The voice of USF Athletics, Jim Louk, will routinely put down his radio headset and pick up the pen to share his perspective on the history of USF Athletics.
Louk has been broadcasting games for 27 years and is the resident historian in the Athletics Department hallways ... This week he remembers the history of the NCAA Basketball Tournament in Tampa.
History of the NCAA Basketball Tournament in Tampa Bay
In just a few weeks, USF Athletics will team up with the St. Pete Times Forum to host NCAA Basketball Tournament action. In the past, it would have been called the first and second rounds, but due to the expanded field beginning this year, it will now be referred to as the second and third rounds.
If you don’t have tickets yet, make sure to go online to NCAAtickets.com and order. It’s a great event, and now is the time to get your seat. Once the teams are announced fans of those schools act quickly and seats can get at a premium in a hurry.
This spring will mark the seventh time USF has been privileged to be the host institution for post season basketball, and the third time we’ve joined forces with our friends at the Forum. Each time, it’s been a great experience to work.
A short trip through the history of post season play in Tampa is an opportunity to recall some great games. There are a few surprises in there too.
The Sun Dome
Yes, there was an NCAA Regional, on campus, in our Sun Dome. It was 28 years ago and our guests played in the “Mideast Regional”. I wish I could remember it better; it was a few months before I started at USF but I did cover it for a local radio station I worked for at the time.
It was a different tournament then with only 52 teams. Hosting an early round meant having six teams in your arena rather than eight. Four teams played immediately, and two teams had a first round bye. In 1983, USF hosted Purdue, Robert Morris, Ohio, Illinois State, Arkansas and Kentucky.
The games were pretty good; Purdue edged Robert Morris 55-53 and Ohio beat Illinois State 51-49. Then Arkansas beat Purdue and Kentucky stopped Ohio, so the Razorbacks and Wildcats escaped the Sun Dome to move on in the tournament, which would end a few weeks later with North Carolina State’s National Championship, and Jim Valvano’s iconic celebration.
Our next opportunity to host came 11 years later and by that time, the NCAA was looking for bigger arenas than the 10,000 seat Sun Dome. That sent us across Tampa Bay for the first post season in St. Petersburg. The Florida Suncoast Dome had just become the Thunderdome; Tropicana Field would become the name a year or so later. It was a hockey building then, and I remember thinking how strange it was to be working a basketball event in a media room named after “Lord Stanley”. It was certainly a little different for basketball, but it worked. It was a strong field; Marquette, Louisiana-Lafayette, Kentucky, Tennessee State, Michigan State, Seton Hall, Duke and Texas Southern came to St. Petersburg to compete for spots in the Sweet 16. Not much on the upset front this time; Marquette, Kentucky, Michigan State and Duke were first round winners. Marquette moved on to the Sweet 16 with a 75-63 win over Kentucky and Duke advanced by beating Michigan State 85-74.
1998 Regional Final
This was our warm up to hosting the Final Four in 1999. Instead of the first and second rounds, this time we hosted four heavyweight programs in the later rounds. Whoever got out of St. Petersburg would go to the Final Four.
Tropicana Field (no more Thunderdome by this time) was the center of the Tampa Bay sports universe in spring 1998. The NCAA Basketball dates were March 20 and 22. The Tampa Bay Devil Rays inaugural game was set for March 31.
What a group of teams we had. I’m not sure you can name four programs that have more championships between them than UCLA, Duke, Kentucky and Syracuse.
On the first day Duke knocked off Syracuse 80-67 and Kentucky eliminated UCLA 94-68.
In the regional final, in front of 40,589 fans, Kentucky overcame a double digit deficit to beat Duke 86-84 and advance to the Final Four.
It was a great two days of basketball, and it was exciting to know that our Final Four was just a year away.
1999 Final Four
The big one came the next year at Tropicana Field. Connecticut, Duke, Ohio State and Michigan State took part in the only men’s Final Four the Tampa Bay area has hosted.
Keep in mind the planning that goes in to an event like this. There are meetings years in advance.
Now, imagine working at USF Athletics around 1997. You might have a football meeting one day (with the excitement of the inaugural game fast approaching) and a Final Four meeting the next day. What a great place to work.
Two close games started the 1999 Final Four; Connecticut 64-58 over Ohio State and Duke 68-62 over Michigan State. The final was a great one also, with the Huskies edging Duke 77-74 to claim the National Championship.
St. Pete Times Forum
Just four years later we were back at it, on the Tampa side at the beautiful St. Pete Times Forum. Featured teams were Auburn, St. Joseph’s, Wake Forest, East Tennessee State, Michigan State, Colorado, Florida and Sam Houston State. In round two it was Auburn 68-62 over Wake Forest and Michigan State 68-46 over Florida, so the Tigers and Spartans moved on from this one.
How about Michigan State playing in two regionals and a Final Four in our area in the span of just nine years?
St. Pete Times Forum
This was a wild regional, filled with upsets and great story lines. In the first round San Diego stunned Connecticut 70-69 and Siena beat Vanderbilt 83-62. Villanova eliminated Clemson 75-69. The game I remember most was a back and forth slugfest between Western Kentucky and Drake. The Hilltoppers won 101-99 and anyone who was there that day can probably give you a good description of the finish. It was college basketball at its best.
Villanova and Western Kentucky won their second round matchups and they were off to the Sweet 16 after the most exciting early round regional I’d ever witnessed.
Our next opportunity to host is around the corner. There will be more history made this March 17 and 19 at the St. Pete Times Forum.
If you’re a basketball fan of any kind, make sure you are there.