The 1973-74 Maryland Terrapins are the greatest team not invited to the NCAA tournament.
Maryland started the 1973-74 season ranked No. 4 in the nation. By mid-December, they’d climbed to number two. Competing in the rugged Atlantic Coast Conference, the Terrapins went 23-5 [.821] and finished second in the conference, behind eventual national champion North Carolina State, who went 30-1. UM averaged 85.7 points a game while holding opponents to 69.0. Using the Simple Rating System, which considers average point differential and strength of schedule, Maryland finished the season as the third-best team in the land. But they didn’t receive a bid to the Big Dance.
Coached by Charles “Lefty” Driesell, who was in his fifth season in College Park after winning five Southern Conference titles in nine years at Davidson, Maryland was a program on the rise. The Terps won the 1972 NIT and had reached the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament for only the second time in school history in 1973. Considered the greatest program builder in the history of basketball, Driesell won 22 games or more in five straight seasons, from 1972 to 1976. A Duke center in the early 1950s, Driesell sought to shape Maryland into the “UCLA of the East.”
The ’73-’74 Terrapins were loaded. They featured six future NBAers, including seniors Tom McMillan and Len Elmore, who were both selected in the first round of the 1974 draft. McMillan, who would earn a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford before becoming a U.S. Congressman, had been the number one high school player in America when Driesell snatched him from the clutches of Dean Smith and North Carolina. After being named 1972 NIT MVP, the 6’11” forward earned a spot on the 1972 U.S. Olympic Team and was a two-time All-ACC performer. Elmore led New York City’s Power Memorial – alma mater of Lew Alcindor – to the 1970 mythical national high school basketball title. The square-shouldered center was selected to three straight All-ACC teams and was voted one of the 50 greatest players in the conference’s history, in 2002.
Lefty Driesell invented Midnight Madness in 1971 when 3,000 fans showed up at 12:03 a.m. to watch a 1.5-mile team run at the track surrounding Maryland’s football field at Byrd Stadium.
Sophomore John Lucas was Maryland’s floor general, averaging a team-best 20 points and 5.7 assists per game. An extraordinary athlete, the 6’3″ southpaw was an All-American in both tennis and basketball. Lucas won two ACC singles titles and earned three All-ACC nods as a point guard. After being voted ACC Athlete of the Year, the Houston Rockets chose Lucas with the first overall pick of the 1976 NBA draft.
The 1973-74 Terps shot 51 percent from the field while holding opponents to 40 percent shooting. They outrebounded their foes by 200, outscored them by 470 and got to the free-throw line more often.
After dropping the season opener to defending national champion UCLA by one point at Pauley Pavilion, the Terps won nine in a row. They lost three games in January – twice to arch-nemesis N.C. State and once to No. 4 North Carolina in Chapel Hill. Paced by their three All-Americans – Lucas, McMillan and Elmore – Maryland finished the season with an 11-game win streak. It started with a 104-83 drubbing of Duke at home, included an 11-point win over Carolina, and finished with a 110-75 romp over Virginia in the season finale.
Maryland beat Duke in the first round of the ACC tournament in Greensboro, then earned its 23rd victory of the year with a 105-85 walkover of No. 6 North Carolina [who featured Bobby Jones, Walter Davis and Mitch Kupchak] in the second round. It set up an epic winner-take-all final in the ACC tournament. North Carolina State came into the game 25-1 and No. 4 Maryland was 23-4, but only the winner would get a bid to the NCAAs. At the time, only conference champions were invited into the 25-team field. A proposal for expanding the field to deserving teams other than conference champions had been rejected by the NCAA before the 1973-74 season.
Len Elmore, who earned a Harvard law degree, is Maryland’s all-time leading rebounder and Tom McMillan’s 20.5 points per game scoring average remains the Terps’ benchmark.
The greatest game in ACC basketball history took place at the Greensboro Coliseum on March 9, 1974. For the Maryland Terrapins, the result was a crying game.
Lucas, who played 14 seasons in the NBA and coached 16 more, considers it the best game he ever appeared in or saw. Norm Sloan agrees, even though two weeks later he coached N.C. State to its first national crown. So do David Thompson, Tom Burleson, and Monte Towe. The two schools were the class of the conference. The Terps had gone 23-7 the previous year before losing to the Wolfpack by a basket in the ACC tourney final. N.C. State had put together a 52-1 record over the previous two seasons and had won 31 consecutive ACC games.
As regular-season conference champions, the top-ranked Wolfpack earned a first-round bye, while the title game was Maryland’s third in as many nights. The pace was furious but never sloppy and the Terrapins led 55-50 at halftime. Behind the 7’4″ Burleson, who finished with 38 points in the game of his life, N.C. State took its first lead early in the second half. Both teams scored in triple figures [without a shot clock] and no more than five points separated the two squads during the final 20 minutes. The pace finally slowed at the 4:25 mark and the lead changed hands several times. Tied at 97, Maryland had a chance to win it in regulation but Lucas’ desperation heave fell short.
For the past two years, the only thing keeping Maryland from reaching the promised land was N.C. State. They had won 46 games in that span but had lost five [by a total of 27 points] to the Wolfpack. Led by the sensational Thompson, who would go on to be named Player of the Year and Most Outstanding Player of the 1974 NCAA tournament, N.C. State refused to go away.
Lucas averaged a team-best 20 points per game and McMillan averaged 19.4 points and ten rebounds per contest. The 6’9″ Elmore added toughness, along with nearly 15 points and 15 boards a game.
Maryland opened a one-point overtime lead on an Elmore free throw. Following three lead changes, the Terps were down by one when Lucas, trapped by a double-team, tried to get the ball to a wide-open Elmore. The exhausted Lucas, who’d been on the floor for the entire game, misfired and the ball went out of bounds. It is a play that has haunted him since. “There’s Lenny Elmore,” goes the recurring nightmare. “He’s open! And I throw it over his head. Oh, man!” At the other end, Towe was fouled with six seconds remaining and drained two free throws to ice it.
N.C. State returned to Greensboro two weeks later for the Final Four. The ‘Pack knocked off Bill Walton and defending champion UCLA in a triple-overtime thriller in the semis. Sloan later insisted that the game wasn’t as memorable as the win over Maryland. Having beaten the two most worthy challengers in the nation, North Carolina State breezed past Marquette in the title game, 76-64, to secure the first national championship in school history.
The 1974 ACC tournament was the last that was played with a there’s-only-one-bid-and-we’ve