With March Madness about to spring forth, it is wise to keep in mind that college basketball was not always the media mania it is today. Before the days of nonstop tournament coverage, of bracketology and tournament pools everywhere, college basketball was a much more tame affair. The tournament, which currently stands at 68 teams, was for the most part a mere 22 or 24. The geographic regions were actually taken seriously when it came to picking teams, and there was no such thing as seeding, at least not the way we know it. The Final Four was a two-day affair - semis on Friday night, finals on Saturday. And they weren't on network television - syndication was the best that could be done.
So it's into that world that we come to Houston-UCLA, January 1968, college basketball's first "Game of the Century." . UCLA, defending national champion, the number-one ranked team in the country, winners of a record 47 games in a row. Houston, the undefeated and number-two ranked team, whose last loss was to UCLA in the previous year's tournament. The game was scheduled for the Astrodome, which then was still known as the "Eighth Wonder of the World." It would be the first regular-season college basketball game ever televised nationally, in prime time no less, through an ad-hoc syndicated network assembled by TVS. The crowd in the sold-out Astrodome would dwarf any previous attendance records for the sport. It's safe to say that college basketball had never seen anything like it.
And, in a rarety for Games of the Century, the game lived up to its buildup.
Since then other games have drawn larger crowds, and the regular season in college hoops has been devalued so much by the tournament that it's hard to imagine any regular season game generating this kind of hoopla. And since you can't turn on television anywhere without running into a college game, it becomes even more difficult to appreciate the significance, in the pre-cable era, of a nationally televised game in prime time. But there it is. And without it, would college basketball be where it is today? ◙