Houston, Texas (KTRK) – NRG Stadium may be the epicenter of college basketball in 2023, but 52 years ago, the Astrodome was the focus when Houston hosted the National Collegiate Basketball Tournament for the first time in 1971.
UCLA’s John Wooden dynasty is back in the Dome competing for its fifth consecutive championship. They fought against fellow heavyweights Villanova.
The presence of these then top-level teams in the city showed that Houston was a big player in college basketball, says Billy Hawkins, a professor at the University of Houston.
Watch a related story: UH vs. UCLA in 1968: Elvin Hayes remembers leading the Cougars to their first major college basketball game
“It speaks to the city of Houston and its ability to host top-level events,” said Hawkins. “That’s when you start to see Houston become a major sports city.”
In the end, UCLA won the championship, winning 68-62. The Bruins lifted the trophy again on the floor of the Astrodome.
The Dome itself was an attraction for the NCAA Tournament to come to Houston, but it also proved not to be the ideal basketball facility, mostly due to its size and the fact that the court was raised 4 feet off the ground.
“When you think of basketball, intimacy is very important, so the way the court was transformed to accommodate, that was unusual,” Hawkins said.
Five decades later, the floor of the 1971 Championship Game is on display at the 8th Wonder Brewery. Long after the Bruins cut the net, the floor is showing its age but is still a conversation starter and holds lingering memories.
“It’s definitely a really cool piece of sports history, college basketball history, Houston history,” said Ryan Soroka, co-owner of the 8th Wonder Brewery.
The 1971 tournament was a precursor to the Final Four, but the fact that it was played in the Astrodome showed what stage the tournament could be at and started the March Madness standard we know today.
WATCH RELATED STORY: Ultimate Miami quadruple star Nigel Buck already has a fan in town: his sister in Houston