I have previously discussed just how amazing the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers' achievement was and why it is unlikely to be equalled, but apparently many in the media still are under the illusion that the NCAA tournament is more difficult today than back then. On average, this is probably true, but no one is ever likely to have a more difficult path than Indiana did in 1976, or North Carolina, which fell just short the following year, did, having to play Purdue, Notre Dame, Kentucky, UNLV and Marquette in succession, ultimately being edged by Marquette in the final.
Let me add this link though to show how much more important the ACC tournament was before 1980, even after they started allowing a 2nd team, because the regions were unbalanced. Given travel costs in the past, it is understandable that such was the policy but it makes it difficult to compare across eras without looking more closely, as some regions could be easy and others hard.
This shows just how great Indiana was in 1976 and why UVa's upset of UNC in the ACC tournament final was so crushing. The regions were unbalanced then and Indiana winning the region was much tougher than winning the Final Four.
Why? Look at the Mid-East regional line-up and the UPI rankings: Indiana(1), Marquette(2), Alabama(6), and UNC(8). That is the two best teams in the country were in the same initial bracket, and four of the top 8 teams were in that one regional, and if you go by the AP, it was five of the top ten teams in that regional.
It took 5 wins to win it all then.
Indiana's first win was against a top-twenty team, St. John's (18). Its second win was against Alabama, number (6). In the regional final and pseudo-national championship, Indiana beat the number (2) team in the nation, Marquette. In the National Semi-final, they took out defending champ UCLA (5) easily and then beat Michigan, who was only number (9) for the 3rd time that year in the finals. Indiana finshed 32-0 with Bob Knight tying Frank McGuire's record for most wins in a season without a loss and did it by facing the most brutal post-season schedule, but at least, unlike the ACC, Indiana didn't have three extra bruising games back to back to back.
For ACC teams to win back then, like NC State in 1974, they had to win 7 post-season games in a row, since the ACC had a bye then for the champions. That is brutal.
Had Carolina beaten UVA, they would have had a virtual walk to the Final Four. Rutgers had not played anybody all year and was way, way overrated, getting pummeled in the Semi-finals by Michigan. Rutgers beat, get this, VMI in the Regional Final. UConn, pre-Big East was another "power" in the region. For the most part, during the unbalanced region phase, winning the ACC tournament almost guaranteed a spot in the Final Four.
Another thing that shows the importance of the tournament then versus now, is that unlike what we often hear, upsets were not very common in terms of the tournament winner. The best team during the regular season almost always won the ACC during the period between 1963 and 1975.
Carolina finished first in the ACC during the regular season in 1967, 1968, 1969, 1971 and 1972 and won the tournament every year except 1971, losing to the Gamecocks who were only 1 game back in the regular season. Duke finished first in 1963, 1964, 1965 and 1966 and won the tournament every year except 1965, when State won, who was only 1 game back. State finished first in 1973 and 1974 and won the tournament both years. This is why the 1970 loss by the Gamecocks was such a big deal. It was a rare loss by the regular season champ, and an undefeated one at that.
After the NCAA expanded in 1975, it quickly became common for the top regular season team not to win the tournament. Coaches are not dumb and just as in horseracing, most of them know that if you apply the whip too much, you will wear out the ride. 3 of the last 4 national champions from the ACC did not win the ACC tournament and the smart money now says that expending any energy or risking injuries in winning the conference tournament is simply not worth it if you are already guaranteed a number one or two seed. Duke seems to be the only major national program that continues to place great emphasis on winning the conference tournament. Roy Williams has never made the Final Four, after winning his conference tournament, nor has Gary Williams or Terry Holland. In 1984, UVa had a losing record in conference and lost in the first round of the ACC tournament and then went on to the Final Four.
The last ACC tournament that had much meaning at all in terms of winning the NCAA's was probably the 1982 tournament, where Carolina edged UVA, 47-45. This allowed them to stay at home in the East Regional, where they barely edge JMU in Charlotte and Alabama and Villanova in fairly tight games in Raleigh, while UVA lost to Birmingham.
UVa was a team that had ACC tournament "magic dust" on them in 1976 and 1977. They were mediocre in 1976 and downright awful in 1977 and yet won five out of 6 tournament games over two years against topflight competition. In the NCAA's, however, the Cavs reverted to form and went out in the first round against a weak Depaul team.