The NCAA men's basketball tournament came to the Metrodome for the first time in 1986. It was the second tournament with a 64-team bracket, the first with a shot clock (45 seconds) and the last without the three-point shot.
This first- and second- round play started by being part of one of the greatest days in college basketball history: March 15, 1986.
Cleveland State opened with an 83-79 victory over Indiana and Bobby Knight in Syracuse, N.Y. Then Arkansas-Little Rock — with coach Mike Newell and his perfect tan and a No. 14 seed like Cleveland State — defeated Notre Dame and Digger Phelps 90-83, right here in our one true Dome.
Our guy Sid Hartman was rattled. Not only had his pal Bobby lost in shocking fashion, but Notre Dame — where he was on a first-name basis for decades with the priestly powers, Theodore Hesburgh and Edmund Joyce — had lost to take significant pizazz from the Minneapolis bracket.
N.C. State then faced Little Rock in the second round. Wolfpack coach Jim Valvano had gone through a season of headlines concerning academic shortcomings and a free stereo or two for the athletes.
Sid was not deterred by this at the next day's news conference, complaining to Valvano about schools such as Arkansas-Little Rock and Cleveland State, with little academic standing, getting to play honorable academic institutions such as Indiana, Notre Dame and N.C. State.
Valvano said to Sid: "Are you saying, sir, that our academic requirements at North Carolina State are too tough?"
And then he looked toward a media group that included many from ACC country and bellowed: "I love this man!"
Three years later, we had a regional here that could have been a Final Four:
Syracuse with Derrick Coleman, Sherman Douglas and Stephen Thompson; Louisville with Pervis Ellison, Kenny Payne and Felton Spencer; Missouri with Doug Smith and Anthony Peeler; and Illinois with Kendall Gill, Kenny Battle and Nick Anderson, to name a few.
Illinois 89, Syracuse 86, in an epic regional final that left Gill bloodied from a lip wound but heroic.
College basketball was so good back then.
College basketball was so good the night in 1992 when I was covering a regional in Lexington, Ky., and the hometown Wildcats were up in Philly playing Duke. Christian Laettner hit the buzzer-beater to win it 104-103 in overtime that qualifies as the most infamous shot in NCAA tournament history, and from my room on a high floor, I could hear the anguished cries from Wildcats fans down below in bars and restaurants.
College basketball was so good in 1997 in San Antonio, when Bobby Jackson played 49 magnificent minutes, a large share with four fouls, and weaved and willed the Gophers to a 90-84 win in double overtime over Clemson in the Sweet Sixteen.
My all-time favorite Gophers game among many, that one.
College basketball was so good.
And it remains that way — if you're talking about the women's game.
Clark and LSU's Angel Reese are the two biggest names in all of college hoops at this moment. And Paige Bueckers, from Hopkins to Connecticut, is also high up there — and already has put this season's largest basketball audience into Williams Arena.
The men's teams no longer stay together long enough to become legendary. Gonzaga had that 31-0 team in 2020-21 before losing 86-70 in the title game to Baylor.
Chet Holmgren was arriving from Minnehaha Academy, where he could play with rising sophomore star and high school teammate Jalen Suggs. Take another swing at the title, Zags? Maybe two decades ago. Not now. Suggs did the wise thing, entered the NBA draft after one college season and went fifth overall to Orlando. He's now well-paid and important on a club showing potential for large NBA success. Holmgren left after one year as well, going No. 2 overall in the draft to Oklahoma City.
It's not just leaving early. There are also outstanding prospects not stopping at college, just spending a year before the draft in the G-League. Or Australia. Or maybe Europe, where four of the NBA's past five MVPs (Nikola Jokic and Giannis Antetokounmpo) learned the game.
The top of the men's college game has turned into such a muddled mess of mediocrity (at best) that the UConn Huskies, a fourth-place team in the Big East, got hot and went through the 2023 NCAA tournament like a UCLA dynasty team.
And I would add this:
To those addicted to responding to praise for the NBA product by countering with, "I prefer the college game because they play defense," most often what you're seeing is poor shooting, not stout defense.