When the lights were turned on in Memorial Coliseum* and the ball rolled onto the court in October 1986, Alabama fans were still enjoying the Crimson Tide’s return to dominance in football. The Tide’s gridiron team appeared poised to win the Southeastern Conference for the first time since “Bear” Bryant roamed the sideline. While a late season swoon extinguished those hopes, the Tide’s basketball team was just ramping up for what would become the winningest season in Alabama hoops history.
“Wimp” Sanderson’s seventh season as the head man in Tuscaloosa promised to be a good one. The Tide was coming off its fifth straight NCAA Tournament appearance and its second straight Sweet 16 appearance. The Tide did lose star forward Buck Johnson off of the previous year’s team, but it returned four starters and sixth man James “J.J.” Jackson.
“I think the unique thing about the ‘87 team is that we had three or four older players who had redshirted and were very experienced,” Sanderson said. “Some sat out when they got here as freshmen and others sat out after transferring.”
In addition to having several former redshirts, Alabama seemed to have all of the puzzle pieces fit together. “I think that was the first year of the 3-point shot in college basketball and we really shot it well,” Sanderson recalls.
In fact, Alabama shot over 44 percent from beyond the arc, with guards Jackson and Mark Gottfried both shooting 49 percent.
In addition to great outside shooting, 6-foot-9 junior Derrick McKey’s versatile game proved to be a huge matchup problem for opponents. McKey could knock down a 15-foot jumper just as easily as he could finish inside and consequently, he led Bama in scoring with 18.6 points per game.
Even though Alabama was experienced across the board, including being led by senior floor general Terry Coner, Sanderson did not step back and allow the team to put it on cruise control.
“I put the pedal down on this group,” Sanderson recalls. “Early in the season I saw what this team might could do, but I think a lot of our players didn’t see it. I stayed on them pretty good.”
After dropping two close games to Florida State and Duke in the non-conference schedule, the Tide got rolling with wins over Arkansas and Missouri—before each school joined the SEC— before heading into league play.
Once in SEC play, it all clicked for the Tide. Bama defeated Kentucky by 14 in Rupp Arena en route to a 16-2 conference record and the SEC regular-season crown.
To follow that up, Alabama defeated Tennessee, Auburn, and LSU in the SEC Tournament in Atlanta to claim the SEC Tournament championship. It marked the first time since 1934 that the Crimson Tide captured both the SEC regular-season and tournament titles in the same season.
Alabama entered the NCAA Tournament as a No. 2 seed in its region, and easily won its first- and second-round games in Birmingham against North Carolina A&T and New Orleans, respectively.
The Tide then headed to Louisville to face Providence in the Sweet 16, with the Final Four in the back of its mind. Unfortunately for Bama, the Friars— led by guards Billy Donovan and Delray Brooks—shot the lights out and sent the Tide home wondering what could have been. To make the “what if” game even more frustrating, in Providence’s second-round matchup against huge underdog Austin Peay, the Governors had missed a free throw in a tie game with only two seconds left on the clock in regulation that sent the game to overtime. If the Governors had made the free throw, Alabama would have battled Austin Peay for an Elite Eight berth instead of Providence.
A heartbreaking end to the season does not detract from the huge accomplishments of the 1986-1987 Crimson Tide. It set an Alabama school record with 28 wins (against five losses) that stands to this day. It is also the last Tide team to win the SEC regular-season and SEC Tournament in the same season. Two Tiders, McKey and Jim Farmer, were selected in the first round of the 1987 NBA Draft. Two more players would later have long NBA careers: Keith Askins and Michael Ansley. Though Sanderson refuses to say it was his best team, the record books reflect just how special that Tide team was.
“People always ask me if that team was my best team, and I just don’t like to answer that question because we had so many good teams and good players, I just don’t think it’s fair,” Sanderson said.
Sanderson’s very successful tenure as head coach at Alabama saw his teams go to a total of 10 NCAA Tournaments and make it to the Sweet 16 six times. But even if the coach won’t admit it, the 1986-1987 version stands out as his best. H&A
*Memorial Coliseum was renamed Coleman Coliseum in 1988.