SAN ANTONIO — Dale Brown sat glued to the TV the NCAA Tournament’s first two weekends, unable to look away from the string of upsets, reveling in UMBC’s history-altering win and Loyola-Chicago’s run to the Final Four.
Even today, the 82-year-old former LSU coach can’t help it.
“Cheering for an underdog is really in my DNA,” Brown said from Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
Brown comes by it honestly. He led one of college basketball’s greatest underdogs right into the Final Four.
The top three post players, lost for the season. A chickenpox outbreak leading to hospitalizations and quarantines. A backup swingman converted to starting center. Knocking off 1-, 2- and 3-seeds in a row to become the first double-digit seed to reach the Final Four.
If LSU’s 1985-86 season isn’t the most improbable of all-time, it’s certainly up there.
“After that run, I didn’t need to see the sun dance in the sky or the sea part. I saw it already,” Brown said.
LSU had modest expectations heading into the 1985-86 season. The Tigers were coming off consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances, had a solid core of post players, some decent shooters and a future NBA forward in John Williams.
Trouble started before the regular season even began. Tito Horford, a top recruit from the Dominican Republic, was suspended by Brown and ended up transferring to Miami without ever playing a game at LSU.
Seven-foot sophomore center Zoran Jovanovich went out next, suffering a season-ending knee injury from a car crash during Christmas break. Then 6-7 junior Nikita Wilson became academically ineligible.
“We’ve gone from an NBA-size team to a big junior high team,” senior team captain Don Redden joked at the time.
Brown’s answer to the post problems: Convert 6-7 reserve swingman Ricky Blanton to center.
The problem: Blanton had never played with his back to the basket, even in junior high.
“I call him in the office, said ‘Ricky, what I’m about to tell you, you have to ponder with your brain and figure it out and not panic,'” Brown said. “‘You’re the answer to our problem. You’re going to play center.’ His eyes got big as saucers.”
The Tigers’ problems were not over.
A chickenpox outbreak went through the team, sending Williams, the team’s best player, and Bernard Woodside to the hospital. Several other players had to be quarantined in the dorm and a nationally-televised game against Auburn postponed. Brown recruited football player Chris Carrier just to have enough healthy bodies to shore up his roster.
The attrition took a toll. After opening the season 9-0, the Tigers limped to the finish with seven losses in 11 games and lost to Kentucky for a third time that season in the SEC Tournament.
Then came a break. Actually, two.
Despite everything they had been through, the Tigers found their way into the NCAA Tournament. Not only that, they played their first two games at home, much to the dismay of Purdue and Memphis.
Relying on a defense tabbed “Freak” and Blanton’s craftiness inside, LSU knocked off Purdue in double overtime and beat third-seeded Memphis State on Anthony Wilson’s banked-in jumper at the buzzer.
“One of the things was they had nothing to lose because nobody expected them to win or get there,” Brown said. “But as we rolled along, they were always on a high, smiling, there didn’t seem to be any pressure.”
The “Freak,” a constantly-switching series of zones, continued to wreak havoc and Blanton held his own against a series of future NBA players: Memphis State’s William Bedford, Georgia Tech’s John Salley, Kentucky’s Kenny Walker.
The Tigers beat Georgia Tech, which also had future NBA All-Star Mark Price, to reach the Elite Eight, earning a fourth shot at Kentucky. The Wildcats went through the SEC 17-1 and beat LSU three times, but the Tigers held their ground in the Southeast Region final.
LSU kept Kentucky within reach, went ahead on Blanton’s basket with 17 seconds left and withstood a last-second half-court heave to improbably reach the Final Four.
The Tigers remained the only No. 11 seed to reach the Final Four until George Mason pulled it off in 2006. VCU in 2011 and Loyola this year added to the short list of 11 seeds in the Final Four.
“Even though in my heart I believed what I was telling them, I was more shocked by what they were doing more than they did,” Brown said. “They believed so strongly and were so youthful and were more accepting of things.”
The unexpected run ended in the national semifinals.
The Tigers came out flat against Louisville to fall into a big halftime hole and never recovered, their season ending a game short of the national finals with an 88-77 loss.
“When I walked into the dressing room at halftime, it was bizarre,” Brown said. “The room was quiet, like the air had been let out of a balloon or something. It was the high of getting there, the constant fatigue of winning games because the underdog has to constantly put out more effort than the big dog.”
Even as underdogs, the Tigers showed they could hang with the big dogs.
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