March Madness and the "Freak Defense"

March Madness and the "Freak Defense"

By Beau Dure

LSU players Derrick Taylor, left, and Anthony Wilson celebrate after their win over Kentucky in the 1986 Southeast Regional final in Atlanta.
SourceLSU Athletics


Because this is all anyone’s going to be talking about for the next few weeks. really

By Beau Dure

When did March truly turn Mad? The answer: 1986, when the “Freak Defense” and a man named Mouse introduced the U.S. to the pain of a busted bracket and the joy of discovering unknown underdogs. That pain and joy begins anew this week, with 68 teams in place for the 2014 NCAA Tournament.

Until 1974, the annual college basketball playoffs were limited to conference champions. At-large teams were added when the tournament expanded to 32 teams in 1975. Five years later, the tournament was up to 48 teams, all seeded 1-12 in each region. In 1985, the familiar 64-team bracket came into view, with eighth-seeded Villanova upstaging everyone on the way to an unlikely championship. And then Madness hit in 1986, when a trio of party-crashers blew past all expectations, upturned conventional wisdom and upset some of the top teams in the country. Since then, March hasn’t been the same.

Consider what happened:

• Louisiana State University, an 11th seed team, reached the Final Four.

• 14th seed Arkansas-Little Rock upset third seed big gun Notre Dame, then ranked 10th in the country, to reach the second round.

• Fellow 14th seed Cleveland State went one better, knocking out third seed Indiana at the peak of the Bobby Knight years, then eliminated sixth seed St. Joseph’s to reach the Sweet 16 before dropping a one-point game to David Robinson and Navy.

These feats weren’t matched for years. The next 14th seed to reach the Sweet 16 was Chattanooga in 1997. And no 11th seed matched LSU’s Final Four run for 20 years.

But these teams weren’t just numerical anomalies. They were colorful and unconventional. Mired in adversity or obscurity much of the season, they figured out ways to hang with college basketball’s giants. Here’s how it went down.

Freakin’ Amazing

LSU at least had the talent on paper. The Tigers were ranked at the beginning of the season and tuned up for Southeastern Conference play by going unbeaten through November and December. 

Men in yellow jerseys posing for official team portrait. 2 rows of men smiling to the camera

1986 LSU Final Four team

But their roster was shrinking, both numerically and vertically. Future NBA player Tito Horford, a 7-foot-1 center and father of current NBA star Al Horford, was kicked off the team. Zoran Jovanovich, another 7-footer, injured his knee in December and missed the rest of the season. Nikita Wilson, a 6-foot-7 big man with a solid scoring touch, was declared academically ineligible in January. A couple of players were temporarily sidelined with chickenpox. Ricky Blanton, a 6-foot-6 guard, moved to center.

Not exactly a recipe for success. LSU limped through its conference schedule with a 9-9 record. In previous years, the Tigers wouldn’t even have been invited to the playoffs. Through a fluke of the draw (one the NCAA would not allow today), LSU played its first two games at home — a 94-87 overtime win over sixth seed Purdue and a last-second win over third seed Memphis State (now Memphis).

The phrase “March Madness” dates back to 1939, according to Slate

But the next two rounds couldn’t be explained away by home-court advantage. LSU took down second seed Georgia Tech to set up a rematch with top seed Kentucky, which had beaten the Tigers three times through the regular season and conference tournament

It was freaky how it happened. LSU coach Dale Brown already had a reputation as a charismatic larger-than-life figure full of tales of adventure from the Matterhorn and Antarctica. He had led one team to the Final Four in the past. This time, he compensated for his lost players with the “Freak Defense,” a shifting formation designed to confuse opponents. With a win over Kentucky, Brown was back in the Final Four. Louisville finally stopped LSU in the national semifinals, but the Tigers’ magical run is fondly remembered in Baton Rouge. 

Run ‘n’ Stun

And the Vikings kept going, knocking out St. Joseph’s to reach the Sweet 16 before dropping a 71-70 heartbreaker to Navy.The Vikings weren’t locks for the tournament, either. They won a small, new conference (AMCU-8, now the Summit League) that didn’t have an automatic bid to the tournament. But with a 27-3 record, they got an at-large bid as the 14th seed and faced mighty Indiana. The pressure paid off in the first half as Cleveland State pushed to a 45-41 halftime lead. That was as close as Indiana would get — a late rally could only cut the final score to 83-79. Clinton Ransey, now a truck driver and jazz/gospel musician, had 27 points.Like LSU, the Cleveland State Vikings compensated for a talent and height gap with a menacing defense. Coach Kevin Mackey used a “run ’n’ stun” style, pressing throughout the game and sending in waves of substitutions to keep players fresh. They scored 100 or more points 11 times and averaged 88.9 points per game — one year before the 3-point shot was introduced — and more than 13 steals per game. The player who drew the most attention was a 6-foot-1 freshman named Ken “Mouse” McFadden.

Let’s Hear It for the Seniors

BW of coach on court with players

State’s coach Kevin Mackey shows his happiness Friday in the last seconds of the team’s 1986 NCAA victory over Indiana.

The other underdog to pull a major upset in 1986, Arkansas-Little Rock, used the opposite of Cleveland State’s “win with numbers” strategy — three starters played the full 40 minutes in the win over Notre Dame. Coach Mike Newell had trimmed the roster over his brief tenure, kicking out players who didn’t get it done in the classroom. His stalwart seniors came through. Pete Myers, who went on to a journeyman pro playing career and is now an NBA assistant coach, scored 29 points in the upset. Michael Clarke, who had been hitting only 38 percent of his free throws, knocked down 11 of 14 to score 27 points.

March Madness 2014?

Ironically, in the end it all came down to couple of powerhouses. Louisville won a close final against Duke, which went on to a streak of seven Final Fours in nine years. But ever since, the NCAA playoffs have been a time when anything can happen and the whole country goes crazy filling out brackets.

Who will be inspired by these historical underdogs this time around? Will it be former Division II powerhouse N.C. Central, making its first appearance in the Big Dance? Maybe Ivy League champion Harvard? No, seriously — some of us need help filling out our brackets. Know any teams playing the “Freak Defense” or the equivalent?