How did an undefeated Alcorn State team not make the 1979 NCAA Tournament?
If you’ve seen the list of college basketball teams to have finished with perfect regular season records since 1976, one of them stands out as a head-scratcher.
Sure, hoops fans remember the 1979 Indiana State team with Larry Bird, or the 1991 UNLV squad that was trying to repeat as champion. Even the 2004 Saint Joseph’s team was memorable with two NBA players and Billy Packer complaining loudly about the Hawks’ weak conference.
But one other team on those lists that Wichita State joined last week is basically forgotten – the 1979 Alcorn State Braves.
Alcorn State, located in Mississippi, went 27-0 to win the SWAC, which is comprised of historically-black schools. The Braves did not play in the NCAA Tournament, which was a 32-team field that season.
How was that possible? A big-conference bias by the selection committee? Not quite.
At the time the SWAC did not have an automatic bid as most of its members were recent additions to Division I.
Alcorn State, Sports Illustrated reported at the time, was also ineligible for the tournament because it had “not yet completed the three years of adherence to a 2.00 average entrance requirement. Some people think the school has been penalized for breaking rules, which isn't true.”
The school was just hoping to receive a bid to the National Invitation Tournament, which was still a big deal for a team that received nearly zero attention from the national media in a pre-Internet, pre-March Madness world. The Braves were never ranked in any poll throughout the season.
A Boston Globe article from 2004 wrote that Bird, whose team was famously on the cover of SI that season, hadn’t even known there was another undefeated team in basketball.
Alcorn State did get into the NIT, defeating intrastate opponent Mississippi State in the first round before taking on Bob Knight’s Indiana Hoosiers with Mike Woodson.
Eventual NIT champion Indiana beat Alcorn State 72-68 in a game that Knight said was the toughest of that tournament.
Led by Larry Smith, who spent time with the Warriors and Rockets during a 13-year NBA career, Alcorn State played in its first NCAA Tournament in 1980, becoming the first historically-black school to win an NCAA game before bowing out.