Building the Bracket: How the 1985 NCAA Tournament turned March into Madness

There were no delusions among the Lehigh basketball players after they completed one of the most preposterous three-day runs in Division I basketball history. They began the East Coast Conference Tournament with an 9-18 record, but their three victories in three days — including one each over the ECC regular-season champion and runner-up — made them owners of an 11-18 record and an automatic bid to the 1985 NCAA Tournament.

It would be the first ever staged with 64 entrants, expanded from 53 participants the prior season. Lehigh’s teams then were known as the “Engineers” because of the university’s tremendous reputation in that discipline, so you didn’t get in without being able to handle a little math. This wasn’t a tough calculation at all for sophomore guard Mike Polaha and his teammates.

“I often think about the fact we were the original 64th seed,” Polaha told Sporting News. “Clearly we were 64. There was no challenge to that, given where our program was historically and the fact we entered the tournament with that record and having won the ECC Tournament as very much a surprise.

“My recollection is that no sooner had we been crowned ECC champion then it was almost like an ‘oh my goodness’ moment: We were going to be facing the defending champion Georgetown Hoyas.”

Tipping off early on a Thursday afternoon in Hartford, Conn., the Engineers and Hoyas staged the first game of a tournament that changed college basketball forever, turning what had been a one-weekend fascination into a one-month national obsession that made the month of March synonymous with the sport.

We see even more now, with the 2020 tournament canceled to help contain the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, what a glorious innovation the expanded NCAA Tournament field has proven to be. Because we miss it terribly.

It was 35 years ago that America was introduced to the concept of the 16-seed, the 8-9 game, the 12-5 upset and the bracket. No — make that “The Bracket.” There always had been a tournament bracket, but the expansion to 64 teams gave it symmetry, and a sense of inclusion never present before. Anyone could make it. Everyone who made it had a chance. And everyone who entered a bracket into an office or classroom pool could win a few bucks — or at least boast about the upset they predicted.

There could be no more obvious example of this than Lehigh entering the NCAA Tournament with only two winning seasons in the previous three decades (and no winning season this time) being matched against the No. 1 Hoyas, with All-American Patrick Ewing and four other future NBA players.

“We were excited to be there,” Polaha told SN. “I remember being at the hotel, and Temple and Indiana were staying at the same hotel. So it was just a super exciting experience. But there was this feeling that we had to show up — otherwise, we’d be wiped off the face of the Earth.

“Given my role on the team, I was our primary — and sometimes only — ball-handler. My thought was: ‘Dear Jesus, God, how am I going to break that press?’ And it’s super funny. I remember, once the games started, they would inbound the ball to me and somehow the rest of my teammates disappeared. They were running away and I’m like, ‘Oh my goodness,’ and I’m turning into this one-man press break.

“To me, it was an absolute blast.”

Polaha and freshman star Daren Queenan made it back to the tournament three seasons later, and again found themselves as the 16-seed playing the No. 1 team in the country, this time Mark Macon, John Chaney and the Temple Owls. Lehigh was much better by then, entering with a 21-9 record that helped launch 28-year-old coach Fran McCaffery’s career.

With that experience, Polaha always has felt a connection to the tournament’s 16-seeds. There have been another 150 since the original quartet of Lehigh, Southern, Fairleigh Dickinson and North Carolina A&T. And, 33 years after that group debuted, one at last found a way to conquer the giant on the opposite bench when No. 16 seed UMBC defeated No. 1 overall seed Virginia on a Friday evening in Charlotte.

“The only thing was, I was jealous, ‘cause I wanted to be on that team, you know?” Polaha said. “But honestly I was so happy for all the alumni of the 16-seeds when UMBC finally achieved that particular milestone. I think for all of us 16-seeds, we were all popping bottles of champagne at that.”

The making of Madness

So much of what Dan Gavitt oversees as the NCAA’s senior vice president of basketball was the product of his father’s vision. It is as if he has taken over the family business, albeit one that essentially belongs to everybody.

Dave Gavitt was no ordinary basketball coach. He was extraordinarily successful in his 10 years at Providence: He reached five NCAA Tournaments, including the 1973 Final Four behind Ernie DiGregorio, Marvin Barnes and Kevin Stacom. He also served as Providence’s athletic director at a time when women’s sports were launched in response to Title IX legislation and the Friars became charter members of the Big East Conference.

The Big East was mostly his idea, too, as was partnering with ESPN to provide the league’s members exposure and the nascent cable network live sports programming. Eventually, all this helped lead to the magic number of 64.

When Gavitt coached, the NCAA Tournament comprised 25 teams at the start (1971-72) and 32 teams in his final appearance (1977-78). Wayne Duke, then Big Ten commissioner, joined the NCAA men’s basketball committee in the middle of that, advocating for expansion that opened the field to more automatic qualifiers such as the Ohio Valley Conference and to at-large teams that did not win their conference championships.

From there, Gavitt carried the ball over the goal line, to mix metaphors. He was chair of the “selection committee” when the vote was conducted in 1984 to expand the field to 64 teams. The 1985 NCAA Tournament would be the first under the new format.

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“I would say you could probably argue that, except for maybe a few games a year, the interest in college basketball was probably more regional before that,” Dan Gavitt told SN. “I remember growing up it was the ECAC Game of the Week, and they were great games, but we never saw the Big Ten and never saw the ACC.

“I think cable television had a lot to do with it, but like the Big East, it had to do with the players. Having been a coach and knowing talent and still being so close to the game — it’s not a coincidence the tournament took off with Larry Bird and Magic Johnson in 1979 and Michael Jordan in ’82 and then Patrick Ewing and Chris Mullin and Eddie Pinckney in ’85. There was this confluence of players at that level together with cable TV and the interest in watching games more nationally than just regionally.”

The 1985 tournament was distinct not only for its format, but also for the volume of true greatness that took the floor during those three weeks.

Hall of Famers Ewing, Mullin of St. John’s, Karl Malone of Louisiana Tech and David Robinson of Navy were spread throughout the bracket. There were future NBA stars Dell Curry of Virginia Tech, Reggie Lewis at Northeastern, Kenny Smith at North Carolina and Mark Price at Georgia Tech. College legends Pearl Washington of Syracuse, Wayman Tisdale of Oklahoma, Johnny Dawkins of Duke, Keith Lee of Memphis and Len Bias of Maryland were dominating.

There were coaching stars, too. Nearly a quarter of the coaches who led teams to the 1985 NCAA Tournament — 15 of the 64 — would be enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, from young Nolan Richardson (Tulsa), Gary Williams (Boston College) and Mike Krzyzewski to mid-career stars Dean Smith and John Thompson to veteran warriors such as Oregon State’s Ralph Miller.

It was, indeed, the ideal time to take the tournament and make it a show.

“I do feel honored and privileged, and a great sense of responsibility, to carry on the legacy that he and so many others — like C.M. Newton and Dean Smith and John Thompson — laid the foundation for what we love and enjoy today,” Dan Gavitt said, “to continue to make it a little better and, frankly, not to screw it up.”

There was a moment a decade ago when the NCAA almost did: There was strong consideration to expanding the tournament to 96 teams. The NCAA felt responsibility from its membership to continue generating the level of income from March Madness to which it had become accustomed, and CBS was expressing trepidation at continuing under similar terms. ESPN was willing to meet that price, but felt a larger field with more “inventory” was necessary for it to make financial sense.

A year before his death at age 73, Dave Gavitt fought passionately against that potential calamity of a 96-team field, which would have stolen so much of the precision of the 64-team bracket, as well as diminished the importance of the regular season. Ultimately, the CBS/Turner Sports partnership produced the necessary contract terms with only a gentle expansion to 68 teams included.

“He was adamantly opposed to 96, so much so that he went out of his way to write a letter and say, without question, that would have been a disastrous move,” Dan Gavitt told SN. “He was very strong. I’ll never forget that. He didn’t think that was a good idea at all.”

‘Anything can happen’

All but one of the 19 NCAA Tournaments in which Jeff Battle has been involved occurred during the expanded-bracket era. He just wishes he could remember more about the first of those, the only one in which he appeared as a player.

Battle has been a stellar assistant coach at Xavier, Wake Forest and Providence over the past quarter-century, but his journey through March Madness as we know it began as a senior point guard for the Marshall Thundering Herd. Their 21-12 record and Southern Conference championship was deemed worthy of the No. 15 seed in the 1985 West Region, and they were sent to New Mexico’s The Pit to face No. 2 seed VCU.

“The thing that I remember most, to be honest with you, it was my last college game,” Battle told SN. “It’s funny, I was talking to one of my friends actually yesterday who I went to Marshall with. We still keep in touch, and we were just kind of reminiscing a little and he was talking about how good the teams were when we were there, and I said, ‘Yeah, it’s a blur to me because I just remember my last game against VCU.’”

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The Rams that season were led by star guard Rolando Lamb, who averaged 17.3 points for the 25-5 champions of the Sun Belt Conference.

Several years later, Rolando and his wife Angela had a son named Jeremy, who became a star guard for Connecticut’s 2011 NCAA championship team and now plays for the Indiana Pacers. Battle told SN he never attempted to use the fact his Marshall team had been an 81-65 first-round victim of the Rams to help recruit Jeremy for Wake Forest.

(It’s possible Jim Calhoun did, because his Northeastern Huskies were vanquished by Lamb and the Rams the year before).

“I remember just sitting in the locker room, like when I was taking my uniform off thinking ‘I’ll never put this back on again.’ It really was very emotional,” Battle said. “Like a lot of players who play in college, you know you’re not going to play in the NBA. And so that’s kinda it. And it’s kind of like, ‘What am I going to do now with my life? This is over.’ It was kind of gratifying but also sad at the same time, if that makes sense.”

Battle actually did know. He’d begun thinking about a career in coaching after talking it over with his coach, Rick Huckabay, during his junior season. Battle started as a grad assistant at Delaware, then worked his way all through four more stops on the way to Providence, where Ed Cooley’s Friars had been preparing to begin their sixth NCAA Tournament in seven seasons, before its cancellation. Battle no longer enters the tournament at the bottom of the bracket, but he knows how it feels to be there.

“I think it’s awesome. It gives everybody hope, not just the bigger teams but all the different levels of teams,” Battle said. “Some of these ‘mid-major’ players are just as good as these ‘high-major’ players and when you get into a tournament atmosphere, anything can happen. They only have to beat you on one day. So I think that adds to the excitement. I think that’s why it’s so thrilling and everybody looks forward to it. Because you just never know.”

A near upset-turned-devastating loss

Ron Hunter came within 17 seconds of only the second 12-5 upset in modern NCAA Tournament history (the first, Kentucky over Washington, happened the day prior). He remembers it well, but not always fondly.

Led by superstar guard Ron Harper — whose son Ron Harper Jr. would have played in this year’s tournament with the Rutgers Scarlet Knights — Miami (Ohio) earned an at-large bid after compiling a 20-10 record and a second-place finish in the Mid-American Conference. The RedHawks were matched against No. 5 seed Maryland and Bias.

Miami led 68-67 with 17 seconds remaining in overtime and were set to inbound the ball under the Terps basket. They were faced with either forcing a turnover quickly or purposefully fouling one of the Miami players.

“I took the ball out of bounds, and Ron Harper broke one way and I threw it the other way. Adrian Branch picked it up and scored the game-winner,” Hunter, now coach at Tulane, told SN. “We just had a miscommunication, and I threw it the wrong way.

“It happened in Dayton, Ohio, where I’m from and Ron Harper is from. Having an NCAA Tournament in your backyard like that, your friends and family are there, it made it even harder.

“It was probably the most devastating loss I ever had.”

Actually, his memory is slightly errant. Branch indeed pounced on Hunter’s inbound pass directly adjacent to the Maryland goal, but, with no defenders in sight, he missed a layup. It was up to 6-5 senior guard Jeff Adkins to surge and tip it in the goal. Miami had plenty of time to answer, but the players who handled the ball — neither Hunter nor Harper got a touch — displayed little confidence in shooting for a game-winner.

“Every time I see Adrian Branch on television, it brings it up again,” Hunter said. “I coached at Georgia State and became friends with Lefty Driesell, who had the job before me. I went to his Hall of Fame induction and I said I should least get mentioned in his acceptance speech for helping him get that win.”

Hunter coached at Georgia State from 2011-19. In 2015, his team, blessed with the talents of his son, R.J. Hunter, entered the NCAAs with a 24-9 record and No. 14 seed. They matched in the first round against 3-seed Baylor. The game went down to the final seconds, and R.J. took a quick backward feed and fired in a 30- footer for a 57-56 victory.

That appeared to be a moment of recompense for Ron Hunter’s disappointment of three decades earlier. But it wasn’t, entirely.

“We went to three straight NCAA Tournaments at Miami but never advanced,” Ron Hunter said. “R.J. always said his goal was to win a game and outdo his dad. So he hit that shot and got a win. And he still gives me a hard time about that.

“The tournament changes careers. At Valparaiso, look what happened to the Drew family because of Bryce Drew’s shot. And R.J.’s shot changed everything we did.

“The tournament engages the country. That’s one thing I love about it. Even if you don’t have a team, you pick one based on the colors or whatever. It’s something that brings our country together.”

The Big East Beast

The 1985 Big East was a pretty terrible venue for a basketball coach if you weren’t coaching someone named Ewing or Mullin. Gary Williams’ Boston College Eagles finished the conference regular season with a losing record, just 7-9, and were 18-10 on Selection Sunday. Four of their defeats were against Georgetown and St. John’s, which lost only three Big East games between them.

Maybe it was the split with Syracuse and Villanova. Maybe it was the non-league wins over TCU and Michigan State. Certainly, the expansion to 64 teams was essential. Otherwise, there was no way Boston College would have received a bid to the 1985 NCAAs.

“When you get in a conference like the Big East, that was that good that year, you don’t know how good you are because you lose some games,” Williams told SN. “You’re banging your head against the wall going against Patrick Ewing and Chris Mullin, Villanova, Syracuse as good as they were back then. It’s tough.

“We lost a game in the Big East Tournament — we missed a tip-in at the buzzer against Syracuse, and I thought that game might keep us out of the NCAA Tournament. So we were really glad to get a bid.”

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The Eagles, seeded No. 11 in the Midwest, did not waste it. The opener was against Texas Tech, and the game was played in Houston, but Eagles star Michael Adams scored 17 of their 55 points to help squeeze out a two-point win. The second round brought a game against 3-seed Duke, which featured Johnny Dawkins, Mark Alarie and a beautifully coiffed center named Jay Bilas. Boston College won that one by a single point (even though Bilas exploded for 15).

That put Boston College into the Sweet 16 against Keith Lee, Vincent Askew, Andre Turner and the Memphis Tigers. The Eagles nearly won that one, too. If they had, they would have played Oklahoma and Tisdale for a spot in the Final Four — which contained three other Big East members in Georgetown, St. John’s and Villanova.

The Big East came thisclose to having all four of the Final Four.

“They (Memphis) were really talented. They had like four NBA guys on the court, and a very good team” Williams said. “We got down in the second half, probably down 12 or 14, and we came back and had the score tied and the ball on the sideline with 14 seconds left. We tried to get it to Michael Adams, but they double-teamed him. When we threw it to our center, Roger McCready, unfortunately he didn’t have great hands. He dropped it, it went off his foot and they picked it up.”

Askew drove to the right baseline, where it looked like he would attempt to win the game on a 10-foot jumper. But when he leaped, he found he’d gone too far and was behind the board; he instead turned and whipped a pass to Turner. Turner was open for the catch, then quickly covered by Adams, but his approach had been too quick, and Turner was able to get free of him with two quick dribbles to the left. His 15-foot jumper sliced through the net and beat the buzzer.

“It’s funny. Andre Turner later on played for the Wizards and I got a chance to talk to him,” Williams said. “He told me he had basically given up on the play and was running half-speed, and that’s why he was only at the top of the circle in that situation. That’s the way it goes sometimes.”

Williams, despite the heartbreak, attended the Final Four that year and saw Rollie Massimino, John Thompson and Lou Carnesecca, three coaches he’d competed against all winter, enjoy the spoils of coaching in the event. “Seeing three Big East teams was great and all that,” Williams said, “but you wanted to be there, too.”

He wouldn’t make it for another 16 years, after he’d moved on to Ohio State and then to Maryland, his alma mater. The Terps reached the Final Four in 2001 and then won the NCAA title a year later.

“I think that as time has gone on, having 64 was big. You look back at when UCLA was good and there were 16 teams, there were quite a few more really good teams,” Williams said. “I think this is great, because any coach or kid that can say they coached or played in the NCAA Tournament is a good thing.

“For 90 percent of the kids that play college basketball, that’s it. They’re not going to play any kind of professional basketball. So the NCAA Tournament is probably the highlight of their life … in terms of basketball.”

A fitting, Perfect end

For the event truly to stand out as a success, it needed a perfect ending. And the 1985 NCAA Tournament got one in The Perfect Game.

The funny thing about that nickname, which has endured through the 35 years since Villanova earned a 66-64 victory over Georgetown for its first NCAA championship, is Villanova did not play perfectly. The Wildcats took 10 shots in the second half against the Hoyas — and made just nine.

See: not perfect.

It still stands as the biggest championship game upset in the four decades since the NCAA began seeding the field. Villanova, which entered the tournament as No. 8 in the Southeast Region, squeezed past Dayton by two points, Michigan by four and Maryland by three. Only North Carolina, led by Kenny Smith and Brad Daugherty, fell by double digits as the Wildcats advanced to the Final Four.

“The crazy thing is, I didn’t have a lot of experience with the tournament before, because that was my first year as a coach at Villanova,” Steve Lappas, now an analyst with CBS Sports, told SN. “I was a high school coach the year before in the Bronx.

“Every year, we would have a little party when the Final Four was on. My friends would come over and watch. And I remember saying, ‘Gee, what I wouldn’t be able to give to go to the game once.’”

The next year, he was sitting on the Villanova bench at Rupp Arena in Lexington, trying to help Coach Mass figure out a way to cope with Ewing, Reggie Williams, Bill Martin and David Wingate.

Lappas had interviewed for coaching jobs at such schools as Columbia, and it did not work out — “I would have killed to go to Columbia,” he said. That never became necessary. Massimino offered him a position in 1984.

“It’s like the most bizarre thing ever, really,” Lappas said. “It was surreal. No doubt about it.”

Lappas claims Massimino called him “High School Harry” during that championship season and insists, “I was the guy going to get the coffee.” And more than that, he would make cheese runs for Coach Mass.

“Rollie liked this certain kind of cheese they only had in a certain part of Pennsylvania, so I would drive two hours to pick up the cheese,” he said. “I was the part-time assistant/restricted earnings coach. So you could only make so much money. But you were the third assistant. So to get this opportunity was incredible.”

Villanova played a 2-3 matchup zone that bothered the Hoyas, but hardly frustrated them; they shot 54.7 percent from the field. Wingate scored 16 points, Ewing 14, and both made better than half their shots. But the Wildcats controlled the tempo in the absence of a shot clock and assured every one of their attempts was the best possible shot they could manufacture. They were 13-of-18 from the field in the first half — 72 percent. Then they started to play better.

Sophomore Harold Jensen became the hero, coming off the bench to make all five of his shots and 4-of-5 from the foul line.

“I really think our winning that year had a lot to do with the increasing popularity of the tournament, because it was ‘the biggest upset of all time’ — which I really don’t think it was — and couple that with the expansion of the tournament and then the shot-clock comes in and the 3-point shot, I think you just had a thing that exploded at the right time,” Lappas said.

“I just learned so much that year. Here’s my big memory: After the championship game, I said to Coach Mass as we’re walking to the press conference, I said, ‘Coach, can I ask you a question?’ And he said, ‘What?’ And I said, ‘What’s so hard about this?’ He punched me in the arm.”

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