This time of year is when college basketball takes center stage in the American sports world. The first weekend of the 2023 March Madness tournament is in the books, and we are just a few days away from deciding the final four.
The NCAA Tournament action got underway on Tuesday, Mar. 14, with the First Four play-in games, and the First Round began on Thursday, Mar. 16.
March Madness is one of the biggest betting seasons on the calendar, as there are plenty of games to gamble on. Sadly, that pleasure will be denied to pundits as California sports betting is still not legal.
Nevertheless, the state has some of the most talked about March Madness moments in the tournament’s history, so let’s delve into them.
No. 1 UCLA gets even – 1968
The UCLA Bruins are the most decorated team in the tournament, having won the NCAA title a record-setting 11 times. They’ve appeared in 18 Final Fours, had 4 perfect seasons, and held an 88-game winning streak.
1968 was a particularly memorable year for the Bruins. They won their second NCAA championship and their fourth title in five years. Led by the junior center and Final Four Most Outstanding Player Lew Alcindor (later known as Kareem Abdul Jabbar), the Bruins knocked off North Carolina 78-55 in the title game. It was the fourth Final Four appearance for both the Bruins and the Tar Heels.
Earlier that year, the Bruins and Alcinor lost one game – the groundbreaking epic two-pointer in the Astrodome to Houston in January. They met again in the Final Four, with UCLA having a score to settle. The game ended 101-69 in what might have been the closest to a perfect game any team ever played.
No. 2 USC wins in double overtime – 1954
While USC has never won an NCAA tournament, they made the Final Four twice in their history. Their last appearance came way back in 1958. They did, however, make it to the Elite Eight, most recently in 2021.
It’s hard to grasp that such an athletic powerhouse that has produced national championships by the dozens in other sports hasn’t made it to the Final Four since 1954. As the Trojans moved on to the Big Dance that year, they thrashed Idaho State in the Sweet 16 and then met Santa Clara in the Elite Eight. The Santa Clara Broncos entered the 1954 NCAA Tournament with only six losses compared to USC’s 12.
The Trojans outscored the Broncos by seven, 26-19, and scored the only point in the second overtime period from the foul line. Both teams scored eight points in the first OT period, but USC scored a 1-0 shutout in double overtime to clinch a 66-65 win.
USC headed to the Final Four in Kansas City, where they fell to the Bradley Braves and then lost the third-place game to Penn State.
No. 3 Cal State Fullerton’s Cinderella moment – 1978
45 tournaments ago, Cal State managed the most improbable run in March Madness history. The team had just made their first-ever NCAA appearance, a bid the Titans received by winning a conference tournament no one expected them to win.
As then-coach Bobby Dye put it, “the Titans were too small, too skinny, too overmatched.”
But their heart was in it. And that belief carried the biggest tournament underdog in history past fifth-ranked New Mexico, through 10th-ranked San Francisco, and within a last-second bucket of the Final Four.
When the Titans took the floor in New Mexico for the Elite Eight, the few hundred fans who made the trip from Orange County held up signs saying, “We Believe!”
With 14 seconds left and a Final Four berth within reach, Cal State trailed Arkansas by one point. The crowd cheered wildly as things began to heat up towards the very end. But a fatal error on Keith Anderson’s behalf as he drove into the paint instead of pulling up from the perimeter cost them the game – Fullerton’s magic had run out.
No. 4 Saint Mary’s shocks Villanova – 2010
In March 2010, Saint Mary Gaels got an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament after winning the championship game of the WCC Tournament.
Things started to get quite interesting in the 2010’s Big Dance when 6’11” Omar Samhan led his Gaels to a 75-68 victory over the Final Four-projected, No. 2-seeded Villanova Wildcats.
No one expected one of the “little guys” as St. Mary’s was considered then to topple a juggernaut like Villanova in the second round of the NCAA tournament. But Samhan pounded his way to a game-high 32 points and appeared unstoppable in the paint.
“Best win ever. Quote it,” Samhan said in the locker room after the game.
No. 5 San Diego State trounces Temple – 2011
The Aztecs had gone 43 years between NCAA tournament victories, from their 1968 Division II exploits to their first Division I win against Northern Colorado. The second round against Temple turned out even better.
Struggling through two had-fought overtime periods, San Diego State vanquished Temple, 71-64, in the NCAA Tournament’s third round.
The Owls, who finished the season 26-8, were led by a game-high 17 points from junior guard Ramone Moore and a double-double effort from senior forward Lavoy Alen.
San Diego State coach Steve Fisher was looking for his first NCAA Tournament win as the coach of the Aztecs and the first of his career since 1994 when he took Michigan to the Elite Eight.
No. 6 San Francisco bids Bill Russell farewell – 1956
The Dons ended the 1955-56 season undefeated, becoming the first NCAA tournament champions to record a perfect season. San Francisco finished the season with a 29-0 record (14-0 CBA) and had won 55 consecutive games.
San Francisco managed to take two straight NCAA titles owing to a punishing defense led by Bill Russell. The man who turned shot blocking into an art form was also a formidable scorer, averaging more than 20 points in both championship seasons.
This season also marked the end of Russell’s glorious era as he said goodbye to college basketball with 26 points and 27 rebounds in the 83-71 championship game win over Iowa.
Russell would start his pro career that same year with the Boston Celtics, where he would steer the club to 11 titles.