The Road To The 1986 Final Four

The 1986 Final Four was a seminal moment in college basketball history. It was the last Final Four and national championship for a great coach in Louisville’s Denny Crum. In the title game he beat a newcomer to the Final Four—Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski. The championship battle in Dallas was a case of two ships passing in the night, as Crum faded and Coach K rose. They were joined at the Final Four by Kansas and LSU. Here’s a look back at the road all four teams took to Reunion Arena in Dallas.

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Crum had won the national title in 1980 and then reached the Final Four in both 1982 and 1983. There was an uncharacteristic slip in 1985, as Louisville missed the NCAA Tournament. They returned to prominence with a balanced lineup as four starters averaged between 12-15 ppg.

Milt Wagner was the point guard and a good outside shooter. Billy Thompson and Herb Crook were the forwards and a freshman in Pervis Ellison was at center. They constituted the Crum trademark of an athletic frontcourt.

Louisville went 26-7 and earned the #2 seed in the West Regional. They opened NCAA play with a 93-73 win over Drexel, keyed by 24 points/10 rebounds from Thompson. The defense stood tall in the second round, shutting down Bradley’s prolific scorer Hersey Hawkins in an 82-68 win. They moved onto the regionals in Houston.

A titanic Sweet 16 battle with North Carolina was up next. The Tar Heels might have been a 3-seed, but they had been undefeated into January. UNC had a future #1 overall NBA draft pick in center Brad Daugherty. They had a future NBA champion point guard in Kenny Smith. It was a third-round game played at a national championship level.

Crook and Thompson each played big, combining for 44 points/18 rebounds. Daugherty answered with 19/15 and UNC forward Joe Wolf scored 20. The difference came at the foul line. Louisville outscored North Carolina at the stripe 28-11. The game was close most of the way until the Cardinals blew it open in a 94-79 win.

The region’s top seed, St. John, had been ousted by Auburn in the second round and the Tigers then knocked off 4-seed UNLV in the Sweet 16. Auburn had a talented forward in Chuck Person, who went for 25/11 against UNLV and scored 23 against Louisville. But the Cardinals had more depth. All five starters were in double figures, with Crook and Ellison combining for a 35/21 day. Louisville won 84-76.

Crook had scored 40 points and grabbed 20 rebounds in the two games at Houston and should have been named the region’s Most Outstanding Player. Person got the honor, but Crook deserves his due.


Coach K took over the program in 1981 with Duke fresh off a trip to a regional final and in the Final Four as recently as 1978. Things didn’t start well, as the Blue Devils struggled into making Krzyzewski’s first NCAA Tournament in 1984, although he was knocked out in the second round that year and again in 1985. The 1986 Duke basketball team put it all together.

Johnny Dawkins was an All-American and with 19ppg was the best two-guard in the country. Mark Alarie was a stretch-4 at a time before the position was even popular, averaging 17/6 per game. David Henderson kicked in 15/5 at the small forward spot. Tommy Amaker was an excellent point guard and the Blue Devils had a center who could bang around and eventually gained renown as a TV analyst—Jay Bilas.

The ACC was brutally tough, with both North Carolina and Georgia Tech soaring near the top of the national rankings. Duke was better than anyone, winning the league’s regular season title and tournament, to get the #1 seed in the East.

In the first round of the NCAA Tournament, the Blue Devils got a surprising challenge from Mississippi Valley State, trailing by three at the half before winning 85-78. It went a little easier in the second round with an 89-61 win over Old Dominion. Dawkins scored a combined 52 points in the two games.

The rest of the East Regional was being gutted. On Duke’s side of the draw, #12-seed DePaul came into the Sweet 16 at the Meadowlands. The Blue Demons had a talented point guard with an NBA future in Rod Strickland and they shot 59 percent in this game. Duke survived 74-67 thanks to Dawkins’ 25 points and a decisive rebounding edge, with the smallish Dawkins also getting ten boards.

The bottom half of the regional had seen #2 seed Syracuse taken apart by Navy’s David Robinson, in the Carrier Dome no less. The #3 seed was Indiana, led by Coach K’s mentor Bob Knight. The Hoosiers were stunned by Cleveland State. So the other Sweet 16 game was Navy-Cleveland State, and the Middies survived 71-70.

Robinson and Navy were America’s darlings as they played for the Final Four. But Duke, with Coach K a West Point guard, were the best team. Even though Robinson went for 23/10 in the regional final the rest of the Mids combined to shoot 9-for-31. Dawkins drilled 28 to seal a Most Outstanding Player award in a 71-50 win that sent the Blue Devils to the Final Four.


 Kansas had reached the Final Four in 1971 and 1974, but then hit a dry spell, with three NCAA Tournament appearances in the next eight years. Larry Brown, who had coached UCLA to the national championship game in 1980, took over the program in 1984 and promptly made it back to March Madness each of the next two years though they didn’t advance. But Brown had landed a great power forward in Danny Manning who would be a sophomore in 1986 and expectations were high.

Manning averaged a 17/6 per game and was joined by Greg Dreiling down low. There was good offensive balance, with 16-ppg scorer Ron Kellogg. Calvin Thompson was another double-digit scorer on the perimeter and Cedric Hunter ably ran the offense. The Jayhawks went 31-3, were the top seed in the Midwest and blasted through North Carolina A&T and Temple to reach the regionals.

There was some home cookin’ in the Midwest Regional, with Kansas going to KC’s Kemper Arena, a venue not only near Lawrence, but one where the Jayhawks play the occasional home game. Furthermore, this was another gutted bracket. The 2-3 seeds, Michigan & Notre Dame, were gone. So was 4-seed Georgetown. But Kansas was about to get a big test from fifth-seeded Michigan State.

The Spartans had a fantastic playmaker and scorer in Scott Skiles and the Jayhawks blew a nine-point halftime lead and were up against it down the stretch. A controversy with the clock—with under 30 seconds to play, it mysteriously never started when Kansas was trying, ultimately successfully, to rally and force overtime. The home cookin’ storyline increased as the Jayhawks capitalized on the controversy to win 96-86 in OT. Thompson scored 26 points and Hunter had ten assists.

North Carolina State, coached by Jim Valvano, and anchored by two talented big men in Charles Shackleford and Chris Washburn were the last obstacle on the way to Dallas. The Wolfpack had knocked off Kansas rival Iowa State in the Sweet 16, with Shackleford and Washburn combining for 42 points. The Jayhawks would need their big men to survive.

Manning and Dreiling both delivered. Even though the N.C. State twin towers combined for 37 points, Manning finished with 22 points and was named Outstanding Player. Dreiling posted a 19/12.The Jayhawks used a strong second half run to win 75-67 and punch their ticket to Dallas.


After reaching the Final Four in 1981, Dale Brown’s LSU program had fallen off the map. They missed the NCAA Tournament entirely the next two years and then suffered two straight first-round knockouts. When they went 9-9 in SEC play in 1986 and entered the field as an 11-seed, there were no expectations of anything different. But they would make a historic run to the Final Four.

LSU was led by forward John Williams, who averaged 18/9. Don Redden was a quality forward who averaged 12ppg and Derrick Taylor knocked down 14 a night. And on Selection Sunday, they got a massive break. In spite of their seeding position, the Tigers were slotted to play the first two rounds of the tournament on their homecourt in Baton Rouge.

It proved to be the difference in surviving the weekend. LSU needed overtime to beat Purdue 94-87, an OT where the Tigers outscored the Boilermakers 25-18 in a scoring frenzy. LSU then beat 3-seed Memphis 83-81, behind 23 points from Redden and 19 from Williams.

The regionals were in Atlanta, the major market of the SEC. And appropriately, three SEC teams were there, along with hometown Georgia Tech. The Tigers had to play the 2-seed Yellow Jackets in the Sweet 16 where it seemed the homecourt bug would turn around and bite them.

But to LSU’s credit, they overcame it. Redden had a monster game with 27 points and Taylor outplayed future NBA mainstay Mark Price at the point guard spot, scoring 23 points. The Tigers pulled a 70-64 upset. On the other side of this mini-SEC tournament, #1-seed Kentucky rode All-American Kenny Walker’s 22 points to a 68-63 win over Alabama.

Walker was the best player in the SEC and he scored 20 in the regional final. LSU, with the “freak” defense of Brown, a mix of zone and man-to-man, kept everyone else under control. Four Tigers scored in double figures and they pulled an improbable 59-57 upset.  Redden got the MOP honor. LSU was the first team seeded as low as #11 to reach the Final Four. That’s a record that has stood, with only George Mason (2006) and Virginia Commonwealth (2011) able to pull the same feat and tie it.


It was three heavyweights and one Cinderella story. LSU played Louisville in the first semifinal of Saturday afternoon and spent the first half looking ready to continue the magic ride. The Tigers led 44-36 at the half. In the second half, the Cardinals woke up.

They shot 56 percent for the game and their rebounding edge, 41-24, began to take hold. Wagner and Thompson each scored 22 points, and the latter also pulled down ten rebounds, joining Ellison in controlling the glass. Redden’s 22 points for LSU was not enough as Louisville pulled away to an 88-77 win.

The championship was now down to the three power teams. Duke and Kansas played a taut game in the late afternoon slot. Kellogg and Dawkins were each great, scoring 22 & 24 points respectively. The difference came at the foul line, with Duke going 21-for-30 and Kansas only shooting 9-for-12. In a tie game late, Blue Devil freshman Danny Ferry scooped up a loose ball and put it in a layup that was the difference in an ultimate 71-67 win.

It was down to Crum and Coach K and the NCAA final was a brilliantly played basketball game on both sides. Dawkins continued his amazing tournament run, with a 24-point performance. He wasn’t getting enough help though. Alarie, as he had throughout the tournament, scored in double figures but with a low shooting percentage. Duke shot just 40 percent for this game.

Louisville shot 58 percent, keyed by their superior play inside. Crook scored 10 points and controlled the glass with 12 rebounds. But no one was better than the cool freshman, Pervis “Never Nervous” Ellison, who went for 25/11, including a clutch bucket down the stretch as the Cardinals prevailed 72-69. Ellison was the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player. It was another ring for Crum. Coach K, as we all know, would be back many times.