Monday, March 22, 2010

1986: 3 in SE Regional Sweet 16, 3 in Elite Eight

Invariably at sometime during the week of the Final Four some writer or commentator comments on the Big East putting three teams in the 1985 Final Four. The next year the SEC put three teams in the Southeast Regional's Sweet 16 in Atlanta. When the NCAA neatly spreads teams from one conference around the four regionals, it makes it rather challenging ,if not impossible to send three teams from a conference to the Final Four if three are sent to one regional as the NCAA did to the SEC in 1986.

No fooling here. On April 1, 1985 Villanova upset Georgetown, 66-64 in the 1985 NCAA title game as three Big East teams made the Final Four that year

Kentucky, Alabama and LSU were all sent to the Southeast Regional in 1986. Auburn was sent to the West Regional. In the second year of the tournament having expanded to 64 teams and four rounds to make it to the Final Four, there were still some issues that needed modifying.Every season since the tournament started to 'open up' in 1975, something would pop up that would eventually get corrected. Through the 1986 tournament the NCAA merely 'suggested' or 'allowed' teams from one conference to be sent to different regionals,but it wasn't a 'rule'.

Nonetheless, the 1986 SEC season was one of the wildest seasons as four SEC teams advanced to the Sweet 16 with three making it to the Elite Eight and one making it to the Final Four.Kentucky ,under new coach Eddie Sutton, won the SEC with shocking ease with a 17-1 conference mark. After Tulane's departure from the SEC following the 1966 season, the SEC adopted an 18 game 'round robin' format where each team would play every conference member twice, home and home . This format lasted through the 1991 season as the league split into divisions with the inclusion of South Carolina and Arkansas. The '86 Wildcats 17-1 league mark tied Kentucky's own record in the 1969-1970 season and LSU in the 1980-1981 season for best league record . One of Kentucky's wins was a 62-60 win over Tennessee in Knoxville. In Sutton's first season, he already had as many wins in Knoxville as his predecessor, Joe B. Hall did in thirteen seasons.
After telling anyone who would listen in March of '85 that he'd "crawl to Lexington", Eddie Sutton hit the ground running in 1986 with a 17-1 SEC mark and Conference and Tournament title and #1 seed in the Southeast

The lone conference loss was to Auburn, 60-56 in the second game of the conference season. The game originally was to have been both school's opening conference game but was moved from Thursday Jan 2 to Monday Jan 6 as Kentucky accommodated Auburn's request to move the game due to Auburn's football team's participation in the Cotton Bowl on New Year's Day. Auburn's improbable SEC tournament win in 1985 and advancement to the Sweet 16 invigorated Auburn's program and fanbase to levels it had not ever seen,but football was still king and Auburn's athletic family would still be returning from Dallas as would a portion of its fan base and the Tigers wanted as many fans as possible to face the venerable Wildcats. The move paid off as a sell out crowd of nearly 12,000 helped pull the Tigers through.

Kentucky agreed to Auburn's request to move their home game back a few days to let fans,students and administrators return back home after the Cotton Bowl. Auburn wasn't as receptive to LSU's request a few weeks later to postpone another home game

Auburn started off the season ranked 10th in the nation but lost its season opener to West Virginia in the inaugural preseason NIT and dropped out of the rankings for good. The Tigers did defeat the same Mountaineer squad ten days later and entered league play with a 6-4 non conference mark which included two losses to Sunbelt teams, Western Kentucky and UAB who would each make the 1985-86 NCAA tournament. Auburn would go on to a 13-5 league mark good enough for second place and the second seed in the 1986 SEC tournament at Kentucky's old Kentucky Home at Rupp Arena in Lexington.

Alabama tied Auburn for second with a 13-5 mark,but lost on the tie breaker due to having lost both games to champion Kentucky in the regular season while Auburn split with the 'Cats. The Tide came into the SEC tournament with an overall 20-7 record having been ranked in the top 20 twice during the season.

LSU came into the SEC Tournament with a 21-10 overall mark and 9-9 SEC mark tied for fifth with Georgia one game behind Florida, whom the Bengal Tigers would face in the second round of the SEC tournament. LSU, who won the SEC regular season title the year before, had one of the strangest seasons in SEC history.
This November 1985 SI Cover was just the start of a crazy season for the 1985-1986 LSU Tigers

The Tigers started off the season 14-0 rising as high as eight in the polls. Even the unbeaten start wasn't without controversy. After Jerry Reynolds left with one season of eligibility left, the Tigers briefly had highly sought after Tito Horford after Horford briefly enrolled at Houston. Dale Brown dismissed Horford who left for Miami (Fla) which was reviving its program after a fourteen year hiatus. Then at the end of the fall semester LSU ruled power forward Nikita Wilson academically ineligible for the Spring Semester.

After the 14-0 start,LSU suffered back to back road losses to Alabama and Tennessee. After two easy home wins over Vanderbilt and Ole Miss, the Tigers lost in Gainesville to Florida. In the aftermath of the Florida loss, LSU really suffered.Upon returning to Baton Rouge, center Ricky Blanton came down with chicken pox. Then star forward John "Hot Plate" Williams and Bernard Woodside came down with cases so severe they were hospitalized for a week. Obviously, chicken pox is more associated with young children. But it can be a more serious illness for adults. Therefore team doctors quarantined ten other players for observation.

This caused LSU to reschedule its next game. Coincidentally, the next game was against Auburn ,who had rescheduled its first conference game of the season with Kentucky due to the majority of its athletic administration returning from Dallas from the Cotton Bowl in addition to students and other fans. Whereas Auburn had asked Kentucky to move that game, Auburn wasn't very accommodating initially to LSU's request. LSU did have four players that had been cleared to play and Auburn and some of the Alabama media felt LSU should send those four and scrape up some intramural players and show up in Auburn. The LSU game in Auburn was to be Auburn's first ever home game on National television.But, the proverbial cooler heads prevailed and the two rescheduled ten days later.

LSU's first game back after the chicken pox bout was at home against #8 Kentucky. Playing with Williams and Woodside, LSU gave it a valiant try, but UK senior Roger Harden nailed a 20 footer at the buzzer for a 54-52 Kentucky win. LSU then went on to play four road games in five days losing at Georgia and Georgetown while defeating Auburn in the makeup game and winning in Starkville.

As the SEC tournament started, regular season champion Kentucky, Auburn and Alabama were virtual locks. The 4-5 game between Florida and LSU was viewed by some as a "play-in" game with the winner of that game surely enhancing its NCAA hopes with the loser all but eliminating itself. Norm Sloan's Gators were in a similar spot the prior year matched up with Kentucky in what looked like a play-in game in Birmingham in 1985. Florida pulled out a 58-55 win,but it was Kentucky that received a bid. LSU was in the midst of a ten game losing streak in post season play dating back to the 1981 Final Four.LSU had gone 0-4 in its last 4 SEC tourney games and had also lost two home games in the NIT and two NCAA first round games during this streak.

After a solid career at Southern Cal, Bob Boyd's results at Mississippi State were about as different as Los Angeles and Starkville

In one of the biggest wins in Brown's career, LSU defeated Florida 72-66 to send the Tigers into the SEC semifinals vs Kentucky, an easy winner over Ole Miss.The Gators,hoping for their first ever NCAA bid,would have to wait one more year. Alabama blew out a decent Georgia team, 79-59 who had had a slim shot at the NCAA's and first round winner Mississippi State upset two seed Auburn pitting the Tide and Bulldogs in the other semifinal, as the two met in the SEC tournament for the third time in four years. Alabama won 77-65 ending Bob Boyd's tenure in Starkville after a five year career. Boyd, who had a tremendous career in Los Angeles at Southern California from 1967-1979, had the misfortune of not just being in the same conference with college basketball's greatest coach,but the same town. His Trojan teams in 1969 and 1970 gave UCLA its first losses in Pauley Pavilion and the 1971 squad finished 5th in the nation and the '74 team won 24 games. Unfortunately this was when only one team from a conference could go to the NCAA tourney. In 1971, UCLA won the National Title; in 1974 UCLA finished 3rd in the nation losing in the Final Four to champion NC State, coached by Norm Sloan. Still, Boyd's Bulldog teams struggled with only one (1982-1983) team having a winning record.

Norm Sloan, in his second stint with Florida, won the National Title with NC State in 1974 but would have to wait one more year to take the Gators to their first ever NCAA tourney

The nightcap would be between LSU and Kentucky for the third time this season. In addition to the 54-52 win in Lexington, Kentucky won at home on "Senior Day", 68-57 where former Kentucky Lt. Governor, Governor ,Senator and MLB Commissioner Albert Benjamin "Happy" Chandler sang "My Old Kentucky Home" for one final crowd to the misty eyed Rupp Arena faithful.

Lad(ies) and Gentlemen couldn't help but weep when former Gov. Happy Chandler sang "My Old Kentucky Home" on Senior Day at Rupp Arena

Round three for LSU and Kentucky was another battle. LSU led by one at halftime and 56-51 with a little over two minutes left. Kentucky ended the game on a 10-2 run aided by another dagger by Roger Harden,this time with UK having regained the lead 59-58 with :10 and the shot clock about to expire , he nailed a jumper to put Kentucky up 61-58 in the season before the three point shot effectively putting the game out of reach as that score was the final.

Roger Harden broke LSU's heart twice in 1986 with two buzzer beaters

Alabama's win over Mississippi State put the Tide in the SEC tournament final for the fourth time in five years. Alabama and Kentucky had faced one another in the championship game in 1982,the last time the tourney was in Lexington. After losing both regular season game to Kentucky, Alabama won the title game, 48-46. Like in 1982, Alabama lost both regular season games in 1986 to Kentucky. The one in Lexington was a UK rout 76-52, the game in Tuscaloosa was a classic with #11 Kentucky edging #18 Alabama, 73-71.

As in 1982, Alabama led at halftime,going to the lockerroom up 43-40. The second half was different as Kentucky outscored Alabama 43-29 for an 83-72 win behind All-America candidate Kenny "Sky" Walker, Ed Davender as well as hot shooting Harden. But the excitement in Lexington wasn't over yet. The 1986 SEC 'All-Tournament' team was to be announced.

First up was Chauncey Robinson from Mississippi State, who led 10th place State to upset wins over Vanderbilt, Auburn and then a tough loss to Alabama . Finalist Alabama placed two players, Buck Johnson and Derrick McKey. The fourth player announced was Kentucky's own Roger Harden. All that was left to be announced was the tournament MVP.After Harden was announced it was assumed Kentucky senior Kenny Walker would be announced tourney MVP. Walker had scored 59 points and brought down 24 rebounds in Kentucky's three games in winning the tourney. The home crowd was chanting "Kenny,Kenny".

Kentucky's Kenny Walker (34) won numerous well deserved awards at UK.The 1986 SEC tournament MVP was not one of them

The 1986 SEC Tournament MVP was John Williams, of LSU. The mostly blue Kentucky crowd was shocked , expressing themselves in a variety of ways, as the Wildcat fans assumed it would come down to Harden or Walker and when Harden's name was called first, naturally Walker had to be the winner. Whereas Walker was certainly a candidate for the award and it was indeed a surprise he wasn't on the All-Tourney team at all, there was no denying Williams' credentials. Williams had 20 points and 20 rebounds in LSU's quarterfinal win over Florida. He also tallied 28 points and 12 rebounds in the semifinal loss to UK. Williams was the first and remains the only tourney MVP given to a player whose team didn't play in the championship game.

This was also the last SEC tournament final played on a Saturday. The following day on "Selection Sunday", four SEC teams were invited. Kentucky, the conference tournament winner and therefore conference representative was a one seed in the Southeast Regional and would face Davidson in the first round in Charlotte. They would be joined in Charlotte with Alabama ,the five seed who would face Xavier. Auburn was sent west as an 8 seed and would face Arizona and its coach Lute Olsen in Long Beach on the same court where Olsen led the 49ers to the 1974 Big West title.

The fourth of the four SEC teams was LSU. Not only did the Tigers make the tournament,but they were also placed in the Southeast Regional to play Purdue in Baton Rouge.The Tigers were a eleven seed one of the last 'at large' selections that year after Washington and DePaul, who were 12 seeds. The Boilermakers were a six seed,but even though they could wear the 'home colors' they would be the 'road team', something that certainly (with good reason) irritated Purdue coach Gene Keady as just two years ago they were a 3 seed in the 1984 MW regional in Memphis. Even though they received a first round bye,their first opponent would be Memphis State, on the Tigers' home court in Memphis. Now they'd be playing the LSU Tigers in Baton Rouge.

Kentucky and Alabama each advanced out of Charlotte and down I-85 to Atlanta's Omni. Kentucky waxed Davidson in the first round in a battle of "Wildcats". Davidson had reached its basketball zenith in the late 1960's reaching the Elite Eight in 1968 and 1969 losing in the East Regional Final Round both years to North Carolina. The Davidson Wildcats actually were ranked higher in the final regular season AP poll in '69 than the Kentucky Wildcats were. Lefty Driesell's Wildcats were ranked fifth and Adolph Rupp's Wildcats were seventh. Driesell soon left for Maryland to make the Terrapins "the UCLA of the East". Now Davidson was a sixteen seed in the East Regional. Kentucky won, 75-55.

Lefty Driesell had some top ten teams at Davidson in '68 and '69,but they pulled up the rear at the #16 seed in the Southeast in 1986

Next up for Kentucky was Western Kentucky. The two schools located only 155 miles apart had only met once: in the 1971 NCAA Mideast Regional semifinal in Athens,Ga. Kentucky had avoided playing the Hilltoppers but couldn't avoid them in the tournament. Kentucky wished they had as Western gave Kentucky a humiliating 107-83 beatdown en route to the '71 Final Four. This time Kentucky won, 71-64.Western gave them a fight coming back from 16 down with under eleven minutes left to narrow the lead to 4 with under four minutes left before UK could salt the game away at the free throw line.

Fifth seeded Alabama easily disposed with Xavier 97-80 and met fourth seed Illinois from the Big 10.Alabama jumped out to an early 21-8 lead before the Illini took their first lead at 44-43 with 11:25 to go. After that it was back and forth until the final horn.After the Tide's Buck Johnson blocked an Efrem Winters' shot with :26 left and the game knotted at 56, Wimp Sanderson called time out.Point guard Terry Coner drove inside with :09 and unable to find an open teammate, pulled back and drained a twelve footer with :01 for the win. Illinois coach Lou Henson protested that Coner had walked but the Tide left Charlotte with a 58-56 win.

LSU's already crazy,colorful season was getting a second wind at home in Baton Rouge. 48 hours before LSU's game with six seed Purdue, the NCAA demanded clarification on Jose Vargas' amateur status. ESPN's Dick Vitale stated that LSU coach Dale Brown and his team said the team would boycott the Purdue game if Vargas was ruled ineligible. While athletic director Bob Brodhead denied this, the NCAA did indeed uphold Vargas' amateur status and he was cleared to play vs the Boliermakers.

LSU went on to win a 94-87 double overtime thriller over Purdue. While Purdue's Gene Keady's strategy to clamp down on super soph John Williams worked somewhat holding him to 16 points , four other Tigers scored in double figures with Anthony Wilson leading the way with a career high 25 (Vargas failed to score in only three minutes of action out of 50). However,Wilson was just getting started.

Next up was third seed Memphis State, the lone non Big East squad who had played in the 1985 Final Four. These Tigers stretched a 47-41 halftime lead to 10 with the first two baskets of the second half before the LSU Tigers went on a 9-1 run to cut the lead to six with under 11 minutes left and finally tied it at 73 after Ricky Blanton free throws and a John Williams layup following Baskerville Holmes' turnover. The game went back and forth for the rest of the game. Don Redden,playing his last game at LSU's Assembly Center scoring a team high 23 , missed a five foot shot with five seconds left.A mad dash ensued for the rebound with Williams,Wilson and Redden in hot pursuit. Wilson grabbed it, turned and released the ball as time expired. The ball hit the backboard ,bounced twice and fell in for a dramatic 83-81 LSU win as the Bengal Tigers went on to Atlanta to join SEC brethren Kentucky and Alabama as well as former SEC member Georgia Tech who had eliminated defending champion Villanova in the first game in Baton Rouge that day.

Meanwhile in out in Long Beach, Auburn brought back some up its tournament magic from the prior year. After beating Arizona 73-63 in the first round, Auburn destroyed one seed St John's and national player of the year, Walter Berry , 81-65 in the second round. Auburn's Chuck Person , feeling snubbed by being left off the All-America team in place of Berry and Maryland's Len Bias (also in Long Beach with his Terrapins facing UNLV) scored 27 points and 15 rebounds as a one man wrecking crew. Auburn led by 12 at halftime and continued on as St John's could only cut it to 8 one time in the second half. Auburn shot 53 percent from the floor and out-rebounded the Redmen 38-22 as they advanced on to the West Regional in Houston to face UNLV and Jerry Tarkanian, who like Arizona's Lute Olsen, also coached at Long Beach State.

Its often said during tournament time in particular situations that its "hard to be the same team three times in one season." Kentucky was about to find out how difficult it would be to defeat Alabama for the fourth time in one season. The 'Cats won both regular season games and the SEC tournament final not quite two weeks earlier. For Alabama, this was their third trip to the Sweet 16 in the last five seasons. Each time though, their season ended in the regional semifinal round. It would again this year as Kentucky won for an unprecedented fourth time over the same foe in one season this time 68-63. (Memphis State would join Alabama in 1992 with its fourth loss to Cincinnati.) The Tide played Kentucky tough trailing only by four at halftime and just two early in the second half at 38-36 after trailing by 12 late in the first half. But Kenny Walker and Winston Bennett were too much for Alabama's Buck Johnson's 16 in his last game of his superb Crimson Tide career and Terry Coner, the hero of the Illinois game and his team high 20 points. Now it was on to the Southeast Regional Final for a trip to the Final Four.

Wimp Sanderson won lots of games at Alabama,but couldn't beat Kentucky in four tries in 1986

The other side of the SE bracket had fellow SEC foe LSU and hometown and down the street Georgia Tech. Georgia Tech ,of course , had been a charter member of the SEC in 1933 before leaving in 1965 in a regrettable decision on the Yellow Jackets part as they would be denied their request for re-admission in 1972. Tech played football and basketball as an independent until Georgia Tech joined the fledgling Metro Conference in 1975 as one of its charter members comprised of basketball schools located in large cities such as Tulane from New Orleans, Louisville and Memphis State. Tech then joined the Atlantic Coast Conference as a full member effective for the 1979-1980 season in football and basketball.

The ACC has always been known for its basketball and Tech was not ready for primetime. Tech went 1-27 in its first two years of league play which included an 0-14 mark in 1981.After the disastrous '81 season, rising star Bobby Cremins from Appalachian State was brought in to replace Dwane Morrison. The process under Cremins started slowly as the Yellow Jackets did improve their conference mark to 3-11 but still lanquished in the ACC cellar. In 1983 ,Tech finally got its first ACC tournament win and in 1984 completed their first winning season since 1979 (its final yr in the Metro) and went to the NIT. It all came togethor for Cremins and Georgia Tech in the 1984-1985 season. Tech tied for first in the ACC regular season and then won the ACC tournament title in the friendly confines of Atlanta's Omni over North Carolina giving Tech a three game sweep of the Tar Heels. Georgia Tech ,who stayed in the top 10 over the last six weeks of the regular season was eliminated in the East Regional final by Georgetown, who lost its chance to repeat as National Champion in Lexington a week later to Villanova in the title game.

Tech's Mark Price , Bruce Dalrymple and Coach Cremins talk to Billy Packer after winning the 1985 ACC title in Atlanta at the Omni,the site of the '86 SE Regional.

In 1985-1986, Tech was again looking at the title and this time ,it was the title. While an excellent team through the 1985 year, Tech had flown under the national radar until the ACC tourney title win.Now they were the choice by many preseason publications and polls to win the National Title in 1986. Cremins, an excellent ,national recruiter in addition to solid coach, had put togethor arguably the most talented starting five in the country entering that season. Mark Price, John Salley, Bruce Dalrymple , Tom Hammond and Duane Ferrell as a unit averaged nearly 70 points a game and each received numerous awards with each starter being named to either All-American,All-ACC or Freshman All-American squad of some publication.

Georgia Tech had a better conference record in '86 at 11-3 than they did the prior year at 9-5.However,they finished second to Duke who also won the ACC tourney title defeating Tech by one. Still, as they were seeded in '85, Tech was a two seed and won both its games in Baton Rouge in the first and second rounds. Now it was back down the street at the Omni ,the same court they won their first ACC title on a year earlier. A win over 11th seeded LSU and it was on to play Kentucky for a trip to Dallas for the Final Four. While the NCAA ceased allowing teams playing regionals on its home court two years earlier, it didn't prevent a team from playing in its home town. Tech couldn't have asked for anything more.

LSU after having lost ten straight post season tournament games of some variety,had now won 3 of 4. One over Florida in the SEC tourney in basically a de facto NCAA play-in game, and defeated six seed Purdue, and three seed Memphis State. The one loss was a squeaker to Kentucky in Lexington. LSU ,who started off 14-0 reaching number 8 in the polls ,and then went 7-10 until the SEC tournament had suddenly returned to its early season form playing excellent,confident basketball. This wouldn't be the typical "11" seed facing two seed Georgia Tech.

Dale Brown and Bobby Cremins had met once before. Their first NCAA tournament game was against one another in 1979 while Cremins was at Appalachian State which resulted in a 71-57 LSU win. Brown had taken his 1981 squad to the Final Four and was playing with house money now as his team which made the tournament by the skin of its teeth was a game away from a Regional final. Cremins and his team had tremendously high expectations from the first game of the season and after a regional final the year before, just making the Sweet 16 wasn't going to be good enough.

LSU's dream season continued and Tech's dreams died that evening. In a tight , defensive struggle where neither team led by more than six, LSU won 70-64. The Tigers led 36-30 at halftime. But Tech All-American Mark Price, playing what turned out to be his last game for Georgia Tech kept Tech in the game with 20 points and made two straight jump shots to give Georgia Tech its biggest lead of the night at 56-52 with 6:20 left in the game. LSU had been down and out at times all season. This was nothing. Behind seniors Don Redden and Derrick Taylor , LSU went on a 10-2 run to go up 62-58 with 2:37 left as LSU's defense got them back in the game with Brown's unconvential "freak defense". Oliver Brown chased Price all over the court after Tech's brief 4 pt lead. With LSU clinging to a 64-60 lead, Dalrymple was unable to find Price open and was called for charging on a drive to the hoop. Ricky Blanton then made an contested layup to salt it away at 66-60 with :51 left.

While not on their home court, LSU had defeated Georgia Tech in its hometown to advance to the regional final against Kentucky. Georgia Tech's hometown paper the Atlanta Journal-Constitution was so confident of a Yellow Jacket win that in prepartion for the next day's paper and having to face a late night deadline, Georgia Tech's name was type set on the top of the front page in the slot reserved for the victorious team. Unlike the features used on television or a baseball scoreboard where the visiting team is listed on top, a newspaper list the winning team on top when scores are printed on the top of front pages of newspapers. Kentucky's win over Alabama was noted as normal:

Kentucky 68
Alabama 63

Next to that was the LSU-Georgia Tech score:

Georgia Tech 64
LSU 70

Meanwhile , Auburn was the lone SEC team in the West regional. Auburn won its first two games ever in the NCAA the prior year and a win vs UNLV would take them a game further than before. But the Runnin' Rebels almost ran Auburn out of Houston's Summit in the first half three times taking 14 point leads and taking a 34-25 lead into intermission.

Auburn was a more physical team than UNLV and that worked to Auburn's advantage in the second half. Behind Chuck Person, Auburn started chipping away sometimes getting two and three shots at the goal and outrebounded UNLV by 12 in the second half. Auburn took its first lead since 2-0 at 50-49 with 7:49 left on a Jeff Moore basket. Auburn took the lead for good at 56-55 with 3:55 left to pull out a 70-63 win over the Rebels, who were led by Armon Gilliam's 21 and Freddie Banks' 20 points. Two years ago Auburn lost its first ever NCAA tourney game to Richmond. Now they were facing Louisville in the West Regional Final.

Regional finals were old hat for Louisville. Since Denny Crum arrived in the fall of 1971, the Cardinals had made five Final Fours winning it all in 1980. But Villanova seemed to have come out of nowhere as an 8 seed the previous season to win the title,so Auburn could,too.

And Auburn played one of its best games all season . Unfortunately, so did Louisville. Auburn continued its second half play vs UNLV into the first half of the Louisville game. Auburn shot 62% in the first half and outrebounded the Cardinals. Still, Louisville shot 56% and took a 44-43 lead into halftime of the racehorse game. Against the advice of his assistant coaches, Crum had the Cards stay in a man to man defense. But with ten minutes to go,he relented and briefly went to a zone that was keyed around Chuck Person. Pervis Ellison ,who scored 15 points helped shut down Person on defense with some help from Milt Wagner forcing the Tigers to shoot from the outside where they started to cool off. Ellison completed a three point play with 8:42 to put Louisville up for good at 68-67. Louisville slowly stretched the lead out some as they held off Auburn. The Cardinals won 84-76 sending them to their fourth Final Four of the 1980's. Person finished the game and his Auburn career with 23 points and was named West Regional MVP.
Auburn's Chuck Person was name MVP of the 1986 West Regional

Whereas Houston's Summit wasn't quite 60% full for the West title game, the Omni in Atlanta was busting at the seams with more than 16,000 with more outside wanting to get in for Round 4 of LSU-Kentucky, the second time in two days UK would face a conference foe for the fourth time. Kentucky wasted little time taking an 11-4 lead four minutes into the game. But LSU knotted it up at 14 and took its first lead at 17-16 on a John Williams free throw with under twelve minutes to go in the half. The game would be a see-saw affair until the final horn. Kenny Walker gave Kentucky a 34-33 halftime lead on an eight foot shot at the buzzer.

LSU struck first out of the lockerroom to go back on top, 35-34. Four lead changes and three ties later, the teams were even at 43 with ten minutes left. UK went on a 4-0 "run",but after an LSU timeout, the Tigers even things once again at 47. LSU went up for good on two Ricky Blanton free throws with 2:31 left.

Ahead 57-55 with :44 left, LSU went to a spread office thinking Kentucky would quickly foul. Sutton and Kentucky tried to steal the ball instead. Don Redden was able to find Blanton alone for a layup with :17 to put LSU up 59-55 (the last season before the three point shot). LSU's old friend Roger Harden made a layup to cut it to 59-57. John Williams then missed two free throws and then UK's James Blackmon missed on a 65 footer as time expired for a 59-57 LSU win and a trip to Dallas for the Final Four.

To paraphrase Vin Scully, in defeating Kentucky for the right to go to the Final Four,in a year that had been so improbable, the impossible happened, as Derrick Taylor (l) and Anthony Wilson celebrate the 59-57 win

With no one expecting much from them, LSU played inspired and loose the whole game while Kentucky seemed to feel the pressure from being a one seed and needing to dispose of the same team again for the seemingly umpteenth time.

LSU, with the late Don Redden, joined Duke , Kansas and its opponent in the National Semifinal, Louisville in the 1986 Final Four in Dallas

In defeating the team he thought stood for all things evil, Kentucky, Dale Brown made his second trip to the Final Four. After a wild season which came on the heels of an embarrassing loss to David Robinson and Navy the prior season,Brown did one of his better jobs in his colorful career. But it all ended the next time out vs Louisville, in an 88-77 loss . LSU actually led 44-36 at halftime,but a 17-1 spurt in the second half doomed the Tigers as Louisville went on to defeat Duke for its second National Title two days later.

The SEC had three teams in the Elite 8. Not quite like the three teams in the Final Four the Big East pulled off the prior year,but when you have three in one regional ,its tough. The NCAA agreed and changed its format effective for the 1986-1987 season. Teams from one conference couldn't meet in the NCAA tournament until a regional final round. As improbable as 11 seed LSU's run was,being the highest seed to make the Final Four ,a record that stood until George Mason's 2006 appearance (where oddly enough LSU was there,too), one had to wonder how well Kentucky might have done had the 'Cats not have had to face two conference members it had beaten three times.

Still, four teams in the Sweet 16 and three in the Elite Eight is pretty good for any league.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Two Number Ones in Year Two of Seeding

Selection Sunday has always provided a lot of highs and lows. Its always fun to see the reaction of some small school with little or no NCAA tournament experience who has won their conference's automatic bid when their name is called by CBS.Even though they are paired against a team seeded one or two and will in all likelihood throttle them, that team is ecstatic to make the tournament. Other teams, more accustomed to making the field, may be disappointed in their seeding feeling they should have been seeded higher. Of course there are those who didn't make the NCAA tournament and are disappointed ,feeling they were as worthy as another "at-large" seeded 10th, 11th or 12th. Another fairly new wrinkle (at least since 2004), is the seeding of the number one seeds. Some analysts take the time to dissect why one number one seed was seeded higher than another one.However, since seeds two through sixteen in each regional are not collectively ranked, it seems odd to get too worked up about how a "one" falls out since its impossible to determine how the other common seeds stack up against one another.

The seeding of teams was implemented for the 1979 NCAA tournament. When the NCAA got around to allowing two teams from one conference to participate in the tournament in the 1975 tournament the conference winners, or representatives were still placed in that conference's 'historic' region such as the SEC and Big 10 winners placed in the Mideast and ACC winner in the East, some regions would be too 'top heavy' with strong conference winners and strong geographically located independents. Other regionals like the West and Midwest were relatively weak with lesser basketball conferences geographically located filling out the regional. The most glaring tended to be the Mideast Regional. In the first year that the tournament 'opened up' ,which also created one additional round for major conference winners, a first round game pitted AP #5 Marquette vs AP #6 Kentucky. The next year was even more top heavy for the Mideast with four of the AP's final seven bunched together in the Mideast. Seeding would attempt to spread out some of the better teams, especially independents which were still strong in number.

#9 Seed Penn upset #1 seed North Carolina in the second round proving that the new tournament seeding wasn't an exact science. Penn's Tony Price is shown here scoring a layup over North Carolina's Dudley Bradley (22) , or Bradley Dudley as NBC analyst Al McGuire called him,and Al Wood in the Quakers' stunning 72-71 upset in March 1979

But seeding was still based on judgement and initially teams were still placed in their historic regionals. Right off the bat the ACC's "Black Sunday" proved that seeding,while a good concept,wasn't going to prevent upsets. After winning their first round games, #9 seed Pennsylvania from the Ivy League upset #1 seed North Carolina ,72-71 in Greensboro and #10 seed St John's, an independent who would be an original member of the new Big East that fall, upset #2 Duke, 80-78 in the second game of the double header denying the ACC behemoths a trip to the East Regional in Raleigh and ready made slot for one of them in the Final Four.

Like the initial expansion , seeding ,while a good idea,would need some tinkering. And,starting with the 1980 tournament ,some big changes were made. The tournament expanded from 40 teams to 48 teams ,allowing for 'an unlimited' number of teams from a conference instead of conferences being capped at two since 1975. Each bracket was seeded competitively eliminating previous geographic concerns ( like #1 UNC and #2 Duke in the East the prior year). Also, seeding of teams would be focused more on the teams themselves instead of looking at their conference's strengths as well. This of course , was due primarily to Penn's magical run to the Final Four (which was ended by Magic Johnson and Michigan State) who was 22-5 entering the tourney and was dealt a nine seed based primarily on the perception of the Ivy League,when indeed the Quakers were a very fine basketball team.

Following the 1979 SEC season, regular season champion LSU received a three seed in the Mideast Regional marking the Tigers' first NCAA appearance since 1954.After beating Bobby Cremins' Appalachian State squad,LSU was eliminated by eventual National Champion Michigan State in the Sweet 16. Tournament Champion and automatic qualifier Tennessee was an 8 seed in the same Mideast Regional where the Vols defeated Eastern Kentucky for its first ever NCAA tournament win after four tries in three trips. Tennessee lost 73-67 to #1 seed Notre Dame in the second round at Middle Tennesssee State's Murphy Center in Murfreesboro.

LSU and Tennessee returned to the tourney in 1980 ,along with traditional kingpin Kentucky . Don DeVoe's Vols were sent to the East Regional as a seven seed. LSU was sent to the Midwest Regional (although trips to Denton,TX and Houston generally don't make one think of the Midwest) and Kentucky was sent to the Mideast Regional. The Tigers and Wildcats were each seeded number one in their respective regionals.
Tennessee was eliminated by Bernard King's little brother, Albert(scoring over UT's Reggie Johnson) and Maryland in the second round of the 1980 NCAA tournament. Still,after going winless in the Vols first three NCAA trips,they won a game for the second consecutive season

LSU and Kentucky had quite a battle in the 1979-1980 season.The two teams were ranked in the top 10 all season long. In the first of three meetings between the two, after securing their first win in Lexington the prior year, LSU made it two in a row with a 65-60 win in Rupp Arena.The season finale could not have been more dramatic. On the same afternoon ,after having believed in miracles, the US Hockey team won the Gold Medal vs Finland, Kentucky and LSU had their own Gold Medal game for the SEC regular season title in Baton Rouge.

The two entered the game 14-3 in SEC play. The winner would win the title outright. #5 LSU led #3 Kentucky 36-35 at halftime.UK's Sam Bowie tied the game at 74 and LSU's Greg Cook missed a shot at the buzzer to send the game into overtime. Kentucky All-American Kyle Macy nailed a 20 foot shot at the buzzer to give the Wildcats a 76-74 and the SEC regular season title. The shot was the only field goal attempt in overtime. After a UK turnover, LSU held the ball for 3:52. After a jump ball call, Kentucky won the tip and set up a play for Macy with :21 left. Working off screens and picks, Macy passed up plan B, a pass inside to Bowie.Macy was only 4 of 14 for the game,but made the shot that mattered.

UK's Dirk Minniefield and LSU's DeWayne Scales (31) battle for the ball in 1980 SEC Tournament Final in snowy Birmingham

Six days later the two met for the SEC Tournament title in Birmingham.In last year's SEC tournament DeWayne Scales was the goat for LSU in its 80-67 semifinal loss when Scales showed off his passing skills a little too much for comfort allegedly from suggestions from an agent. Scales was subsequently held out of the '79 NCAA tournament by Coach Dale Brown and LSU. This time he was the hero scoring 26 points and winning tournament MVP honors in an 80-78 win over the Wildcats, played before mainly Kentucky and LSU fans due to a freak snow storm in Birmingham that afternoon. LSU led most of the game and Kentucky tied it with less than ten minutes remaining . The lead switched back and forth ten times before Scales put LSU up for good at 71-70 with 2:21 left.

In addition to entering the tournament as one seeds, LSU finished the regular season ranked #2 in the final UPI poll and #3 in the AP Poll. Kentucky finished #3 in the UPI poll and #4 in the AP poll. As the first two teams from the same conference to get coveted one seeds, the SEC tandem was joined by DePaul as the one seed in the West and Syracuse,in the Big East conference's first year, as the one seed in the East Regional.

In the 1980 NCAA tourney, seeds one through four were given first round byes. In LSU's first game, in round two, the Tigers held off #8 seed Davey Whitney's Alcorn State Braves, 98-88 in a wild game. In Bowling Green,KY , one seed Kentucky faced off vs #8 seed Florida State in the Wildcats' first tourney game in the Mideast second round. Two years earlier in UK's National Title run the Wildcats opened with the Seminoles in the NCAA tourney. Kentucky defeated Florida State once again, 97-79 to advance to the Sweet Sixteen in the Big Blue's very own Old Kentucky Home at Rupp Arena in Lexington. The opponent was the Duke Blue Devils, whom the 'Cats also faced in the 1978 title run,defeating the Blue Devils in the championship game.

Kentucky opened the season with Duke in the Tipoff Classic in Springfield,MA. Duke won in overtime, 82-76.Unfortunately, Kentucky ended the season vs Duke. Kyle Macy was unable to duplicate his heroics in Baton Rouge three weeks earlier as his jumper with :05 left missed and so did Dirk Minniefield's put back as Duke eked out a 55-54 stunner.

Mike Gminski was one of 5 Blue Devils who had played in the '78 title game loss to Kentucky. Eliminating the 'Cats at Rupp Arena in 1980 soothed the pain somewhat.

14th ranked and #4 seed Duke never trailed in the game and led by 14 at halftime. Duke was led by Gene Banks and Mike Gminski,both whom had played in the title game vs UK two years earlier.Gminski scored 17 and Banks made a free throw with :22 left to break a 54-54 tie after Kentucky had tied it for the first time with :37 left in the game.

Meanwhile in the Midwest Semifinal in Houston, LSU fought off Missouri 68-63 . Again the Tigers were led by Scales with 17 and Rudy Macklin scored 16. Leading 52-50 with 13:00 left, LSU ,as they did vs Kentucky at home, went to their variation of "the four corners" ,made popular by North Carolina's Dean Smith. This time it worked for LSU as the Tigers quickly went up 58-52 as Macklin and Scales each made an old-fashioned three point play.LSU would now face #2 seed Louisville in the Midwest Final. The Cardinals had defeated Texas A&M in the other semifinal 66-55. The Aggies had advanced to the Sweet 16 with a double overtime upset win over #3 seed North Carolina and Dean Smith by seventeen points.

This would be Dale Brown's first regional final and LSU's second, its first since 1953. This would be Louisville head coach Denny Crum's third regional final. Each time the Cardinals advanced to the Final Four where they were eliminated by UCLA in the National Semifinal. The first time was in 1972 in Crum's first season after being hired off John Wooden's staff at UCLA. The other time was a heartbreaking 75-74 overtime loss in Wooden's final season on Richard Washington's buzzer beater.

In a choppy first half, Louisville got out to a 12-2 lead.But Louisville star Darrell Griffith got into foul trouble and LSU scored 16 straight points to go up 29-21.LSU then failed to score over the final four minutes of the first half and Louisville score ten straight to take a 31-29 lead into halftime.

Darrell Griffith, "Doctor of Dunk" was too much for LSU in MW Final in 1980

Griffith put Louisville up for good at 35-33 He then scored 9 of Louisville's next 17 to take a commanding 53-41 lead. LSU only could get the lead down to 11 as the Cardinals kept pulling away to win surprisingly easily, 86-66. Griffith scored 17 and was named the regional's MVP. Louisville was also helped by the play of Derek Smith and Wiley Brown who had 16 and 15.While Brown certainly had a solid career with the Cards on some fine squads, and NFL career where he played with the Eagles, he is remembered for his thumb, or rather his prosthetic thumb on his right hand,which was created after a childhood accident at age 4.

Again playing UCLA in the Final Four,this time in the title game, Brown sat at the hotel table in Indianapolis with his teammates eating breakfast the morning of the championship game.While eating ,as was his habit, he removed the mold of his thumb and sat it on the table. This time he forgot about it and left to go back in the room. Somehow his thumb was thrown in a garbage can and once Brown realized what he had forgotten,there was a mad scramble with coaches and trainers finally retrieving the prosthetic from the garbage. The story was told during NBC's airing of Louisville's 59-54 win over UCLA making Brown, or his thumb quite famous.

After losing to Indiana State and Larry Bird in '79 in the 1979 Final Four as a two seed in the first year of seeding, DePaul then went 0-3 in three straight years as a one seed in 1980,1981,1982 including this buzzer beating loss to St Joseph's

LSU and Kentucky weren't the only #1 seeds to lose and miss out on the Final Four. Syracuse lost in the East semifinal and DePaul lost to UCLA in the Blue Demons' first game ,which was in the second round, the first of three consecutive colossal upset losses in their first game as a one seed.In year two of seeding, no one seed would make the Final Four. This would not happen again until 2006, which was held in Indianapolis as the 1980 one was. Oddly enough, two SEC teams made the Final Four that season, LSU and eventual champion , Florida.

Still, the SEC was the first conference to place two schools as one seeds in the tourney . The SEC has had several one seeds since then,including LSU the very next year. But only once have two made it as one seeds, the second year of seeding, 1980.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

For Sonny, Sweet 16 means hugs and un-retiring

As the 2010 SEC Tournament begins this week in Nashville, its time to remember one of the more improbable SEC Tournament winners. Today marks the Silver Anniversary of Auburn's 1985 SEC Tournament Championship at the Birmingham-Jefferson Civic Center. Sure, there have been some other surprise winners since the tourney's renewal in 1979. Ole Miss wasn't picked by too many in 1981 ,nor were Arkansas in 2000 or Georgia in the truly bizarre 2008 tourney interrupted by a tornado and moved down the street to Georgia Tech. One thing those three teams had in common was their tournament win and automatic bid to the NCAA tournament produced immediate exits from the 'Big Dance'. Auburn,however,kept dancing their way back to Birmingham for the Southeast Regional and its first Sweet Sixteen.Auburn also accomplished this under the guise of its head coach,Charles H. "Sonny" Smith, resigning at the end of the 1984-1985 season.

On February 8th of 1985, Smith announced he'd step down at the end of the 1984-1985 season after seven seasons on the Plains.Just one season earlier, Auburn and Smith had had an incredible season finishing second in the SEC behind Kentucky, losing at the buzzer to the same UK team in the SEC tournament final, sweeping Alabama for the first time since the 1970-1971 season ,finishing 19th in the final UPI poll for 1983-1984 and advancing to the NCAA tournament for the first time in the school's history.Smith's decision to retire was almost as unusual as how he got to Auburn in the first place in the summer of 1978.

Smith was actually the second basketball coach Auburn hired after firing Bob Davis at the end of the 1977-1978 season. The hot-headed Davis had actually had modest success at Auburn going 70-61 overall and 42-48 in SEC play. His second team in 1974-1975 turned in a fine 18-8 mark and spent a brief period of time in the top 20,tying Tennessee for third in league play. Their season ending comeback win over Alabama denied the Tide the outright SEC title forcing them into a tie with Kentucky and denying them a first round home game in the NCAA tournament. Auburn, unfortunately was denied an NIT bid, being passed over for metro New York teams such as Manhattan, St John's , St Peter's and nearby Holy Cross and Lafayette as the tourney was in its penultimate season of playing all of its games in New York's Madison Square Garden. Auburn had another winning season in 1976 before a 13-13 mark in 1977 and a losing season in 1978 leading to Davis' ouster.

Auburn turned to Paul Lambert, a rising star from Southern Illinois naming him head coach in March of 1978. Lambert's Salukis advanced to the 1977 NCAA's Sweet 16 . Oddly enough,they did receive an invitation to the 1975 NIT,unlike Auburn. Lambert bid the Salukis and AD (and NFL Hall of Famer) Gayle Sayers adieu and set out to bring success to Auburn. Lambert and his assistants Herbert Greene and Herman Williams, whom had followed him from Carbondale and SIU were in nearby Columbus, Georgia for a coaching clinic in early June of 1978. Lambert had originally planned on driving the forty miles back to Auburn after the dinner banquet, but felt tired and decided to stay at the Holiday Inn where the festivities were taking place. Sadly ,and tragically, Lambert died in a fire in his motel room where he died of smoke inhalation. Six others were treated for burns and were all shortly released.

Smith, who was head coach at East Tennessee State in Johnson City, not far from his hometown of Roan Mountain had been contacted initially in the search for Davis' replacement. Smith never got a call back and the job went to Lambert over Arkansas assistant Pat Foster. Now, Sonny Smith was the Auburn head coach.
Sonny Smith (middle), Head Coach Don DeVoe on his left (and new Tennessee coach for 1978-9) and Jim Hallihan on Smith's right (who replaced Smith at ETSU) from their days in Blacksburg at Virginia Tech

ETSU was Smith's first head coaching job. He had been the top assistant on the 1973 NIT Champion Virginia Tech Hokies under Bob Knight protege' Don DeVoe. Oddly enough, the 1978-1979 season was to be the first season for DeVoe in the SEC also, taking the reigns at Tennessee after a season at Wyoming. Jim Hallian who had also been on DeVoe's staff at VPI was promoted from Smith's top assistant at ETSU to head coach for the upcoming season.

Auburn has always been one of the toughest jobs in the SEC for sustaining success.Auburn had had its moments of course with winning the SEC in 1960 and having some fine players,such as Chicago Bull John Mengelt who held and still holds many Auburn scoring records and of course Charles Barkley, who led the Tigers to its big year in 1984 who passed up what would have been his senior year in 1984-5 for the NBA. But the wins generally came with modest home court support. The losses of course, chipped into what modest support might be built up in a season.
Chuck Person was named after "the Rifleman" who is one of 12 men to have played in the NBA and Major League Baseball.

Smith soon found this out himself. Auburn went 63-77 in Smith's first five seasons with only one winning season, 15-13 in 1983 before the breakthrough season in 1984. Even with the one and only Charles Barkley foregoing his senior year for the NBA and Philadelphia '76ers the 1984-1985 Tigers had a solid club returning led by Chuck "the Rifleman" Person who was complimented by Chris Morris,Jeff Moore, Frank Ford and Gerald White,among others. Person was nicknamed "the Rifleman" not just for his strong outside shooting, but the fact that he was named for the former ABC western star, Chuck Connors. Chuck Connors Person was to be the go-to guy in '85.

Auburn started off the season strong compiling an 8-1 record prior to conference play which included a 61-59 upset win in Birmingham over #13 UAB, who was fresh off from winning the Great Alaskan Shootout. The only loss was to Virginia Commonwealth,who would go on to a #2 seed in the NCAA tournament's West Regional. Once conference play started, Auburn started to falter. On February 8th, the night before a home game vs Tennessee, Smith announced his resignation following the end of the season,most likely after the SEC tournament a month later in Birmingham. Whereas Auburn thumped the Vols convincingly the next day, Auburn continued to struggle and came to Birmingham for the SEC tournament 16-11 overall and 8-10 in SEC play good enough for 7th place.

1984-1985 was the first season that the NCAA tournament expanded to 64 teams,from the previous season's 53 teams, therefore under normal circumstances making a 16-12 or 17-12 record viable for an NIT bid. However, with Smith's resignation and Auburn's modest basketball history, an NIT bid was highly unlikely. Auburn was going to need to win the SEC tournament and secure the league's automatic bid for postseason play , which was seemingly even more unlikely,and prolong Smith's career.

Auburn returned to its customary role in playing in the tournament's opening round.Since the renewal in Smith's first season in 1979,only the '84 Tigers opened tournament play on the second day of the tourney. And,only Smith's first squad in 1979 was the only one other than the 1984 team to win two games in the SEC tourney. Auburn in game one won its third game of the season over Ole Miss defeating the Rebels, 68-60. Up next was regular season champ and 19th ranked LSU.
Game program for the 1985 SEC Basketball Tournament

LSU had defeated Auburn in both regular season games, convincingly by 18 in Baton Rouge and narrowly in Auburn by 5. LSU had won its last six SEC games to win the title on the following day of the regular season with a win over Kentucky to eliminate the 'Cats and won by one game over Georgia who lost its last game. Still,the Bayou Tigers were mired in a funk where they couldn't win a post season tournament game,period. Going back to the Indiana loss in the National Semifinal of the 1981 Final Four, LSU had lost 8 straight games including the last ever NCAA consolation game, two NIT games to in-state teams and 3 straight one and dones in the SEC tournament and a first round NCAA tournament game. Good thing for the Bengal Tigers the AIAW dissolved in '82; a loss to Immaculata might have been too much.

Make it 9 straight LSU post season losses. Auburn hung on for 58-55 win holding off several last minute LSU charges. (#13 seed Navy and David Robinson would make it 10 straight LSU losses in post season play a week later with a humiliating 78-55 pasting of #4 seed LSU in the Southeast Regional.)

Up next for Auburn was #5 seed Florida, a 58-55 winner over #4 seed Kentucky in what was thought to be a "play-in" game for the Wildcats and Gators. A win over Auburn would enhance Florida's credentials as they hoped to make their first ever NCAA tournament . As with Ole Miss two nights earlier, Auburn had won both regular season meetings with the Gators. This would be Florida and Auburn's first meeting in the SEC tournament since 1981 in a game where directors of live sporting events, and any live television, understand why there is generally a two to three second delay from the 'real event' to what is aired. The Gators' coach, Norm Sloan, making his second tour with the Gators, had coached in the NCAA tournament leading NC State to the national title in 1974.Sloan was a fiery coach who like most coaches could be on the salty side. During a timeout late in the '81 SEC tourney game, the television 'boom' microphone found its way into the Gators' huddle while viewers were told to "listen in". No one told Sloan that a live microphone was listening to him,though. Sloan told his charges basically ,"Gosh jeepers, stop letting them (Auburn) make those blasted layups !" Only Sloan didn't say "gosh jeepers" nor "blasted". Smith himself said dryly to an assistant as an Auburn huddle broke not knowing a microphone was near-by,"this has to be the worst game in history". Florida won in overtime that night, 50-48.

Well,the 1985 meeting 'twixt the two wasn't a thing of beauty,either. Except for Auburn as the Tigers eked out a low scoring 43-42 thriller. Now for the second year in a row, Auburn was in the championship game for the SEC tournament title. The year before it was SEC kingpin Kentucky. Now it was hated rival Alabama.

Alabama had taken both regular season games from Auburn. Both were excruciating heartbreakers for the Tigers. Auburn let a late three point lead slip away in a 60-55 loss. The loss in Tuscaloosa was even more nightmarish.Auburn rallied from a 13 pt first half deficit behind Person's 36 pts and had the ball with the game tied at 62-62. After calling time with :17 left,Auburn hoped to get the ball to Person,but Alabama's Buck Johnson covered him up and Gerald White misfired on a 25 footer at the buzzer from the top of the key. In overtime, Johnson again covered Person up and Frank Ford misfired on a shot at the buzzer as the two went to double overtime tied 66-66. This time free throws by future Tide coach Mark Gottfried helped Alabama win 74-72.

Alabama had finished third in SEC play and defeated Mississippi State in the first of an odd series of very,very low scoring games in the 1985 SEC tournament.The Tide defeated the Starkville Bulldogs, 42-31 and then blew past the Athens Bulldogs, 74-53 to reach the final. Alabama had won the SEC tournament in Lexington in 1982 and had defeated Auburn in Birmingham 62-61 in the first round of the 1983 SEC tournament.

Alabama and Auburn in football in Birmingham was always a hard sellout. 14,500 showed up for the tourney final at the BJCC between the two, almost three thousand short of capacity. To be fair to the two teams' supporters and Birmingham, the 1982 Tournament final with Kentucky playing at Rupp Arena was 2,000 short of capacity. In addition to the SEC tournament just not having the tradition of the ACC tournament, the SEC refused to sell single game tickets. Not too many Tide nor Tiger fans were willing to shell out the price for a whole tournament booklet for one game.

Those who did attend were treated to an exciting,if sloppy thriller.Alabama led 48-44 with 5:49 to go in the game. The Tide scored one more point the rest of the way.The NCAA was a season away from putting a 45 second shot clock in play (which would be changed to the current 35 second in 1993).While the regular season in the SEC and most other conferences mandated the usage of a 45 second clock, there wouldn't be one used in the NCAA tournament. Therefore,the SEC decided to eliminate the shot clock in the SEC tournament. Alabama elected to 'stall', forcing Auburn to either foul the Tide or make the weary Tigers chase the ball and Tide around hoping for easy baskets. Wimp Sanderson's plan didn't work. Jim Farmer missed a one and one and Auburn rebounded. Auburn was fouled and Person made both to cut the lead to two at 48-46.Alabama let 2 1/2 more minutes off before Bobby Lee Hurt was fouled and made the front end of a one and one to extend the lead to three.Auburn's Ford made one free throw with :58 left to cut it back to two.

With :33 left, Farmer was fouled again. Again,he missed. Down 49-47 Auburn's Frank Ford made a one hand jumper from the baseline to tie it with :09 left. Choosing not to call time out ,Alabama came flying down court where Terry Coner shot was no good and Coner fell into Auburn's Carey Holland a chance to win at the end. This time Auburn missed and the game went into overtime, the first title game overtime since Tennessee and Kentucky went into overtime in the renewal of 1979.

Auburn won the tip and let over two minutes go off the clock before turning the ball over. This time Farmer missed a short field goal and Auburn got the ball back again. With only :11 left, Coner fouled White while going for a steal. White made his free throws for a 51-49 lead. With :05 left Mark Gottfried,who put the Tide's win in Tuscaloosa on ice with his free throws,was called for traveling. Person, who was named tourney MVP, almost gave Alabama one more chance as a lazy inbounds pass was almost stolen by Derrick McKey.McKey's lunge for the ball tipped it to White who found Ford all alone for dunk as time expired in a 53-49 win for Auburn as the Tigers became the first team to win the tournament by winning 4 games in four days.

The win also meant Auburn,and Smith would keep playing as Auburn won the SEC's automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. Auburn was selected as the 11 seed in the renamed 'Southeast Regional' which had been the Mideast Regional since 1957. Auburn was sent to South Bend,IN and the campus of Notre Dame to face 6 seed Purdue from the Big 10 and down the road in West Lafayette at the venerable Athletic and Convocation Center.
Notre Dame's ACC/Joyce Center has seen many huge wins for the Irish with ND's win over UCLA in '74 the biggest(seen here). Auburn's win over Kansas in 1985 may be the biggest upset win on the court for someone other than Notre Dame.

The notion of Purdue playing in South Bend at Notre Dame's ACC was intriguing in and of itself. The ACC, as the Irish referred to it and now known as the Joyce Center was where some of the top teams in America came to town and left with a loss from the early 1970's until the late 1980's. While not an exceptionally large venue, a seating capacity of a little more than 11,000, Notre Dame fielded some outstanding teams themselves and coupled with a rowdy house of Irishmen which posed quite a challenge for some of the nation's best teams. From 1971 through 1987 an astonishing seven #1 teams came to South Bend to face the Irish and left with a loss. Most memorable was the 71-70 win over UCLA snapping the Bruins' 88 game winning streak in 1974 (which had started after a loss to Notre Dame in 1971) after the Irish scrambled back from a 70-59 deficit. Number ones San Francisco, Marquette, Virginia and North Carolina fell as well. Digger Phelps' basketball squad faced somewhat of a national schedule just like their brethren on the football side of campus. Unlike their football brethren, the Irish wouldn't schedule Purdue much to the Boliermakers' chagrin.

However, the Irish were in the Southeast Regional first round site here ,as well. Whereas the prior season was the last time a team could play in the regional round on its home court, a team could still play on its home court in the first and second rounds (a policy eliminated after the 1986-1987 season). Should the Irish win two games at home and Purdue win two games in South Bend, the two were bracketed to play one another in the regional semifinals in Birmingham.

Meanwhile Sonny and the Tigers were becoming media darlings with their improbable SEC tournament victory and subsequent trip to the NCAA tournament. Smith revealed in a press conference that he had 'privately' told Auburn officials in November that this would be his last year. When word leaked out in early February he claimed he was forced to reveal his intentions. These revelations seemed almost as curious and bizarre as the initial statement a month earlier announcing his retirement at the conclusion of the season.

The Purdue game was not the conclusion to Auburn's season. The Boliermakers ,who hadn't played Notre Dame since 1966 would have to wait for another shot at the Irish (they finally did play again in 2004). "Cinderella" Auburn defeated Purdue, 59-58 for its 21st win of the season, breaking last season's total victory mark. The win was also Auburn's first win in post season play erasing the painful memories of a 72-71 loss to Richmond in Auburn's first ever NCAA appearance the prior year.

Auburn never trailed in the game leading by nine on two occasions in the first half and leading 31-25 at halftime. While Purdue never led, it was indeed a fight to the finish. Auburn's six point halftime lead was its largest in the second half as the game went from a 5 to 3 or 2 point lead throughout the last half.Two Auburn turnovers in the last two minutes enabled Purdue freshman Troy Lewis to tie the game at 58 with 58 seconds left in the game. With :18 left, Chris Morris made the first of two free throws for a 59-58 lead. Playing for the last shot, the Boilers got it to their leading scorer and first team Big 10 James Bullock. Bullock's shot with :03 rimmed out and Morris secured the rebound and Auburn's victory.

Next up was third seed and #13 ranked Kansas. Auburn in its second NCAA tournament was seeking its second NCAA win. Kansas, in its 18th NCAA tournament was seeking its 25th NCAA win.Still, "Cinderella" or tournament neophyte or not, this resurgent Auburn team had turned into a very good basketball team. With a starting five averaging sixty points a game led by Person, the four other starters all had make huge plays in Auburn's amazing six game winning streak.

Kansas would indeed be the best team Auburn had faced all season. Under third year coach Larry Brown and led by freshman sensation Danny Manning, the Jayhawks had finished second in the Big 8 behind Oklahoma and had been ranked in the top 20 all season reaching a high of 9th in mid January.

Kansas had stumbled to an ugly 49-38 win over Ohio University of the MAC in round one. With Kansas averaging 76 points a game, the Bobcats spread the court virtually the whole game trying to use up as much time as possible since there was no shot clock to contend with. Kansas led 18-15 at halftime before methodically pulling away.

In the Auburn-Kansas game, the Tigers followed the same script since the SEC tournament started. Get an early lead and hang on. Kansas did lead in the second half,though. After Auburn took a 30-28 lead into intermission, the Tigers moved to a 40-34 lead but then Person was called for his fourth foul and went to the bench. Kansas then went on an 11-2 lead for its largest lead of the game at 45-42 before Person was inserted back into the game.Behind Person, Auburn regained the lead and the Rifleman scored 8 straight at one point to give Auburn its largest lead at 59-52 with under two minutes left. After a series of fouls on Kansas as well as a valiant rally by the Jayhawks, Person made the first of two free throws with :04 to give Auburn a 66-64 lead.After missing the second, Kansas snared the rebound calling timeout to set up for the final shot. The ball went into Manning,who three years later would indeed have one shining moment. This time he did not as his 16 footer fell harmlessly off the rim as Auburn hung on for the 66-64 win and a trip to the Sweet 16 in the Southeast Regional semifinal right back where this improbable run started, the Birmingham-Jefferson Civic Center in Birmingham.

At least for the 1984-1985 season, Auburn was certainly 'Birmingham's Team' with three trips to the BJCC (shown here)

Meanwhile back at the ranch, er, back on the Plains, the Auburn administration had to think of the future in addition to enjoying the present. Who would coach the Tigers in 1985-1986 ?Assuming Smith would indeed leave after the season, Auburn had begun talks with coaches about the position. Pat Foster, who was a finalist after the late Paul Lambert was hired in '78 ,turned down an offer electing to stay at Lamar. Eddie Sutton at Arkansas also turned down the job, eventually going to Lexington and the Kentucky Wildcats. Sutton presumably either flew or drove to Lexington rather than "crawl to Lexington" as he euphorically told the press while UK was courting him forever ruffling the Razorback faithful's feathers.

Like Pat Dye, Auburn's Ralph 'Shug' Jordan was Auburn head football coach and athletic director.Unlike Dye, Jordan spent ten years as Auburn's basketball coach.

After the SEC tournament title and during the first two round of NCAA tournament play in South Bend, Smith was encouraged to stay by his players in addition to an enthusiastic fanbase embracing their team's surprising run.Smith maintained he was flattered by the newfound support, yet still was going to resign.He also said all the right things,maintaining he had a good relationship with AD (and football coach) Pat Dye and others in the administration. Still,something seemed amiss leading to speculation that maybe this really hadn't been all Smith's decision or that perhaps there were specific reasons he was leaving uphappily. Yet the Auburn decision makers were rather quiet when it came to Smith post 1985.

Once the Kansas win was secured, there was mounting pressure on Auburn to offer Smith a new contract. Dye, assistant AD Oval Jaynes and school president James Martin seemed to pass off to one another how the wind was blowing towards Smith staying. Jaynes did concede "anything was possible" when pressed as to if and when Auburn would talk to and or encourage Smith to stay.

Nevertheless, Auburn was headed to Birmingham for the third time this basketball season ,this time in the Sweet 16 to face the North Carolina Tar Heels in the Southeast Regional semifinal. While the proverbial Auburn Nation was ecstatic about making the round of 16, for the North Carolina faithful, this was just something expected of the squad. This was the Tar Heels' fifth straight Sweet 16 a consectutive record that would eventually hit 13.For UNC's Dean Smith, this was business as usual.This was his 19th straight season in post season play, 15 of them in the NCAA's where he was 30-15.

For the 6th ranked,26-8 Tar Heels, though,with such a pedigree, they had to be wondering whom at the NCAA offices they must have offended. They arrived in Birmingham after surviving a dramatic 60-58 win vs Notre Dame, on the Irish' home court in South Bend. Now they would play Auburn ,located less than two hours from Birmingham and who would help fill the 16,000 seat arena.

Dean Smith wanted to take the home crowd out of the game early and they did just that,early.North Carolina roared out to a 19-5 lead just six and a half minutes into the game.The two teams plodded around the rest of the half as the Tar Heels took a 33-23 lead into the locker room at halftime.

But this Auburn team hadn't garnered the moniker "AUsomes" for nothing.Slowly but surely Auburn ,spurred on by maybe the most Auburn fans ever to have seen them play, chipped away and cut the lead to 49-46 with 5:52 remaining on a Chris Morris put back.Carolina didn't fold,but neither did Auburn. Auburn kept pace with Morris ,Person and Frank Ford scoring to keep it at 3 with under one minute at 57-54. One North Carolina free throw stretch the lead back to 4 at 58-54 with :28 left.

Carey Holland, Auburn's only senior made a put back, connected on a short jumper and was fouled. Down only two at 58-56 with :18 left, Holland missed his free throw,but Chuck Person snagged the rebound.While attempting to put the ball up for a shot he fell to the floor due to what looked like contact by one of Carolina's three 6' 10" behemoths. Whistle. Person on the line for two free throws and a chance to tie ? No, walking. North Carolina basketball.(after the game Person said it was a good call,but you wouldn't convince the crowd nor Auburn's Coach Smith.)

Ranzino Smith made two free throws for UNC and Kenny Smith made a dunk at the buzzer for Dean Smith's Tar Heels in a 62-56 win over Sonny Smith's Tigers.The win advanced North Carolina to the regional final vs Villanova (whom had defeated Maryland and Len Bias 46-43 earlier that evening) giving Dean Smith his 31st NCAA win moving him into sole second place behind former UCLA coach John Wooden for tourney wins leaving former Kentucky coach Adolph Rupp alone in third place. The Improbable, if not Impossible Dream for Auburn was over. Was Sonny's tenure at Auburn over ?

Advancing to the Sweet 16, or "Regionals" was business as usual for this Coach Smith.

Well a regional semifinal loss did indeed end the career of an SEC basketball coach that evening.Kentucky's Joe B Hall, whom replaced Rupp, ended months of speculation and announced his retirement after 13 yrs as the Wildcats' head coach after a loss to St John's in Denver in the West Regional semifinals.

Sonny Smith hinted over that weekend that he was 50/50 on returning.On Monday, March 25th he made it official and 'un-retired' staying at Auburn.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

March 2nd : 3 SEC Champs not named Kentucky

This begins the last week of the 2009-2010 SEC basketball regular season. The SEC tournament starts next Thursday at Nashville's Sommet Center, which hosted the 2001 and 2006 SEC Tournaments. There was a time when today's date would have already wrapped up the SEC Champion.

On this date in 1974, Alabama and Vanderbilt were each 14-2 in SEC play. Each of the Tide's SEC losses were heartbreaking last second losses to Vandy- 73-72 in Nashville and 67-65 in Tuscaloosa. The Commodores lost a fight-marred game in Baton Rouge to LSU 84-81 and were upset in Nashville 59-53 by Tennessee the week before. With two games left in the 18 game conference season, Alabama needed to either win both of its games in league play and hope Vandy lost one or split its two and hope Vandy lost both. In order to participate in post-season play the Tide couldn't lose either game.

This was one year before the NCAA allowed more than the conference champion ,or representative as Maryland and the ACC's case the prior year. With Vandy having the head to head tie breaker, they'd get the NCAA bid. Unfortunately the NIT ,where the Tide advanced to the tourney's final four the year before,wasn't an option ,nor was the short lived Conference Commissioner's Association tournament in St Louis. Alabama was hosting the NCAA's Mideast Regional two weeks later. By hosting an NCAA tournament, a school gave up its option of participating in another tourney with the NCAA citing attendance concerns if the local team was in New York at the NIT or St Louis at the CCA tourney.

Alabama was in Gainesville to face the Gators while Vandy entertained Kentucky on "Senior Night" in Nashville. Both Alabama and Vanderbilt had won the first game against tonight's foes in the SEC's round robin schedule. Alabama beat Florida 98-79 in Tuscaloosa while Vanderbilt downed Kentucky, 82-65 in Lexington.

Senior Night '74 in Nashville for Vanderbilt's Jan van Breda Kolff (left to right),Terry Compton, Lee Fowler and Bill Ligon. The Commodores nipped Kentucky, 71-69 to secure a share of the SEC title and the SEC's NCAA bid

Before today's O'Connell Center, Florida played its games in Alligator Alley which wasn't too much bigger than a high school gymnasium where it maxed out at 6,000 tops. But it was a house of horrors for the SEC elite in the 1970's, like a poor man's Cameron Indoor Stadium. Many an SEC team fighting for the league title lost a heart breaker or stole one by the skin of its teeth.

The seventh ranked Tide lost 64-61 at a packed,rowdy house in Gainesville to the Gators. The Gator faithful were treated that evening not only to an upset win over the Tide,but a performance at halftime by the Florida Gymnastics team.It wasn't the ladies who generated the most buzz after the halftime show. A 'streaker' ran across the floor during the show adorned only in tennis shoes and a red scarf ,which was becoming an odd national phenomena. Ray Stevens' hit about the craze entitled "The Streak" hit #1 in the music charts in America and England in May of 1974.The streaker alluded police and ran outside a side door to the thunderous approval of the roaring crowd.

Neither Vandy nor Alabama were ranked as high in '74 as Ethel and "The Streak"

Meanwhile in Nashville, Kentucky which was en route to its first non winning season since 1967 gave Vanderbilt everything it wanted, but the Commodores eked out a 71-69 victory giving Vandy a share of the SEC title and a berth in the NCAA tournament in Tuscaloosa. It was Vanderbilt's second SEC title and first since 1965. It ended a streak of seven seasons where Kentucky had won the SEC's bid to the tournament. Alabama did wind up with a share of the title by defeating Auburn two nights later after Vanderbilt lost its last conference game -- to Florida -- at Alligator Alley in Gainesville.

1973-1974 SEC Champion Vanderbilt Commodores

Five years later, the SEC brought back the post season SEC tournament which originally had ended after the 1951-1952 season. From the 1979-1980 season through the 1988-1989 season the tournament had a set bracket where the top four teams had a one game bye into the quarterfinals and teams 5 through 10 played a first round game with the winners advancing.Not in the 1979 tournament,though.

Game program for the first SEC Basketball Tournament since 1952

In one of the oddest formats ever and thankfully short lived, the tournament format provided a two game bye for the top two teams in the league. LSU ,who won the regular season title at 14-4 for its first SEC title since 1953 and runner-up Tennessee at 12-6 would advance to the semifinals against teams that had already played twice.

LSU went first that evening and drew defending SEC and NCAA champion , Kentucky. Earlier in the season, the Tigers had defeated Kentucky in Lexington for the first time ever, 93-89. A 70-61 a few weeks later gave LSU its first season sweep of Kentucky ever. However, the 'trifecta' never materialized. The Wildcats opened the tourney with an 82-77 win over Ole Miss and then hung on for an incredible 101-100 win over Alabama. Even with the NCAA tournament inviting more than one team from a conference now, Kentucky knew it would have to win the tournament and secure the automatic bid to make the NCAA tourney.

Kentucky won easily 80-67 which wasn't nearly as close as the final score may indicate. Even with eventual transfer Dwight Anderson breaking his wrist in the opening minute, Kentucky couldn't miss and LSU couldn't score. Of course the Tigers were saddled themselves with some self-inflicted pain as All-SEC forward DeWayne "the Astronaut" Scales took the advice of an agent and decided to show off his passing skills as opposed to his shooting touch. Scales' nickname came about from his incredible leaping ability. But for LSU fans, the name also took on a double entendre as Scales made some curious decisions as if he were from another planet.Regular season champion LSU set the stage for short lived trips to the tourney for the regular season champion. The regular season champion wouldn't win the SEC tournament until Kentucky did so in 1984.

Kentucky All-American Kyle Macy had 29 pts in rout of regular season champ LSU

The Vols came into Birmingham on a roll having won six straight including a 60-55 win in Auburn six days earlier, the same Auburn where UT would finally play a game in the tourney. Auburn was on somewhat of a roll having upset third seed Vanderbilt 59-53 the first day and defeated Georgia 95-91 the night before in four overtimes in a game where surprisingly,Auburn never trailed.Auburn hung tight for the first 35 minutes, but finally ran out of gas as Tennessee pulled away and won 75-64 advancing to the tourney finals to face Kentucky,whom they defeated in overtime 75-69 to advance to the NCAA tournament.Future WWE star Kevin Nash tallied two points and two rebounds for the Big Orange. Kentucky went on to the NIT,along with fourth place Mississippi State, as regular season champion LSU received an 'at large bid'.(this was quite a perk for the league as the year before even with the NCAA and NIT selecting potentially two teams each from a conference,only eventual National Champion Kentucky was in post season play.)
Pro Wrestler Kevin Nash played for the 1979 SEC Tourney Champion Tennessee Vols
In 1985, three teams came into the regular season finale on March 2nd with a shot at the SEC title: old pro Kentucky,LSU looking for its third SEC title in seven years and Georgia looking for its first SEC title ,period.Two years earlier when Georgia made its improbable run to the 1983 Final Four as the "other team" along with NC State,Louisville and Houston, the Dogs were a paltry 9-9 in SEC play and was the six seed in the SEC tourney they eventually won securing their first ever NCAA bid. LSU and Georgia were tied for first at 12-5 and Kentucky was a game behind at 11-6.

Kentucky and LSU met earlier in the day in Baton Rouge . Earlier in the season in Lexington, Kentucky won a low scoring game 53-43.This was just part of the difficult path the preseason pick for the title Tigers took. A week later at home against Georgia, whom LSU had defeated in Athens by 5 earlier in the season, the Tigers looked like they had secured a one point win when a missed Bulldog basket was knocked out of bounds by a Dawg with :01 left. All LSU had to do was throw it and the clock would run out. Well,throw it in and have it touched by a player. LSU super freshman John Williams, who indeed did have a fine two year stay in Baton Rouge,threw a pass past midcourt to no one and the ball sailed out of bounds on the other baseline for a turnover. With a reprieve,under their own basket Georgia found leading scorer Cedric Henderson for a catch and shoot at the foul line. In one of many bizarre endings to a seemingly quiet series between the two, Henderson's 15 footer found nothing but net as Georgia stole one in Baton Rouge, 59-58 as LSU fell to 7-5 in league play.

Kentucky's Joe B. Hall was a member of Kentucky's 1948-49 National Champion and was the head coach of UK's 1977-1978 National Champion

But LSU battled back to win its next 5 SEC games and needed a win vs Kentucky to get at least a share of the title. Kentucky in what turned out to be Joe B. Hall's final season needed a win and Georgia loss to Tennessee for a share and 'three way title' twixt LSU,Georgia and UK. LSU won 67-61 behind none other than freshman John Williams' 19 points and 9 rebounds. The loss gave UK's Hall a 6-7 mark in Baton Rouge only his third record in an SEC opponent's home in his fine 13 year career.
John Williams and Dale Brown would be featured in a Sports Illustrated cover story eight months later in a November 1985 issue

Later that evening in Knoxville , Tennessee defeated Georgia 86-85 denying the Bulldogs a share of the SEC title. This had to have been an excruciating loss to Georgia's Hugh Durham not only in missing out on a share of the SEC title, but in losing to Tennessee's Don DeVoe whom had accused Georgia of an assortment of violations drawing the ire of Durham who referred to DeVoe as "Judge DeVoe".
Hugh Durham took Florida State to the Final Four in 1972 as well as with Georgia in 1983

LSU climbed back into the top 20 for the first time since January 1 along with Georgia. LSU's win over UK giving the Tigers the SEC title was LSU's last of the season. LSU was mired in a horrible post season slump dating back to the 1981 Final Four. LSU lost both games in Philadelphia having the misfortune of being the last team to ever lose the Final Four consolation game ,which was being played the same afternoon about 150 miles south President Reagan was shot. LSU was one and done in SEC tournament and or NCAA/NIT play through the 1985 season. LSU would go on and lose to Auburn in Birmingham a week later and be humiliated as #4 seed in the NCAA tournament and lose to #13 Navy and David Robinson 78-55 giving LSU its tenth straight tournament loss.

Georgia and Kentucky made the NCAA tournament, as did Alabama and Auburn. All made a surprise run to the Sweet 16 ,except Georgia who lost in the second round to Illinois.