Twice bright in the 1986 NCAA Tournament, the Cleveland State men’s basketball team stunned Indiana and Saint Joseph’s.
“A shining star in the darkness of Cleveland sports,” Clinton Ransey, a forward on the team, told The New York Times in 2009. “And all that came crashing down in an instant.”
Before the flameout, the Vikings’ most brilliant moments came in their first NCAA Tournament appearance, starting with an 83-79 victory against No. 3 seed Indiana on March 14, 1986. Ransey’s 27 points led the way.
“It was a great victory for the off-Broadway guys against the prime-time guys,” head coach Kevin Mackey said after the game and after he was carried off the court by his players.
The Vikings followed up two days later with a 75-69 victory over No. 6 seed Saint Joseph’s, becoming the first 14 seed to reach the Sweet 16. It took David Robinson’s buzzer-beater, giving Navy a 71-70 victory in the East Regional semifinals, to snuff Cleveland State’s season.
But it was quite a season. CSU’s collection of ‘tweeners — players unwanted by major programs — finished second and sixth in Division I scoring and rebounding margin. They won the Association of Mid-Continent Universities (AMCU-8), but the conference did not have an automatic bid. Instead, the Vikings made it as an at-large team.
“We’ve been eating our hearts out to get this shot,” Mackey told Sports Illustrated.
The Vikings, led by freshman Ken “Mouse” McFadden, made the most of their shot.
“When I look at that team picture, we had enough for two teams, it seems like there were about 30 guys,” McFadden told The Cleveland Plain Dealer in 2009. “We had everything. We had the comedians, we had the speed, the size, the quickness, the skills, the singers. It was such a unique bunch of guys with so many different personalities to all come together for one common goal. It was one heck of a team.”
Against Bobby Knight’s Hoosiers, they took the lead for good midway through the first half with a 19-6 surge. The Hoosiers committed 10 turnovers before halftime, when the Vikings led 45-41.
“You’ve got to understand we got beat by a pretty good basketball team,” Knight said after the game. “As I told a reporter yesterday, ‘This is a team that could beat us.”’
Indiana’s loss would be part of the climax in John Feinstein’s best-selling book “A Season On The Brink.”
“To the outside world it might have been a shocker,” McFadden, CSU’s all-time leading scorer, told the Plain Dealer. “But we were like, ‘They’re beaten. Who’s next?'”
Saint Joseph’s was next then Navy, but the Vikings couldn’t overcome Robinson, who finished with 22 points, 14 rebounds and 9 blocks.
“It had an innocence at the beginning, when we were building the thing and there wasn’t any interest,” Mackey, now a scout with the Indiana Pacers, told the Plain Dealer. “Once you get the spectacular wins and the results, everything changes.”
Two months after the tournament, CSU forward Paul Stewart died playing a pickup game. Recruiting violations put CSU on NCAA probation in 1987. Then in 1990, Mackey was fired after police arrested him as he drove away from a Cleveland crack house.
Cleveland State finally returned to the NCAA Tournament in 2009.
None of that changes the sports moment judged the greatest in Cleveland State history.
On the cover: Cleveland State players celebrate their victory against Indiana in the 1986 NCAA Tournament. (Courtesy Cleveland State University Archives)
Video courtesy of NCAA via YouTube
THIS WEEK’S GREATEST MOMENTS
• Monday: Cincinnati and Cleveland State
• Tuesday: Coastal Carolina
• Wednesday: Colgate and Colorado College
• Thursday: Columbia and Connecticut
• Friday: Cornell and Clarkson