The upcoming NCAA Tournament Midwest Regional in Kansas City so neatly fits a previous NCAA regional 33 years ago. I thought about it all weekend and waited for the right matchups to fall into place. They did.
Now let’s tell the story of how 2019 recalls 1986 in the Big Dance.
Four main ingredients found in the bowl in 1986 are back in 2019, plus some smaller side ingredients as well. Item by item, you can see the parallels between one gathering of four teams at a regional site and the other one, a third of a century apart.
Ingredient No. 1: Auburn is here. Auburn, a program which rarely makes the Sweet 16 (this is just its fifth Sweet 16, its first since 2003), found its way to the West Regional in 1986. It made this year’s Midwest Regional.
One of the “side” ingredients: Auburn made the 1986 West Regional in a year when it made back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances. That year marked the second time the program had ever pulled off the feat. The program has done so this year as well, the sixth time in Auburn history that AU has made the Dance floor in consecutive seasons.
Another side ingredient as part of the main recipe: Auburn went to a Western site — Long Beach, California — on the first weekend of the tournament. It played a team from the Southwest (Arizona) in round one and beat a powerhouse of the era, St. John’s, in round two. In 2019, Auburn went to Salt Lake City and beat New Mexico State in round one and Kansas in round two. Parallel after parallel exist with Auburn.
Ingredient No. 2: North Carolina is at the 2019 Midwest Regional, just as it was at the 1986 West Regional. Dean Smith made 13 straight Sweet 16s from 1981-1993, one of the most remarkable streaks in college basketball history alongside his protege, Roy Williams, NEVER losing a round-of-64 game in the NCAA Tournament. 1986 was just one more year in that 13-year series.
Obviously, a big difference between 1986 and 2019 is that UNC has a better team this year, but Carolina in the Sweet 16 is something to expect in any season, no matter the decade. The consistency of the program emerges in this comparison of moments 33 years apart.
Ingredient No. 3: The power-conference-quality team from a league which was not part of the Power Five old guard (SEC, Pac-10/12, Big 8/12, ACC, Big Ten). I am obviously talking about Houston in 2019, compared to UNLV in 1986.
Yes, the AAC can generally be considered a power conference along with the Big East, but one can also say the AAC doesn’t yet exhibit the marks of an elite league. The AAC is trying to be what the Metro Conference was in the 1980s (more on that in a bit), and it might soon get there, but until Memphis and Connecticut and Wichita State perform as members of the league, the AAC will feel like a “tweener” conference, a weak high-major or a very strong mid-major conference.
Yet, if you are uncertain of how to treat the 2019 AAC or the 1986 Big West Conference, you can agree that much like Gonzaga is not a mid-major program in any meaningful sense other than its conference affiliation, UNLV was — of course — not a mid-major program in 1986. Houston is definitely not a mid-major now. These teams transcend their conferences and built themselves into profoundly powerful programs — Vegas back in the mid-1980s under Jerry Tarkanian, Houston now under Kelvin Sampson.
Side ingredient: Both coaches had well-known run-ins with the NCAA.
Bonus ingredient: The 1986 West Regional was held in Houston, so the reality of Houston knitting together 1986 and 2019 is even more pervasive. Also, isn’t it remarkable that a WEST Regional was played in Houston, as opposed to a Midwest or South Regional? In 1986, the Midwest Regional was also played in Kansas City. The Southeast Regional (as it was known then) was played in Atlanta.
Ingredient No. 4: One of the blue-blood programs from the Commonwealth of Kentucky was part of this quartet. In 1986, Louisville went to Houston to compete for a spot in the Final Four. In 2019, Kentucky is chasing a ticket to Minneapolis in April.
What also links 1986 Louisville and 2019 Kentucky is that these are not the most overwhelmingly remarkable teams Denny Crum and John Calipari ever had. These are, after all, No. 2 seeds and not top seeds. Both teams — if you compared them — are very workmanlike. It is true that in 1986, the lack of a 3-point shot in college basketball created a very different game. Yet, Louisville obviously had no problem functioning in that kind of a world. Kentucky has managed just fine despite the lack of abundant 3-point shooting.
Both teams do have a dependable late-game shooter, though: Jeff Hall for UL in 1986 and Tyler Herro for 2019 UK could share some stories. Pervis Ellison and P.J. Washington could talk about their journeys. Both teams played ferocious defense and fit together in their roles. They blended well and had players who didn’t care who got the credit for team successes. They had players — Milt Wagner and Ellison for Louisville, Ashton Hagans for Kentucky — who could profoundly affect the trajectory of a game without scoring, given their skills in so many other facets of play. These teams didn’t win because of one or two superstars, but because of their balance. Five Louisville players in 1986 averaged in double figures as scorers, with no player averaging 15 or more points per game. Kentucky has four double-figure scorers, with no one averaging more than 15 points per game.
The 1986 West Regional in Houston: Auburn. North Carolina. UNLV. Louisville.
The 2019 Midwest Regional in Kansas City: Auburn. North Carolina. Houston. Kentucky.
In both years, Auburn was the lowest seed at the regional. In both years, the team from the Commonwealth of Kentucky was the No. 2 seed.
In both years, the team from Kentucky had a coach — Crum in 1986, Calipari in 2019 — who was searching for a second national championship and had gone at least six years without sipping from that cup. Crum won the 1986 West Regional, got back to the Final Four in Dallas, and won a second title.
If history really does repeat itself, Kentucky will make its way through the Midwest.
We will see if history continues the parallels with the 1986 West Regional in Houston this weekend in Kansas City.
You can listen to and subscribe to the CBB Today Podcast on iTunes right here.
As always, don’t forget to subscribe to our college basketball, NCAA Tournament and NBA Draft email newsletter below. It’s the only way to survive the impending alien invasion.