Do not discount 'undercard' teams Butler, VCU as legit title threats
Butler-VCU looks like the undercard to the Kentucky-UConn main event
The team that emerges from the overlooked semifinal can claim the crown
Here's a look at 10 former undercard champs who wound up winning it all
In boxing it's called the undercard, those bouts that serve as appetizers for the main event later that evening.
Sometimes college basketball's Final Four offers a similar bill. Sometimes, one national semifinal appears to showcase the two best remaining teams while the other seems to be a warmup act between two schools just happy to be on such a grand stage.
Unlike in boxing, however, where the early winners disappear into the night, the "undercard" winner in college basketball sometimes goes on to claim the championship belt 48 hours later -- something to consider when Butler and Virginia Commonwealth, two huge tournament underdogs, take the floor Saturday in the first semifinal.
Will the Bulldogs or Rams rise to the ultimate challenge? Here's a look at 10 past undercard champs who did.
Main event: Nevada Las Vegas vs. North Carolina. The No. 4 Runnin' Rebels and coach Jerry Tarkanian were in their first Final Four against the fifth-ranked Tar Heels and coach Dean Smith, who was still seeking his first national title. UNLV was 28-2 and averaged a nation-leading 107 points per game.
Undercard: Marquette vs. North Carolina-Charlotte. Coach Al McGuire often said the '77 Warriors (21-7 and ranked No. 7 entering the tournament) were not his most talented team. No. 17 UNCC was in its initial Final Four after surprising No. 1 Michigan in the Mideast Regional.
Both semifinals were thrillers. Behind 31 points from forward Mike O'Koren, the Tar Heels held off UNLV, 84-83. Marquette needed a last-second dunk from Jerome Whitehead to edge Charlotte, 51-49.
North Carolina was favored in the final but an injury to point guard Phil Ford and Marquette's defense limited the Tar Heels to a tournament low in points. McGuire went out a champion with a 67-59 win. The Warriors, behind 19 points from Butch Lee, won the game at the foul line, sinking 23 of 25 free throws.
Postscript: Marquette's seven defeats were the most by an NCAA champ at that time. McGuire was back at the next four Final Fours -- as a TV analyst.
Main event: Michigan vs. Princeton. It was a battle between two future New York Knicks teammates: All-American Cazzie Russell for the No. 1 Wolverines vs. All-American Bill Bradley for the Tigers. The 22-5 Tigers were unranked, but entered the Final Four as the hottest team in the tournament having just blasted No. 4 Providence 109-69 in the Eastern final behind 41 points from Bradley. This would be a rematch of the Holiday Festival classic at Madison Square Garden in December, when Russell rallied Michigan to an 80-78 victory after Bradley (41 points) fouled out.
Undercard: UCLA vs. Wichita State. No. 2 UCLA supposedly was rebuilding after a 30-0 season and the loss of All-American point guard Walt Hazzard. The No. 14 Shockers were without their best player, Dave Stallworth (another future Knick), who had graduated in December (yes, those were different times).
Michigan spurted to a 93-76 win over Princeton behind 29 points from Russell and 22 points and 14 rebounds from Bill Buntin. Bradley scored 28 before fouling out. UCLA, meanwhile, surpassed 100 points for the third straight game, scalding the Shockers, 109-89.
For one of the few times in coach John Wooden's career at Westwood, the Bruins were underdogs in a final. But UCLA proved far too fast for Michigan, sprinting to a 91-80 win behind a then-final record 42 points from guard Gail Goodrich.
Postscript: More good news for the Bruins: New York high school star Lew Alcindor agreed that spring to play for UCLA.
Main event: Duke vs. Kansas. Coach Mike Krzyzewski's first Final Four team had been ranked No. 1 for most of the season while Larry Brown's Jayhawks were rated No. 2. Both teams were No. 1 seeds.
Undercard: Louisville vs. LSU. The Cardinals, featuring freshman center Pervis Ellison, were ranked No. 7 and seeded second. LSU was unranked and entered the tournament as a No. 11 seed. Four straight upsets, including a two-point win over No. 3 Kentucky, made coach Dale Brown's Tigers one of the unlikeliest of Final Four participants.
Behind 24 points from guard Johnny Dawkins, Duke took out Kansas, 71-67. Billy Thompson and Milt Wagner combined for 44 points as the Cardinals ended LSU's dream run, 86-77.
In the final, Louisville's strength on the boards (38-23 rebound advantage) and 50 percent shooting produced a 72-69 win for coach Denny Crum's second national title. Ellison scored 25 points and grabbed 11 rebounds.
Postscript: The media didn't appear to think Louisville was the best team, giving three all-tournament berths to Duke players and only two to the Cardinals. Another Duke starter, forward Jay Bilas, scored four points in the final and later became a popular college basketball analyst.
Main event: Illinois vs. St. John's. The No. 2 Illini, led by forward Johnny "Red" Kerr, were in their third Final Four in four years while No. 9 St. John's was riding high after knocking off No. 1 Kentucky in the quarterfinals, avenging a 41-point loss at Lexington in December. The Johnnies certainly were in terrific shape, having already finished third in the NIT.
Undercard: Kansas vs. Santa Clara. The No. 3 Jayhawks were led by 6-foot-9 Clyde Lovellette, the nation's leading scorer. Unranked Santa Clara had accomplished an NCAA rarity, beating a Wooden-coached UCLA team in the first round. Wooden, of course, was still 12 years from his first championship.
St. John's surprised Illinois 61-59, while Lovellette's 33 points helped Kansas take apart Santa Clara, 74-55.
Lovellette repeated his feat a night later, scoring another 33 points, and Kansas won 80-63 before a pro-St. John's crowd at Madison Square Garden. It would be the only NCAA title for college basketball pioneer Phog Allen, 66, the oldest coach to win the championship.
Postscript: This was the first true Final Four with the semifinals, consolation game and championship all played at one site. Previously, the semis were played elsewhere. That summer Lovellette added an Olympic gold medal to his collection. Dean Smith, a little-noticed Kansas backup, would later coach North Carolina to 11 Final Fours.
Main event: Arizona vs. Oklahoma. Lute Olson's Wildcats were ranked No. 2 and Oklahoma was No. 4. Both were No. 1 seeds in their respective regions and the Sooners featured the top offense in the country, averaging 102.9 points per game.
Undercard: Duke vs. Kansas: Only in its second Final Four under Krzyzewski, sixth-ranked Duke wasn't Duke yet despite the presence of All-American Danny Ferry. Kansas, a No. 6 seed and unranked before the tournament, had 11 defeats and seemingly one good player, Danny Manning.
Manning previewed what was to come in the first semifinal, scoring 25 points and grabbing 10 rebounds in a workmanlike 66-59 win over Duke. Oklahoma, however, seemed to be playing at a higher level, racing to an 86-78 win over Arizona behind 21 points apiece from Harvey Grant and Stacey King.
The final seemed a foregone conclusion as OU had handled KU twice during the regular season. Manning had other ideas. In one of the greatest one-man performances in NCAA history he scored 31 points, grabbed 18 rebounds and had five steals as the Jayhawks won 83-79 for their first NCAA title in 36 years.
Postscript: Kansas' 11 defeats is a record for an NCAA champion, a mark Virginia Commonwealth could tie.
Main event: Cincinnati vs. California. The No. 1 Bearcats, featuring Player of the Year Oscar Robertson, met the No. 2 and defending NCAA champion Golden Bears, who ranked first in the nation on defense.
Undercard: Ohio State vs. NYU: The No. 3 Buckeyes, led by sophomores Jerry Lucas and John Havlicek and featuring the top offense in the nation, were supposed to be a year away. No. 12 NYU starred future Boston Celtic Tom "Satch" Sanders.
After the Buckeyes dismissed the Violets 76-54, Cal appeared primed to defend its championship with a 77-69 win over Cincinnati, thanks to 25 points and 11 rebounds from All-American forward Darrell Imhoff. Cal's defense held The Big O to 4-for-16 shooting and 18 points.
The final showed there was a new king of the hill as five Buckeyes scored in double figures -- led by 16 points from Lucas -- to spark a surprisingly easy 75-55 win. Ohio State shot 67 percent from the field as its stout defense and foul trouble limited Imhoff to eight points.
Postscript: Cincinnati got its revenge, beating the Buckeyes in both the '61 and '62 finals. One of Ohio State's backups was Bob Knight, the future coach of three NCAA champions at Indiana.
Main event: Duke vs. Michigan State. The No. 1 Blue Devils appeared to be Coach K's most powerful team. Featuring five future NBA first-round draft picks (Elton Brand, Trajan Langdon, William Avery, Corey Maggette and Shane Battier), Duke led the nation both in scoring and in scoring margin -- a titanic 24.6 points per game. No. 2 Michigan State, with Morris Peterson and Mateen Cleaves, appeared to have the best shot of knocking off the 36-1 Blue Devils.
Undercard: Connecticut vs. Ohio State. The No. 3 Huskies were in their first Final Four after three previous losses in the Elite Eight. No. 14 Ohio State and Michael Redd barely made the semifinals with a three-point win over St. John's.
Duke had won its first four tournament games by an average of 27.5 points but MSU showed the Blue Devils might be beatable, losing by only 68-62. Richard Hamilton's 24 points led UConn to a 64-58 win over the Buckeyes.
The final was a revelation. Despite being clobbered on the boards (a 38-27 rebound disadvantage), Connecticut shot nearly 56 percent to stun Duke 77-74. Hamilton scored 27 points, while the Blue Devils shot only 41 percent. Coach K's NCAA final record dropped to 2-4.
Postscript: Michigan State rebounded to win it all one year later, giving coach Tom Izzo his first and (so far) only NCAA title. Duke would win the 2001 crown.
Main event: Georgetown vs. St. John's. The Hoyas and Johnnies had battled for Big East -- and national -- supremacy all season, trading the No. 1 ranking and entering the Final Four with a combined 65-5 record. The Hoyas, behind coach John Thompson and All-America center Patrick Ewing, were trying to become the first repeat NCAA champion since the Wooden era. St. John's, led by sharpshooting Chris Mullin, was seeking to become the first New York City champ since CCNY in 1950. In future years, the two teams' superior records would place them on opposite sides of the bracket.
Undercard: Villanova vs. Memphis State. Talk about an afterthought. Eighth-seeded Villanova was unranked, while the fifth-ranked Tigers needed two overtime games and a two-point win to reach the Final Four.
'Nova took care of business, topping Memphis 52-45, but most fans couldn't wait for the second game. The Hoyas made it three of four over St. John's, holding Mullin to eight points and winning 77-59 behind 20 points from Reggie Williams.
Georgetown's win was a break for Villanova. St. John's had routed the Wildcats in the Big East semifinals, but 'Nova knew it matched up well with the Hoyas, having played Georgetown tough in their two regular-season games.
In the last NCAA title game played without a shot clock, Villanova attempted only 28 shots but made 20 of them, an astonishing 78.8 percentage. Georgetown hit 54 percent of its shots but was outscored at the foul line 22-6 as the Wildcats won a stunner, 66-64.
Postscript: Neither Georgetown nor Villanova has returned to the title game. Memphis' Final Four appearance was vacated when coach Dana Kirk was branded with NCAA violations. Kirk later went to prison for tax evasion.
Main event: Houston vs. Louisville. It was No. 1 Phi Slama Jama with Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler battling the No. 2 Doctors of Dunk featuring the McCray brothers, Milt Wagner and Lancaster Gordon. Houston outscored its foes by a national best 17.5 points per game and topped the nation in rebound margin.
Undercard: North Carolina State vs. Georgia. The No. 16 Wolfpack had to win the ACC tournament just to make the NCAA field and were seeded sixth. No. 18 Georgia had upset No. 3 St. John's to make its first Final Four.
In the first semifinal, Dereck Whittenberg and Thurl Bailey both scored 20 points as N.C. State cruised (for it) to a seven-point win. Then the fireworks started. Houston and Louisville engaged in a battle of fast-break, above-the-rim basketball that one writer suggested belonged in the 21st Century. When the dust cleared, Olajuwon's 21 points and 22 rebounds had put the Cougars in their first NCAA final, 94-81.
Wolfpack coach Jim Valvano would not let Houston play at such a fast pace. After taking 74 shots vs. Louisville, the Cougars were limited to 55 against N.C. State and hit only 38 percent of them. Even worse was their 10-for-19 free-throw shooting. After Alvin Franklin missed a one-and-one that would have put Houston ahead, Whittenberg's last-second air ball was dunked home by Lorenzo Charles for a shocking 54-52 Wolfpack victory.
Postscript: N.C. State greatly benefited from playing without a shot clock. Its 54 points was the fewest by an NCAA champion in 26 years.
Main event: Kentucky vs. Duke. The semifinal between the No. 1 Wildcats and No. 2 Blue Devils seemed preordained. Either Kentucky or Duke had topped the polls since mid-December, and the winner of their semifinal was expected to breeze to the national championship.
Undercard: Texas Western vs. Utah: Sure, Texas Western (now known as Texas-El Paso) was 26-1, ranked third and had the fifth stingiest defense in the country. But the Miners had won only two tournament games before '66 and had been lucky to beat Kansas in the Midwest final when Jo Jo White's potential game-winning basket was waived off on a hairline out-of-bounds call. No. 12 Utah was the only team besides UCLA to win the West Regional between 1964 and 1976.
Kentucky-Duke was a terrific back-and-forth affair that wasn't settled until Wildcats guard Louis Dampier (23 points) stole an inbounds pass and fed Pat Riley (yes, that Pat Riley) for a game-clinching layup and an 83-79 win. Future NBA star Jack Marin led Duke with a game-high 29 points. Much of the nation didn't even see the second semifinal, in which the Miners posted an 85-78 win over Utah despite 38 points from Jerry Chambers.
On March 19, 1966, college basketball entered a new age. Texas Western's all-black starting five, led by point guard Bobby Joe Hill and his 20 points, stunned all-white Kentucky 72-65 for the national championship.
Postscript: Kentucky never reached another Final Four under legendary coach Adolph Rupp, who had won four national titles. The 'Cats, however, did win national championships in 1978, 1996 and 1998 under three different coaches. They will try for another title under a fourth coach this weekend.
Richard Rothschild is a writer who lives outside Chicago.
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