The Road To The 1983 Final Four
The 1983 Final Four is a watershed moment in the history of the NCAA Tournament, remembered most for N.C. State’s stunning national championship. There was another Cinderella story in Georgia, along with powerhouses Houston and Louisville playing an electric semifinal. It was a great showcase for college basketball on every level, and here we look back on the road all four teams took to reach Albuquerque.
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N.C. State had a recent national title to its credit, in 1974 with David Thompson, but had only made two NCAA Tournaments since. The 1983 team was led by its guards, starting with 18-ppg scorer Derek Whittenburg and Sidney Lowe adding 11 points a night. The front court was anchored by Thurl Bailey, with 17 points/8 rebounds.
The ACC was one of several conferences to introduce a three-point line as college basketball played with different rules across the country and began the process toward standardization that would take place four years later. The rules worked well for the Wolfpack, who had another long-range gunner in Terry Gannon. They went 17-10 in the regular season and then won the ACC Tournament to get an automatic bid to March Madness.
History’s conventional narrative says that State needed to win the conference tournament just to make the NCAAs. But it’s quite possible that their ACC semifinal win over North Carolina and Michael Jordan got them in. The Pack were a 6-seed and one finds it hard to think that a loss to powerful Virginia and national Player of the Year Ralph Sampson would have knocked them all the way out. The conventional belief at the time was also that the UNC win put N.C. State in, and the victory over Virginia simply eliminated any lingering doubt.
Head coach Jim Valvano took his team to the West Regional and the dramatic started immediately. They trailed Pepperdine by six with 24 seconds to go, at a time when the three-pointer was not used in tournament play. N.C. State pulled it out in overtime. Then they beat #3-seed UNLV 71-70 when Bailey scored the game-winner with five seconds left.
The regionals at Ogden had the Pack on a collision course for a fourth game with Sampson and Virginia. The lower half of the West Regional had been ripped apart by upsets, so N.C. State drew 10th-seeded Utah in the Sweet 16. A close first half was blown open thanks to 68 percent shooting by State. They got 27 points from Whittenburg and 18 more from Charles in a 75-56 win.
Virginia beat 4th-seeded Boston College in an up-and-down 95-92 game and the ACC battle in the West was set. Sampson was college basketball’s pre-eminent figure in the early 1980s and his pursuit of the national title was the big storyline of the entire tournament. He got 23 points/11 rebounds in the regional final, but got no help.
Whittenburg scored 24, Charles put up an 11/10 line and the Pack led 63-62. On Virginia’s final possession the ball went not to Sampson, but the little point guard, Othello Wilson, who put up an air ball. Whittenburg was named the regional’s Outstanding Player and the Cardiac Pack were going to the Final Four.
The recruitment of Akeem Olajuwon prior to the 1982 season turned Houston into a national power in the early 1980s. They made the Final Four in 1982. Akeem (he didn’t become “Hakeem” until later in his NBA career) came back as a sophomore and averaged 13 points/11 rebounds, while providing a feared shotblocking presence down low.
Olajuwon had a lot of help around him. Larry Micheaux was a very good power forward, averaging 14/7. Michael Young was a talented small forward who knocked down 17 a night. And there was a two-guard by the name of Clyde Drexler who proved to be pretty good himself, averaging a 15/9. The Cougars thundered to a 26-2 record and the #1 seed in the Midwest Regional.
The NCAA Tournament was 48 teams, meaning the top four seeds in each regional got first-round byes. Houston drew Maryland in the second round, with an explosive scorer in Adrian Branch and an immensely talented freshman in Len Bias. Young led the way for the Coogs, with 16/7 and the team shot 59 percent as a whole. Maryland’s effort to take the air out of the ball early in the second half failed and Houston won 60-50.
They were on their way to Kansas City for the regionals and a big showdown with Memphis. The Tigers were a 4-seed, but they had an All-American center of their own in Keith Lee. Memphis had already won a hyped battle of centers when Lee trumped Georgetown’s Patrick Ewing in the second round. But Olajuwon outscored Lee 21-13, Young knocked down 17 more and a game that was tied at the half ended with a 70-63 Cougar victory.
The bracket’s 2-seed, Missouri, had been upset in the second round, so it was 3-seed Villanova that advanced to the final with a 55-54 win over Iowa. It wasn’t exactly a break, as this was a good Wildcats team with another good center in Ed Pinckney.
But the Houston frontcourt was too much. Micheaux was magnificent with a 30/12 line, while Akeem added 20/13 and was named the regional’s Outstanding Player thanks to his combined two-game effort. Houston locked up a repeat Final Four trip with an 89-71 win.
Georgia had never made the NCAA Tournament in its history. Head coach Hugh Durham had taken Florida State to the Final Four back in 1972 and after consecutive 19-12 seasons, he was ready to go with the Bulldogs in 1983.
Vern Fleming was the team’s best player, averaging 17ppg and running the show offensively. Fleming had quality help, with Terry Fair averaging 14 points/7 rebounds and James Banks adding a 14/5. Even so, a 15-9 season and sixth-place finish in the SEC made them an almost certain candidate for the NIT.
Then the magic started, with help from the bracket. Georgia won the SEC Tournament by beating the 3rd, 7th and 9th place teams. They rose all the way to a 4-seed in the East Regional of the NCAA Tournament.
After their first-round bye, Georgia edged Virginia Commonwealth, thanks to a strong rebounding night. The Bulldogs reached the regionals at Syracuse where some notable talent was awaiting them. The bracket’s #1 seed was St. John’s, with Chris Mullin. And 2-seed North Carolina had Michael Jordan waiting in the wings.
Fair came up with the game of his life against St. John’s, scoring 27 points and grabbing nine rebounds to key a 70-67 upset of the Redmen. North Carolina took care of 3-seed Ohio State, and set up the regional final. Georgia completed the upset parlay with an 82-77 win, thanks to 56 percent shooting and 20 points from Banks. Fleming and Gerald Crosby added 17. Jordan, like ACC counterpart Ralph Sampson, had done everything he could, with 26 points, but Georgia got a superior team-wide performance.
The hero-a-night run through the regionals resulted in Banks getting MOP honors, since he was the best player in the final. Georgia might have gotten bracket breaks to win the conference tournament, but there was no disputing the excellence of their run through Mullin and Jordan to reach the Final Four.
Louisville head coach Denny Crum was the Mr. March of college basketball in the early 1980s. He already had a national title in 1980 and a Final Four trip in 1982. This edition of the Cardinals was athletic and deep, with Milt Wagner and Lancaster Gordon leading the way in the backcourt, combining for 29ppg. Up front, Rodney McCray and Charles Jones were both double-digit scorers and good rebounders, while Rodney’s brother, Scooter provided more athleticism.
The Cards rolled to a 27-3 regular season and were the #1 seed in the old Mideast Region (the forerunner of today’s South bracket). Louisville got a tough draw in the second round, facing a Tennessee team that had an All-American and future NBA guard in Dale Ellis. Louisville was able to hold Ellis to 13 points, while Gordon and Jones each scored 18 and Wagner added 15 more in a 70-57 win.
Having beaten Tennessee, Louisville now went to the home of Vols for the regionals in Knoxville. What followed was a regional that was perhaps the greatest in NCAA Tournament history if you combine the quality of all three games, the tradition of each program and their proximity to the site (thus allowing more fans to attend).
It was Louisville and Arkansas (coached by Eddie Sutton, with a 1978 Final Four appearance and near-upset of Larry Bird’s Indiana State in 1979 already under his belt) on one side of the bracket. It was Indiana, with Bob Knight and Kentucky on the other side. In 1983, this was the only regional where all four top seeds held serve.
Louisville dug themselves a 10-point hole against the Razorbacks, who had a future Olympian in Joe Kleine at center and a future NBA defensive wizard at guard with Alvin Robertson. And let’s not forget their athletic guard Darrell Walker. They were no easy out and Arkansas took a 37-27 lead in the Sweet 16. The Cards rallied to a 65-63 win behind 19 from Gordon and 17 from Scooter McCray.
Kentucky survived Indiana 64-59 and the rivalry battle for the Final Four was set. This was even bigger then that it would be today, because Kentucky’s refusal to play Louisville in the regular season was a national storyline in college basketball. Now, the Wildcats had no choice.
The game was worthy of the stakes. Kentucky’s front line, with Mel Turpin and Kenny Walker, were the heart of a team that would make it to the Final Four a year later and the game went to overtime. Then Louisville’s athleticism completely took the game over. Gordon scored, forced a turnover and scored again, part of his 24 points on the day. Wagner poured in eight straight points to blow the game open. Rodney McCray finished with 15 points/8 rebounds. Louisville just smothered Kentucky defensively in the OT and won 80-68.
Gordon was a deserving MOP selection and for the third time in four years, Crum was going to a Final Four.
THE 1983 FINAL FOUR
It’s worth pointing out that up to now, Georgia is a much bigger Cinderella story than N.C. State, given their comparative program histories, the unlikeliness of their conference tournament runs and their opponents in the regionals. But the story didn’t end here. The two teams played in the early game on Saturday afternoon and N.C. State won a 67-60 game not as close as the score makes it sound. Bailey’s 20 points/10 rebounds led the way and Whittenburg knocked down 20.
Houston and Louisville was seen as the de facto national championship game, and the display was nothing short of electric. The teams played above the rim, and the Cougars slammed home eleven dunks in the second half alone, including several that were nothing short of spectacular. ESPN’s College Basketball Encyclopedia informs us that sportswriters at the press table were high-fiving each other and had to be rebuked for failing to observe standard etiquette.
The Cougars won 94-81, with Akeem scoring 21 points and hauling in 22 rebounds to lead the way. The big center continued to dominate on Monday Night, with 20 points/18 rebounds. Even though Houston trailed by eight at the half, they appeared to be taking over the game and led 52-45.
What happened next led the way to the highlight that leads virtually all NCAA Tournament video montages to this day. Houston kept missing free throws. N.C. State clawed its way to a 52-52 tie. Then came the final play.
A dangerous pass by Gannon from the left corner to Whittenburg at the top was deflected by Houston’s Benny Anders and nearly turned into a slam dunk the other way. Instead, Whittenburg was able to get the ball and launch a last heave at the hoop. Lorenzo Charles grabbed it out of the air and slammed it home and the miracle 54-52 upset was complete.
The 1983 Final Four made the late Jim Valvano a legend and produced the first Cinderella national championship of the NCAA Tournament. March had truly gone mad.