A Wolfpack-Jayhawk Reprise
March 23, 2012
RALEIGH, N.C. – Jim Valvano knew when he took his team to Missouri for the 1986 Sweet Sixteen he might have a difficult time advancing to the Final Four.
He realized just how hard late in the second half of the Wolfpack’s Elite Eight contest against second-ranked Kansas. The game was played at Kansas City’s old Kemper Arena, a dirty-white arena with all the warmth and friendliness of a maximum-security prison.
What made the environment even more inhospitable was that the Wolfpack’s opponent, second-ranked Kansas, was located just over the border, about 40 minutes away, and played at least one home game a year at “Allen Fieldhouse East.”
So it wasn’t just the lineup of Greensboro-native Danny Manning, Cedric Hunter, Calvin Thompson, Greg Dreiling, Ron Kellogg and sixth man Archie Marshall that made the Jayhawks so dangerous. It was the partisan crowd, about 90 percent of which were wearing Kansas’ colors when the game began.
The Pack, making its second consecutive and fourth overall NCAA appearance under Valvano, was something of a late-season sensation, one of the many parallels to the current State team that will face Kansas tonight at 10:17 p.m. in St. Louis. After a fast start, the Pack lost six of seven late-season games, including a first-round loss to Virginia in the ACC Tournament.
But something changed in Valvano’s Seven & Seven lineup, a nickname that originated from the number of veterans and newcomers on the team, after the calendar changed from February to March. It grew better and stronger, thanks to the play of do-everything leader Nate McMillan and a pair of young big men, sophomore Chris Washburn and freshman Charles Shackleford.
After beating Iowa in the first round and surviving a double-overtime scare against Arkansas-Little Rock in Minneapolis, the Wolfpack gained confidence. It won a narrow 66-64 game over Iowa to advance to the Elite Eight for the third time in four years.
Having lost to the Jayhawks earlier in the season in Greensboro, Valvano believed his team would know enough about its opponent to have a chance to win at the end of the game. And it did.
Late in the contest, State had a commanding double-figure lead. That’s when Valvano took notice of a thundering whisper in the arena, a sound that swelled every time Manning and Dreiling scored another basket.
Rock…Chalk… Jayhawk! Rock… Chalk… Jayhawk!
“I thought we might be in a little trouble,” Valvano said.
The 1985-86 season shared several similarities to NC State’s current team, led by first-year coach Mark Gottfried. Both squads had a player with only one year of eligibility, even though they couldn’t have been more opposite (shot-blocking center Panagiotis Fasoulas and speedy guard Alex Johnson).
Both seasons were kicked off by presidential visits to Reynolds Coliseum. Ronald Reagan spoke in Reynolds in September of 1985 and Barack Obama spoke there last August.
Both had big men that had to sit out the early part of the season, in Charles Shackleford and C.J. Leslie.
And both had media-savvy coaches who turned their seasons around at the right time.
It was a time of major transition within the NC State athletics department. Midway through the season, some six weeks after long-time athletics director Willis Casey announced that he would retire at the end of the school year, the board of trustees named Valvano as his successor.
He punctuated his popularity that season by beating top-ranked North Carolina, eighth-ranked Kentucky and 16th-ranked Louisville at Reynolds Coliseum. He grabbed a few headlines after a loss to UNC in Chapel Hill when he grabbed the game ball, dribbled through the crowd of Tar Heel fans and made a layup, just so he could lay claim to making the final basket in the history of Carmichael Auditorium.
He had a team that was well-seasoned and talented.
Senior Ernie Myers was the lone holdover from the 1983 national championship. McMillan, a Raleigh native who spent two years at Chowan College, played four different positions for the Wolfpack and was the leader of a team that appeared at times to be undisciplined.
The other senior on the roster was Fasoulas, one of the most unusual one-year players in NC State history. The Pack had played against him the previous summer in a barnstorming trip across Greece. Fasoulas had played one year of basketball at a Massachusetts junior college seminary in 1980-81, but returned to Greece where he played professionally for four years. When promising sophomore forward Russell Pierre transferred to Virginia Tech after the 1985 NCAA Tournament, Valvano scrambled to see if Fasoulas might be interested in coming to Raleigh and managed to get him in school for his final year of eligibility.
Fasoulas, who played with a floppy mop of hair and quickly became a crowd favorite, may have been the last player in ACC history to enjoy a cigarette in the postgame lockerroom and is certainly the only player in the annals of the NC State to play an entire season with his name misspelled (“Fascoulas”) on his home jersey. After a long professional career in Greece, he served from 2006-2010 as the mayor of Piraeus, Greece’s third largest city.
The team’s only junior was forward Bennie Bolton, who followed the pipleline from Dematha Catholic in Hyattsville, Md., that brought Kenny Carr, Hawkeye Whitney, Dereck Whittenburg and Sidney Lowe to NC State.
Valvano had a host of gifted young players, led by the multi-talented Washburn, a native of Hickory, N.C., who became the most recruited player in the nation. He chose NC State shortly after its 1983 NCAA championship. Washburn had unparalleled grace and poise for a big man, and was highly coveted by the NBA following the 1986 season. He was the sixth overall pick by the Golden State Warriors later that spring.
The rest of the sophomore class – Vinny Del Negro, Quentin Jackson and John Thompson – didn’t see much action that season.
Valvano also brought in one of the largest recruiting classes in school history, a total of seven new players including Fasoulas: Shackleford, a lithe big man from Kinston, N.C.; 17-year-old freshman Chucky Brown of Navassa, N.C.; Parade and McDonald’s All-American Walker Lambiotte, a swingman from Virginia; guard Kelsey Weems; junior forward Teviin Binns, who came from the same Texas junior college that produced Spud Webb; North Carolina high school scoring standout Kenny Poston of Cherryville; and mop-haired center Fasoulas.
Despite the late-season swoon, the Wolfpack was one of the nation’s top teams by the time March Madness rolled around. As the tournament progressed, Washburn and Shackleford were practically unstoppable inside.
Brown, despite his tender age and size, showed that he would develop into a great rebounder, a tenacious defender and he could be a strong scorer when needed. Myers and McMillan provided the leadership Valvano’s team needed to survive and advance.
In the regional final game, one step away from the Final Four, the Wolfpack had a 57-52 lead with nine minutes to play, with ACC free-throw champion Myers on the line. He was unable to convert a three-point play, McMillan charged into Greg Dreiling on a questionable call and the thunderous chant took over the building.
“We were a game away each of my two years from reaching the Final Four,'' McMillan said. “If we are not playing Kansas in Kansas City, we would have probably gone to the Final Four (in 1986).”
So now, more than a quarter century later, the Wolfpack has a chance to put that history aside and keep moving in the tournament.
By Tim Peeler, firstname.lastname@example.org.