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Stan Becton | | February 23, 2023

Inside Alcorn State men’s basketball's NCAA tournament success in the early 1980s

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Alcorn State's men's basketball dynasty of the early 1980s is arguably the most successful in HBCU basketball history when considering postseason success. The Braves won three NCAA tournament games in five years, an unparalleled feat among HBCUs for nearly 40 years. The remarkable run was one for the ages. Here's how it all went down.

The coach

While players came and went throughout Alcorn State's run, head coach Davey Whitney remained the one constant. Whitney, now a Hall of Fame inductee, started at Alcorn State in 1969 and had a decade of experience with the Braves when their tournament run began.

The warmup

Alcorn State's historic run didn't start in 1980, the year of the first tournament win. Instead, it started one year prior when the Braves weren't even eligible for the tournament.

1979 marked Alcorn State's final year of transition into becoming a Division I program with the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC), leaving the Braves a year away from NCAA tournament eligibility. Yet, even a transitioning Alcorn State program had success.

The Braves went undefeated, winning the SWAC regular season and conference tournament titles — the first Alcorn State SWAC tournament title in program history — with a 27-0 record. Since the undefeated SWAC champions weren't eligible for the NCAA tournament, they entered the NIT instead and headed to Starkville, Mississippi to face Mississippi State.

In the first round of the NIT, Alcorn State defeated Mississippi State 80-78. In the second round, the Braves lost to eventual NIT champion Indiana 72-68. Legendary Hoosier coach Bobby Knight told Sports Illustrated that the Braves were their toughest opponent. Alcorn State ended its final season before officially entering the DI ranks at a new peak.

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The turn of the decade brings new success

It's safe to say that Alcorn State had momentum entering the 1979-1980 season. Now officially among the DI ranks, the Braves faced Mississippi State in an NIT rematch early in the season. The Bulldogs beat the Braves 83-80. That would be Alcorn State's only loss.

The Braves ran the table the rest of the way to finish the season 28-1 and again undefeated in SWAC play. Alcorn State won back-to-back SWAC regular season and tournament titles, but still faced the uncertainty of the NCAA tournament. The SWAC didn't have an automatic qualifier in the conference's first year in DI. However, Alcorn State made history as the first — and still only as of 2022 — HBCU to earn an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament as the No. 8 seed. The Braves became the first HBCU to earn a tournament berth.

Alcorn State drew No. 9 South Alabama in the first round. Alcorn State won its first NCAA tournament game 70-62, becoming the first HBCU to win a tournament game. Two-time reigning SWAC Player of the Year Larry "Mr. Mean" Smith led the way with his 18-point, 17-rebound double-double, with Eddie Baker and E.J. Bell adding 18 and 16 points, respectively.

The Braves made history in the first round before falling to No. 1 LSU 98-88 in the second round. After the season, Smith was selected in the second round of the 1980 NBA draft by the Golden State Warriors.

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The dynasty continues

In 1981, Alcorn State won its third-straight SWAC regular season title, but missed out on a three-peat in the SWAC tournament and thus failed to return to the NCAA tournament. Yet, Alcorn State's tournament drought would only last one year, returning to the NCAA tournament in 1982 as SWAC regular season and tournament champions. The 11th-seeded Braves lost to sixth-seeded Houston 94-84.

Alcorn State made it back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances in 1983 after failing to win the SWAC's regular season title but winning the SWAC tournament title. The Braves received one of the tournament's lowest seeds at 12th and played fellow 12 seed Xavier in the opening round for a chance at a first-round shot. Alcorn State won its second NCAA tournament game in four years with its 81-75 victory behind Michael Phelps' team-leading 18 points and six steals. Phelps was one of four Braves to score in double-figures in the win.

1984 saw the third-straight Alcorn State NCAA tournament berth after the Braves won their fifth SWAC regular season or tournament title in six years. In the tournament, Alcorn State again received a 12 seed and faced an opening-round game. The Braves defeated Houston Christian (then Houston Baptist) 79-60 for its third NCAA tournament win in five years. In the first round, Alcorn State came within one point of upsetting No. 1 seed Kansas 57-56.

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Cementing a dynasty

Alcorn State's three NCAA tournament wins in five years remain the pinnacle of HBCU postseason success as of the conclusion of the 2022 season. Only Texas Southern's three tournament wins from 2018-2022 have matched the Braves, but the Tigers didn't win a first-round game. For that Alcorn State remains a slight step above and alone as an HBCU NCAA tournament dynasty. Throw in Alcorn State's seven straight years of SWAC regular season or tournament wins from 1979-1985, and you have arguably the top HBCU men's basketball dynasty ever.

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