The 1984 Final Four brought together two of the greatest big men to ever play the game, when Patrick Ewing’s Georgetown beat Akeem Olajuwon (he didn’t become “Hakeem” until he was in the NBA) and Houston in the NCAA final.
They were joined by two other high-profile college big men who didn’t make it in the pros, Kentucky’s Mel Turpin and Sam Bowie. And even the fourth team, Virginia, was defined by a big man. Or in this case, the lack thereof. Virginia made an unlikely Final Four run the year after the great Ralph Sampson graduated.
Here’s a look back on the road all four teams, Georgetown, Houston, Kentucky and Virginia took on the road to the 1984 Final Four in Seattle.
The Hoyas reached the NCAA final in Ewing’s freshman year of 1982 before losing a heartbreaker to North Carolina. Georgetown took a step back in 1983, losing a high-profile December game to Sampson’s Virginia and then later losing in the second round of the NCAA Tournament to another notable big man, Memphis’ Keith Lee. The Hoyas came back in 1984 with a vengeance.
Ewing averaged 16 points/10 rebounds, while head coach John Thompson substituted an array of talent around him. The roster was deep, they could get after you defensively and if you did beat a Hoya to the hoop, Ewing was there to wipe away the mistake.
David Wingate on the wing and Michael Jackson at point were double-digit scorers, Bill Martin was a tough rebounder and Michael Graham was the designated enforcer. Gene Smith and Fred Brown provided further depth at the point. Georgetown won the Big East title, won a memorable conference tournament and were the #1 seed in the West Regional when the NCAA Tournament began.
The run nearly ended before it began. After a first-round bye—this was the last year the tournament was 48 teams, meaning the teams on the 1 thru 4 seed lines got byes—Georgetown was nearly upended by SMU. The Mustangs had a future Olympian at center Jon Koncack and they outrebounded the Hoyas 30-20 and took an eight-point lead at halftime. SMU played a slowdown pace that you could do in the age before the shot clock, but Georgetown pulled out a 37-36 win.
Georgetown might not have played well, but in surviving, they had done something the rest of the West favorites couldn’t. Oklahoma, the #2-seed with a great power forward in Wayman Tisdsale lost. Duke, the 3-seed, with a newcomer to the NCAA Tournament in Mike Krzyzewski, also lost. Georgetown was going to the regionals in Los Angeles to face a gutted bracket.
They played 5-seed UNLV in the Sweet 16 and after leading by just a point at the half, pulled away to a 62-48 win. Ewing was dominant down low, with 15 rebounds to go with his 16 points, keying a big Hoya edge on the boards. Jackson knocked down 16, including all twelve of his free throws and the trademark Georgetown defense held UNLV to 31 percent shooting from the floor.
The last hurdle to the Final Four was Dayton. Washington might have posed a tougher game, with a good big man in Christian Welp and future pro at forward in Detlef Schremph. But the Flyers, well-coached by future Olympic assistant Don Donoher scratched their way to the regional final.
A nice overachieving team wasn’t going to beat this Georgetown group and the final was 61-49. Ewing’s 15 points/7 rebounds keyed a 33-20 rebounding edge and secured the junior center the Most Outstanding Player honor. The Hoyas were going back to the Final Four.
Houston had more in common with Georgetown than an elite big man. They also had the shared recent history of championship game heartbreak, with Houston being the victim of N.C. State’s miracle Monday night win in 1983. The Cougars had still reached the Final Four in each of Olajuwon’s first two seasons and Akeem came out strong in ’84, averaging 17 points/13 rebounds per game.
The supporting cast had lost Clyde Drexler and power forward Larry Micheaux, who was an outstanding college player. But Michael Young could still knock down his outside shot at the small forward spot and Young averaged 20ppg. Alvin Franklin was a good point guard, with 12ppg.
Houston won the old Southwest Conference over an Arkansas team, that had future Olympian Jon Kleine at center and future NBA defensive standout Alvin Robertson at guard. The Cougars then nipped the Razorbacks 57-56 in the conference tournament final. Both teams were headed for the 2-seed line in the NCAAs, but Houston’s win ensured they stayed close to home in the Midwest Regional.
Louisiana Tech was a 7-seed that could do some damage, with Karl Malone at forward. Akeem had a 16/12 game, while Franklin hit for 21 and Young added 16. But the big difference in this second-round game came from forward Rickie Winslow, with 14 points/10 rebounds, and gave Houston separation down low, as the Dream and the Mailman fought to a draw. The final was 77-69.
For the second straight year, the Cougars were going to St. Louis for the regionals and for the second straight year they enjoyed their time near the Arch. It started with a battle against 6-seed Memphis, who still had Lee and now added power forward William Bedford to an equation that could challenge Akeem.
Lee played well and Memphis shot 54 percent, but Olajuwon posted a 25/13 night, Franklin knocked down 24, while Young and Winslow combined for 25 points/21 rebounds. And no difference was bigger than Houston’s taking 36 free throws to Memphis’ nine. The Cougars won 78-71.
The region’s top seed, DePaul, was upset in overtime by 4-seed Wake Forest when Danny Young scored on a driving layup and ended the career of legendary Blue Demon head coach Ray Meyer. Wake had a good forward in 6’6” Kenny Green, and he had 16 points/16 rebounds in the regional final. But Akeem was just too much, with 29/12, while Young added 15. The Dream was the Most Outstanding Player and the 68-63 win sent Houston to a third straight Final Four.
After winning the national championship in 1978, Kentucky had, at least by their standards, slipped off the map. They hadn’t been back to the Final Four and only reached a regional final once in the intervening years. And that regional final resulted in an overtime loss to Louisville at a time the Wildcats were refusing to play the Cardinals. UK needed to get back on the national stage.
Turpin averaged 16 points/7 rebounds, while Bowie came back from a broken leg to average 11/9, a year good enough to earn him some infamy as the player the Portland Trail Blazers would choose second in the coming NBA draft…one spot ahead of Michael Jordan (Olajuwon was a consensus first choice).
Kenny Walker was a better player than either Turpin or Bowie, averaging 13/6 at small forward, and Jim Master provided some outside shooting help. Kentucky won the SEC over Auburn and Charles Barkley, and with a conference tournament title, the Wildcats got the #1 seed in the Mideast Regional. It was an important designation—the region that’s the forerunner of today’s South bracket was playing its final two rounds at Rupp Arena.
Kentucky had no problem advancing to the regionals, with a 93-68 smackdown of BUY, with point guard Dicky Beal handing out 14 assists and Walker posting a 19/8 game. It set up the rematch all of the Commonwealth was ready for—against Louisville in the Sweet 16.
The Cardinal guards, Lancaster Gordon and Milt Wagner, had been the difference in the previous year’s NCAA win. Both were back and both continued to play well, combining for 47 points. This time though, Kentucky had the muscle inside. Bowie’s twelve rebounds keyed a 35-23 edge on the glass. Beal and Master got 15 points each to at least mitigate Louisville’s backcourt edge. Turpin added 14 more and Kentucky won a hardfought 72-67 game.
Illinois, the #2 seed, had survived a tough 72-70 game over Maryland and its great sophomore forward Len Bias. The Illini had a tremendous balance, with all five starters scoring in double figures and they took the Wildcats to the wire in the regional final.
Bowie was again a big factor, with 11 points/14 rebounds. He should have been Most Outstanding Player, although for some reason that honor went to Beal. Turpin added 13. But the big story after the game was Kentucky’s 12/17 from the free throw line while Illinois went 5/9. Illinois coach Lou Henson at the perceived home cookin’, and Henson had company from unbiased observers.
To me, Henson was clearly correct, although we have to say that Kentucky was hardly the first team to benefit from this in an era where the tournament sites, including the regionals, were at the campus sites of renowned programs.
For example, Georgetown’s victory in the West Regional came at UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion and had the Bruins been able to make the NCAA field, they would likely have been seeded in this bracket. In 1981, Indiana played its regionals at Assembly Hall in Bloomington. It wasn’t fair, it’s good that it changed, but it’s the way it was at the time.
Sampson’s presence loomed over all of college basketball, as did his ultimately futile pursuit of a national title. Virginia made the Final Four in 1981, but lost in the regionals in 1982-83. Now it was rebuilding time for head coach Terry Holland.
The Cavaliers relied on a backcourt with 14-ppg scorer Othell Wilson at the point and future NBA head coach Rick Carlisle at the two-guard spot. Carlisle, who won the 2011 NBA title with the Dallas Mavericks, joined forward Jim Miller as 11-ppg scorers for the 1984 Virginia basketball team. Olden Polynice and Kenton Edelin got the playing time on the inside.
Virginia played sub-.500 basketball in the ACC, lost in the quarterfinals of the conference tournament and finished 16-10 overall. Somehow they still not only made the NCAA field, but ended up as a 7-seed in the East.
Polynice controlled the middle, with a 14/10 performance against Iona on the first round. Wilson added 17 and the Cavs eked out a 58-57 win. Then they stunned Arkansas in overtime 53-51, thanks to 60 percent shooting against the good Razorback defense. It was on to the old Atlanta Omni for the regionals. If you were looking for an omen—and sports people always are—you could point the 1981 Final Four run that also went through Atlanta.
Wilson scored 17 points and Virginia beat Syracuse, but the entire NCAA Tournament rocked in shock by what happened in this bracket’s other game. Indiana, with one of the less impressive teams in the Bob Knight era had stunned 1-seed North Carolina. Dan Dakich, the future ESPN analyst, corralled Michael Jordan and held him to 13 points. Steve Alford knocked down 27. Against all expectations, it would be Indiana-Virginia in the regional final.
Virginia trailed 44-43 with 1:27 left and Indiana was trying to spread the floor and run clock. Edelin picked Dakich’s pocket and took it in for a layup to give the Cavs the lead and they would pull out a 50-48 win. Miller finished with 19 points.
In a regional where several Cavs contributed and none had two big games, Miller got the MOP. I would have picked Edelin, who had a 14/10 night against Syracuse and at least came up with the big steal. Even now, more than thirty years later, when I think of this game, Kenton Edelin is the first name that pops into my mind. His steal was the key point as Virginia completed its improbable Final Four run.
THE 1984 FINAL FOUR
Virginia-Houston met in the early game and during a slow, grind-it-out affair, it looked like the Cougars might again suffer heartbreak at the hands of a Cinderella ACC foe. Akeem’s 12 points/11 rebounds was a good day for a normal player, but well off what the Dream had been producing. Young came up with 17 and the Cougar defense delivered twice in big situations.
The Cavs had the chance to win at the end of regulation, but could not get a shot off. In overtime, Winslow got a big putback after an airball, but missed free throws gave Virginia a chance to tie the game. Again, the Cavs did not get a shot off and Houston survived 50-48. The national championship would be won by one of the three heavyweights.
Kentucky came out playing well in the afternoon’s marquee game, taking a 29-22 lead by halftime. Georgetown’s defense then came out with a display so awe-inspiring that it’s easily the greatest defensive lockdown in a Final Four and can only be understood by comparing it to other sports (the 1985 Chicago Bears, 2013 Seattle Seahawks, 2005 Chicago White Sox pitching in the ALCS, etc).
The Hoyas held the Wildcats to 11 points in the second half. Kentucky shot just 25 percent for the game. Georgetown won 53-40. The national championship battle of big men seeking redemption for recent heartbreak was set.
The standard storyline of this game was that Akeem and Ewing each played well, but that Ewing simply had more help. That narrative is 100 percent accurate.
Olajuwon had a 15/9, while Ewing’s numbers were 10/9. The difference came from Reggie Williams, the silky smooth freshman forward who was just starting to come into his own and scored 19. Wingate popped in 16 and all five Hoya starters finished in double figures. Akeem wasn’t completely without help—Franklin scored 21, with an impressive ability to drive into the lane against the great Hoya defense. But it wasn’t enough.
Houston could take credit for faring better against the Georgetown D than anyone else, but the 84-75 final made it clear there was no doubt who the best team in the country was. Ewing was named MOP, but this really makes no sense. If the difference was the supporting cast, why not Williams? You can also make a good case for Jackson, who scored in double figures on both Saturday and Monday.
The Cougars said goodbye to Akeem and have never made it back to the Final Four. The Hoyas would have Ewing back for one more year and make a run at a dynasty a year later.