By JOHN JAMES MARSHALL, Journal Sports
Two years earlier, he played in half-filled high school gyms against overmatched competition.
Now, Wayne Smith found himself on the floor of Mid-South Coliseum in Memphis, about to play in the 1984 NCAA Tournament.
Days earlier, Louisiana Tech had shocked Lamar, which had an 80-game home winning streak, in the Southland Conference championship game to qualify for the NCAA Tournament. The Bulldogs had been so focused on beating Lamar, who had topped Tech twice that year, that they almost didn’t immediately grasp the big prize for winning.
“We all just kind of realized, ‘Wow, we are in the (NCAA) Tournament,’ ” said Smith, then a 6-foot-4 sophomore point guard for the Bulldogs.
Smith, who played high school basketball locally at now-defunct Trinity Heights in the Louisiana Independent School Association (LISA), was part of the greatest period in Louisiana Tech men’s basketball history. He had two very different experiences on playing in the NCAA Tournament —
1984, when no one expected Tech to make the NCAA Tournament, and 1985, when Tech was not only expected to play, but to play well as a Top 10 team.
“Two totally different experiences,” Smith said. “But both were just surreal.”
Here’s how much things have changed: When the Bulldogs got home from Beaumont after beating Lamar, someone thought it might be a good idea for a get-together with the team and a few media members to watch the Tournament Selection Show in the basement of Hutcheson Dorm.
Tech drew the No. 10 seed and would take on Fresno State, the No. 7 seed. But when CBS’ Billy Packer began to tout a potential Fresno-Houston matchup in the second round — “that would be a very interesting game,” Packer said — the room came alive.
“We’ll show Billy Packer!” exclaimed star player Karl Malone.
And they did, winning 66-56.
After beating Fresno, Smith saw what reality looked like two days later for Tech’s next game.
“Walking down the tunnel to play us was Akeem Olajuwon,” Smith said. The No. 2-seeded Houston Cougars were so worried about Tech that they didn’t bother to fly in until the morning of the game.
“But we held our own against them,” Smith said of the eight-point loss. “We just kept playing. The one thing coach (Andy) Russo ingrained in us was just to keep playing every game like it’s your last game.”
The next year, Tech was 27-2 and ranked No. 8 in the nation when the tournament arrived.
“Coming off the Fresno game, I think we maybe didn’t quite realize how special of a team we had,” Smith says. “Fast forward a year later when we had that confidence. I don’t think we had it that first year when we were a little bit in awe that we were even there.”
The Bulldogs were rising stars in the 1984-85 season, winning the first 10 and then going 11-1 in the Southland Conference, but had to win an overtime game and a one-point game in the conference tournament just to guarantee a spot in the NCAAs.
“I felt like we belonged, but it’s so hard when you are fighting in conference and playing teams that know your tendencies and are familiar with you,” Smith said. “So when we went to play Pittsburgh (in the ’85 first round, a game Tech won easily, 78-54) it felt we had a new life. Then we beat Ohio State by 12 (79-67) and came within a bounce (against No. 1 seed Oklahoma, an 86-84 loss in OT) of going to the Elite Eight. I really feel like that team believed we were supposed to be there.”
These days, from his home in Shreveport, Smith watches college basketball play a style unlike what he experienced four decades ago.
“The game is so different now,” he said. “The shot clock has changed things and there was no 3-point line until my senior year. It was much more of a possession game when we played, which was in our favor. We played four-out and one-in and tried to pound the ball down low to Karl. We played to our strengths and were successful in doing that back then.”
Smith has grown to appreciate his appearances in the NCAA Tournament because “you realize how hard it is to get there,” he said. Since 1985, Tech has only been to the NCAAs three times – and not since 1991.
“When you look back, it was really special,” Smith said. “We had a bunch of homegrown, Louisiana kids – from Monroe, Shreveport, Summerfield, Minden, New Orleans. You look back and see who we had, plus the coaches like Russo and (Tommy Joe) Eagles and (Steve) Welch and (Dave) Simmons. Just so many good people and great memories.”