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NCAA Tournament Round-of-64 Historical Perspective - Southern Hospitality

Purdue’s trip to Cajun Country in 1986 wasn’t exactly southern comfort.

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Gene Keady
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This is the first of 6 articles describing various memories from the NCAA Tournament. Just like the (1985 and beyond) Big Dance, these articles will go round-by-round: from the round-of-64 to the National Championship game. These articles will run the gamut from stunning upsets to (in)famous upsets. Kicking things off will be a recollection of the later category.

The 1986 NCAA Tournament was not good for teams hailing from the state of Indiana. At the Minneapolis Metrodome #3 seed Notre Dame gagged against #14 seed Arkansas-Little Rock to the tune of 90-83. In Syracuse at the Carrier Dome, #3 seed Indiana likewise was on the wrong end of a 83-79 decision against Cleveland State (yes, the Cleveland State that gets put on NCAA probation whenever the University of Kentucky commits a faux pas); serving as a climax to John Feinstein's A Season on the Brink. So, this backdrop might have been a bad omen for the #6 seed Purdue Boilermakers.

For 1985-86 Purdue had a decent season. The Boilermakers were sitting at 22-9 overall and 11-7 in conference play: good enough for fourth-place in the Big Ten. As described above, this got Purdue the #6 seed in the Southeast Region and what appeared to be a favorable matchup against the #11 seed; which for 1986 was literally one of the last teams into the field of 64 at 19-11 overall, 9-9 in conference play, and entering the NCAA Tournament by going 5-8 down the stretch.

Just one small problem though for Purdue. This #11 seed was Dale Brown's LSU Tigers. And the first 2 rounds of the 1986 NCAA Tournament's Southeast Region in Purdue's bracket were going to be played in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. On LSU's home court!

LSU head coach Dale Brown had built a well-deserved reputation as a decent recruiter but a mediocre-at-best x's and o's strategist. His 1985-86 Tigers weren't his most talented team by any stretch: they featured star forward John "Hot Plate" Williams (who would go on to be one of many bad draft picks by the 1980s Washington Bullets, before literally eating himself out of the NBA) and a cast of role players. However, Brown actually strategized something he called his 'freak defense' - basically an aggressive matchup zone. This defense would be something that Purdue - playing in the Big 10 where man-to-man defense was the order-of-the-day - had not encountered all season.

1985-86 LSU Tigers Basketball Team

In the game Purdue’s strategy was to stop LSU’s John Williams. The Boilermakers accomplished this rather well, holding Williams to 16 points and 12 rebounds. However, led by both the home crowd and freak defense LSU jumped out to a 39-35 halftime lead. Purdue fought back and tied the game at 69 all at the end of regulation. An extra five minutes were not enough to settle the outcome. In the second overtime LSU pulled away to take a 94-87 victory.

LSU went on to upset #3 seed (and 1985 Final Four participant) Memphis State in the round-of-32. Perhaps as a bit of poetic justice, LSU had to leave their home court and travel to Atlanta and face hometown Georgia Tech in the Sweet 16 (these games were played at the old Omni Arena). The Tigers upset #2 seed Georgia Tech in the Sweet 16 and #1 seed Kentucky in the Elite Eight (a Kentucky team who had beaten LSU 3 times previously that season) to become the first #11 seed to advance to the Final Four. To date, this represents the lowest seed to make it to the Final Four (this has been matched on 2 other occasions).

Although of no value to the 1985-86 Purdue Boilermakers, the NCAA realized that it wasn’t quite fair to play any tournament games on school’s home courts. (Note that in 1985 the NCAA ended having teams play Sweet 16 and/or Elite 8 games on their home court, after Illinois had the honor of playing Kentucky at Rupp Arena in the 1984 Elite 8). Thus, 1986 represented the last time a school played any tournament games on their court; as said home cooking played a key role in LSU getting to the 1986 Final Four.