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What has and hasn’t changed in college basketball since 1986

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Shane Mettlen’s piece at Today’s U on July 24 about the old Metro Conference — and the schools which have prospered since its demise — elicits a question:

Just how different is college basketball since Louisville, an old Metro school, won the 1986 national championship 30 years ago?

That question begs a follow-up query, but it’s best to hold you in suspense and reveal it later.

First, let’s consider just some of the ways in which college basketball has changed since 1986:

  • The Big Ten and Pac-10 (now Pac-12) have created conference tournaments.
  • The First Four now exists.
  • Home-court subregionals and regionals are no longer allowed. LSU played a home-court subregional in 1986, and Georgia Tech (shown in the cover photo for this story) hosted LSU in the 1986 Sweet 16.
  • The three-point shot did not yet exist in 1986. The shot clock, in its first year of existence in the 1986 NCAA Tournament, was 45 seconds instead of 30.
  • Final Fours were played in conventional arenas a majority of the time in the 1980s (six years for arenas, four years for domed stadiums).
  • In 1986, there were 17 Independents, compared to only one last season.
  • In 1986, only 283 Division I teams existed, compared to 351 last season (68 fewer teams, enough to fill a whole NCAA Tournament field).
  • In 1986, not one conference contained more than 10 teams. In 2016, a total of 16 conferences contained 11 or more members.

That’s a significant degree of change — maybe not upheaval, given a 30-year arc, but certainly a substantial shift in the landscape.

Just how different was the 2016 NCAA Tournament from the 1986 version?

Not only was it less different than 30 years of change would suggest; these tournaments shared strong similarities, enough to make them kissing cousins within the larger run of March Madness history.


LSU was mentioned above. The Tigers carried a No. 11-seed to the Final Four, making them the first double-digit seed to reach college basketball’s biggest weekend. Three full decades later, Syracuse became a “perfect 10,” bringing a double-digit seed back to the Four-most assemblage of college basketball achievers.

Consider this, too: Both LSU and Syracuse beat No. 1-seeds in the Elite Eight to shock college hoops analysts from coast to coast.


In 1986, a 14-seed beat a 3-seed for the first time. The feat was replicated for good measure. Cleveland State and Arkansas-Little Rock both scored little-guy upsets.

No, a 14 didn’t reach the Sweet 16 in 2016 as Cleveland State did in 1986, but Stephen F. Austin came within one Notre Dame basket of doing so.

The 1986 tournament might have provided two 14-seed conquerors, but the 2016 tournament produced the closest thing to a 16-1 upset. The gargantuan takedown of second-seeded Michigan State (a team viewed by many as worthy of a 1-seed in the West) by 15th-seeded Middle Tennessee was the mother of all round-of-64 earthquakes. The volatility of 2016 matched the instability of 1986 on several fronts, not just the LSU-Syracuse connection.


In 1986, Duke — the best team in the ACC — got a 1-seed in the East; beat a 7-seed in the regional final in East Rutherford, New Jersey; and lost the national championship game in a major Texas metropolis (Dallas) by three points to a school which won its second national title (Louisville).

In 2016, North Carolina — the best team in the ACC — got a 1-seed in the East; beat a 6-seed in the regional final in Philadelphia, not far from East Rutherford; and lost the national championship game in a major Texas metropolis (Houston) by three points to a school which won its second national title (Villanova).


We live in an age of a 14-team SEC, a 15-team ACC, and a 14-team Big Ten. The Southwest and Big Eight Conferences are gone. Most of the 68 new D-I teams added over the past 30 years have fed into lower-tier conferences. So much of the college basketball world is constructed and aligned differently when compared to 1986. Yet, so much of the 2016 NCAA Tournament recalled the memory of March Madness, 30 years before.

Here’s that follow-up question promised earlier: Do we need to shrink conferences from 14 to eight, reflecting a 1986-style architecture in college basketball? Do we need more Metro and Southwest Conferences, or are super-sized conferences getting in the way of a quality March product?

If a comparison of 1986 and 2016 is the basis of the answer, the only reasonable response is: no.

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