Monday September 22nd, 2014

When they hatched this project to identify the best teams that failed to win an NCAA title, SI.com college basketball mavens Ted Keith and David Gardner circulated a preliminary list of starcrossed powerhouses tripped up by the one-and-done snares of the bracket. The names and dates of those schools make for a roll call deep, comprehensive and redolent of disappointment. And it led me, as the old guy around this place, to object that one of the best such teams wasn’t on the list.

To be sure, Maryland didn’t even make the tournament in 1974. But back then the NCAA field numbered only 25, with no at-large bids to be had, and those Terrapins -- which were ranked fourth in the country -- failed to land an automatic berth after their 103-100 overtime loss to N.C. State and David Thompson in the ACC tournament final. The defeat led Len Elmore, John Lucas and Tom McMillen to slink back to College Park to contemplate their 24 victories and the prospect of long and fruitful NBA careers, while coach Lefty Driesell resumed construction of what he grandiosely called “the UCLA of the East.”

To my point, Ted and David clarified that they meant to confine this exercise to those seasons since the field expanded to 32, which would place Year Zero at 1975. They acknowledge that the annals of those to fall short include plenty of great pre-1975 teams, but for the sake of apples-to-apples comparison, the cut-off makes sense. Ratings guru Jeff Sagarin reaches back before ’75 to find six of his top 10 to not win it all, with DePaul’s 1944-45 team, which split two games with eventual NCAA champ Oklahoma State before winning the NIT, topping his list. But the further back into the 20th century you go, the more prestige the NIT had -- leading plenty of strong teams to forego the NCAAs for a chance to play in Madison Square Garden.

Here at SI Hoops Central we agree that the ACC final 40 years ago had a clarion significance. So as we play out our bracket -- Best Team Never, not Best Team Ever -- let’s keep in mind the group that helped start it all. By suffering heartbreak in Greensboro, that Maryland team ensured that the NCAA would introduce the at-large bid a year later. And with the expansion of the field -- and a bar raised that much higher -- the ’74 Terps guaranteed that many a great team would stumble short of its goal, just as they had.

Editor's Note: Tomorrow, we'll begin a series of votes to determine the best post-1974 team not to win an NCAA championship in college basketball. See the seed order and matchups below, and return here and vote throughout the week as we advance to the Elite Eight, Final Four and championship round. We'll crown a winner -- or best loser? -- on Monday, Sept, 29.

The Sweet 16
No. 1 -- 1991 UNLV No. 16 -- 2011 Ohio State
No. 2 -- 1975 Indiana No. 15 -- 2006 Connecticut
No. 3 -- 1984 North Carolina No. 14 -- 2014 Florida
No. 4 -- 1993 Michigan No. 13 -- 2003 Kentucky
No. 5 -- 1999 Duke No. 12 -- 1998 North Carolina
No. 6 -- 1983 Houston No. 11 -- 2010 Kansas
No. 7 -- 1985 Georgetown No. 10 -- 2002 Duke
No. 8 -- 2005 Illinois No. 9 -- 1997 Kansas

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