned without campaigning for his job after the game as the Wildcats advanced to the Mideast Regional where his career did indeed end in the regional final against future Georgia head coach Hugh Durham's Florida State Seminoles. Tennessee declined an NIT bid.
This time at least, whoever won between Vanderbilt and Alabama, Tennessee was assured a berth in the NCAA tournament either as conference representative or as an "at-large" team.
A Vanderbilt win would also mean that after the game SEC Commissioner Boyd McWhorter,Mears and probably Newton himself would participate in a coin-toss to decide the league's representative. The NCAA expansion allowing two teams from a conference precluded the SEC from having to have a playoff game as it did in 1954 when Kentucky and LSU squared off in Nashville after not meeting one another that season and each being unbeaten in conference play and in 1961 when Kentucky and Vanderbilt met in Knoxville to decide the SEC representative after champion Mississippi State declined its NCAA bid. Initially when this situation first materialized there was going to be a one game playoff (strangely at LSU's Assembly Center in Baton Rouge which would have been the about the furthest place in the SEC for the Tide and Vols to travel to on short notice and then have to depart for either Dayton or Charlotte). But when both teams were invited to the NCAA tournament prior to the end of the season Commissioner McWhorter saw no "need to subject them to another game."
LSU and Kentucky battle in Nashville in 1954 SEC playoff game
A win over Vanderbilt in Nashville wouldn't be easy. Tennessee had fallen earlier in the season 77-66 in a rugged game where the Vols never led and UT's Bernard King was ejected late in the game for a flagrant foul and displayed an uncomplimentary hand gesture to the roaring 15,581 Memorial Gym faithful as he headed to the locker room. Vandy itself almost made the league title run a three horse race.Vandy was tied with Tennessee for second at 11-3 in late February before a disastrous road trip to lowly LSU and Ole Miss ended the Commodores' hopes at a title. But, the Tide had won two of its last three in Nashville though, an 86-72 win which was much worse than the final score the previous season and an 83-77 upset when Vandy was #9 early in the '72-'73 season (Alabama's first win in Nashville since the Korean War) which Newton called one his biggest wins as it was the Tide's first big win over a ranked team on the road in his tenure.The loss in this time frame was a 73-72 killer which eventually denied the Tide a trip to the NCAA on its home court.
This would be Vanderbilt's famed "F-Troop"'s last game. Butch Feher,Joe Ford and Jeff Fosnes had started off and on in their true freshman year (1972-1973), the year freshman became eligible for varsity play, and started most games during the SEC co-championship year in '74. Now as seniors, their last game would be vs Alabama. During the F-Troop's stay in Nashville, Vanderbilt had been almost unstoppable at home going 30-5 in SEC play. However, two of those five losses were to Alabama's Leon Douglas and the Crimson Tide. Unbeknownst to hardly anyone, this would also be the final game for the Commodores' head coach, Roy Skinner calling it a career at 46 with a superb 278-135 record in his 16 seasons as Vandy's head coach.
Former Vandy head coach Roy Skinner with Fosnes,Ford and Feher (F-Troop)
But the Tide was on a mission and not concerned with sentimental Vandy moments. A win would give Alabama its first outright SEC Championship since the famed "Rocket Eight" in 1956. It would also help ease the bitter memories of what happened the previous season in a similar situation . With a one game lead over Kentucky, whom had swept the Tide, Alabama needed a win in Auburn against the hated Tigers to win the SEC Title outright. With the Tide up 69-63 with under four minutes left in the game, Auburn somehow,someway made good on their head coach, Bob Davis' early season guarantee to his buddy, UK head coach Joe B. Hall when he 'guaranteed' an Auburn victory over Alabama if the Wildcats' chances for the SEC title were to hinge on this game. Auburn ended the game on a 13-1 run to defeat the Tide, 76-70.Later that evening, Kentucky destroyed Mississippi State 118-80 in Starkville in the last game at McCarthey Arena, known to non State SEC fans as "the B.O. Barn"as the 'Cats punched their ticket to Tuscaloosa and Alabama went out to Tempe for its first ever NCAA game.
Auburn's Eddie Johnson with 2 of his 27 points in 1975 upset win over Alabama
The game started out as if the favored and eighth ranked Tide would have little trouble ,much like Alabama's 83-66 win in Tuscaloosa had oddly enough started the conference season for both teams. Alabama led 39-33 at halftime and scored the first basket of the second half followed with a free throw to extend the lead to nine,their biggest of the game. But suddenly , in their last hurrah, the F-Troop started to take control and give the Memorial Gym faithful (and Ray Mears) something to cheer about as well as an aura of nostalgia as 16-10 Vandy played the next 19 minutes like the 1973 and 1974 Commodores. Vanderbilt scored the next 12 points to take a 44-41 lead and led by as much as six as the two squads fought back and forth the rest of the game. After a timeout with :11 left and the game tied, Butch Feher drove the baseline past Leon Douglas for the last of his 20 points to give Vandy a 68-66 lead,it looked like Boyd McWhorter would indeed need to perform a coin toss somewhere on the Vandy campus for Mears and Newton to decide whether Ernie and Bernie and the Vols, or Newton's Tide would head to Dayton later that week as the SEC representative in the Mideast Regional and the loser would go,most likely to Charlotte, as an "at-large" team in the East Regional.
Alabama's T.R. Dunn came down court hoping to work the ball inside to Douglas but the Commodores had him blanketed. Two years earlier in a similar situation vs Vanderbilt in the second game between the two in the '73-'74 season as a true freshman Dunn made two crucial turnovers in the last minute to be the goat in Alabama's 67-65 loss which ultimately cost the Tide sole possession of the SEC title and a trip to the Mideast Regional on its home court in Tuscaloosa. The first was a steal by Vandy's Terry Compton who anticipated correctly Dunn holding the ball over his head since Dunn had done it throughout the game. Compton was fouled during the scramble for the loose ball and made two free throws to give Vandy its first lead since the opening basket of the game. With under ten seconds, Dunn fouled Vandy's Lee Fowler who made two free throws for an unsurmountable three point lead.Now two years later Dunn had a chance at redemption oddly enough vs the same team that caused such heartache two years earlier.
With time running down, Dunn, who would go on to a fine career with the NBA's Denver Nuggets known for his outstanding defensive play fired up a 13 footer that missed ,but Dunn followed his own shot and tipped it in at the buzzer. What was at issue,though,was did Dunn's tip come before the clock had expired ?
T.R. Dunn, hero of the SEC title clinching win over Vandy as a Denver Nugget
This was long before backboards would light up like Las Vegas at the end of halves, nor was the game on television.Mass confusion ensued as many Vanderbilt fans stormed the court thinking the Commodores had won,while the Alabama team alternating in hugging Dunn was maintaining the officiating crew should count Dunn's basket. After what seemed like an eternity for both teams,and Tennessee, the officials and clock operator at mid court signaled the basket good and the clock went from :00 to 5:00 for overtime with a 68-68 score.
In overtime, Alabama wasn't going to be denied. Led by Douglas, who would finish with 30 points on the night,and Reggie "Mule" King who scored 8 of his 17 in overtime, the Tide was never challenged in the extra period and won 84-77 winning the SEC Title outright. Alabama won the SEC at 15-3 and Tennessee finished 2nd at 14-4 and would be selected to compete in the NCAA tournament as "an at-large selection".
Replays of Dunn's 'buzzer beater' were inconclusive. They were mainly from various local television stations at random places along the baselines. While it did seem that perhaps the ball was still in Dunn's hand as the clock struck zero, that didn't factor in the sound of the buzzer which couldn't be heard over the raucous crowd. Depending on one's fandom or inclination towards one of the teams it was really hard to say one way or the other whether the shot did indeed 'beat the clock'.
The officials said it did. What if they had said it was no good ? Vanderbilt would have won 68-66 and Alabama and Tennessee would have tied for the SEC title at 14-4 (which would have been Alabama's third year in a row to share the SEC title). But instead of having been swept by the team it shared the title with in 1974 and 1975, Alabama split with Tennessee winning 93-90 in double-overtime and losing 80-74 in Knoxville . With the NCAA expanding the tournament to include one more deserving team from a conference there wouldn't be a need to have a playoff game like in 1954 and 1961 and as recently as 1974 for the Big 10 between Michigan and Indiana. But since seeding was still a few years away and conference champions,or 'designated' conference representatives were assigned true,if not traditional, regionals. The SEC would need to send its representative to the Mideast, therefore the coin-toss.
If Alabama had won the toss,everything would have stayed the same. But if Tennessee had won and Alabama had lost the flip,it could have been interesting.
The Mideast Regional was simply brutal. In fact, Mears himself after the game confessed, "Getting to Philadelphia (finals) should be easier in the East." Indiana from the Big Ten was #1 in the nation and unbeaten. Independent Marquette was #2 in the nation and 25-1. Also joining the Mideast Regional that year was none other than North Carolina ,ranked #5 in the nation and "an at-large" team due to their stunning loss to upstart Virginia spoiling colorful Maryland coach Lefty Driesell's successful bid in having the ACC tournament not only played outside of the state of North Carolina for the first time ever, but also played in the Capitol Centre in nearby Landover,Maryland not far from College Park. Tennessee was 9th in the Nation,so swapping Tennessee for Alabama certainly wouldn't have lessened the quality of the Mideast Regional to be played at LSU's Assembly Center in Baton Rouge (where oddly enough 'Ernie and Bernie' as well as Ray Mears' Tennessee careers would all end in the NCAA's first round in Baton Rouge the following season.)
Substituting "Alabama" for "Tennessee" in the event of a lost flip would have found the Tide in the East Regional, not nearly as rugged or challenging as the Mideast Regional. On the same day that Alabama crushed North Carolina 79-64 in the first round to advance to Baton Rouge, Tennessee suffered a humiliating upset loss to VMI from the Southern Conference 81-75 and was promptly eliminated.Whereas the Keydets, who had its first winning season since before Pearl Harbor was a scrappy team,its hard to imagine that they could have beaten a taller and more rugged team like the Tide. "An Alabama win" here and it would have up I-85 to Greensboro to face DePaul, who had bounced out ACC tourney champ Virginia in the nightcap in Charlotte. VMI downed the Blue Demons 71-66 ,so its a pretty good bet that the Tide would have downed DePaul,too.
So now, "Alabama" is in the Elite Eight to face Cinderella Rutgers ,unbeaten like Indiana with a 30-0 record. With college basketball being televised mainly regionally with the occasional 'national game' Rutgers had flown under the radar. They had had several close calls along the way and most of their games had been within a 30 mile radius of New York City with games against such teams as Manhattan, St John's , Fairfield, and Fordham. They did defeat Purdue , Georgia Tech ,Boston College by 23 in Chestnut Hills and Ivy League champ Princeton as well. The Scarlet Knights were led by All-American Phil Sellers and Eddie Jordan, currently the Philadelphia 76ers Head Coach. Sellers ,from New York City, initially committed to Notre Dame and Digger Phelps,but changed his mind and signed with Rutgers after being pursued by assistant coach Dick Vitale.
Rutgers advanced to the regional final having defeated two teams it had defeated in the regular season. Rutgers eked out a 54-53 win over Princeton in Providence and then downed Connecticut in the regional semi-final, 93-79. Rutgers did go on to defeat VMI 91-75 and advance to its only Final Four . 31-0 and a Final Four trip is an amazing accomplishment regardless of the opposition and teams in it's regional.(to be fair to that Rutgers team, UCLA advanced to the Final Four with wins over San Diego State, Pepperdine and Arizona in the regional final game who did UCLA a tremendous favor by upsetting #4 UNLV in the regional semifinal.)
Still,its hard to imagine that Rutgers would have beaten this Alabama squad.Rutgers had been resilient,but Alabama was more battle hardened. It should be noted,however, that Alabama's lone non-conference loss was to Princeton,61-59, the same Princeton that Rutgers defeated in the regular season and NCAA first round. But that loss was in December in Maryland's Christmas tournament and Alabama drubbed another mutual opponent, Seton Hall by 36 in the consolation game. "Alabama" would have won by 7-10 points and advanced to the Final Four.
"Alabama" would have joined Indiana, UCLA and Michigan in Philadelphia at the 1976 Final Four. Through the 1971-1972 season, once teams got to the Final Four, the brackets were always the same : East vs Mideast and West vs Midwest with the losers playing one another in the consolation game and winners in the title game. In the 1972-1973 tournament in St Louis things changed. For starters, the Final Four moved to Saturday-Monday from Thursday-Saturday. Also regional winners would rotate. The East would play Midwest and West would play Mideast. The rotation would repeat after three seasons when all regionals had been paired against each different regional once. In that first year of the new format, UCLA and Indiana met in the National Semifinal. UCLA and Indiana would meet gain in the National Semifinal in Philadelphia.
Michigan had made the NCAA tournament for the third season in a row for the first time since the 1963-4 to 1965-1966 seasons and were in the Final Four for the first time since a trip to the National title game in 1965. The Wolverines were in the tournament for the second year in a row as "an at large team" from the Big 10 where their season came to an end vs UCLA in John Wooden's final season in a 103-91 first round loss. Ironically, Michigan's 1974 season ended in Tuscaloosa ,Al of all places in the regional final with a heartbreaking 72-70 loss to Marquette after making the tournament as Big 10 co-champs with Indiana at 13-2, a team it split with in the regular season forcing a winner take all playoff in Champaign,Il where Michigan defeated Indiana 75-67 to advance to the NCAA's. (In the last year "of one team from a conference making the NCAA's", the NIT had already selected Indiana's arch-rival Purdue leaving the Hoosiers to reluctanly accept a bid to ill-fated Conference Commissioner's Association tournament in St Louis that they went on to win.)
Michigan and Alabama had two common opponents that season, Vanderbilt and Tennessee.Michigan crushed Vandy 90-63 in Ann Arbor and lost by one in Knoxville."At-large" or not and second place , 14-4 to Indiana's 18-0 in the Big 10, the Wolverines were a formiddable opponent.They came to Philadelphia 24-6 with Midwest Regional wins over #7 Notre Dame and a regional final win over #10 Missouri.Whereas they lost both games in the regular season to Indiana,they were each close : 80-74 in Ann Arbor and a 72-67 loss in overtime in Bloomington where Michigan led by 10 at halftime and IU had to score at the end to tie it up. Michigan led by 4 in overtime but Indiana wore them down as the extra session went on.Michigan had five players scoring over 10 points a game and were led by Rickey Green and Phil Hubbard averaging 86 pts a game as a team.
"Alabama" and Michigan would have probably been an outstanding game. Much better than Michigan's 86-70 win over Rutgers and better than Indiana's methodical 65-51 win over UCLA in the second game to go along with Indiana's 84-64 win over the Bruins to start the season in a made for TV game in St Louis in Gene Bartow's first game as UCLA's coach having taken over for Wooden.
No need to end the revisionist history quite yet. #8 SEC co-champ Alabama over #14 Big 10 runner up Michigan in a classic. But in the end, nothing would have changed,though. While announcing the Oscar for "Best Film Editing", Elliot Gould would still have said," Indiana",as he jokingly said announcing the "winner" of best film editing, although the score he said would have probably been much closer than " 86-68. "
In the end, Indiana would still have been tops whenever or whomever they played
Sure, in the actual game between the two , Alabama almost won in Baton Rouge. Even with the questionable foul on Leon Douglas as opposed to what would have been Kent Benson's fifth foul, Alabama did take the lead a minute later. Still as well as Indiana played vs Marquette,UCLA and as they did in the finals vs Michigan for a third time, the Hoosiers would not have been denied a National Title after coming so close the previous year. This was a tremendous team.
Alabama had a tremendous team themselves that season.And if a close call had gone one way and a coin the other way the Tide would have rolled all the way to the title game.