A look back: 1986 Notre Dame team was primed to make a NCAA Tournament run

Chapter XVI: Irish
   Newell was almost ridiculously confident going into the Notre Dame game, though he didn’t have any reason to be. This Notre Dame team was loaded.
   The Fighting Irish lost in the finals of the National Invitation Tournament in the 1983-1984 season and returned their top eight players from a team that lost in the second round of the NCAA Tournament in 1984-1985. In Notre Dame’s first NCAA Tournament appearance in four seasons, the Irish were upended by North Carolina, but the game was played on the Tar Heels’ home court.
   Notre Dame started the 1985-1986 season in the Associated Press Top 20 and stayed there the entire way, finishing with a No. 10 national ranking. They were 23-5 and led the nation with an 8.6 rebound margin.
Notre Dame was also:
  • Third in the nation in free throw percentage (77.6 percent);
  • Fifth in the nation in scoring margin (14.1 points);
  • Eighteenth in the nation in field-goal percentage (52.1 percent);
  • Nineteenth in the nation in scoring offense (78.9 percent);
  • Twenty-first in the nation in win-loss percentage (.793).
   The New York Times rated the entire 64-team field after it was announced. Notre Dame was ranked seventh, and UALR 57th. That made the Irish a 20-point favorite in Las Vegas.
   The Irish returned all five starters:
  • David Rivers(G, 6-2, sophomore)
  • Ken Barlow (F, 6-10, senior)
  • Donald Royal (F, 6-7, junior)
  • Tim Kempton (C, 6-9, senior)
  • Scott Hicks (G, 6-3, junior)
   And the top three reserves:
  • Joseph Price (F, 6-5, senior)
  • Jim Dolan (G, 6-3, junior)
  • Gary Voce (F, 6-9, sophomore)
   Notre Dame also had a talented enough freshman in 6-feet, 5-inch Mark Stevenson that Hicks wasn’t starting by midseason. Price rarely played down the stretch.
Max Morgan breaks down the Irish

  Kempton didn’t move very well, but the other four Irish starters were racehorses. Notre Dame would press, press and press, keeping Kempton in the back. They could also pick up the pace by substituting Voce.
   Royal played more on the outside as a junior, but moved inside during the 1985-1986 season, as they moved Kempton out to power forward. Royal was a scorer, slick on the inside and tough enough to make contested shots. Hicks also worked heavily on his ball handling with the Irish expecting opponents to do whatever it took to keep the ball out of Rivers’ hands. Hicks probably had the team’s best jump shot, consistently hitting from the wings.
David Rivers
   “I think it’s just a confidence that these seniors have. When you have four guys who have played together four years, it just carries over to the underclassmen. Especially now that David Rivers had two years under his belt playing with these guys. You have that combination with the in-between players like Hicks and Royal that fill the gaps,” Phelps said. “What I like about this team is their game adjustments. They seem to have done that very, very well all season.”
   Make no mistake, Rivers, a sophomore from Jersey City, New Jersey, was the biggest threat. When Rivers arrived on campus as a freshman, Phelps told everybody that South Bend, a small town nestled innocently in northeast Indiana, wasn’t ready “for this.”
   Athletic Director Gene Corrigan, who was dealing with the struggles of the Irish football program, thought Phelps was out of his mind.
   “With all the social and academic adjustments David had to make, I wondered how he was going to be the second coming, too,” he said.
   Rivers was flashy, quick without the ball and a human highlight reel with it. Several times during the season, he fell to the floor while dribbling and was able to get up without committing a turnover. He wasn’t a great outside shooter, but he could get hot. Mostly, he was the engine that ran Notre Dame’s fast-paced offense.
   He also wasn’t shy.
   “David is comfortable in front of a crowd,” Phelps said.
   And at least partially because of Rivers, Notre Dame’s season ticket renewals were reported to be 100 percent that year. At the time, Notre Dame wasn’t part of a conference. Getting teams to play in February and March was a problem and the Irish typically loaded up on cupcake after cupcake.
   This year was different. With the high expectations, Phelps wanted to prepare his team for a run in the NCAA Tournament. He scheduled games at Indiana, LaSalle, Providence, DePaul, Brigham Young, North Carolina, Dayton, Syracuse, Duke, Miami and Marquette. Not since Kelly Tripuka and Orlando Woolridge patrolled the courts had a coach played as tough a slate. It was the most road games for the Irish since the 1972-1973 season.
   “When you have a good, veteran team, you go out and play people,” Phelps said. “I’m not worried about losing seven, eight or nine games during the season. If we are 19-9, it will be a better 19-9 than last year’s 20-8. I want this team to play the most competitive road schedule possible, because that’s what March (the NCAA Tournament) is all about.”
   It couldn’t have started much better with a 79-49 victory over St. Joseph’s and a 87-56 victory over Butler. That led Notre Dame into one of its biggest early-season tests. Not only did this game not go so well, it exposed one fatal weakness of the Notre Dame team against Indiana.
   Knight despises the zone defense. But he used it to success on December 3, 1985, as 20th-ranked Indiana beat Notre Dame 82-67 at Bloomington, Indiana’s Assembly Hall. Instead of falling apart, this Notre Dame team got better. The Irish ripped Illinois-Chicago, held on to beat Oregon and blasted Valparaiso and Creighton.
   Notre Dame beat LaSalle and then won at Providence, a team UALR lost badly to, 78-72 on January 7, 1986.
   At a time when UALR was reeling, off to a 4-9 start, Notre Dame was on cruise control, upping its record to 9-1 with a 70-54 victory at DePaul.
   Notre Dame had a hiccup, losing 80-76 at BYU, but rallied to beat UCLA, Hofstra and American University to post a 12-2 record going into a nationally-televised rematch with No. 1 North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
   “I can’t wait for the day we play North Carolina again,” Rivers said. “Not so much for revenge, but kind of redemption. I want to go into their home and come out on top.”
   The game was played on Super Bowl Sunday and was a physical affair. And Notre Dame initiated most of that physicality.
   “I thought the Super Bowl didn’t start until 5 o’clock,” North Carolina Center Brad Daugherty said afterward.
   North Carolina Coach Dean Smith accused the Irish of “unsportsmanlike conduct,” saying they were stepping in front of players as they ran down the court, causing charging fouls to be called. He also accused Notre Dame of holding Daugherty’s jersey.
   “We’ll take tear-away jerseys when we go to Notre Dame next year,” Smith said. “When they hold our shirts, we’ll be able to tear away and make layups.”
North Carolina held on, winning 73-61 to improve to 21-0 on the season.
   “You’ll never see North Carolina players jump in front of Notre Dame players when they’re going down the court,” Smith said. “We don’t coach that. They did it twice today and once last year in South Bend. It’s not good for basketball. It’s against the rules. They should have been penalized.”
   What was the difference between Notre Dame and Duke, ranked No. at the time?
   “Physical is how a team like Duke plays. That’s good, aggressive, defensive basketball. But Notre Dame goes beyond the limitations. They hold you. They knock you out of bounds. If they want to play that type game, they can go to the street,” Daugherty said.
   Notre Dame’s players didn’t see it that way.
   “I don’t know what they’re complaining about. Nobody was cheap-shotting anybody. There were no elbows that I saw,” Kempton said. “Sure, we were physical. I’m a physical player. That’s how I play. That’s how I’m always going to play.”
   Undaunted, Notre Dame went on another roll. Just as UALR was closing the regular season by winning 18 of 19 games, Notre Dame did the same, winning 10 of their final 12. The only losses were at Dayton, which the Irish avenged a few weeks later, and at Duke 75-74. The streak also included a 85-81 victory at No. 7 Syracuse.
   “I think we’re as good as anybody when we do the little things. But when we get out of doing those things, like not playing good defense and not blocking out, people can get a jump on us,” said Barlow, who was 12th in the nation in free throw percentage at 88.7 percent.
   Notre Dame had a major scare in its third-to-last game of the regular season, a victory over Marquette. Rivers suffered a sprained ankle in the second half and was in considerable pain afterward. Marquette beat Rivers down, ,trying to intimidate him. Kerry Trotter even shoved Rivers out of bounds into a press table.
   “I’d have been in the fifth row if I hadn’t hit the table,” Rivers said.
   Later, he sprained the ankle and had to sit out as Notre Dame beat New Orleans 75-67 at Kiefer Lakefront Arena.
   “We didn’t want to risk going into the NCAA Tournament without him,” Phelps said. “David has about 80 percent mobility, but we didn’t want him to play tonight and come out with zero percent.”
Even without Rivers, New Orleans Coach Benny Dees was impressed with the Irish.
   “That’s the best team we’ve played all season. Yes, Notre Dame is better than Memphis State. Notre Dame shoots the ball better and is definitely more physical. I was surprised the way they intimidated us, and out hustled us for loose ball and long rebounds,” Dees said.
   Rivers and Royal, who was bothered by a hip bruise, both were considered close to 100 percent for Notre Dame’s regular-season finale against Dayton, which was Phelps’ 300th victory as a head coach.
   “We’re playing every game like it depends on the NCAA bid. There’s no telling how far this team can go. When we concentrate and do things right, we have no limit,” Stevenson said. “The whole team has determination. Everybody on the team wants the seniors to go out winners. Right now, we’re taking one step at a time and we’re going to play hard every game.”
   After finishing the regular season 23-5, Notre Dame celebrated with a team banquet, at which Phelps said his team was ready, no matter when or where the Irish were scheduled.
   “We are conditioned to play on the road and it won’t bother us to play someone on its home court. I don’t think anyone thought we could go 23-5 with our road schedule. But this team is able to listen and make adjustments,” Phelps said.
  Really, most close to the program were hoping for Minneapolis. Notre Dame beat writer Forrest Miller penned this in a column: “Why not send Notre Dame to Minneapolis? There is a strong Irish following in the Gopher State, a Notre Dame basketball team hasn’t been there since 1971 and the only N.D. appearance in a dome this season resulted in an impressive victory at Syracuse.”
   “I think we’re just facing a great season where we know now that it’s up for grabs and I think the most important thing to realize is that you’ve got to beat everyone in the field,” Phelps said. “Wherever they send us, whoever we play, let’s just go do it.”
   Wish granted.