Thrill of Victory

Memorable Final Fours from my formative years

The Final Four has always been one of my favorite sporting events. Since we’re ready for another one tomorrow, I thought I’d devote today’s blog to looking back at some of the more memorable ones I’ve watched.

1979: Magic vs. Larry
Although I had been to a smattering of Vanderbilt basketball games as a child, the 1979 Final Four served as my introduction to college basketball on the big stage. Earvin “Magic” Johnson led a 25-6 Michigan State team against Larry Bird’s 33-0 Indiana State squad, which had started the season unranked before moving to No. 1 in the regular season’s final two AP polls.

There has probably never been a better match-up of powerhouse vs. underdog and superstar vs. superstar in NCAA title game history than this one. That’s probably why, to this day, it remains the most highly-viewed NCAA title game ever. This was still age in which players stayed for four years of college as Bird had, though Johnson, a sophomore, would be playing his final game before becoming the No. 1 pick in that summer’s NBA Draft.

I wish I remembered more of the game — hey, I was only eight. What’s crazy is that the player who stood out most to me that night was MSU’s Greg Kelser, who had 18 points, nine rebounds and eight assists. But whatever I can’t remember now must have made quite an impression then, because I haven’t missed a Final Four since. In what would become a recurring scene throughout their professional days, Magic got the best of Larry that title game, even though Johnson and Kelser suffered through foul trouble most of the evening.

That game was also a reason that I watched a whole lot of NBA basketball in the decade of the ‘80s. The NBA hasn’t seen days like that since.

1982: Star power
College hoops fans love upsets, but there’s something to be said for seeing the heavyweights advance through the tournament, too. When North Carolina, Houston, Georgetown and Louisville all met in New Orleans that weekend, an incredible 18 players who would later play in the NBA saw action.

That included five men — Carolina’s Michael Jordan and James Worthy, Houston’s Clyde Drexler and Georgetown’s Patrick Ewing — who were named among the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players when that list was released in 1996.

Each team in this Final Four had a minimum of three players who would eventually make the NBA, led by Louisville’s seven. Other notable players who participated that weekend included Carolina’s Sam Perkins and Georgetown’s Sleepy Floyd, each of whom had successful careers spanning well over a decade.

Of course, there are two players we most remember from that Final Four, the first being Jordan, who put himself on the national radar by tallying 16 points and nine rebounds and hit that sweet game-winning jumper in the final against Georgetown from the left side that we’ve all seen a thousand times.

The other player everyone remembers is Georgetown’s Fred Brown, who was not among the fortunate 18. Brown will be remembered for the rest of his life for mistaking Carolina’s James Worthy for a teammate, throwing the ball right to Worthy as Georgetown tried to counter Jordan’s shot he’d hit with 17 seconds left.

One crazy fun fact from that tournament: Houston was only a 6-seed in the Midwest Regional. However, Olajuwon was just an unpolished freshman reserve averaging just eight points per game, so it was a team that wouldn’t quite come into its own until next season’s 31-3, national runner-up finish.

1985: Upset special
This was the first year that the NCAA expanded the tournament field to 64 teams, and boy, was it a memorable one. The Final Four featured three Big East teams, including surprising 8-seed Villanova and 1-seed Georgetown, which wasn’t so surprising given that the Hoyas were the defending national champions with all key players back from the previous season. The Hoyas lost just three times leading up to the title game, those defeats coming by a total of five points.

Villanova was ostensibly just happy to be there, but once it got to Lexington, it surprised 2-seed Memphis with a 52-45 victory to earn a shot vs. the Hoyas, who easily disposed of conference rival St. John’s. Everyone was certain that Georgetown would wipe the floor with the Wildcats and become the first team to defend its title since UCLA in 1973.?

Perhaps we should have paid more attention to the scores from the teams’ two previous meetings, since Georgetown won the games by two and seven points, respectively. Still, everything had to go in Villanova’s favor to win this one, which is precisely what happened. Villanova took just 28 shots from the field, but hit 22 of them — a still-record 78.6 percent — and needed every one to eke out a 66-64 win.

There are two ironies that stick out over a quarter-century later. First, Georgetown advanced through the East Regional, which (according to Wikipedia) remains the only regional in NCAA Tournament history in which there was never an upset according to seeding.

Second, Villanova is remembered as the ultimate underdog team. However, the Wildcats had more talent that people realized. Ed Pickney went on to a long NBA career, and Dwayne McClain and Harold Pressley both played briefly in the NBA. Harold Jensen (who was 5-for-5 in the title game) and Gary McLain were both drafted by NBA teams, though that didn’t mean as much then as it does now since they were the 144th and 122nd picks in their respective drafts.

1988: One-man band
That spring, my family traveled to Detroit to watch Vanderbilt face Kansas in the Sweet 16. Kansas prevailed by a 77-64 score, but I remember leaving the Pontiac Silverdome thinking that Kansas would not win another game because all the Jayhawks had was Danny Manning.

Now, don’t get me wrong, Manning was awesome — he had 38 points in sending VU packing — but as you’ve learned from reading about the other victorious teams above, that’s not enough to win a title. The Jayhawks were a 6-seed who’d lost 11 games that season. I expected Kansas State to take care of them two days later in the Elite Eight.

So, of course, Manning instead put KU on his back one more time; the Jayhawks beat their in-state rival easily, and went on to Kansas City for the Final Four.

Turned out, Manning was just getting warmed up; he scored 25 vs. Duke in the semifinal (with help from Milt Newton) and then hit for 31 to beat an Oklahoma team with Mookie Blaylock and Horace Grant.

Lesson learned: it’s not always the best team that wins, but the team playing the best at the end that wins. KU had been 9-8 just two months and one day before it became national champions, and had lost to OU twice in its previous two meetings.