The formation and ultimate rise of the Big East brought northeast superstars to the national spotlight when they would make the later rounds of the NCAA tournament. Patrick Ewing did it for Georgetown, Ed Pickney was Villanova’s guy and of course St. John’s had Chris Mullin.
When Johnny Dawkins signed with Duke, a sleeping giant was awoken in the ACC. That Jordan guy in North Carolina. NC State coach Jim Valvano running around the court looking for someone to give him a hug, while the tragic tale of Len Bias was being told in Maryland.
These were all big names in big schools at big conferences. So how hard was it for a small school from a conference that nobody would consider major, to break through and be successful among the wealthy elite?
“I think that, well back then it felt like there were a lot of dudes that were kind of on top-tier teams, and there were a lot of those top teams,” said former Navy center and 1987 Wooden Award winner David Robinson.
“I thought that the Big East was strong, the ACC was strong, there were always those, Michigan, Indiana was strong, Kansas, I thought there was a lot of teams that were really, really strong teams from those major leagues.”
MARCH 16, 1986
Navy had not only drawn Syracuse in the third round of the NCAA tournament, but also the misfortune of playing the Orangemen in the Carrier Dome, the largest college basketball venue in the country, sitting right in Syracuse’s backyard.
Syracuse’s Dwayne “Pearl” Washington was not only one of the best players in the nation, but also seemed like the hero that Jim Boeheim’s team needed in order to become the next in line to keep the Big East’s dominant streak in college basketball alive.
But late in the season, Pearl had to play against two of the best big men in the country, one in the Big East tournament finals and one, a 7-foot-1 junior from the Naval Academy.
David Robinson would be the final big man to make the Pearl fall, and he did it on Syracuse’s home floor. Robinson had scored 35 points which he described to the Los Angeles Times after the game as a “slow and sluggish” offensive performance, arguing that the only decent looks he got came on layups.
Navy won the game 97-85 in what looked like a blowout following an 18-7 Navy run in the second half of the game. Robinson had scored 14 of those 18 points. But as exciting as it was to see Pearl play on the same court as Robinson, both of these teams had pretty full lineups.
It was also the final game for Rafael Addison, who scored 11 points for Syracuse, finishing his career just seven points shy of Dave Bing for the school’s all-time scoring record.
For Navy, power forward Vernon Butler’s 23 points were enough to frustrate Boeheim into revealing the flaw in his game plan.“The key to the game was [Vernon] Butler,” Boeheim told the Los Angeles Times, “We contained him earlier this season, but with Robinson going the way he was, we had to pay too much attention to him.”
Syracuse had two centers, Rony Seikaly and Rodney Walker, foul out while trying to guard Robinson, who hit 21 of his 27 free throws.
Seikaly and Robinson were teammates on the World Junior Championship team and became close friends. The following season, during halftime of the NCAA Finals, the day after Robinson was the MVP of the NABC All-Star Game, Robinson sat down with Jim Nantz to discuss not only his career status, but also Seikaly, who was playing for Syracuse against Indiana in that game.
“At the beginning of the season, I thought he was just going to dominate the Big East and everything and I was a little surprised that he started off slow, but in the tournament, he’s been doing a great job,” Robinson told Nantz. He then went on to, “Go with the big man, Rony,” when Nantz asked about his second half prediction.
The dissatisfaction Robinson had with his offensive play in the 1986 game against Syracuse was a sign of the times. This was the attitude of a man in this generation. Robinson was at least able to give himself a little credit when it came to rebounding and playing defense. “Alert,” was the word he used to describe the 11 rebounds and seven shots he blocked in that game.
He was clearly a dominant physical force, but Robinson knew he needed to use more than that to ultimately be successful at all levels.
“Back then I’ve seen the better players work more on their skill set,” Robinson said. “Where as now I think kids rely on their athleticism a lot and they don’t work so much on really defining their game and it shows when you get to the higher levels.”
If there is one thing that players like Robinson -- on a team like Navy -- did, its level the playing field for smaller schools, especially in the NCAA tournament.
“It felt that way back then it felt like you were climbing a bigger hill if you were a twelfth seeded team or a fourteenth-seeded team,” Robinson said. “It felt like a bigger hill and now you watch the game and it doesn’t seem to be quite as much as an uphill battle.”