Following all of the cliches, I grew up on a farm in Central Indiana where I learned to obsess over basketball. There quite literally was a rim nailed to my barn where I spent hours of every halfway decent day shooting until dark.
When I was in second or third grade, my parents gave me a seemingly minor gift that would absolutely change me. It was a VHS tape titled “Final Four: The Movie”. For the record, you can find it on YouTube in all of its glory by clicking here. So what was it? It was video highlights of every NCAA championship basketball game from the first 50 tournaments.
Through this, I learned about college basketball’s greatest players, but more than that I was able to see how college basketball’s season-ending tournament had grown from an overlooked younger sibling of the NIT to one of America’s great sporting spectacles.
Couple that gift with a freak ice storm that left me home from school for a week in 1991 - where CBS first put daytime games on live - and I was as hooked as anyone to the tournament. I’ve come to love the tournament for its minutiae and, of course, the moments that will forever be associated with those classic March Madness endings.
The irony - and if you love the NCAA basketball tournament, you’re likely living it too - is being a Penn State fan. Part of the fun is following your team in the tournament, at least that is what I’ve been told. But, just four times previously in my lifetime has my favorite college basketball team been listed on that most famous of brackets.
Penn State has been here before, however. Some of the times were even good. Really! Let’s remember some things or learn some things together.
So, before we all turn our attention to Des Moines on Thursday night, let us take a historical look at Penn State basketball in the NCAA Tournament.
Result: Lost to Dartmouth 44-39 in regional semifinal, beat Illinois 41-34 in regional consolation game
Details: In just the third NCAA tournament ever, Penn State was a part of the eight team field (hang that Elite Eight banner!) and won the regional consolation game. That’s right. Many might know that the Final Four held a third-place game through the early 1980s. But as late as the 1960s, there would even be a consolation game played for the regional round of the tournament. Can’t spell Consolation without Nittany Lions?
Trivia: Penn State traveled to New Orleans to play in the East Regional - this would be the last time New Orleans hosted NCAA tournament games until 1982 when the Final Four ended with some guy named Mike Jordan hitting a game winner in the Superdome.
Result: Lost to Kentucky 82-54 in regional semifinal, lost to NC State 69-60 in regional consolation game
Details: Adolph Rupp’s No. 1 ranked Wildcats made quick work of the Lions in the regional semifinal. In the third-place game, the home team Wolf Pack ended Penn State’s year with a loss.
Trivia: This was the first ever NCAA tournament to use four regionals to determine the four teams who would ultimately come together for the regional semifinals.
Result: Beat Toledo 62-50 in first round, Beat LSU 78-70 in Regional Semifinal, Beat Notre Dame 71-63 in Regional Final, lost to LaSalle 69-54 in National Semifinal, Beat USC 70-61 in National Consolation
Details: Here it is - the lone Final Four appearance in Penn State basketball history. Bolstered by All-American Jesse Arnelle and coached by Elmer Goss, the Nittany Lions shook off a three-game losing streak midseason and rallied to win their final four games and earn a spot in the national tournament. The national title hopes ended in a loss to No. 2 La Salle, who would ultimately win the national championship behind the play of Tom Gola. The Explorers are one of only two teams from Pennsylvania to win the NCAA tournament - at least until next month.
Trivia: This tournament marked the only time that Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium was used as an NCAA tournament site.
Result: Beat Memphis State 59-55 in First Round, Lost 82-53 to Iowa in Regional Semifinal, Lost 84-59 to Kentucky in Regional Consolation
Details: The only time that Penn State has ever appeared in back-to-back NCAA tournaments. With Arnelle averaging 26 points and 15 rebounds, the Lions endured an up-and-down season to reach the regionals for a second straight year.
Trivia: LaSalle was narrowly denied a second straight title, losing to Bill Rusell, K.C. Jones and the San Francisco Dons, the first of back-to-back titles for that team.
Result: Lost 60-58 to Princeton in First Round
Details: One of only three times where Penn State played a single game in an NCAA tournament trip - though that is partially attributed to the regional consolation games. Led by Bob Weiss, Penn State had an outstanding regular season as they went 17-3 highlighted by a 22-point beatdown of a Syracuse team that included Dave Bing and some retired guy named Jim Boeheim. However, in the tournament, Bill Bradley (yes, the former New Jersey senator and one-time Democratic Presidential hopeful) scored 22 points and the Final Four-bound Princeton Tigers escaped with the win.
Trivia: Bradley was named the tournament’s most outstanding player in a third-place effort, while UCLA earned its second ever national title.
Result: Beat UCLA 74-69 in First Round, Lost 71-68 in overtime to Eastern Michigan in Second Round
Details: After thrilling wins against Temple and George Washington in the Atlantic-10 Tournament, Penn State made its first appearance in the 64-team modern tournament. Playing in the Carrier Dome, the Lions pulled off one of the first round’s biggest upsets by knocking off Pac-10 runner-up and No. 4 seed UCLA. James Barnes, Monnie Brown, and DeRon Hayes all scored in double figures as Penn State rallied in the second half for an upset win. You can watch the game here. Unfortunately, the Lions fell short two days later as they let a lead slip away in overtime against No. 12 seed Eastern Michigan. Penn State went just 14-of-21 from the foul line in the heartbreaker.
Trivia: In many ways, this is the tournament that shaped what we know it as today in terms of the early rounds. CBS went wall-to-wall coverage on Thursday and Friday, meaning aside from a break for local and national news from 6-7 p.m., you had basketball on your television.
Result: Lost 86-80 to Arkansas in First Round
Details: By most measures, this is the best Penn State basketball team of the modern era. However, it was a crushing defeat in the first round. You can check out highlights here. But, the 21-7, No. 18, third place in the Big Ten Lions were shot out of the tournament by an Arkansas program coming off back-to-back Final Four appearances. Freshman Kareem Reid led the Razorbacks with 21 points and the Lions, one of the best 3-point shooting teams in the country, went just 7-of-30 from behind the arc. It was a disappointing end to a season that younger Lion fans can learn about by watching these highlights. Note the consistenlty sold out Bryce Jordan Center in its first season, while also there’s nothing quite as satisfying as seeing Calvin Booth block shots with Rage Against the Machine playing in the background.
Trivia: The last ever NCAA tournament where the Final Four wasn’t played in a domed stadium. Kentucky claimed the title, knocking off Syracuse in the Meadowlands.
Result: Beat Providence 69-59 in First Round, Beat North Carolina 82-74 in Second Round, Lost 84-72 to Temple in Regional Semifinal
Details: One of the most wildly entertaining Penn State teams ever, the Lions went on a run to reach the semifinals of the Big Ten Tournament and play themselves off the bubble. Sound a little familiar? The Joe Crispin, Titus Ivory, Gyasi Cline-Heard-led group wasn’t done winning. After a grittier than usual defensive battle against Providence, the Lions pulled a major upset by knocking off No. 2 seed North Carolina (led by Julius Peppers). Never seen this one - check it out here. Anything seemed possible after that win, especially with a regional road in front of them that included a pair of teams that Penn State had already beaten. But Penn State’s shooting went cold in the Regional Semifinal and Temple avenged a regular season loss.
Trivia: This was the first NCAA tournament to include an “opening round” (play-in) game as the WAC and Mountain West split changed the number of automatic qualifiers. The bracket hasn’t looked as pretty every since.
Result: Lost 66-64 to Temple in First Round
Details: Penn State lacked depth, but they had seniors with a lot of heart who were determined to make the tournament. With their backs against the wall, the Lions won three straight in the Big Ten Tournament to reach the finals for the first time ever and clinch an at-large spot. The Lions were playing well early against Temple, building a double digit lead before losing forward Jeff Brooks to a shoulder injury. Penn State trailed late, but with his typical theatrics, Talor Battle buried a 3-pointer (his fifth of the game) to tie it at 64. However, Temple’s Juan Fernandez pivoted past Tim Frazier to hit the game-winner for the Owls. You can check out the full game here.
Trivia: This was the first tournament with 68 teams - as the “First Four” officially became a thing with VCU reaching the Final Four after first playing in Dayton.
Result: Well, it didn’t happen.
Details: Penn State would have been a lock for the tournament, having climbed as high as No. 9 in the AP Poll during the season. The Lions were scuffling a little bit coming down the stretch, but part of that was because of a 20-game conference grind of a schedule.
Trivia: For the first time since 1938, there wasn’t a tournament.