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Greatest College Basketball Teams:  Spotlight 1974 North Carolina State

In 1972-73, the North Carolina State Wolfpack basketball team went 27-0, but was ineligible for the NCAA tournament due to NCAA rules violations.  UCLA went on to win the NCAA Championship, their seventh in a row.  The 1974 North Carolina State Wolfpack team believed they should have been NCAA Champions in 1973 and had something to prove.  When the 1973-74 season was over, North Carolina State had a 31-1 record and an NCAA Championship.   'We were just good all the way,' the Wolfpack's coach Norm Sloan said of the 1974 Wolfpack team.  UCLA's coach John Wooden agreed.  'They were a fine basketball team,' Wooden said. 

The key to North Carolina State's success was 6'4' Forward David Thompson.  Thompson was the 11th of 11 children.  As a child, he played basketball on a dirt basketball court behind his house six hours per day.  Thompson attended Crest High School in Shelby, North Carolina.  He had a spectacular 42-inch vertical leap and was heavily recruited.  'We worked awfully hard on David,' Sloan said.

Thompson came to North Carolina State in 1971-72.  Freshmen were ineligible to play varsity basketball in those days.  Thompson averaged 35.6 points and 8.1 rebounds per game for the Wolfpack's freshman team.

As a sophomore on the undefeated 1972-73 Wolfpack team, Thompson averaged 24.7 points and 8.1 rebounds per game.  He was named ACC Player of the Year for the first of three consecutive years and was named an All-American for the first of three consecutive years.
In 1974, Thompson was even better.  He averaged 26 points and 7.9 rebounds per game.  He was named ACC Player of the Year, named an All-American and named National Player of the Year for the first of two consecutive years by AP and Helms.

Thompson earned the nickname 'Skywalker' because of his incredible leaping ability.  Dunks were illegal during Thompson's college days, so Thompson and 5'7' point guard Monte Towe devised the now common alley-oop pass.  Towe would throw the ball up by the basket and Thompson would drop it in.  'The alley-oop was a spectacular play,' Thompson said.  'It showed a lot of finesse and body-control, but it would have been a lot easier to catch it and dunk it.'

Thompson did dunk once in his college career.  During his senior year in a game against NC Charlotte, Thompson grabbed a rebound, ran the length of the floor and dunked.  He received a technical foul and was removed from the game as the North Carolina State fans cheered wildly.
The alley-oop was far from Thompson's only offensive weapon.  'Once he got it at the top of the key,' Sloan said, 'he would either shoot his jumper or go right by them.'  He could shoot from outside, he could drive to the basket, or he could post up on larger players, use his quickness to get around them and score on the alley-oop.  Bobby Jones, a forward for opponent North Carolina said of Thompson, 'David is so much better than everyone else he must get bored.'  NBA great Michael Jordan said that David Thompson was his basketball role model.  'He was the guy I looked up to.'

Thompson wasn't just a great athlete; he was a great teammate and a hard worker.  NC State coach Norm Sloan called Thompson 'a tremendous individual'. He got so much publicity, but he was so humble and shared it with everybody.'  Thompson always stayed after practice.  'Our team would finish practice,' Sloan said, 'and he would go out and get a manager or somebody and play another 45 minutes.'

Thompson holds NC State records for most points in a game (57 vs. Buffalo State), most points per game in a season (29.9 in 1975), most points per game in a career (26.8), most field goals in a game (27 vs. Buffalo State), most field goals in a season (347 in 1975) and most field goals in a career (939).  He also holds the NC State records for the most 30-point and 40-point games in a season (15 and 3, respectively) and a career (33 and 7, respectively).

When he graduated in 1975, Thompson was the first pick in the draft in both the ABA and the NBA.  He signed with the ABA's Denver Nuggets.  He was ABA Rookie of the Year, All-ABA and MVP of the ABA All-Star Game in his first year in the league.  He and Julius Erving ('Dr. J') met in the finals of the first ever slam-dunk contest during half-time of the ABA All-Star Game.  When the Nuggets moved to the NBA in 1977, Thompson was named to the NBA All-Star team for the first of four years.  He became the only player to be named MVP of both an ABA All-Star Game and NBA All-Star Game in 1979. 

Thompson's NBA career was cut short by substance abuse and injuries.  He severely injured his knee falling down the stairs at the Studio 54 nightclub in New York in the early 1980's.  Despite his short career, Thompson was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame.  Thompson overcame his drug and alcohol addiction and now coaches young basketball players.  He may have been the most talented basketball player ever.

Point Guard Monte Towe, the 5'7' point guard famous for his alley-oop passes to Thompson, was a scrappy player.  He was a great shooter and would step in front of opposing players and draw the charge when on defense.  Towe (together with Thompson) was the team leader of the 1973 and 1974 teams.  He was named an All-American as a sophomore in 1973.  In 1974, Towe averaged 12.8 points and 3.8 assists per game. 

Towe was drafted by the Denver Nuggets in the third round of the ABA draft in 1975 and played for the Nuggets for two years.  Since 1979, Towe has been coaching basketball.  He was head coach at the University of New Orleans from 2000-2006, compiling a 70-78 record.

Senior Center Tommy Burleson was listed at 7'4'.  Burleson was an excellent interior defender and shot blocker.  He averaged 18.1 points and 12.2 rebounds per game in 1974. 

Burleson was named an All-American in 1973 and is second all-time in career rebounding average at NC State with 12.7 per game.  Burleson was a member of the 1972 USA Olympic basketball team that lost to the Soviet Union in the finals.  He was drafted as the third overall pick in the 1974 NBA draft and played eight seasons in the NBA.

Junior guard Moe Rivers was an excellent defensive player and a good outside shooter.  Rivers holds the NC State record for steals in a game with 10 (vs. Clemson).

At 6'7' and 6'8' respectively, junior Tim Stoddard (5.5 pts., 4.5 reb.) and sophomore Phil Spence (6.0 pts., 6.3 reb.) shared time at the power forward position.  Stoddard played on the 29-0 East Chicago Washington High School basketball team in East Chicago, Indiana.    After college, Stoddard played Major League Baseball for the Orioles, Athletics, Cubs, Yankees and Indians.  In his 9 year career as a relief pitcher, Stoddard pitched in 485 games, all in relief. He won 41 games against 35 losses, with a 3.95 ERA and 582 strikeouts in 729 2/3 innings pitched.

Sloan let his NC State players use their athletic talent to run and gun.  The Wolfpack was fourth in the nation in scoring average with 91.4 points per game despite having to play in the highly competitive ACC. 

The Wolfpack opened the season ranked number two in the nation behind only Bill Walton and the UCLA Bruins.  In the first game of the year, David Thompson scored 33 points and the Wolfpack beat East Carolina 79-47.  Three days later, the Wolfpack thrashed Vermont 97-42.  Monte Towe had seven steals.

The third game of the season was the game everyone had wanted the year before.  Number one UCLA would be playing number two NC State in St. Louis.  UCLA entered the game with a 78-game winning streak.  NC State entered the game with a 29-game winning streak.  Burleson got Bill Walton into early foul trouble and the Wolfpack took a 33-32 lead at the half.  Keith (later Jamaal) Wilkes kept UCLA in the game by holding David Thompson to 7 for 20 from the field and 17 points for the game, while scoring 27 himself.  When Walton returned midway through the second half, UCLA went on a 19-2 run and beat NC State 84-66.  'Coming back after the loss,' Sloan remembered, 'the players wouldn't talk to anybody.'

After the loss to UCLA, the Wolfpack reeled off three easy wins versus Georgia, Villanova and number 18 Memphis State.  That set up a January 4, 1974 show down against number four North Carolina.  The Wolfpack squeaked by 78-77.  NC State would beat North Carolina twice more before the season was over. 

The day after the North Carolina game, the Wolfpack beat Wake Forest 91-73 behind 31 points from David Thompson.  On January 12, 1974, the Wolfpack beat Clemson 96-68 thanks to 10 steals by Moe Rivers.  On January 13, 1974, the Wolfpack would play number three ranked Maryland for the first of three times.  David Thompson scored 41 points as NC State defeated the Maryland 80-74.

By January 30, 1974, NC State had racked up a 13-1 record and was ranked number two in the nation.  The Wolfpack traveled to Maryland for a rematch.  Maryland could still find no answer for David Thompson.  He scored 39 and NC State won 86-80.

NC State ended the regular season 24-1 and, thanks to a few losses by UCLA, a number one ranking.  On March 8, 1974, NC State took on Virginia in the first round of the ACC Tournament.  At that time, only conference champions attended the NCAA Tournament, so if NC State did not win the ACC Tournament, the team would not be invited to the NCAA Tournament.  David Thompson scored 37 points as NC State easily defeated Virginia 87-66.

On March 9, 1974, NC State played the Maryland Terrapins for the ACC Championship in what is considered one of the greatest games in college basketball history.  Maryland was 23-4 coming into the game.  The Terrapins had lost twice to NC State, once to UCLA and once to North Carolina.  The winner would represent the ACC in the NCAA Tournament, the loser would go home.  'That's pressure,' Monte Towe said. 

The Terrapins hit 12 of their first 14 shots and jumped out to a 25-12 lead in the first six minutes of the game.  'We knew we would have to raise our level of play higher than we had all year to beat [Maryland],' Monte Towe said.  'After the first ten minutes, we knew even that wouldn't be good enough.'

Both teams pushed the ball up the floor, fast break after fast break.  By halftime, NC State trailed Maryland 55-50. 

In the second half, Maryland continued to pour it on.  Their perimeter defense on Towe and Thompson was outstanding, but every time Maryland would pull away, Towe or Thompson would pass the ball to Tommy Burleson inside and he would make a hook shot.  NC State tied the game with five minutes to go and the two teams ran the floor and traded baskets until the final seconds.

With the game tied 97-97 and just a few ticks left on the clock, Maryland guard Mo Howard put up a 10-footer from the corner.  Out of nowhere, Tommy Burleson reached over and blocked the shot.  Maryland's John Lucas grabbed the ball with a second left and heaved up an off-balance shot.  It didn't go in. 

At the start of overtime, both teams were exhausted.  Amazingly, despite the fast pace of the game, neither team had committed a single turnover in regulation.  With 2:16 left in overtime, Maryland had the ball and a 100-99 lead.  John Lucas was fouled.  He missed the front end of a one-and-one. NC State pulled down the rebound and Monte Towe dribbled past the time line.  After dribbling around, Towe spotted forward Phil Spence open under the basket.  Towe passed the ball to Spence and Spence made a layup with less than 30 seconds left, giving NC State a 101-100 lead.  John Lucas slowly dribbled the ball down the floor for Maryland.  With 23 seconds left, he made a bad pass out-of-bounds.  Monte Towe got the inbounds pass for NC State and was fouled.  He made both free throws and NC State won 103-100.

Tommy Burleson led all scorers with 38 points and had 13 rebounds.  After the game he said he felt 'like a dishrag that's been all wrung out.  I had nothing left.'  David Thompson scored 29 and Monte Towe 17.

The Maryland game 'was as draining and exhilarating an experience as I've ever had,' NC State's coach Norm Sloan said.  'I still remember turning around on the bench at one point and saying out loud, 'My goodness, this is a hell of a game!''  Maryland's coach Lefty Driesell told his exhausted players that they should be proud of their performance.  'I was disappointed we lost, but I wasn't upset,' Driesell said.  'My team played its heart out.'

Five days later, on March 14, 1974, NC State opened the NCAA Tournament against number five Providence.  David Thompson scored 40 points and Tommy Burleson had 24 rebounds, as NC State rolled, 92-78.  On March 16, 1974, NC State beat Pittsburgh 100-72 to advance to the Final Four.  David Thompson jumped so high in an attempt to block a Pitt shot that he tripped on the shoulder of 6'8' teammate Phil Spence.  Thompson landed on the back of his head.  He was rushed to the hospital and had to have 15 stitches.  He returned before the game was over. 

In the Final Four, NC State got a rematch against number two UCLA.  NC State was looking to avenge its only loss in two years and UCLA was looking to continue a 38-game NCAA Tournament winning streak. 

At halftime, the score was tied at 35-35.  UCLA jumped out to an 11-point lead in the second half, but NC State came back.  At the end of regulation, the score was tied 65-65.  At the end of the first overtime, the score was tied 67-67.  UCLA jumped out to a 74-67 lead in the second overtime, but NC State came back and ultimately won the game 80-77.  UCLA's Keith Wilkes got in foul trouble and was unable to defend David Thompson as he had in the first contest.  Thompson finished the game with 28 points and 10 rebounds.  Burleson scored 20.  UCLA's Bill Walton scored 29 points and had 18 rebounds, but it was not enough.  Walton later said "David Thompson was clearly the best player we ever played against in college." 

NC State faced Marquette in the NCAA Championship game.  Marquette coach Al McGuire got two technical fouls late in the first half and NC State broke the game open.  NC State led 39-30 at the half and built the lead up to 19 points in the second half before cruising to a 76-64 victory.  Thompson scored 21 points and had 7 rebounds.  Towe scored 16.  Burleson scored 14 and had 11 rebounds.  All three were named to the All-Tournament team and Thompson was named the Most Outstanding Player of the NCAA Tournament.

Name                  Pos   Class   Pts     Reb    Ast
David Thompson         F     JR     26.0    7.9    2.7
Tommy Burleson         C     SR     18.1   12.2    1.7
Monte Towe             G     JR     12.8    2.2    3.8
Moe Rivers             G     JR     12.1    2.9    2.0
Phil Spence           F/C    SO      6.0    6.3    1.3
Tim Stoddard           F     JR      5.5    4.5    2.1
Steve Nuce             F     SR      4.4    3.2    0.8
Greg Hawkins           G     SR      2.8    1.4    0.4
Mark Moeller           G     SR      2.7    1.2    0.6
Dwight Johnson         G     SO      1.5    0.7    0.1

How would the 1974 North Carolina State Wolfpack do against the teams of today?  How would they handle the shot clock and the three pointer?

The 1974 NC State Wolfpack had all the ingredients of a modern winning team.  They had a high-flying athletic superstar in David Thompson who could score from outside and inside.  They had a great outside shooting and passing guard in Monte Towe.  Both Thompson and Towe took plenty of shots from what would be beyond the three point line today.  They had in Moe Rivers an excellent defensive guard and in Tommy Burleson a 7'4' center that played great defense, was a great shot blocker and could score inside.   NC State played an up tempo game that would give them no trouble with the shot clock.  In many ways they were ahead of their time.  If anything, NC State might be even better today. 

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