Rick Pitino and Billy Donovan have each made their mark on college basketball history. Pitino coached three Final Four teams at Kentucky, including a 1996 national championship. He went on to take Louisville to the Final Four in 2005 and 2012, and won the 2013 NCAA Tournament.
Donovan took over the Florida program, made the Final Four in 2000 and won consecutive national titles in 2006-07. The 1987 NCAA Tournament was where each one first made their mark and they did it together.
Pitino was the coach at Providence and Donovan was his floor leader. The 1987 NCAA Tournament was the first time the three-point line was used in postseason play (conferences could previously experiment with their own lines during the regular season before it was standardized at 19’9”).
The Friars were the first team to implement the strategy of constantly gunning from the three-point line, including off the fast break. It was enough for Pitino to take a program that was well off the national radar, make them competitive in the Big East and get all the way up to a #6 seed for March Madness.
Pitino’s team kept right on running on the tournament’s opening weekend. They dropped 90 points on UAB in a decisive 22-point rout in the first round. Then Providence got a break. Third-seeded Illinois was stunned by Austin Peay, a game remembered for the fact that ESPN’s Dick Vitale promising to stand on his head if Austin Peay pulled the upset.
The following season Vitale visited the Peay campus and made good on his word. What might Vitale have done if Austin Peay made the Sweet 16? We’ll never know, because even though the Friars got everything they could handle, a 90-87 overtime win sent Pitino and Donovan into the Sweet 16.
It’s ironic, given the career path Pitino would take, that this first big moment—the Southeast Regionals of the 1987 NCAA Tournament—took place at Freedom Hall in Louisville. Providence was easily the odd team out when you looked at the four teams that convened, fighting for a berth in New Orleans and the Final Four.
Georgetown was the #1 seed, with a deep bench and a talented small forward in Reggie Williams who had won Big East Player of the Year. Kansas had been to the Final Four a year earlier and had sophomore power forward Danny Manning, who in two short years would electrify the nation and win a national championship. Alabama was the 2-seed, the SEC champion and a potent scoring force in forward Derrick McKey.
By comparison it was hard to say how Pitino, led mainly by the undersized Donovan, was going to stay competitive. It turned out Providence, not only competed, and not only won, but they dominated.
Alabama was the opponent in Thursday’s regional semifinal. Donovan scored 26 points, and Providence was a lights-out 14/20 from three-point range. The final was 103-82.
The last obstacle was Georgetown. It would be easy to write off the Friars in this game. You could argue that they were alive only because of a bracket break, and then playing a favorite who was unfamiliar with what was then a new style of play. Neither would apply against Georgetown, who gained familiarity with Providence during the Big East schedule.
None of that mattered. Providence wasn’t even hot from three-point range, hitting only five from behind the arc. But they still had a 17-point lead by halftime and won 88-73. Donovan was the regional’s Most Outstanding Player.
Even though the dream ended with a loss to Syracuse in the national semifinals, it was a magical moment for Providence and the 1987 NCAA Tournament provided a great coming-out party for two men the college basketball world would hear more of.