There’s no man more identified with LSU basketball history than head coach Dale Brown, who ran the program from 1972-1997. And while his career had several phases and more than its share of unique moments, perhaps no postseason run was sweeter than what he put together in 1986, when LSU made the Final Four as a #11 seed, the biggest underdog to pull off the feat, until Virginia Commonwealth tied the record in 2011. Let’s look back on Brown’s unlikely run to glory in ’86.
LSU had made the Final Four under Brown in 1981, but hadn’t made real noise in March since. What they had done in 1985 was win the SEC, and with Kentucky in transition—Joe B. Hall was out as head coach after a disappointing season and Eddie Sutton was in—the door was open for the Tigers to win it again and perhaps follow it up with some NCAA Tournament success.
No one would learn much about LSU in the non-conference part of the schedule, where they went 12-0, but against a schedule that most anyone in the SEC would have as well. Still, the win volume nudged them up to #8 in the country by the time conference play. Then it seemed the wheels would come off the season.
Brown lost his center, Zoran Joranovich to a knee injury. He’d already lost an immensely talented power forward in Nikita Wilson to academics. The team was undersized, with a very good power forward in John Williams, surrounded with three decent players in Anthony Wilson, Don Redden and Ricky Blanton. But there was no real post presence and the depth was gone.
LSU split its first four league games, then lost a close 54-52 home game with Kentucky, whom Sutton was rounding into form quickly. The January 29th game represented the first time the Tigers had played a ranked opponent. The SEC record eventually reached 4-4, when they lost at Georgia, then dropped a close game at 12th-ranked Georgetown. If nothing else, the Tigers were competing with top teams, even if they weren’t beating them.
Proving that when things go wrong, they do so all at once, chicken pox hit the team and cost them Williams’ services for a brief stretch and LSU ended the season with two losses to a good Auburn team, led by forward Chuck Person, and then to 20th-ranked Alabama. A once-promising season had ended with a 9-9 record in conference play, 21-10 overall and an NCAA bid very much in doubt.
Brown was using the adversity to his advantage, and had put together a defense that became known in national parlance as “the freak”, a mix of 2-3 and 1-3-1 zones designed to confuse offenses and befuddle opposing post players. When LSU nipped out a 72-66 win over Florida in the SEC Tournament, and then played Kentucky close—the tournament was held in Lexington—it was enough to get Brown a reprieve and test his new strategies in the NCAA Tournament.
After a season of bad breaks, the Tigers were gifted an enormous one by the NCAA Selection Committee, one that would be illegal today. They would play the first two rounds on their home floor—to make matters worse, they were the #11 seed in the Southeast Regional (today called the South), so LSU would get homecourt advantage against two teams seeded higher, in #6 Purdue and #3 Memphis (then called “Memphis State”, in a tortured display of logic).
The home floor proved as big an advantage as might have been expected. The game with Purdue went two overtimes, and even though the Boilermakers kept Williams under reasonable control, it was Wilson who stepped up with 25 points and led the way to a 94-87 win.
The game with Memphis allowed Brown to use the freak against dominant Tiger center William Bedford, who might have had a brilliant NBA career, if not for being derailed by drug use. Bedford was contained, Blanton had 11 points/11 rebounds and with the score tied 81-81 in the closing seconds, Wilson capped off his great weekend by scooping up a loose ball and hitting an improbable bank shot to win the game at the buzzer.
Now it was on to the regionals and what homecourt giveth it would now taketh away. The Southeast Regionals were in Atlanta, and Georgia Tech was going to be the opponent. The Yellow Jackets were the #2 seed, and if LSU got by this game, then a fourth matchup with top-seeded Kentucky loomed.
The matchups of Atlanta another example of how different the NCAA Tournament was then—even though Kentucky was the #1 seed, they were set up to play a de facto road game with Tech in the regional final. And the Wildcats’ Sweet 16 game was against Alabama, meaning the regional was almost all SEC teams. It was the latter occurrence that inspired the NCAA to set up a rule stating that unless more than eight league teams made the Dance, they could not be set up to play prior to a regional final.
Georgia Tech had opened the season ranked #1 in the country, coming off a year when Bobby Cremins led them to a regional final, and the Yellow Jackets were loaded, with future NBA players in Mark Price and John Salley at guard and power forward. Price combined with Bruce Dalrymple to make what many considered to be the best backcourt in the country. But they hadn’t quite meshed all year and perhaps it was appropriate the season would end in disappointing fashion as the overachieving Redden scored 27 points and keyed a 70-64 upset.
Now it was time for Round 4 against Kentucky, and against star forward Kenny Walker, the freak defense again kept a favorite off-balance. While LSU fell behind 11-4 early on, they were within a point by the half, at 34-33, and the game turned into the kind of second-half grind that often favors an underdog.
LSU clung to a 57-55 lead with less than a minute to play. This was the first year of the shot clock in NCAA play, but it was 45 seconds. Kentucky pressured hard, but Redden beat the pressure with a pass to a wide-open Blanton for a layup that all but secured the game. Redden finished with 15 points/8 rebounds and was named regional MVP.
What’s most impressive about LSU’s run is that there were no bracket breaks-usually a Cinderella sees the path open up before them as favorites fall. While LSU got the homecourt break, they beat a chalk bracket along the way—the #6, the #3, the #2 and the #1 all in succession and beating Georgia Tech in Atlanta surely made up for at least some of the break they’d gotten on the first weekend.
Brown took his team to the Final Four as the big underdog amidst three heavyweights in Louisville, Duke and Kansas. It was Louisville—the team who’d stopped Brown on his first regional final shot in 1980—that was the opponent on Semi-Final Saturday in Dallas. LSU got out to a 44-36 halftime lead and looked ready to shock the world again. But a 17-1 run by the Cardinals was the lynchpin to their winning this game and then beating Duke two nights later for the national championship.
LSU would pull off the improbable feat of doing it again in 1987—struggling through the season, then catching fire in the NCAA Tournament. They reached the regional final as a #10 seed and had #1-seeded Indiana in a 13-point hole in the second half before eventually losing . It all gave Brown the reputation as the Master of March.
It was also the high point of Brown’s career. In future years he netted the best talent he’d ever recruited, most notably Shaquille O’Neal. But he never made another Final Four and only won one more SEC crown. LSU would not make it back to college basketball’s biggest stage until 2006, when John Brady was the coach and Glen “Big Baby” Davis was the cornerstone player.
But Brown showed what he could do as a motivator and someone to get kids to play over their heads, in his magical March run of 1986. It was one of the great moments of LSU basketball history and an underrated one in national college hoops lore.