The Road To The 1982 Final Four

The 1982 Final Four produced one of the great national championship games, as North Carolina and Georgetown went down to the wire before Dean Smith won his first title. With Louisville and Houston also in New Orleans, it showcased a dazzling array of talent–James Worthy, Patrick Ewing, Sam Perkins, Sleepy Floyd, Michael Jordan, Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon were all on college basketball’s center stage. Here’s a look back on the road all four teams took to get there.

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The Tar Heels had lost the NCAA final to Indiana in 1981 and brought most of the key personnel back, along with one notable addition–the freshman Michael Jordan. It’s no surprise that North Carolina was ranked #1 to start the season and with a 27-2 record that’s how they entered the NCAA Tournament.

March Madness historyUNC was led by first-team All-American Worthy, with 16 ppg, and then Perkins who scored 14 ppg and was second-team All-American. It was a potent two-headed monster at the forward position, with Jordan kicking in 14 a game in the backcourt, and Jimmy Black ably distributing the ball and running the show.

North Carolina staged a season-long battle with Virginia at the top of the national polls and in the ACC. The two teams tied for the regular season title and then Carolina won a controversial 47-45 game in the tournament final–controversial because Smith went to the Four Corners offense with nine minutes left in a close game. In the long run, the outcry triggered the coming of the shot clock. In the short run, the victory got UNC the top seed in the East Regional.

The NCAA Tournament was a 48-team bracket, meaning the top four teams in each regional got byes into the second round. North Carolina got a tough fight from drastically undermanned James Madison, being fought to a draw on the boards and allowing 57 percent shooting. But they survived and advanced, 52-50, to the regionals in Raleigh.

Alabama was waiting in the Sweet 16. The Tide knew something about causing heartache for #1 teams, having come the closest to stopping Indiana’s unbeaten season in 1976. This one was another good game, but Carolina had too much balance–all five starters, including Matt Doherty, ranged from 11-16 points and the result was a 74-69.

Villanova, the Big East regular season champ, was waiting in the final, having nipped 2-seed Memphis 70-66 behind great interior play from John Pinone and Ed Pinckney, who combined for 35 points/22 rebounds. But once again, North Carolina’s complete balance was too much. The five starters were all between 11-15 points in a 70-60 win.

No one player really stood out for the Tar Heels, but Worthy’s combined 30 points in the two games made him high scorer, so he was a logical choice for the region’s Outstanding Player. But these collection of immensely talented individuals were all submerged into a team concept and that team was going to Smith’s seventh Final Four–and looking for his first national title.


John Thompson made the splash of the recruiting season prior to the 1981-82 campaign. It was Ewing, not Jordan, who drew all the hype and when Ewing chose the Hoyas, the program was primed to reach its first Final Four. The big center scored 13 ppg and was a feared shotblocker, made all the more effective by the waves of attacking defenders that Thompson ran in and out on the perimeter.

Eric “Sleepy” Floyd was the best offensive threat and the shooting guard knocked down 18 ppg en route to first-team All-American recognition. The floor show was ran by the combination of Eric Smith and Fred Brown. Georgetown finished second to Villanova in the Big East, but the Hoyas dominated ‘Nova in the conference tournament final, earning Georgetown the #1 seed in the West with a 26-6 record.

After a workmanlike 51-43 over Wyoming, the Hoyas went to Provo, where a chalk regional with all four favorites awaited. Floyd was red-hot in the round of 16 against Fresno State, shooting 7-for-9 from the floor. Georgetown’s defense dominated, holding Fresno to 41 percent shooting and controlling the glass in an easy 58-40 win.

Oregon State won the Pac-10 and head coach Ralph Miller had been national Coach of the Year. The Beavers put on a defensive display of their own, holding third-seeded Idaho to 42 percent shooting, while guard Lester Connor knocked down 24 points. Oregon State looked ready to be a worthy challenger to Georgetown in the regional final.

Only they weren’t. Floyd continued to light it up, hitting nine of his twelve shots, and the team shot an amazing 70 percent. The defense didn’t go anywhere, holding Connor to 13 and Oregon State to a 38 percent shooting effort. The Hoyas were up 42-25 by the half and coasted to a 69-45 victory. Floyd was an easy regional MOP choice and Thompson was going to the Final Four.


The Cardinals were the only team in New Orleans that didn’t have at least one future NBA legend on its roster, but they had plenty of talent by the college standards of the day. Derek Smith, Lancaster Gordon, Jerry Eaves and Rodney McCray were the cornerstones of a team that had depth, defensive skill and leaping ability on the glass. Louisville’s Denny Crum was also the only coach in the Final Four who had a national title on his resume, winning it two years earlier.

Louisville went 20-9, an abnormally large number of losses for a top team in the early 1980s, but Crum also played a stacked non-conference schedule to prepare his team for March. They entered the NCAAs as the #3 seed in the Mideast Region (the bracket that has since evolved to become today’s South regional).

The Commonwealth of Kentucky–and in fact, the entire college basketball world, looked forward to a battle between Louisville and sixth-seeded Kentucky in the second round. This was at a time when UK still refused to play the Cards and it was a national story. But Kentucky no-showed against Middle Tennessee State, shooting just 38 percent. Louisville settled for an anticlimactic 81-56 rout of MTSU to move into the regionals in Birmingham.

Two great centers awaited–one was Sampson and top-seeded Virginia, the other was Randy Breuer, the 7’3″ big man from Minnesota that Louisville had to deal with in the Sweet 16.

Breuer was as advertised, getting 22 points/12 rebounds. But Louisville outperformed the Gophers everywhere else, shooting 58 percent and getting 23 from Gordon as they won 67-61. In other Sweet 16 game, UAB, relying on some home cooking, upset Sampson’s Cavs 68-66 behind 23 points from Oliver Robinson.

UAB was coached by Gene Bartow, who had succeeded Wooden at UCLA and taken the program to the 1976 Final Four, but was never really appreciated. Crum was also a former Wooden assistant. So these old hands of the dynasty went head-to-head for a Final Four trip.

Robinson again got his points, scoring 20, although Louisville made him work harder, in a 9-for-21 shooting effort. The Cards were more efficient, shooting 60 percent. Robinson got Outstanding Player honors, but Louisville got the ticket to New Orleans in a 75-68 win.


The talent jumps off the page–Clyde Drexler, a 15 ppg scorer. Akeem Olajuwon (it was only later in the NBA that he would change his first name to “Hakeem”), a still raw freshman. And that was only the beginning. Larry Micheaux was a good interior player, Michael Young a good wing shooter and in the college world of 1982, Robert Williams was the best of them all. He averaged 21 ppg, and also effectively quarterbacked the offense.

Perhaps the mystery is not why this team made the 1982 Final Four, but why they only went 21-7, finished the season unranked, trailed Arkansas in the old Southwest Conference and ended up a #6 seed in the Midwest Regional.

The Cougars had to play the opening round and shot 70 percent in beating Alcorn State 94-84. Then Houston upset Tulsa, with second-team All-American and future NBA mainstay Paul Pressey 78-74. Williams led the way with 26 points and Houston went to St. Louis for the regionals.

It was a gutted bracket, with Missouri the only one of the top four seeds to survive. DePaul, the regional favorite, had been ousted by Boston College and SWC rival Arkansas had fallen to Kansas State.

Houston met up with Missouri and it would be one of the best games of the tournament. Ricky Frazier scored 29 for the Tigers, but the Cougars answered with North Carolina-esque lineup balance, five players between 11-16. Missouri center Steve Stipanovich got 12 rebounds, but Houston answered with Drexler and Akeem both getting 10-plus boards. The result was a 79-78 Houston win.

Boston College had edged Kansas State 69-65 behind 20 points from little guard Michael Adams. Houston contained Adams in the regional final, although the inside-out combo of Jay Murphy and John Bagley nearly did the Coogs in, combining for 49 points.

Houston got 25 from Williams and outscored Boston College from the free throw line 33-16, with reserve guard Reid Gettys hitting ten straight free throws to help secure the 99-92 win. Williams was the Outstanding Player and the Final Four was next.


The early game was North Carolina-Houston and Perkins was the star of the show. He scored 25 points and grabbed 10 rebounds. Jordan added 18 and the Tar Heel defense contained Houston, holding them to 42 percent shooting. Olajuwon was a non-factor, and while Drexler played well, he wasn’t a difference-maker. North Carolina won 68-63.

In the late afternoon, Georgetown and Louisville played a defensive war, with the difference being the Ewing helped the Hoyas clean up a lot of the misses. The big center had ten rebounds, keying a decisive edge for his team as Georgetown won 50-46.

The national championship game was a classic, replete with outstanding performances and great storylines. Worthy was electric, scoring 28 points on 13/17 shooting. Ewing was dominant, with 23 points/11 rebounds of his own. Thompson made a coaching decision early that was, at best, questionable.

Ewing, at his coach’s instruction, drew five obvious goaltending calls in an attempt to intimidate the Tar Heels. Against a young, untested team, this might have worked. The veteran North Carolina players shrugged their shoulders and accepted the free points, every one of which they would need.

Floyd knocked down 18, but without the same efficiency he showed in the regional. The 9-for-17 shooting certainly wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t scorching. Jordan had 16 and ultimately hit the game’s biggest shot that put North Carolina up 63-62. Georgetown had one last chance to win it, but Fred Brown froze up and threw the ball straight to Worthy at the top of the key.

The lasting image of the game is Thompson hugging Brown. The lasting legacy is that Smith finally had a national title and the reputation of the man who would eventually be renowned as the greatest basketball player ever was just getting started.