There’s no set time for when college basketball’s March Madness officially went mad.
Some people say it happened because of great championship games in the 1980s with seven of the 10 being decided by four points or fewer (and six by one possession). Some point most especially at the 1983 national championship game between hearty underdog N.C. State and powerhouse Phi Slama Jama, the nickname for the Houston team which was stunned in college basketball’s most dominant moment. Still others point to 30 years ago last Monday, and a series of shocking upsets in one afternoon.
In the 64-68 team era of the NCAA Tournament, however, many point to back 25 years ago to the 1986 event, most especially to the Cleveland State Vikings, who shocked No. 3-seed Indiana and No. 6-seed St. Joseph’s on the way to their first Sweet 16 and the first one for a 14-seed, which had only recently been added to the NCAA Tournament as it expanded from 53 to 64 teams the year before in 1985.
The team was led by Clinton Smith, Clinton Ransey and Ken “Mouse” McFadden, who was discovered by then-head coach Kevin Mackey in a New York AAU game. He had never finished high school but did what he had to to get his GED became the Vikings starting point right away and was very instrumental in making the Vikings offensive attack go. On defense, he ran the “run and stun” pressing and trapping style which is said to have influenced Rick Patino and Jerry Tarkanian. Together, it led to a fun style which allowed them to average 90.2 points per game, second in Division I that year.
Behind the trio mentioned above, the Vikings only lost 3 games (two of them to Ohio State and Michigan) and went 13-1 in the AMCU (now known as the Summit League), losing only a 65-61 decision on the road to the Missouri State Bears in late January. They easily won their first two games of the conference tournament before holding off Eastern Illinois in the AMCU title game to improve their record to 27-3 as they headed into the NCAA Tournament.
Given a 14-seed, perhaps unjustifiably so, they weren’t expected to do much more than give Indiana a good game for a half or so. Instead, they were able to overcome the fact that the Hoosiers were able to get all five starters into double figures and pull off a shocking 83-79 first round win at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse. They did this to the same Indiana program that would go on to win their fifth national championship the very next season.
The game and surrounding fallout was the climax of the book “A Season on the Brink,” a book which profiled the 1985-86 Indiana Hoosiers, most specifically Bob Knight.
Ransey had 27 points and center Eric Mudd scored 16 points and pulled down 18 rebounds as the Vikings had shocked the entire nation. Ransey was relentless with his energy and stop and pop scoring as he scored 10 points in the final nine minutes to help pull out the win.
Still, as satisfying as that win was, it wasn’t enough to quench their thirst for more. Next loomed St. Joseph’s, a tradition laden program that was also imposing to the mid-major Vikings. Mackay tried to play up the “us against the world mentality” that is common among underdogs.
It’s hard to say whether or not it actually lit a spark in the fire of the team but one way or another, it worked as CSU overcame stifling defense and hammered the Hawks on the offensive glass 17-7 on the way to a 75-69 second round win at the Carrier Dome. McFadden scored 23 points on 10/15 shooting and Smith had a game high 15 rebounds.
Then St. Joe’s head coach said that while they may be considered a Cinderella team, the Vikings were one of the best teams that they had played all year long.
And even if it had been before, there was no denying that March had gone really, really mad. 7-seed Navy’s 97-85 upset on the road in the second round against the Syracuse Orangemen set up an improbable Sweet 16 matchup between Cleveland State and Navy. Behind all-time NBA great David Robinson and his 22 points, 14 rebounds and 9 blocks, the Midshipmen were able to hang on for a thrilling 71-70 win in the Sweet 16 when Robinson made a last second shot. Cleveland State finished 29-4 on the year.
It was a tough ending but the Vikings knew they had lots to be proud of. They have all moved on, for better or worse, to new and exciting ventures outside of the university (although two have died since the 1986 run) but none can or will ever forget the two weeks they turned heads throughout the country.
And today, Cinderella teams in this year’s NCAA Tournament such as Virginia Commonwealth, Florida State and Richmond can thank Cleveland State for their run 25 years ago, as the idea of an unlikely team making a run in the College Basketball championship tournament (i.e. the Men’s NCAA Tournament) has become common place.