The Atlantic Coast Conference has produced some great basketball over the years and that includes some great conference races. The 30th anniversary of one such race is this year. The 1986 ACC basketball season saw Duke, Georgia Tech and North Carolina produced an excellent battle for the conference championship and that race included some key historical benchmarks.
Georgia Tech was the team getting the preseason attention. They had taken the great Georgetown team led by Patrick Ewing to the wire in a regional final the previous March. The Yellow Jackets had two future NBA mainstays in Mark Price at guard and John Salley at forward. Bruce Dalrymple, a physical and athletic two-guard joined with Price to comprise a backcourt that was considered the best in the nation. Head coach Bobby Cremins had a team that was ranked #1 in the preseason polls.
North Carolina was loaded with its usual cadre of future NBA talent. Center Brad Daugherty would be the #1 overall draft pick following the season. Point guard Kenny Smith would become a two-time NBA champion with the Houston Rockets and later become one of the great TV analysts in any sport.
And Duke? Well, in 1986, the Blue Devils were still a program known mostly for a memorable 1978 Cinderella run to the NCAA final, but otherwise had never won a national championship. Mike Krzyzewski was not “Coach K”, but just the guy with the long Polish last name that was hard to pronounce.
But this would be the year Duke emerged as a national power. Their own backcourt of Johnny Dawkins and Tommy Amaker didn’t get the preseason attention, but by year’s end had displaced Price/Dalrymple for the unofficial honor of best guard combo in the nation. Dawkins made first-team All-American. The center was a mostly non-descript player, but one who stays visible on our TV sets today—Jay Bilas. And freshman sixth man Danny Ferry eventually became a star.
Georgia Tech would have a season that was, by most standards, really good. But it was one where they could never quite that big win and losing the Tip-Off Classic (then played in Springfield, MA, home of the Basketball Hall of Fame) to third-ranked Michigan in an ugly 49-44 game set the tone.
It was North Carolina who came blazing out of the gates. They started the season 17-0 and on January 18, history was made. They opened the Dean Smith Center, known casually as the “Dean Dome” and Duke would be the first opponent. In an electric game, the Tar Heels won 95-92. The following Saturday, UNC hosted Georgia Tech and won 85-77.
To try and prepare his team for the NCAA Tournament and its rapid turnaround, Smith scheduled non-conference games for the Sunday of each weekend.
On January 19, his team flew to the Midwest to play Marquette. The Warriors were a bubble team in the NCAA field and living in southeast Wisconsin at the time, I can say that this was one of the most anticipated MU games I can ever recall. It lived up to the billing, with Carolina surviving 66-64. Marquette missed the NCAAs, with this loss almost certainly being the one they needed.
Then on January 26, following the Georgia Tech game, Carolina hosted NCAA-bound Notre Dame and its talented point guard David Rivers. The Tar Heels won again and extended their record to 21-0. Even though the first loss came after that against Virginia, North Carolina promptly went down to Georgia Tech and won a 78-77 thriller.
Meanwhile, the Dookies were coming. In the preseason NIT they beat two high-quality teams in St. John’s and Kansas. The Redmen were not only the tournament hosts, but they had National Player of the Year Walter Berry. The Jayhawks had a terrific sophomore forward named Danny Manning and this wasn’t the last Duke would see of Kansas. But as further proof of how different the Blue Devil program was at the time, this win in the preseason NIT marked the first national tournament win of any kind.
Duke started the season 16-0 before a visit to Atlanta set them back. Georgia Tech got its biggest win of the year, 87-80. The Blue Devils then suffered the loss in Chapel Hill on the Dean Dome’s first day. But they picked it up, while the Tar Heels began to fade.
Injuries were a problem for Carolina. Steve Hale, a part of a three-guard offense and key passer and defender, suffered a collapsed lung. Given the talent on hand, North Carolina should still have been able to survive, but the temporary loss of chemistry and the quality of the conference did them in.
There were three NCAA-bound teams that didn’t contend for the conference title, but were capable of knocking off a contender. Whether Maryland was the best of a group that included Virginia and N.C. State is hard to say. But there’s no doubting that Lefty Driesell’s Terps had the best single player in the entire league. Forward Len Bias led the way in the Dean Dome on February 20, with an electrifying 35-point performance. Maryland’s 77-72 win handed UNC its first loss in their new home and the Heels promptly lost to N.C. State after that.
Duke got some separation in the conference race. Georgia Tech stayed in it to the final day of the regular season. The Yellow Jackets were able to beat everyone below the league’s Power Three and finished the conference schedule at 11-3. But a decisive non-conference loss at home to Illinois (a team that was good, but not great) raised further doubts about Tech’s bona fides. Duke sealed the outright regular season title with an 82-74 win over North Carolina on Senior Day in Durham.
At the conference tournament in Greensboro, Maryland removed any doubt about whether February 20 was a fluke when they beat North Carolina 87-75 and took Georgia Tech to the wire in the semis. Duke got by Virginia in the other semi-final. The championship game marked a chance for the Dookies to validate themselves as the #1 team in the nation and win Krzyzewski his first conference tournament in a league where this event carries greater prestige than anywhere else in the country. For Georgia Tech, it was a chance to finally live up to preseason expectations.
The game was worthy of the stakes. Duke got a key bucket from forward Mark Alarie and led 66-65 in the closing minute. Georgia Tech wanted to get Price a clean look, but the smothering defense of Amaker and Dawkins prevented a quality shot. Dawkins hit two free throws and at 68-65 in the last year without a three-point shot meant the game was basically over. Tech scored a cosmetic bucket and it ended 68-67. A magnificent ACC year was in the books.
The only disappointment was Virginia, who got a 5-seed and lost in the first round to DePaul. Maryland held serve, also seeded #5, winning a game and then losing a close game to 4-seed UNLV. The other four teams all made it into the regional weekend and the possibility of an ACC sweep of the Final Four spots was alive and well.
No one was better situated than Georgia Tech, a 2-seed and playing basically at home in the Atlanta Omni. In a sadly appropriate end, the Yellow Jackets missed one last opportunity, losing to 11-seed LSU in the Sweet 16.
Jim Valvano looked like he might re-enact the miracle of 1983 when he pushed 6-seed N.C. State into the regional finals against top-seeded Kansas and had the lead deep into the second half. But dealing with the home cookin’ of a Kansas City venue was too much. The Jayhawks took over down the stretch and won.
North Carolina played a titanic Sweet 16 game against Louisville, a game that was seen at the time as one that might be a de facto national title game. UNC lost, but the 94-79 final is deceptive—this one was tight as the Cardinals pulled away. And given that Louisville did win it all, maybe it really was the de facto championship battle.
Finally we come to Duke. This would be the first of Krzyzewski’s many Final Four trips as he coasted through a bracket gutted by upsets, and then won a rematch with Kansas in the national semifinal. In a truly outstanding NCAA final, the Blue Devils lost narrowly, 72-69 to Louisville.
A TRAGIC TURN
History was not done being made, but now is where it takes a tragic turn. The ACC produced the first two players drafted by the NBA. After Daugherty went to Cleveland, the defending champion Boston Celtics, in the 2-spot via trade, picked Bias. Celebrating with his buddies, Bias did cocaine and suffered a fatal heart attack. It was news that rocked the sports world and beyond, ultimately resulting in Driesell losing his job.
Beyond the tragedy though, there was much about the 1986 ACC basketball season that’s worth remembering with fondness, even from one like myself who follows the Big Ten. The Dean Dome was introduced, Coach K made his first national splash and the debate over the best backcourt was a hot one in the regular season.
Let’s do two things—celebrate the anniversary of this great season. And say a prayer for the repose of the soul of Len Bias and the comfort of his family. Even if it was the recklessness of youth and not an uncontrollable tragedy, it was still a life lost too soon.