(Note: This was written in 2013. As of the 2017 tournament Arizona has now made 19 appearances in the Round of 16.)
The Arizona Wildcats basketball team played exceptionally well in Salt Lake City, blowing out Belmont and Harvard to advance to the West regional semifinals of the 2013 NCAA tournament.
As soon as Saturday’s game ended the announcements went out: This will be Arizona’s 15th appearance in the Sweet 16.
No, wait, it’s the school’s Sixteenth Sweet 16.
So which is it?
The confusion stems from inconsistencies in the NCAA’s record keeping. I know it’s hard to believe anything unclear could ever come out of the same structure that produced the BCS but it’s true.
The NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Championship has been held since 1939 but the terms used to denote the milestones leading up to the national title were added decades later. “Final Four” was first used as a proper noun by the NCAA in 1978.
After the field was expanded to 64 in 1985 people liked how that alliteration thing worked and started calling the regional semifinalists the “Sweet 16.” The problem was the Kentucky High School Athletic Association already had the rights to call its basketball tournament by that name so the NCAA wasn’t able to legally use the term until an agreement was reached in 1998.
Here’s where it gets fuzzy. The NCAA decided to retroactively credit every national semifinalist with a Final Four appearance. So Oregon, along with its 1939 national championship, can say it played in the first Final Four even though it was 40 years before anyone had heard of a Final Four.
The NCAA wasn’t so generous with Sweet 16 appearances. The line in the sand was drawn to start with the 1975 tournament, the first to include 32 teams. So in 1975 Notre Dame won one game and was credited with a trip to the Sweet 16 but, the previous year, when Notre Dame also won one game the Irish did not officially make the Sweet 16. Clear as the BCS, right?
Marquette won four tournament games in 1974 and played in the National Championship Game so MU can say it went to the Final Four that year but not the Sweet 16.
The thing is Marquette does claim a Sweet 16 appearance in 1974. Duke takes credit for Sweet 16’s all the way back to 1960. Kansas lists 1940 as its first trip to the Sweet 16 even though there were only eight teams in the tournament.
Arizona’s disputed year is 1951, which happens to be the first year the tournament included 16 teams. The Wildcats lost in the first round but the invitation declared them to be among the best college teams in the country. The number of wins required to get to that point doesn’t change the fact that only 16 teams had a shot to win the national championship, just like the 16 teams still alive in this year’s dance.
Now that the football tournament is expanding is Notre Dame going to have to stop saying it made it to the BCS National Championship Game because it was merely selected for the “round of two” and didn’t have to win any postseason games to get there? Of course not. Even 50 years from now when the college football playoff has 64 teams, Fighting Irish fans will be able to brag about their “Terrific Two” appearance in 2012.
If historic basketball powers are claiming all their 16’s are Sweet (and even some of their 8’s) there’s no reason for Arizona to be modest.
The UA used to unnecessarily downplay its conference championship total but you may have noticed the McKale Center intro videos have since been updated.
In 1951 the Wildcats were Border Conference champions for the sixth consecutive year. Fred Enke’s team earned its spot in the NCAA tournament and deserves to be recognized among the UA’s all-time greats.
So congrats to Sean Miller, Mark Lyons, Solomon Hill, Kevin Parrom and the rest of the 2013 Wildcats for securing the 16th Sweet 16 appearance in Arizona history.
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