Bob Knight was coming off the roughest season of his career. The 1985 season had been marked by Indiana opening in the national top five and ending in the NIT. In between, Knight delivered his infamous chair throw. 1986 Indiana basketball convened with low expectations and the feeling that the program was being overtaken by others in the Big Ten. The ’86 Hoosiers got things turned around and even though this particular season ended with the thud of disappointment, it set the stage for better things to come.
Steve Alford was in his junior year and led Indiana in scoring with 23ppg. Alford got help from his forwards. Freshman Rick Calloway averaged 14 points/5 rebounds. Daryl Thomas contributed a 15/5 line from the power forward spot. Knight went into the junior college market for the first time to get Andre Harris and the 6’7” forward provided more rebounding help. Seniors Winston Morgan and Stew Robinson ran the offense.
Indiana was unranked to start the year, but quickly got people’s attention with a fifteen-point win over Notre Dame, a team bound for a 3-seed in the upcoming NCAA Tournament. The Hoosiers were ready to go to Lexington and play Kentucky.
In between the Notre Dame and Kentucky games, word leaked that Alford had posed for a calendar that a sorority was using as a fundraiser to help disabled girls. The long arm of the NCAA reached out, decided this was unacceptable and suspended Alford for the Kentucky game.
Indiana still put up a good fight at Rupp Arena, but lost 63-58. They lost another tough game to Louisville, the eventual national champion, 65-63. But the Hoosiers knocked off another NCAA Tournament-bound team, Knight’s future employer at Texas Tech. Indiana concluded the non-conference schedule at 8-2 and were up to #15 in the polls.
Michigan had run away with the Big Ten in 1985 and they had their key people back in ’86. That included center Roy Tarpley and point guard Gary Grant. The Wolverines were #2 in the country and they came into Assembly Hall and handed Indiana a 78-69 loss.
Michigan State had the conference’s MVP, point guard Scott Skiles, who averaged 27ppg and the Spartans would be the Big Ten’s only team to reach the Sweet 16 come March. They came into Assembly Hall and handed Indiana a 77-74 loss.
The promising season now reeling, the Hoosiers welcomed a couple soft opponents. Northwestern had Shon Morris, a Big Ten Network TV analyst today and a good rebounder back then. Wisconsin had a 20ppg scorer in guard Rick Olson. But neither the Wildcats or Badgers were good. Indiana got wins of 102-65 and 80-69 to get back to .500 in the league.
A stretch of three home games awaited with Ohio State, Purdue and Illinois. The Buckeyes had an explosive guard in Dennis Hopson and a top big man with Brad Sellers. Ohio State would miss the NCAAs this season, but win the NIT. Purdue and Illinois would both punch their tickets to the Dance before all was said and done. A key early stretch to the Hoosier season had arrived. They passed the test with three straight wins, including overtime against the Boilermakers and winning by two over the Illini.
Another NCAA-bound foe in Iowa was next and the road trip didn’t go well, ending with a 79-69 loss. But Indiana bounced back by rolling lowly Minnesota, then winning their rematches with Wisconsin and Northwestern.
It was time for the stretch of Ohio State, Illinois and Purdue again, this time on the road. An 84-75 win in Columbus was followed by a 61-60 escape in Champaign. Even though the road swing ended with a 17-point loss in West Lafayette, Indiana was flying high.
They were 10-4 in the Big Ten and against all odds, were tied with mighty Michigan for the conference lead. Michigan State was nipping at the heels at 9-5, as the season hit its final four games.
The Hoosiers came home and blasted Minnesota by thirty-plus, then delivered an 80-73 win over Iowa in the home finale. The Wolverines and Spartans each held serve. Indiana would conclude the conference season as they had begun, against these two opponents.
A trip to East Lansing simplified the conference race drastically. Indiana won 79-69. They were still tied with Michigan. It was winner-take-all on a Saturday afternoon in Ann Arbor.
It was also the last high point of the 1986 Indiana basketball season. The regular season finale was an unmitigated disaster, an 80-52 loss that was over by halftime. IU still picked up a 3-seed in the East Regional and had opportunity for redemption in the NCAAs.
But even though Alford scored 24 points, while Harris went for 16 points/10 rebounds, 14th-seeded Cleveland State proved to be a lot better than anyone thought. The Vikings beat the Hoosiers 83-79 and ultimately reached the Sweet 16.
The events of this season would be immortalized in John Feinstein’s book A Season On The Brink, a behind-the-scenes look at Knight and the entire program and the bestselling sports book of all-time.
More important from the perspective of Indiana fans is that the disappointing ending didn’t change the fact that the program had gotten back on the right track. And one year later they were the ones cutting down the nets on Monday night.
Indiana basketball was on a high after the 1981 season ended. The program had won its second national championship in six years. The Hoosiers had taken each of the two previous Big Ten titles outright. But the aftermath of that season created a lot of challenges for 1982 Indiana basketball to overcome.
The personnel losses from the championship team were expected. Ray Tolbert, a terrific power forward, graduated. The fact that a little point guard named Isiah Thomas opted to go pro after his sophomore year was no surprise.
What wasn’t expected is that the head coach, the already-legendary Bob Knight, would flirt with leaving coaching to become to the top analyst at CBS, which had just won the bidding rights for the NCAA Tournament. Reports were that CBS’ lead negotiators were convinced that Knight was coming on board.
Then came tragedy. The focal point of the 1982 team was going to be center Landon Turner, who had emerged during the previous March. Turner had the makings of a player you could quickly build a new championship team around and could potentially be the first overall pick in the NBA draft.
But that summer, Turner was in a car accident. He was paralyzed from the waist down. Knight would stay at Indiana and help raise money to pay Turner’s medical bills and to remodel his parents’ home to make it suitable for wheelchair access.
Those were the most important stories of the 1982 Indiana Hoosiers, but there was still a basketball season to be played and a program that had been on a high was now in need of recovery.
Knight would build the ’82 team around Ted Kitchel and Randy Wittman on the wings. Kitchel averaged 20ppg, second in the Big Ten. Wittman knocked down 12ppg. Another player who had started to emerge in March of 1981 was Jim Thomas. The numbers didn’t dazzle you—9 points/6 rebounds/4 assists, but Thomas was a tough player and a leader on the floor. Steve Bouchie was a forward who could play the kind of defense Knight demanded.
And the Hoosiers had some depth. John Flowers was a good rebounder off the bench. There were two freshmen who would become notable. Uwe Blab was a 7’2” center from Germany and he began working his way into the rotation. So did Dan Dakich in the backcourt. Dakich later was an assistant coach at Indiana and today is as close as there is to a voice of Big Ten basketball on ESPN.
Indiana was ranked #12 to start the year. They easily beat Notre Dame at home, although this would be a year that the Irish would fall hard from national relevance. IU lost decisively at second-ranked Kentucky.
Kansas State was a good NCAA Tournament-bound team, and Thomas stepped up with 11 rebounds to key a 58-49 win. Indiana then went to Madison Square Garden for a holiday tournament just prior to the New Year. They were handed two losses, by a good Villanova team and a mediocre Kansas squad. The Hoosiers were unranked when Big Ten play began and still looking for answers.
Instead of answers, they got more questions. Conference play started with road losses to Michigan State and Northwestern, both of whom were on their way to losing seasons. Finally, a thirty-point blowout of mediocre Michigan at home got Indiana off the schneid in league play.
Ohio State and Clark Kellogg came into Assembly Hall and the Hoosiers churned out a 66-61 win. They paid a visit to another NBA-bound talent, this one Derek Harper and Illinois and pulled out a 54-53 win. When Indiana followed that up by burying archrival Purdue 77-55, they looked to be back on track.
Wisconsin was a bad team in this era and Indiana did not play well in a trip to the old Madison Fieldhouse. But Bouchie, who normally did his work in the shadows, bailed his teammates out with 18 points/10 rebounds and keyed the 62-56 escape.
A difficult three-game stretch was ahead. Minnesota and Iowa would lead the conference race. The Hoosiers were about to play both games against the Gophers with a trip to Iowa City sandwiched in between.
Minnesota was led by center Randy Breuer, a 7’3” force in the middle and Indiana lost at home 69-62. They played poorly at Iowa, who was coached by Lute Olson and lost 62-40. When IU went up to Minneapolis to finish this stretch of games, it looked like they too might be finished.
Only they weren’t. The freshman Blab, the one player with the height to match Breuer, stepped up with 18 points. Thomas crashed the boards for nine rebounds. Indiana pulled out a 58-55 win. At 6-4, they were still three games back of Iowa, but were within one game of Minnesota and still had a puncher’s chance at a third straight Big Ten title.
Those chances increased over the next two games. The Hoosiers came home and knocked off Illinois 73-60. Then they delivered a revenge blow to Iowa, who was up to #5 nationally, with a 73-58 beatdown. The Hawkeyes would start a fade that left them with a 12-6 conference record. Indiana blew out Wisconsin by thirty-one points to keep the momentum going.
But it would be Minnesota, not Indiana, that benefitted from the Iowa fade. The Hoosiers went up to West Lafayette. Purdue guard Keith Edmondson was the conference’s top scorer and the Boilermakers knocked off IU 76-65. A visit to Ohio State ended with a 68-65 loss.
There were three games left. Any hopes of a Big Ten title bid were gone. And at 15-9, in an era when 48 teams made the NCAA Tournament, even a spot in March Madness was no guarantee.
Kitchel stepped up and poured in 28 points at Michigan to lead a 78-70 win. Indiana closed the season with revenge blowouts of Northwestern and Michigan State. At 18-9, they were safely in the Dance and drew a #5 seed in the Mideast Regional (since renamed the South Region).
The road began in Nasvhille and the opponent was Robert Morris. The Colonials were overmatched and it showed on the boards, with Indiana held a 50-23 edge. Bouchie had nine rebounds, Thomas had eight and Blab pulled down to seven to the lead the way. IU cruised to a 94-62 win.
Alabama-Birmingham was the 4-seed and UAB was playing to try and get to a regional round that would be on their home floor. They were coached by Gene Bartow, who had led UCLA to a Final Four post-John Wooden and then bolted town for a place with more reasonable expectations
Kitchel scored 24 points, but had to shoot 10-for-27 to do it. Meanwhile, UAB guard Oliver Robinson knocked down 10-for-17 and scored 23. The Hoosiers were in an 18-point hole by halftime and lost 80-70.
Considering everything these ’82 Hoosiers went through, both on and off the court, the fact they were still one of the twenty best teams in the country by season’s end is a tribute to both the coach and the players. And by 1983, they were back on top of the Big Ten.
Gene Keady was in his fourth year coaching at Purdue. He inherited a program that went to a Final Four in 1980, but had been gutted by departures. After two years of retooling, Keady returned the Boilermakers to the NCAA Tournament in 1983. The 1984 Purdue basketball team took the next step and won a piece of the Big Ten championship.
The ’84 Boilermakers were anchored by 6’8” senior Jim Rowinski,
who averaged 15 points/7 rebounds per game. He was joined up front by Jim
Bullock and Mark Atkinson, who did more dirty work on the boards and combined
to average ten rebounds a night.
Steve Reid only went 5’9”, but he was one of the top passers
in the conference, with five assists per game and he also knocked down 12
points. Ricky Hally, the 6’1” senior rounded out a backcourt that was short,
but productive—Hally was also a double-digit scorer.
Purdue was unranked to start the season. Then they won their
first five games. Those included a victory over NCAA Tournament-bound Fresno
State, and Louisville—fresh off back-to-back Final Four runs and headed back to
the Sweet 16 this year. Those wins vaulted Purdue up to #7.
A bad 80-65 loss at Evansville brought the Boilermakers back
to earth, but worse was the fact that this came right ahead of games with DePaul
and Kentucky, both ranked in the top 5 nationally and each headed for a #1 seed
in March. Purdue lost both and fell from the rankings as Big Ten play began.
The conference schedule opened with home games against
mediocre competition in Wisconsin and Minnesota. Wins of 84-65 and 72-62 got
the Boilermakers going. It set up a road trip to Ohio State. The Buckeyes had
gone to the final game of the season in pursuit of the Big Ten title twice in
the previous four years and they had a smooth small forward in Tony Campbell. Another
double-digit win, this one 63-52, sent a clear message that this Purdue team
was ready to contend.
And if that didn’t get the message across, going into
Bloomington to face rival Indiana and Bob Knight, winners of three of the last
four league titles, surely did. Purdue won 74-66 and briefly cracked the
national rankings again at #19.
I say “briefly” because a 76-52 loss at Illinois sent Purdue back to the land of the unranked. Illinois would join Purdue in a race at the top of the conference standings. The fact the Boilermakers could be unranked with three of their four losses to Kentucky, DePaul and Illinois—all of whom would be on the top two seed lines in the NCAAs—indicates a definite lack of respect.
Purdue returned home to face Michigan. The Wolverines were a
program on the rise and while they settled for winning the NIT this year, they
were coming and led by center Roy Tarpley. Purdue pulled out a 61-57 win. Then
they routed Michigan State 72-54.
In the early 1980s, the Big Ten used what can be a called a “reverse
schedule” formula and they also used “travel partners”. The reverse schedule
meant that after you played your nine conference opponents, you simply reversed
course to move back upward. Which meant that the next four games would be against
bad teams in Northwestern and Iowa. Purdue won all four games.
The “travel partner” concept meant you were paired with one
other team and essentially swapped opponents with them in two-game increments.
Purdue’s travel partner was Illinois. What makes this intriguing is that it
meant the league’s two best teams would be swapping opponents back and forth down
Purdue made their return trips to East Lansing and Ann
Arbor. Michigan State was a young team that wouldn’t make postseason play, but
they had talented players in point guard Scott Skiles and center Kevin Willis. They
could play spoiler and with a 63-53 win over the Boilermakers, that’s exactly
what they did.
A tough 67-64 win at Michigan got Purdue back on track, and at 12-2, they were atop the conference standings. But Illinois was tied in the loss column at 11-2, with Indiana lurking at 11-3. And the Illini and Hoosiers were the next two opponents on the docket.
Purdue got a tough 59-55 win over Illinois in Mackey and
were poised to seize control of the Big Ten race, especially when Michigan
State worked their spoiler magic in Blooming by knocking off Indiana. A win
over the Hoosiers on a Wednesday night could all but salt away the league
But Indiana wouldn’t go quietly and Purdue played their
worst game of the conference schedule in a 78-59 loss. Illinois had new life
and the two teams were tied.
Ohio State came in for the final home game of the year and Purdue’s 85-63 win helped relegate the Buckeyes to the NIT. Illinois blasted Indiana to keep the race tied.
The travel partners would go north to end the year, with the
opponents being Wisconsin and Minnesota. The Badgers might have been a bad
team, but they had a terrific player in Cory Blackwell and the forward led the conference
in scoring and rebounding. But the Boilers brought their defense to Madison in
a 61-48 win. Illinois crushed Minnesota to hold serve.
Illinois kept it rolling with a blowout win over Wisconsin.
Purdue had to win in the Twin Cities to secure their share of the league crown.
It didn’t come easy, but with the 63-62 escape they were in the Big Ten throne room
for the first time in five years.
Purdue was rewarded with a 3-seed in the Midwest Regional of
the NCAA Tournament. This was the final year of the 48-team bracket, meaning
the top four seeds in each regional got byes.
But another aspect of Purdue’s draw was…well, let’s just say
it was a little less than rewarding. They were sent to play in Memphis—against sixth-seeded
It was blatantly unfair at the time and looks even worse from the perspective of history when we know that the same thing would happen in 1986—Purdue having to play a lower-seeded team on the opponent’s home floor (11-seed LSU in that case). Gene Keady felt like he was always getting a raw deal from the Selection Committee, and while these complaints are common from all coaches and fan bases, Keady has more ammo than most to prove his case.
The result was a disappointing ending. Purdue shot 28
percent while Memphis’ great center Keith Lee went wild for 29 points/16
rebounds. The final was 66-48.
Home cookin’ may have brought Purdue’s 1984 season to a premature end, but the winning was just getting started with Keady. He won a share of the league title again in 1987. He won it outright in 1988. He won three straight outright crowns in a historic run from 1994-96. The Final Four always eluded him, but Clean Gene could get it done in a conference culture that values regular season titles. The first one came in 1984.
The 1995 Final Four in Seattle was highlighted by a long-awaited UCLA revival and Arkansas’ bid for a dynasty. Here’s a look at the paths the Bruins & Razorbacks, along with North Carolina and Oklahoma State, took to reach college basketball’s biggest stage at the Kingdome.
The proud program had been in a dry spell. The Bruins had not won the NCAA championship since the end of the Wooden Dynasty in 1975. They hadn’t even reached a Final Four since 1980. Head coach Jim Harrick was in his seventh year. The pressure was on and there was a veteran group led by Ed O’Bannon, the forward who won National Player of the Year. O’Bannon was joined by point guard Tyus Edney, his own brother Charles and freshman Toby Bailey.
After a regular season of meeting expectations and getting the 1-seed in the West, UCLA was on the verge of disaster in the Round of 32. They trailed Missouri 74-73 with five seconds left. Edney made one of March Madness’ memorable plays, going coast-to-coast for the game-winner that saved his team’s season. UCLA closed out their regional run with an electrifying 102-96 win over a UConn team that had Ray Allen, Donyell Marshall and Kevin Ollie.
Arkansas brought the key pieces back from their 1994 national championship run and were the preseason #1 with heavy expectations of a repeat title. Corliss Williamson and Scotty Thurman were as good as they’d been in ‘94, averaging 20 points/8 rebounds and 15/4 respectively. But this Razorback team wasn’t quite as deep as the previous year and they had some hiccups in the regular season that resulted in losing the SEC title to Kentucky, both regular season and tournament, and settling for the 2-seed in the Midwest.
The Razorback ride through March was positively hair-raising. They edged Texas Southern 79-78 in the Round of 64, then needed overtime to get past both Syracuse and Memphis. Then a big break came—with the regionals behind held in Kansas City, top-seeded Kansas fell to Virginia in the Sweet 16. The Hogs beat the Cavs 68-61. In the four-game regional run Williamson scored 92 points and pulled down 38 rebounds and Arkansas had their third Final Four in six years.
Another year, another loaded team for Dean Smith. This one had sophomores named Jerry Stackhouse and Rasheed Wallace, who each had long NBA careers ahead of them. Stackhouse averaged 19 points/8 rebounds/3 assists, while Wallace was good for 16/8. UNC finished in a four-way tie for the ACC title, but a loss in the tournament final relegated them to the 2-seed in the Southeast.
After a slow start against Murray State where they trailed by a point at the half, the Tar Heels played some excellent basketball—particularly on the defensive end. In the regionals, they beat a Georgetown team with Allan Iverson 74-64. Then they forced top-seeded Kentucky into a 28 percent shooting performance. Stackhouse’s 18/12/6 line in the regional final secured Dean’s ninth Final Four trip.
It was a long time for Oklahoma State. They hadn’t been to a Final Four since Hank Iba’s glory days in the early 1950s. When Eddie Sutton arrived in Stillwater in 1991, they had reached just one NCAA Tournament since 1965. Led by 7’0” senior Bryant Reeves and guard Randy Rutherford, who each averaged 20ppg and combined for 18 rebounds a night, Okie State finished second in the Big Eight regular season, won the league tournament and was the 4-seed in the East.
The Cowboy run through the regionals was exceptionally impressive at the time and looks even better in the eyes of history. They beat top-seeded Wake Forest in the Sweet 16 and then knocked off 2-seed Massachusetts. The respective centers in those games were merely Tim Duncan and Marcus Camby. Rutherford went for 23/11 in the 71-66 win over Wake, while Reeves posted a 24/10 line in the 68-54 win over John Calipari’s UMass team that sealed the Final Four berth.
SEATTLE: THE 1995 FINAL FOUR
Second-half dominance was the story of all three games at the Kingdome. UCLA-Oklahoma State was tied at the half before the Bruins pulled away to win 74-61. UCLA forced 19 turnovers, while Edney and the O’Bannon brothers combined for 55 points. Arkansas trailed North Carolina 38-34 at the half in the prime-time game, but turnovers were again a big factor. The Hogs forced 15, got a 21/10 night from Williamson and won 75-68.
On Monday night, one team wanted to revive a dynasty and another wanted to establish one. UCLA held a 40-39 lead at the half, before one more potent second half run settled the championship. O’Bannon went off for a 30/17 night that was as good as any title game performance this side of Danny Manning in 1988. Freshman Toby Bailey was the X-factor with a 26/9 game himself. The final was 89-78 and for the only time in the post-Wooden era, the trophy was going to Westwood.
It was the year Jerry Tarkanian finally won it all and when Duke was still a lovable underdog trying to get to the winner’s circle for the first time. It was a time that Nolan Richardson was on the rise and Georgia Tech drew its inspiration from a popular movie franchise. It was the 1990 Final Four. Here’s a look back at how UNLV, Duke, Arkansas and Georgia Tech traveled the road to Denver.
Tarkanian gave to Vegas in 1974 and turned the Runnin’ Rebels into a national power. He made two Final Fours, in 1977 and 1987 and five additional Sweet 16s. UNLV had been to a regional final as recently as 1988. This 1990 edition was his best team.
Power forward Larry Anderson averaged 21 points/11 rebounds per game and was a 1st-team All-American. David Butler at center and Stacey Augmon at small forward each scored in double figures and grabbed seven boards per game. The backcourt had a terrific playmaker in future pro and CBS analyst Greg Anthony, running alongside a good pure shooter in Anderson Hunt. UNLV went 26-5, rolled through the Big West conference tournament and got the #1 seed in the West Regional.
The road started in Salt Lake City and it was an easy one for the Rebs, as they dispatched Arkansas-Little Rock and then polished off Ohio State and their talented freshman forward Jim Jackson. Meanwhile, the rest of the region was being gutted with upsets as the 2-3-4 seeds all fell early. Already a favorite, UNLV arrived in Oakland with nothing but a coronation awaiting them.
Only no one told Ball State, a 12-seed who fought ferociously, outrebounding UNLV by a decisive 47-34. Johnson and Augmon responded with 20 points apiece and the Rebels hung on for a 62-60 win in the end.
Loyola Marymount was a national story, after the tragic death of the best player, Hank Gathers, on the floor during the conference tournament. Teammate Bo Kimble honored the left-handed Gathers by shooting his own free throws lefty. Prior to the tragedy, Marymount was a popular team for their insanely fast pace and routinely scoring triple digits. By the time they rolled through favored opponents in March playing for their fallen teammate, they were everyone’s favorite.
UNLV was more than happy to run though. Augmon went for 33/11 and sealed Most Outstanding Player honors. Johnson was a beast, with 20/18 and Anderson Hunt drilled 30 of his own. Vegas led 67-47 by halftime and won 131-101. Tarkanian was going to his third Final Four.
Mike Krzewzyski had Duke on the rise, taking the Blue Devils to Final Fours in 1986, 1988 and 1989. He was still without the brass ring. The 1990 Duke team didn’t appear to be anything special. The three key veterans were Ala Abdelnaby (15 points/7 rebounds), Robert Brickey (12/5) and sharpshooter Phil Henderson, who knocked down 19ppg.
The Blue Devils got a big lift from underclassmen the nation would soon hear much more about—point guard Bobby Hurley averaged eight assists per game and sophomore forward Christian Laettner emerged as a force, with a 17/10 per-game average. Duke finished second in the ACC, lost in the semis of the conference tournament and was the East Regional’s #3 seed as the 1990 NCAA Tournament got underway.
Duke went to Atlanta for opening weekend and blew out Richmond, a program that had pulled big upsets in 1984 and 1988 and would again in 1991. The Blue Devils followed that up by edging 6-seed St. John’s and getting the Meadowlands for the regionals.
UCLA was a 7-seed playing far from home, but the Bruins did have two prolific forwards in Don Maclean and Tracy Murray. The Blue Devils couldn’t contain them, as they went for a combined 36 points/24 rebounds. But Henderson and Laettner answered, combining for 52 points of their own and Duke won 90-81.
Top-seeded Connecticut, enjoying a breakout year, awaited for Sunday afternoon’s regional final. Duke led 37-30 at the half, but they weren’t shooting the ball well. They ended the day at 39 percent from the floor and the Huskies pulled even. The game went to overtime where Duke trailed 78-77 in the closing moments.
Laettner inbounded the ball on the Duke side of the floor and quickly got it returned to him. He double-clutched at the foul line and put the ball in as time expired. It capped a 23-point game and earned him the regional’s Most Outstanding Player. Abelnaby went off for 27/14 and Henderson added 21 as the Blue Devils went to their fourth Final Four in five years.
Arkansas was in the NCAA Tournament for the third straight year under Richardson. A program that had last reached the Final Four in 1978 under Eddie Sutton’s leadership, was again on an upward trajectory. The backcourt was explosive, with Todd Day a 20ppg scorer at the two-guard and Lee Mayberry averaging 15 more. Oliver Miller was a big boy who patrolled the middle, averaging an 11/6 and the Hogs got double-digits each night from Lenize Howell and Ron Huery.
The Razorbacks rolled through the old Southwest Conference, the best of three NCAA teams that came out of the SWC (Houston and Texas being the others). Arkansas went 14-2 in league play and won the tournament in Dallas. Losses in non-conference tests to Missouri and UNLV kept the Hogs as a 4-seed in the Midwest Regional.
Arkansas had to survive a tough game from Princeton, a team with a track record of making favorites sweat and a trendy upset pick. The Hogs were better than 5-seed Illinois, who was upset by Dayton. Arkansas survived another tough fight in the second round to advance.
The Hogs might not have dominated the opposition, but they were the only one of the regional’s top four seeds to make it to Dallas for the regionals. Nonetheless, Arkansas probably didn’t feel like they had gotten a break when they prepared to play 8-seed North Carolina and Rick Fox in the Sweet 16.
It was a tight game at half with the Razorbacks leading by five. Arkansas’s defense and balance eventually broke through. They had four players score between 18-25 points, while Fox was held to nine. The final was 96-73.
Conference rival Texas awaited in the regional final. Day didn’t shoot well, but Arkansas made up for it on defense, forcing the Longhorns into 42 percent shooting from the floor. Mayberry got 18 points and Lenzie Howell, who’d led all scorers against Carolina, did it again here with a 21 points/9 rebounds performance. It made him the Most Outstanding Player as Arkansas won 88-85.
Bobby Cremins had rebuilt the Georgia Tech program from the ashes since his arrival in 1982. He reached the regionals in 1985 and 1986, each time as a 2-seed with a credible chance to reach the Final Four and each time coming up short. His 1990 team had one of the great backcourts in the country.
Kenny Anderson, a dynamic point guard out of New York City was a freshman that averaged 21 points/6 rebounds/8 assists per game. Brian Oliver was a 21ppg scorer. And the best of them all was Dennis Scott, who roamed the perimeter at 6’8” and poured in 28ppg while also averaging seven rebounds a night. Scott was the ACC MVP. They were nicknamed “Lethal Weapon 3” after the movies starring Mel Gibson and Danny Glover. And after they went 21-6 and won the ACC Tournament, Tech was a 4-seed in the Southeast Regional.
Georgia Tech beat East Tennessee State to open the tournament and then played an epic second-round game against LSU, who had a great point guard of their own in Chris Jackson and a center that would achieve some notoriety in the NBA—Shaquille O’Neal. The Yellow Jackets won an exciting 94-91 battle.
It was on to New Orleans and a date with top-seeded Michigan State. Scott and Oliver had a rough night, combining to shoot 11-for-32. Anderson made up for it, knocking down 31 points and pulling out an 81-80 thriller in overtime.
The march through the Big Ten continued against 6-seed Minnesota, who had upset Syracuse in the Sweet 16. For the third straight game, the Yellow Jackets were in a fast-paced barnburner. Anderson kept rolling with another 30-point game. Even though Oliver’s struggles continues, Scott lit it up with 40 points. It was enough to survive, 93-91. Anderson was the region’s MOP and Cremins was going to the Final Four.
THE 1990 FINAL FOUR
Duke played Arkansas in the early game. The Blue Devils led 46-43 at the half, but Mayberry was not shooting well for the Hogs. He would finish the game 6-for-18. Howell scored 18, but only got off nine shots from the floor. Miller was a non-factor inside. Day knocked down 27, but he was a lonely warrior.
Meanwhile, the Blue Devils were controlling the inside. Abelnaby scored 20 in the post and Laettner put up a 19/14 performance. Henderson more than answered day, knocking down 28 and Duke gradually pulled away to a 97-83 win.
The showcase game of UNLV-Georgia Tech was electric. Lethal Weapon 3 came out firing. The trio combined to shoot 24-for-49 and put up 69 points. They led by seven at the half. But Tech got nothing inside. Even though Johnson didn’t have his best game, at 15/5, Butler stepped up with a clutch 13 points/10 rebounds. Augmon and Hunt went for 20-plus and UNLV slowly took control and won 90-81.
We had a highly anticipated final between two coaches looking for their first ring. To look at the stat sheet is to see Duke getting decent performances from Laettner and Abelnaby, who combined for 29/16. Henderson added 20 more.
The stat sheet also tells you Hurley was held to two points and what the numbers don’t say is how thoroughly the UNLV pressure defense disrupted the freshman point guard. The Rebels were in control from the start. Johnson was locked in and went for 22 points/11 rebounds. Hunt sealed his Final Four MOP honors with an electric 29-point night on 12-for-16 shooting. UNLV led 47-35 at the half and it didn’t seem that close. By night’s end, it was a 103-73 beatdown, the biggest margin of victory in championship game history. Tarkanian was finally a champ. Coach K would have to wait for next year.
The 1991 Georgetown Hoyas began the season with great expectations and two of the best big men in college basketball. But though they often teased, they ended up riding an up-and-down roller coaster marked by missed opportunities.
Georgetown was anchored by Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutombo down low, both of whom would go on to stellar NBA careers and be elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame. In 1991, Mourning averaged 16 points/8 rebounds per game. Mutombo averaged 15/12 with five blocks. And that’s not factoring on the intangible intimidation factor that brought, dissuading teams from even trying to attack the basket.
The supporting cast wasn’t great, but it should have been good enough for head coach John Thompson Sr. to win with. Charles Harrison knocked down 12ppg in the backcourt. A pair of freshman, Joey Brown at the point and Robert Churchwell at the wing were both decent contributors.
It’s with good reason that Georgetown was ranked #9 in the country to start the season and no one was surprised when they opened the year with a 79-74 win over eventual national champion Duke at home. But the Hoyas immediately turned around lost 71-60 to mediocre UTEP. Another loss over a very good Ohio State team, led by Jim Jackson, followed.
Conference play followed a similar pattern. Georgetown started the Big East schedule with a nice win over Seton Hall, a team that ended up a 3-seed in the NCAA Tournament and reached the Sweet 16. Immediately following that was a loss to Providence, a team that was decent (finishing 19-13), but nothing special.
The pattern continued. Georgetown played well against eventual conference champion Syracuse, but narrowly lost both games. The Hoyas split with second-place St. John and also split with NCAA-bound Pitt, Villanova and Connecticut. Thompson’s team could never get a good run going and they ended the conference schedule at 8-8, in sixth place.
A season that opened with thoughts of the Final Four was now reduced to making sure they played their way into the NCAA Tournament. Once again, Georgetown teased. They opened the Big East tournament in Madison Square Garden with an impressive 68-49 win over Connecticut. In the same quarterfinal round, Syracuse and St. John’s were upset. The path was open to a tournament title.
But while the Hoyas sealed their NCAA bid by blowing out Providence in the semis, they missed another opportunity with a 74-62 loss to Seton Hall.
The season was down to one last chance at redemption. Georgetown was the 8-seed in the West. If they could get by Vanderbilt in the first round, a big battle with UNLV—ranked #1, the defending national champion and undefeated—awaited in the Round of 32.
If there’s one thing that could always be said about John Thompson-coached teams it’s that they came to play in defense and they certainly came ready with the effort in Tucson. The Hoyas held Vandy to 38% shooting in the opener. Mourning finished with 23 points/8 rebounds, while Mutombo was good for 14/12, keying a decisive edge on the glass. Brown chipped in with 14 more and Georgetown won 70-60.
The Hoyas were clearly the worst possible opponent for UNLV, at least at this early stage of the tournament. And Georgetown again played defense, holding the Rebels to sub-40% shooting. They again enjoyed a rebounding edge, with Mourning grabbing eleven boards and Mutombo getting nine. But this time that wouldn’t be enough.
UNLV’s outstanding power forward Larry Johnson went for 20/10 and while Mutombo had 16 points, Mourning could not get going offensively. He only took five shots from the field and made just two. Brown and Churchwell combined to shoot 3-for-20. The Hoyas lost 62-54.
The disappointment was not in losing a competitive game to UNLV, it was a regular season that placed Georgetown low enough in the seedings that this game had to take place in the Round of 32 instead of the Final Four.
Mutombo went on to the NBA following the season, while Mourning came back for more. 1992 went a little better, with a share of the Big East regular season title. But it still ended in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. The arrival of Mourning and Mutombo was supposed to signal a new glory era in Georgetown basketball. Instead, it ended simply being competitive. Perhaps no year exemplified that better than 1991.
Steve Fisher was one of college basketball’s great stories in 1989, but in three short years his seat had began to get a little warm. Fisher took over the Michigan program on an interim basis after head coach Bill Frieder left and promptly started his career 6-0 with a national championship.
After getting the permanent job, Fisher began to struggle. Michigan lost in the second of the 1990 NCAA Tournament, then struggled to a 14-15 record in 1991. He needed to turn it around and the 1992 Michigan basketball team had the greatest recruiting class ever put together.
They were known as “The Fab Five”–incoming freshmen Jalen Rose, Chris Webber, Juwan Howard, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson became the starting lineup before their first season was done. They electrified the country, become cultural icons and won more than a few basketball games along the way.
Rose was the top scorer in 1992, averaging 18ppg, although Webber was the best all-around player, averaging 15 points/10 rebounds per game. These two were clearly the best of the class and both went on to good NBA careers. Howard was clearly the third-best player. He averaged an 11/7 as a freshman and also enjoyed a long run in the NBA. King and Jackson didn’t make an NBA splash, but were solid college players.
The hype surrounding the Fab Five had Michigan ranked #20 to start the year in spite of the program’s recent downward trajectory. They hosted defending NCAA champion Duke in December and took the Blue Devils to overtime before losing 88-75. The Wolverines were able to beat NCAA Tournament-bound BYU 86-83 in the other notable non-conference game.
Big Ten play had a spotty start after the New Year. They lost at Minnesota and at home to Purdue, neither an NCAA-caliber team. A decisive loss at Indiana, one of the conference frontrunners, was part of a 2-3 start in conference games.
An 89-79 win over archrival and NCAA-bound Michigan State got the Wolverines back on track and even a ten-point loss to Ohio State was no big deal—the Buckeyes would end up conference champions.
Three straight wins, including a pair of NCAA-bound Iowa followed, but the inconsistencies of youth resurfaced in a 70-59 home loss to Michigan State. After beating lowly Minnesota and Northwestern, the season hits its lowest point in a 96-78 loss at Wisconsin, then a bad program with few signs of life.
After falling again to Ohio State by double-digits, this time 77-66, Michigan was a mediocre 8-7 in Big Ten play. They were still 17-8 overall and in good shape for an NCAA bid, but there was nothing suggesting that anything special was at hand, at least not this year.
That began to change on a nationally televised Sunday afternoon home game with Indiana. The Wolverines delivered a big blow to the Hoosiers’ conference title hopes with a 68-60 win. Michigan followed by winning at Purdue and closed the year beating Illinois at home.
There was no conference tournament in the Big Ten prior to 1998, so this ended the regular season. The late push was enough to get the Wolverines a 6-seed in the Southeast Regional of the NCAA Tournament.
Michigan flew to Atlanta where the first opponent was Temple, where guard Aaron McKie was one of the country’s better players. McKie didn’t play badly, but by forcing him to shoot 6-for-15, the Wolverines neutralized the Owls’ best weapon. Meanwhile, Michigan’s own offense sizzled. They shot 60 percent as a team, with Rose and King each scoring 19. Webber controlled the inside with 12 rebounds the result was a 73-66 win.
Fortune smiled on the Wolverines that night when 3-seed Arizona was upset by East Tennessee State. Michigan had a wide-open path to the Sweet 16 and they took full advantage, going up 54-34 by halftime and winning 102-90. The inside game was the key as Webber went off for 30 points and Howard added 23.
There would be no bracket breaks in the regionals. Michigan was the lowest seed traveling to Rupp Arena in Lexington and 2-seed Oklahoma State was on deck. In an outstanding basketball game, the Wolverines’ inside game was again the difference. They won the rebounding battle 37-25. Rose’s height in the backcourt was a big factor, as he grabbed 11 rebounds to go with his 25 points. Michigan pulled out a 75-72 win.
The Michigan-Ohio State football rivalry has a long and storied lore. There’s not the same richness to the basketball battles, but 1992 would be the exception to the rule. The Buckeyes were the region’s top seed. Forward Jim Jackson was the best player in the Big Ten, one of the best in the country and on his way to being the fourth overall pick in the upcoming NBA draft. They had handled Michigan two previous times. Now the two schools met with a Final Four spot on the line.
It was a classic basketball game by any measure. Webber scored 23 points and had 11 rebounds. King was a big X-factor, shooting 7-for-10 and scoring 15 points. But no one was better than Rose. In an overtime game, he played all 45 minutes. He scored 20 points, got six more rebounds and sealed his Most Outstanding Player of the Regional award. Michigan won it 75-71.
Improbably, the freshmen were going to the Final Four in Minneapolis. They caught a break in that the best two teams left—Duke and Indiana—would have to play in Saturday’s semifinals, while Michigan played a 4-seed in Cincinnati.
The Wolverines trailed the early game of Semifinal Saturday by three at the half. But the Bearcats were a smaller team and Michigan’s size—particularly Webber—was too much to handle. The center posted a 16/11 stat line and keyed a decisive 45-27 edge in rebounds. King, probably the most underrated player on the Fab Five, scored 17 more. Defensively, Michigan forced Cincinnati into 40 percent shooting. The 76-72 win sent the kids onto the Monday Night stage to play for a national championship.
It was the first time in history that five freshmen started an NCAA final and for twenty minutes of basketball it looked like the magic might go on. Michigan led Duke 31-30 at the half. But experience took over and the Wolverines shot poorly for the first time in the tournament, settling for 38 percent from the floor. Duke pulled away to a 71-51 win.
The 1992 Michigan basketball season was still the start of a two-year run where all five players stayed in school. They made it back to the NCAA final again in 1993 before losing a crushing game to North Carolina.
There’s a mixed legacy for the Fab Five—their accomplishments have been officially disowned by the NCAA and the school due to recruiting violations. On the court, they didn’t win a Big Ten title or a national championship. But there’s no question they were a cultural phenomena like college basketball has not seen before or since. And though there was no title, that 10-2 record in the NCAAs over the two years they were together is nothing to sneer at.
The University of Oklahoma has been much more renowned for its football program than what they do on the basketball court and that was certainly true in the 1980s when Barry Switzer had OU football rolling and won a national championship. But the 1988 Oklahoma Sooners basketball team were awfully good themselves and nearly gave the college town of Norman another national title.
When head coach Billy Tubbs arrived in 1981 the program had made just one NCAA Tournament in the past 35 years. By 1983, Tubbs had the Sooners in March Madness. In 1985, with a team built around a great post player in Wayman Tisdale, they came within a basketball of the Final Four. In 1987 they lost on a buzzer-beater in the Sweet 16. In 1988, it all came together.
The talent was tremendous and it started up front with Stacey King and Harvey Grant. They combined to average 43 points/19 rebounds per game and King went on to play in the NBA on the first run of Michael Jordan’s championship teams with the Chicago Bulls in the early 1990s.
Mookie Blaylock and Ricky Grace were a potent backcourt duo, combining for 32 points a game. Dave Sieger chipped in 11 a game to complete a balanced and explosive attack. And the Sooners could also play some defense—Blaylock was a defensive ace in the backcourt, King an outstanding shotblocker down low. Oklahoma played a high-octane style, but the high point volumes came because of pace, not because of a lack of defense.
OU wasn’t highly regarded when the season began, ranked 19th in the preseason poll. They won their first fourteen games, but it was against non-descript competition. When the Sooners lost 84-77 to LSU in a road-neutral game at New Orleans—to a team that would end up a 9-seed in the NCAAs and lose in the first round, there still wasn’t any reason to expect anything special.
Then Oklahoma beat sixth-ranked Pitt, with future NBA forward Charles Smith and a tough power forward in Jerome Lane. The old Big Eight Conference was having a strong year in 1988 and that would be validated in March. OU stormed through it. After an early loss to Kansas State, the Sooners ripped off ten straight wins and clinched a share of the league title.
An overtime loss at NCAA-bound Missouri was just a hiccup. Oklahoma closed the regular season with a 113-93 win over Nebraska to secure the outright conference championship. The Sooners won the Big Eight tournament in Kansas City and secured the #1 seed in the Southeast Regional.
The NCAA run began in Atlanta and OU got off to a slow start, only leading 16-seed UT-Chattanooga 34-29 at the half. They were outrebounded on the game, 39-34. But the Sooners had too much talent. They dropped 60 points in the second half, Grant and King combined for 50 and the end result was an easy 94-66 win.
Auburn, another school more noted for its football teams, was up next. But like Oklahoma, Auburn had a basketball team that was pretty good too. Charles Barkley was a recent star, as was NBA forward Chuck Person. Even without those two, the Tigers had thrown a mild scare into eventual national champion Indiana in the 1987 NCAA Tournament. And they got a first-round win over Bradley, who had an elite scorer in Hersey Hawkins.
The Sooners were ready, especially on the defensive end where they forced Auburn into 35 percent shooting. In spite of another poor rebounding performance, Oklahoma made up for it with sheer talent. King went off for 37 while Blaylock added 21 in a 107-87 win.
It was on to Birmingham for the regionals and an anticipated game with Louisville. The Cardinals were only two years removed from an NCAA title and their center Pervis Ellison had been the Most Outstanding Player in the 1986 Final Four.
The game was everything you would expect from two very athletic teams, frenetic action and it was hotly contested. Ellison went for 23/14 and six Cardinal players scored in double figures. Oklahoma got great games from its own frontcourt. King delivered a 24/12 and Grant exploded for 34 points. The ultimate difference was threes and frees—OU hit 10 treys to Louisville’s 5 and the Sooners outscored the Cardinals 20-13 at the free throw line. The final was 108-98.
Everyone had expected another high-profile Bluegrass battle in the regional final, this time with 2-seed Kentucky. But Villanova had jumped up off the 6-line to beat both Illinois and Kentucky to get here. Memories of Villanova’s 1985 NCAA title run were still fresh in everyone’s memories, so no one needed to remind Tubbs about what this program could do.
Villanova slowed the pace and led 38-31 at the half. To their great credit, Oklahoma’s players kept their posed and they clamped down on the defensive end. The Wildcats only scored 19 after intermission. King was the dominant individual player, with 28 points/11 rebounds. The Sooners gradually took control and then the avalanche started as they won going away, 78-59.
King was named Most Outstanding Player of the regional. Oklahoma was going to the Final Four in Kansas City. There was only other #1 seed still remaining and that was Arizona, with All-American Sean Elliot at forward and Steve Kerr at the point.
Both backcourts were cold—Grace, Blaylock and Kerr all shot poorly. OU couldn’t contain Elliot, who nailed 31 points. All three Arizona frontcourt starters got 11 rebounds Once again though, the Sooners could overcome a rebounding disadvantage with the offensive prowess of their frontcourt.
Grant and King combined for 42 points and Oklahoma found an unlikely hero on the bench in Andre Wiley, who scored 11 points and keyed a decisive advantage for the Sooners in production from the reserves. They grabbed a twelve-point lead at halftime and maintained control throughout in an 86-78 win.
Conference rival Kansas was only a 6-seed, and had taken out Kansas State to get to the Final Four and then beaten 2-seed Duke in the national semifinal. Even with a nominal homecourt advantage at Kemper Arena, Kansas was still the underdog to OU on Monday night.
For one half, Oklahoma had the pace where they wanted it even though the score was tied 50-50 at intermission. What they didn’t have was Danny Manning. The Kansas star was on one of the great runs in NCAA Tournament history and he capped his senior year with a 31 points/18 rebounds performance in this championship game. King finished with 17/7, but Grant had a so-so game and Grace struggled from the outside. The Sooners lost 83-79.
In the years since, Oklahoma has made a couple more Final Fours, in 2002 and 2016. They’ve produced some great players notably Blake Griffin. They haven’t won a national championship, but the 1988 Oklahoma Sooners showed their hometown just how much fun basketball could be.
The basketball program at Kansas State has had a long and steady history of producing winning teams. What the school hasn’t done, at least in modern times, is make it all the way to the Final Four. Not since 1964 have the Wildcats danced on college basketball’s biggest stage. The 1988 Kansas State basketball team came awfully close though and pulled off a memorable NCAA Tournament upset along the way.
Lon Kruger was a young head coach looking to make his name when he took over in 1987. His predecessor, Jack Hartman, had a good run at reached a regional final four times in his career. Kruger’s first team in 1987 made the NCAAs and won the first game.
Mitch Richmond was the heart of the team. Richmond averaged 23 points/7 rebounds in the 1988 season and went to an outstanding NBA career that eventually landed him in the Basketball Hall of Fame. Richmond got support from William Scott in the backcourt.
Kansas State started slowly. They were 8-4 in non-conference games and that included bad losses to Missouri State and twice to Southern Miss. There was also a 101-72 shellacking at the hands of Purdue. The Boilermakers were one of the best teams in the country, but the Wildcats would get their own say before this season was over.
The start of Big Eight play saw a revival, with five straight wins. Then K-State lost to NCAA-bound Missouri. They lost 112-95 at Oklahoma, another nationally elite team. They lost a one-point heartbreaker at home to archrival Kansas and Danny Manning.
An NCAA bid was by no means a guarantee, but Kruger’s team surged down the stretch. They won their final five games, moved into second place and still had a shot at sharing the Big Eight title with Oklahoma until the Sooners won their finale. The conference tournament saw some of the best Wildcat basketball yet—they knocked off Kansas in the semis and gave OU a good run in the final before losing 88-83.
It was a big year for Big Eight basketball. Oklahoma was a 1-seed in the NCAA Tournament and after all the ups and downs, Kansas State was sitting on the 4-line in the Midwest Regional.
In spite of the high seed, the first NCAA game was hardly a walkover. LaSalle might have been a 13-seed, but Lionel Simmons ,who averaged 23ppg, was one of the best players in the country and a worthy rival to Richmond.
Simmons was indeed that good, and he went for 20/10 in the first-round game at South Bend. Richmond was better, dropping 30 and he had more help. Scott hit 17 points and the K-State defense held LaSalle to 37 percent shooting in a 66-53 win.
The second round opponent was DePaul, a Sweet 16 team from 1987 and with a future NBA point guard in Rod Strickland running the show. The Blue Demons were coming off a 64 percent shooting performance in their first-round rout of Wichita State.
But Kruger’s defense met the challenge. Again, they held an opponent to 37 percent shooting. Strickland had 19, but his two key support players, Stanley Brundy and Kevin Edwards, were forced into a combined 5-for-19 shooting display. Richmond knocked down 19 while Scott stepped up with 23 points and Kansas State won 66-58.
The reward was a trip to the Pontiac Silverdome in Michigan, where the Detroit Lions & Pistons used to play their home games before the advent of Ford Field. It was a nice season for Kansas State no matter what way you sliced it, and with top-seeded Purdue next in line, no one expected the season to extend beyond Friday night.
When the Boilermakers took a 43-34 lead at halftime, everything was unfolding as expected. Purdue, with three seniors in key roles, was widely expected to make a breakthrough Final Four run for head coach Gene Keady.
Then up jumped Mitch Richmond. He took over the second half and finished the game with 27 points/11 rebounds, shooting 10-for-20 from the floor. The K-State defense found its form of the first NCAA weekend and held Purdue to 27 points in the second half. The end result was a 73-70 upset that shattered brackets across the Midwest, if not the nation.
The Midwest Regional was a gutted bracket and the favorites on the other side had been eliminated. Kansas State needed only to deal with a 6-seed in the regional final. Unfortunately for them, that happened to be a 6-seed with Danny Manning in the lineup and it happened to be Kansas.
Manning was on one of the great tournament runs of all-time and he eventually led his team past Duke and Oklahoma to win the national championship. Even though Kansas State held a 29-27 lead at halftime, it came apart after intermission. Richmond shot 4-for-14 and the Wildcats lost 71-58.
Kansas State has continued to play fundamentally sound winning basketball in the ensuing decades. But it took them until 2010 to again reach a regional final of NCAA play and they again were stopped by a Cinderella story, this time Brad Stevens and Butler. The ultimate legacy of the 1988 Kansas State basketball team is a very good one, highlighted by the win over Purdue. That legacy will look better when this program can finally reach a Final Four for the first time since 1964.
The 1986 Final Four was a seminal moment in college basketball history. It was the last Final Four and national championship for a great coach in Louisville’s Denny Crum. In the title game he beat a newcomer to the Final Four—Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski. The championship battle in Dallas was a case of two ships passing in the night, as Crum faded and Coach K rose. They were joined at the Final Four by Kansas and LSU. Here’s a look back at the road all four teams took to Reunion Arena in Dallas.
Crum had won the national title in 1980 and then reached the Final Four in both 1982 and 1983. There was an uncharacteristic slip in 1985, as Louisville missed the NCAA Tournament. They returned to prominence with a balanced lineup as four starters averaged between 12-15 ppg.
Milt Wagner was the point guard and a good outside shooter. Billy Thompson and Herb Crook were the forwards and a freshman in Pervis Ellison was at center. They constituted the Crum trademark of an athletic frontcourt.
Louisville went 26-7 and earned the #2 seed in the West Regional. They opened NCAA play with a 93-73 win over Drexel, keyed by 24 points/10 rebounds from Thompson. The defense stood tall in the second round, shutting down Bradley’s prolific scorer Hersey Hawkins in an 82-68 win. They moved onto the regionals in Houston.
A titanic Sweet 16 battle with North Carolina was up next. The Tar Heels might have been a 3-seed, but they had been undefeated into January. UNC had a future #1 overall NBA draft pick in center Brad Daugherty. They had a future NBA champion point guard in Kenny Smith. It was a third-round game played at a national championship level.
Crook and Thompson each played big, combining for 44 points/18 rebounds. Daugherty answered with 19/15 and UNC forward Joe Wolf scored 20. The difference came at the foul line. Louisville outscored North Carolina at the stripe 28-11. The game was close most of the way until the Cardinals blew it open in a 94-79 win.
The region’s top seed, St. John, had been ousted by Auburn in the second round and the Tigers then knocked off 4-seed UNLV in the Sweet 16. Auburn had a talented forward in Chuck Person, who went for 25/11 against UNLV and scored 23 against Louisville. But the Cardinals had more depth. All five starters were in double figures, with Crook and Ellison combining for a 35/21 day. Louisville won 84-76.
Crook had scored 40 points and grabbed 20 rebounds in the two games at Houston and should have been named the region’s Most Outstanding Player. Person got the honor, but Crook deserves his due.
Coach K took over the program in 1981 with Duke fresh off a trip to a regional final and in the Final Four as recently as 1978. Things didn’t start well, as the Blue Devils struggled into making Krzyzewski’s first NCAA Tournament in 1984, although he was knocked out in the second round that year and again in 1985. The 1986 Duke basketball team put it all together.
Johnny Dawkins was an All-American and with 19ppg was the best two-guard in the country. Mark Alarie was a stretch-4 at a time before the position was even popular, averaging 17/6 per game. David Henderson kicked in 15/5 at the small forward spot. Tommy Amaker was an excellent point guard and the Blue Devils had a center who could bang around and eventually gained renown as a TV analyst—Jay Bilas.
The ACC was brutally tough, with both North Carolina and Georgia Tech soaring near the top of the national rankings. Duke was better than anyone, winning the league’s regular season title and tournament, to get the #1 seed in the East.
In the first round of the NCAA Tournament, the Blue Devils got a surprising challenge from Mississippi Valley State, trailing by three at the half before winning 85-78. It went a little easier in the second round with an 89-61 win over Old Dominion. Dawkins scored a combined 52 points in the two games.
The rest of the East Regional was being gutted. On Duke’s side of the draw, #12-seed DePaul came into the Sweet 16 at the Meadowlands. The Blue Demons had a talented point guard with an NBA future in Rod Strickland and they shot 59 percent in this game. Duke survived 74-67 thanks to Dawkins’ 25 points and a decisive rebounding edge, with the smallish Dawkins also getting ten boards.
The bottom half of the regional had seen #2 seed Syracuse taken apart by Navy’s David Robinson, in the Carrier Dome no less. The #3 seed was Indiana, led by Coach K’s mentor Bob Knight. The Hoosiers were stunned by Cleveland State. So the other Sweet 16 game was Navy-Cleveland State, and the Middies survived 71-70.
Robinson and Navy were America’s darlings as they played for the Final Four. But Duke, with Coach K a West Point guard, were the best team. Even though Robinson went for 23/10 in the regional final the rest of the Mids combined to shoot 9-for-31. Dawkins drilled 28 to seal a Most Outstanding Player award in a 71-50 win that sent the Blue Devils to the Final Four.
Kansas had reached the Final Four in 1971 and 1974, but then hit a dry spell, with three NCAA Tournament appearances in the next eight years. Larry Brown, who had coached UCLA to the national championship game in 1980, took over the program in 1984 and promptly made it back to March Madness each of the next two years though they didn’t advance. But Brown had landed a great power forward in Danny Manning who would be a sophomore in 1986 and expectations were high.
Manning averaged a 17/6 per game and was joined by Greg Dreiling down low. There was good offensive balance, with 16-ppg scorer Ron Kellogg. Calvin Thompson was another double-digit scorer on the perimeter and Cedric Hunter ably ran the offense. The Jayhawks went 31-3, were the top seed in the Midwest and blasted through North Carolina A&T and Temple to reach the regionals.
There was some home cookin’ in the Midwest Regional, with Kansas going to KC’s Kemper Arena, a venue not only near Lawrence, but one where the Jayhawks play the occasional home game. Furthermore, this was another gutted bracket. The 2-3 seeds, Michigan & Notre Dame, were gone. So was 4-seed Georgetown. But Kansas was about to get a big test from fifth-seeded Michigan State.
The Spartans had a fantastic playmaker and scorer in Scott Skiles and the Jayhawks blew a nine-point halftime lead and were up against it down the stretch. A controversy with the clock—with under 30 seconds to play, it mysteriously never started when Kansas was trying, ultimately successfully, to rally and force overtime. The home cookin’ storyline increased as the Jayhawks capitalized on the controversy to win 96-86 in OT. Thompson scored 26 points and Hunter had ten assists.
North Carolina State, coached by Jim Valvano, and anchored by two talented big men in Charles Shackleford and Chris Washburn were the last obstacle on the way to Dallas. The Wolfpack had knocked off Kansas rival Iowa State in the Sweet 16, with Shackleford and Washburn combining for 42 points. The Jayhawks would need their big men to survive.
Manning and Dreiling both delivered. Even though the N.C. State twin towers combined for 37 points, Manning finished with 22 points and was named Outstanding Player. Dreiling posted a 19/12.The Jayhawks used a strong second half run to win 75-67 and punch their ticket to Dallas.
After reaching the Final Four in 1981, Dale Brown’s LSU program had fallen off the map. They missed the NCAA Tournament entirely the next two years and then suffered two straight first-round knockouts. When they went 9-9 in SEC play in 1986 and entered the field as an 11-seed, there were no expectations of anything different. But they would make a historic run to the Final Four.
LSU was led by forward John Williams, who averaged 18/9. Don Redden was a quality forward who averaged 12ppg and Derrick Taylor knocked down 14 a night. And on Selection Sunday, they got a massive break. In spite of their seeding position, the Tigers were slotted to play the first two rounds of the tournament on their homecourt in Baton Rouge.
It proved to be the difference in surviving the weekend. LSU needed overtime to beat Purdue 94-87, an OT where the Tigers outscored the Boilermakers 25-18 in a scoring frenzy. LSU then beat 3-seed Memphis 83-81, behind 23 points from Redden and 19 from Williams.
The regionals were in Atlanta, the major market of the SEC. And appropriately, three SEC teams were there, along with hometown Georgia Tech. The Tigers had to play the 2-seed Yellow Jackets in the Sweet 16 where it seemed the homecourt bug would turn around and bite them.
But to LSU’s credit, they overcame it. Redden had a monster game with 27 points and Taylor outplayed future NBA mainstay Mark Price at the point guard spot, scoring 23 points. The Tigers pulled a 70-64 upset. On the other side of this mini-SEC tournament, #1-seed Kentucky rode All-American Kenny Walker’s 22 points to a 68-63 win over Alabama.
Walker was the best player in the SEC and he scored 20 in the regional final. LSU, with the “freak” defense of Brown, a mix of zone and man-to-man, kept everyone else under control. Four Tigers scored in double figures and they pulled an improbable 59-57 upset. Redden got the MOP honor. LSU was the first team seeded as low as #11 to reach the Final Four. That’s a record that has stood, with only George Mason (2006) and Virginia Commonwealth (2011) able to pull the same feat and tie it.
THE 1986 FINAL FOUR
It was three heavyweights and one Cinderella story. LSU played Louisville in the first semifinal of Saturday afternoon and spent the first half looking ready to continue the magic ride. The Tigers led 44-36 at the half. In the second half, the Cardinals woke up.
They shot 56 percent for the game and their rebounding edge, 41-24, began to take hold. Wagner and Thompson each scored 22 points, and the latter also pulled down ten rebounds, joining Ellison in controlling the glass. Redden’s 22 points for LSU was not enough as Louisville pulled away to an 88-77 win.
The championship was now down to the three power teams. Duke and Kansas played a taut game in the late afternoon slot. Kellogg and Dawkins were each great, scoring 22 & 24 points respectively. The difference came at the foul line, with Duke going 21-for-30 and Kansas only shooting 9-for-12. In a tie game late, Blue Devil freshman Danny Ferry scooped up a loose ball and put it in a layup that was the difference in an ultimate 71-67 win.
It was down to Crum and Coach K and the NCAA final was a brilliantly played basketball game on both sides. Dawkins continued his amazing tournament run, with a 24-point performance. He wasn’t getting enough help though. Alarie, as he had throughout the tournament, scored in double figures but with a low shooting percentage. Duke shot just 40 percent for this game.
Louisville shot 58 percent, keyed by their superior play inside. Crook scored 10 points and controlled the glass with 12 rebounds. But no one was better than the cool freshman, Pervis “Never Nervous” Ellison, who went for 25/11, including a clutch bucket down the stretch as the Cardinals prevailed 72-69. Ellison was the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player. It was another ring for Crum. Coach K, as we all know, would be back many times.
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.
The first four days of the NCAA Tournament in 1981 were marked by a sequence of upsets and buzzer-beaters that was then unprecedented. But by the time the 1981 Final Four rolled around, the powers-that-be had emerged. Indiana, North Carolina, Virginia and LSU were all high seeds that won regionals. Let’s look back on the road all four teams took to Philadelphia.
After their unbeaten national championship run of 1976, Bob Knight’s Indiana Hoosiers slipped back and missed the NCAA Tournament two of the next three years. The road back to the national elite started in 1980 when they won the Big Ten before a Sweet 16 loss to archrival Purdue left a bad taste.
There was still as much talent as Knight ever had on hand, and it started with All-American sophomore guard Isiah Thomas, who averaged 17 ppg, was a terrific floor leader and would go on to be one of the great NBA point guards of all-time with the Detroit Pistons.
Thomas was supported by two-guard Randy Wittman, another future NBA player. Ray Tolbert averaged 12 rebounds a game. Another forward, Landon Turner might have gone to the pros as well, but the aggressive rebounding forward had his career tragically cut short in the summer following the 1981 season when a car accident left him paralyzed from the waist down.
This group won a second straight Big Ten title and was seeded #3 in the Mideast Regional. After a first-round bye in a tournament field that was then 48 teams, Indiana crushed Maryland 99-64. Tolbert and Turner dominated inside, combining for 46 points on 19/26 shooting.
Meanwhile the rest of the favorites in the Mideast (the forerunner of today’s South Regional) were dropping like flies. DePaul, the #1 team in the country, was stunned by St. Joe’s. Kentucky, the two-seed and potential Sweet 16 opponent for Indiana, lost to Alabama-Birmingham. And fourth-seeded Wake Forest lost to Boston College.
As if that hadn’t opened up Indiana’s path to the Final Four sufficiently, the regionals would be held on their homecourt in Bloomington.
Indiana beat UAB 87-72, although this was a talented Blazer team. They were coached by Gene Bartow, who had guided UCLA to the Final Four in 1976 before tiring of the pressure that came with succeeding John Wooden. UAB also had a good guard in Oliver Robinson, and this team made the final eight one year later.
In this tournament, UAB hung with IU for a half, trailing 42-37 before the Hoosier backcourt took over. Isiah and Wittman combined for 47 points to take over the second half. Indiana then got one more break when St. Joe’s upset Boston College 42-41. It probably wasn’t going to matter in any case, but with a good inside-out combo of Jay Murphy and John Bagley, the Eagles would have had a puncher’s chance against the Hoosiers.
The same couldn’t be said for St. Joe’s. Indiana dominated defensively and led 32-16 at the half. They held St. Joe’s to 33 percent shooting for the game and coasted in 78-46. Thomas finished with 12 assists and was named Most Outstanding Player of the regional.
Dean Smith had already made five Final Fours with North Carolina when the 1981 season began. The most recent was 1977, when his team reached the championship game before losing. But Smith still didn’t have a ring and his team suffered early exits each of the previous three years.
What they did have in 1981 was a lot of talent. The frontline had future NBA standouts in Sam Perkins and James Worthy, and they weren’t even the best players in this particular year. That honor went to forward Al Wood. Collectively, this Big Three of the frontcourt combined to average 47 ppg.
North Carolina finished second in the ACC and grabbed the #2 seed in the West Regional. They beat Pitt 74-57, getting a combined 56 points from the Big Three on 21/32 shooting to reach the Sweet 16 for the first time since ’77.
UNC was now the favorite in the region after #1 seed Oregon State had been upset by Kansas State in the second round. Utah and Illinois had held serve as favorites to join the Tar Heels in Salt Lake City.
North Carolina drew Utah in the round of 16, and the Utes weren’t to be overlooked. They were playing in their home state and they had Tom Chambers, soon to be one of the most potent scoring forwards in the NBA. But the Tar Heels got 45 points from the Big Three and reserve Matt Doherty stepped up with 12 more to lead a 61-56 win.
Kansas State edged Illinois 57-52 in a game where K-State’s Rolando Blackman squared off with Illinois’ Derek Harper—both players would spend several years as teammates on the Dallas Mavericks. Blackman, who had hit the shot the beat Oregon State with two seconds left, was one of the stories of the tournament.
North Carolina had its hands full with Blackman in the regional final, as he went for 21 points/10 rebounds, but UNC had too much. Wood had a 21/17 game and earned regional MOP honors. Doherty, a future starter for this program and much later its head coach, continued his strong play, with 16 points. The Tar Heels were up thirteen by halftime and coasted to Smith’s sixth Final Four with an 82-68 win.
The Virginia basketball program wasn’t at all on the map when Terry Holland became head coach in 1975, having never reached the NCAA Tournament. Holland built the program, reached the Big Dance in 1976 and a few years later he landed the biggest fish—7’4” center Ralph Sampson.
In 1980, Sampson’s freshman year, UVA won the NIT. And in 1981, they finally had a big year. They won their first 23 games before a last-second loss to Notre Dame in a road-neutral game at Chicago. With Ralph averaging 18 points/12 rebounds/3 blocks per game and supported by forwards and co-captains Jeff Lamp and Lee Raker, Virginia won the ACC title and were the #1 seed in the East Regional.
Virginia was not impressive in beating Villanova 54-50, but they survived and advanced to Atlanta for the regionals. Their opponent would be a good Tennessee team. The Vols were the 4-seed and guard Dale Ellis had a productive NBA career ahead of him.
Sampson struggled, shooting 4-for-13, but Lamp stepped up with a big game and hit 18 points. Virginia took over in the second half and won 62-48. They were one game from the Final Four and whomever the opponent would be, they would offer some sort of revenge angle.
BYU was the 6-seed and guard Danny Ainge had beaten out Sampson for national Player of the Year honors. The Cougars were playing…Notre Dame. The Irish win over the Cavs had been one of the regular season’s most memorable moments. BYU would be the survivor—trailing 50-49, Ainge delivered an iconic NCAA moment, driving coast-to-coast for the winning layup.
Virginia trailed the regional final at halftime, 31-28, but Sampson was playing well. He finished with 22 points/12 rebounds. And now it was Ainge’s turn to struggle to a 4-for-13 shooting day. Lamp scored 17 points and grabbed seven rebounds of his own. The Cavs took over the second half and won going away, 74-60.
Lamp won regional MVP and with Sampson in tow, Virginia was going to Philadelphia as a popular choice to bring home a national championship.
LSU’s only national recognition as a basketball school came when Pete Maravich graced the floor, and even that was about individual success. The Tigers had otherwise not made the NCAA Tournament since the early 1950s when Dale Brown arrived in Baton Rouge in 1976. By 1979, Dale had the team in the Sweet 16. In 1980, they reached the round of eight. There was one more step to take.
The Tigers had a well-balanced team. In the backcourt, Ethan Martin was the playmaker while Howard Carter led all scorers with 16 ppg. The frontcourt had athletes and rebounders in Durand “Rudy” Macklin and Leonard Mitchell. LSU won the SEC title over Kentucky and got the top seed in the Midwest, the second straight year the Tigers were seeded on the 1-line.
Macklin scored 31 points while Carter knocked down 26 as LSU rolled Lamar, 100-78 to advance into the regionals at Houston. They were only favorite to survive opening weekend, but as 5-seeds go, Arkansas was as tough as it got.
Eddie Sutton had led the Razorback program to the Final Four in 1978, come within a basket of upsetting Larry Bird’s Indiana State team in 1979 and advanced in this year’s tournament by beating defending national champion Louisville 74-73 on a miracle halfcourt shot from U.S. Reed.
Just how well Brown had LSU playing was demonstrated by how thoroughly they controlled a team with this pedigree. Macklin led a strong rebounding effort that controlled the glass, the score was 34-18 by half and LSU coasted home to a 72-56 win.
They would play another team probably better than its seed number indicated in #7 Wichita State. The Shockers had two future NBA forwards in Antoine Carr and Cliff Levingston and had just nipped in-state rival Kansas 66-65 to reach this round.
LSU might have been the powerful #1 seed, but from the perspective of history, their cast paled in comparison to what Carr and Levingston were. It’s a credit to Brown on just how well he got this talent to come together.
Macklin continued to be great, with a 21/10 day in the regional final. Mitchell went for 17/6 and center Greg Cook added 19/7 in a display of frontline dominance. The Tigers again grabbed the big halftime lead, 48-33 and they won 96-85. Macklin was the region’s Outstanding Player.
THE 1981 FINAL FOUR
With four excellent teams that all had seemed to be peaking even prior to the NCAA Tournament, the stage seemed to be set for a great show in Philadelphia. Instead, after such an exciting tournament, all three games at the old Spectrum followed the pattern of good first half followed by a second-half blowout.
Indiana played LSU in the early afternoon game on Saturday. The Tigers led 30-27 at half, but the Hoosier defense took over. They held LSU to 32 percent shooting, and in a game with a lot of good, aggressive forwards, Turner was the best. He delivered a 20/8 showing and IU pulled away 67-49.
North Carolina and Virginia renewed their ACC rivalry and it was tied 27-27 at the half. Then Wood turned one of the most electric performances in Final Four history. He went in, over and around Cavalier defenders for a 39-point performance. Sampson shot just 3-for-10 and UNC won 78-65.
On the Monday afternoon of the championship game, word came that President Reagan had been shot. The teams waited to find out if the game would be played. As it became apparent the president would survive, the decision was made to play the game.
Indiana led 27-26 at the half, and again their defense took over after intermission. They held North Carolina to 43 percent shooting. Wittman scored 16 points, Tolbert had 11 rebounds and Turner chipped in a 12/6. But the star of the night was Isiah. He finished with 23 points and led the way to the 63-50 win.
Thomas was named the Final Four’s Outstanding Player and if we’re just talking about Monday night, that’s true. Maybe it’s easy to say in retrospect and out of sentiment, but I think Turner was the MVP if we look at the two-game period as a whole, which is theoretically what the MOP is supposed to be.
Indiana had their second national title in six years and each one had come in Philadelphia.