Final Four field spurs memories of 1986, with Florida in role of Duke

Led by freshman star Pervis Ellison, the '86 Louisville Cardinals rejected Duke's bid at history and won their second national title in seven seasons.
Manny Millan/SI

Hard as it may be to believe, once upon a time they played the Final Four in standard arenas, without a three-point line or men serenading TV viewers at home with Italian arias about colonoscopies.

Such was the state of the NCAA's ultimate event in 1986, the last time it turned up in greater Dallas. That was the year Louisville, Duke, Kansas and LSU converged on since-demolished Reunion Arena, steps from the Texas Schoolbook Depository, and the Cardinals beat the Blue Devils for the national title.

As the Final Four returns to the Metroplex, 28-year-old memories aren't a bad lens through which to look at Florida, Kentucky, Connecticut and Wisconsin, the schools traveling to North Texas this week to sort out who'll be the new NCAA champion.

HAMILTON: Four questions about each Final Four team

In the role of Duke, there's Florida. Early departures for the NBA weren't yet all the rage back in 1986, and that Blue Devils team -- coach Mike Krzyzewski's first to reach a Final Four -- was a painstakingly cultivated crew. Four years earlier Mark Alarie, Jay Bilas, Johnny Dawkins and David Henderson had made up Krzyzewski's first big recruiting haul. They would win 37 games as seniors, the most of any college team to that point.

Florida starts four seniors too. They've so far won 36 games. And like each of the members of Duke's class of '86, none is ticketed for a future as an NBA All-Star. But in much the same way, by dint of simply sticking around, getting better, and covering for one another's shortcomings, the Gators have coalesced into a team that hasn't lost since Dec. 2.

For the role of Louisville, we need look no further than down Interstate 64 at their Bluegrass brothers in Lexington.

Several days before the 1986 title game, a buddy of mine happened to be in the lobby of the Fairmont in downtown Dallas, Louisville's headquarters hotel, when the doors of an elevator opened. Out stepped (Never Nervous) Pervis Ellison, the 'Ville's freshman center. Ellison looked briefly out over the pulsating mass of Cardinal red before him, returned quickly to the sanctuary of that elevator car, and let its doors close.

It was the perfect scene to have in my back pocket on deadline Monday night, when Ellison would figuratively step from obscurity into the mosh pit of the NCAA final. He scored 25 points and grabbed 11 rebounds to become the first freshman in 42 years to win the Final Four's Most Outstanding Player Award. "And he's only a freshman!" people exclaimed in those pre-Fab Five days.

WOLFF: Ellison leads Louisville to the national championship (04.07.86)

Of course Kentucky won't win anything in Texas Stadium without one of its five freshman starters walking away with the MOP trophy, as the Wildcats' Anthony Davis did in 2012. That no one would be surprised by another Big Blue title, despite the 'Cats' status as a No. 8 seed, underscores how Kentucky's No. 1 preseason ranking was really a futures bet -- and bears out the truth in the bromide that, come March, freshmen aren't freshmen anymore.

During his stopover at Memphis, Kentucky coach John Calipari watched at least one national title get away to the sound of clanked iron. Despite missed free throws that seemed to haunt his Tiger teams at the most inopportune times, he continued to say, "We'll make 'em when it counts."

To which everyone else said, "We'll count 'em when they're made."

The 1986 Final Four featured Cinderella LSU, perennial force Louisville, rising power Duke and the return of Kansas.
Jerry Wachter/SI

And now, Never Nervous-style, Cal's 'Cats are indeed making 'em when it counts, as they did to upset Wichita State and Louisville on their way to the Midwest Regional final, where they knocked off Michigan -- which, in 1992, was the last school to start five freshmen in the Final Four.

The 1986/2014 parallels begin to break down somewhat when we examine this year's other two Final Four teams. Besides the Danny Manning-esque versatility of seven-footer Frank Kaminsky and the Larry Brown-ish sentimentality of coach Bo Ryan, Wisconsin has little in common with the Kansas team that lost to Duke in the national semifinals that year.

A better point of comparison might be the yin-yang one between the current Badgers and Wisconsin's last Final Four team, the 2000 squad that reached Indy's RCA Dome while threatening to drag the game back to the Pleistocene Era. Ryan is as obsessive about offense as his predecessor in Madison, Dick Bennett, was about defense, and this edition of the Wisco Kids is a delight to watch, an antidote to all the one-trick teams that pin their hopes on some guard cornering off a high ball screen.

Believe the art of post play is dead? Feast your eyes on Frank Kaminsky, whose footwork evokes Nijinsky. Don't think college teams respect every possession anymore? Behold the Badgers, who commit only 8.1 turnovers per game, the fewest in the nation.

No team is really comparable to Dale Brown's '86 LSU squad, an 11th seed that somehow reached that Final Four with Ricky Blanton, a 6-foot-7 center with baby fat, and a zone/man hybrid that Brown called "the Freak Defense." But UConn does share something with that unlikely crew, which remains, with George Mason in 2006 and VCU in '11, the lowest seed ever to reach the national semifinals. LSU caught a huge break that year, drawing its first- and second-round games in Baton Rouge, where the Tigers upset Purdue and Memphis State; Connecticut got to play this year's East Regional in Gampel South, a.k.a. Madison Square Garden.

For a better parallel to UConn, I'll take Arizona's 1997 national champs, with their hydra-headed backcourt of Mike Bibby, Miles Simon and Jason Terry. The Huskies' Shabazz Napier is a more dominant presence than any of those three, but Ryan Boatright and swingman DeAndre Daniels give this UConn team two more points of attack than the school's last champions, the 2011 team that featured Kemba Walker and little else.

I remember stalking the RCA Dome before that 1997 final, hunting for someone -- anyone -- willing to say on the record that Lute Olson's Wildcats would beat Kentucky coach Rick Pitino's, which were only one year removed from their intimidating run to the 1996 title. I found two: UCLA coach Steve Lavin, who knew Arizona painfully well from Pac-10 play; and Dick Jerardi of the Philadelphia Daily News, who works in a city that knows both good guard play and how it can put a stamp on a tournament game.

That night Arizona defeated Kentucky, 84-79, and did so from the free-throw line, where the Tucsonites' backcourt threesome sank 22 of 25 shots. Over the past two weeks I've had Zona flashbacks while watching UConn in the clutch: With fewer than five minutes to play and in overtime -- which is to say, when they put the ball in the hands of Napier, Boatright and Daniels -- the Huskies are shooting 92% from the line.

I've always felt those '86 Dookies were among the most deserving teams not to win a title. Their place in history only grew more meaningful over time, as it became clearer and clearer that they had been a signpost, a gauntlet Coach K threw down to make clear that, yes, Duke was now a program.

And it's by the light of that Blue Devils team that I'll be watching Florida this weekend.

If Florida were to roll to the title, the Gators will have beaten, in Saturday's national semifinal against UConn, one of the two teams to defeat them this season. They'd have a chance of getting a shot at the other, Wisconsin, on Monday night -- and if they were to beat the Badgers too, they'll have accomplished the next best thing to going unbeaten, defeating every team they played this year.

Further, Florida would have 32 straight victories, a number to match Indiana's 32-0 1976 champs, the last team to navigate a season without a loss.

And a title would leave the Gators 38-2, placing them a full game ahead of those 37-3 Blue Devils in the celestial standings.

And if Florida fails to complete that run? I'll still think back to Duke and 1986. The Blue Devils eventually joined other programs in chasing elite one-and-done guys. But the 1986 team stayed nobly intact. Guys on that roster -- Dawkins, now the Stanford coach; Bilas, the ESPN commentator who's the NCAA's most tenacious gadfly; Harvard coach Tommy Amaker; and Atlanta Hawks general manager Danny Ferry -- are throwing their weight around the sport today, to say nothing of their coach, who recently announced that he has no plans to leave Durham anytime soon.

Among all the teams Krzyzewski has taken to a Final Four that failed to win a title, the 86ers are surely the group he most wishes had done so.

I suspect that, should these Gators also fall short, Florida coach Billy Donovan will feel the very same way about them.

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