The Time Navy Went to the Elite 8

David Robinson and the United States Naval Academy seemed like a perfect match.

When it came to college basketball, both were overlooked, minimized, and discounted. 

Just two years before arriving at the U.S. Naval Academy in 1983, Robinson was a slight 5’9” junior at Osbourn Park High in Manassas, Virginia, with no record of organized basketball. Though Robinson sprouted to 6’6” as a senior and earned all-area honors for Osbourn Park, college coaches weren’t dropping scholarship offers on his doorstep. After scoring a 1320 on his SAT, Robinson decided that majoring in mathematics at Navy seemed a pragmatic step to a sound future. Basketball endured as a secondary concern. 

Like Robinson, Navy flaunted no basketball pedigree of note. While the Midshipmen had some notable athletic history, much of that success came on the gridiron, including Heisman Trophy winners Roger Staubach and Joe Bellino. Losing seasons littered the Academy’s basketball record books, though Navy did boast an unlikely Final Four run in 1954. 

Together, of course, Robinson and Navy would shift the narrative and submerge name-brand programs in the process.  

Building momentum 

During his freshman campaign in 1983-1984, Robinson did not start a single game. He did, however, contribute 7.6 points and 4 rebounds per game off the bench for a 24-8 Middies squad turning the corner under head coach Paul Evans. 

But as a sophomore, Robinson climbed to 7’1” and emerged a powerful force for Navy. Boosting his averages to 24 points, 12 rebounds, and 4 blocks per contest, Robinson piloted Navy to a 26-6 record and its first NCAA Tournament appearance in 25 seasons. As a #13 seed, the Midshipmen trounced #4 LSU 78-55 in the tournament’s opening round before bowing out to Len Bias and #5 Maryland in the second round. 

“LSU had no idea who we were,” Robinson said of Navy’s 1985 appearance in the Big Dance. “But Maryland kind of knew.” 

Heading into the following season, everyone knew about Navy and its star center. 

With the stage set for a compelling 1985-1986 season, including a loaded non-conference slate that included games against the likes of St. John’s, Syracuse, DePaul, and Georgia Tech, Navy began the season ranked #19 in the Associated Press poll. 

The Midshipmen delivered on the pre-season hype, pulling upsets over #20 DePaul, thrashing Penn State by 53, and rumbling through the Colonial Athletic Conference’s inaugural season with a 13-1 league mark before capturing the CAA’s automatic bid with a tournament title victory over George Mason. 

Into the Big Dance 

As the #7 seed in the East Region, Navy ventured north to Syracuse, New York, for a date with #10 Tulsa. Navy throttled the Golden Hurricane 87-68 behind a 30-point, 12-rebound performance by Robinson and a 25-point, 11-rebound effort from Vernon Butler, a burly 6-7 senior and the team’s emotional driver. 

“We’ve never been close to being humiliated like that,” Tulsa head coach J.D. Barnett said after the Navy loss. “And that’s what it was – humiliation.” 

With a spot in the Sweet Sixteen on the line, Navy faced a rematch with Syracuse at, quite unfairly, the Cuse’s home arena.  

Back on Dec. 7, Pearl Washington and the Orange sunk Robinson and his mates 89-67 at the Carrier Dome, forcing Navy into 21 turnovers in an uncompetitive game. Most expected the teams’ March Madness meeting to produce a similar beatdown.  

Robinson, however, wasn’t having it. In fact, the often-stoic Robinson told teammates he would consider it a personal embarrassment if Rony Seikaly, Syracuse’s decorated 6-11 center, scored more than 4 points.  

Then, the Admiral delivered, dominating Syracuse with a 35-point, 11-rebound, 7-block performance while also avoiding embarrassment by limiting Seikaly, a future NBA lottery pick, to 4 points. Navy rolled over the Orange 97-85. 

“You could hear a pin drop because the Syracuse fans were so quiet,” Butler said of the often-raucous Carrier Dome crowd.  

In the regional semifinals, Navy matched up against upset-minded Cleveland State, which had already chopped down Indiana and Saint Joe’s. After racing out to a 39-30 halftime advantage, Navy hung on for a 71-70 victory behind 23 points and 10 assists from sharpshooting guard Kylor Whitaker and yet another double-double from Robinson (22 points, 14 rebounds), who scored the winning basket in the closing seconds. 

On the Final Four’s doorstep 

With a spot in the Final Four on the line, Navy faced a Duke program yearning to become a modern-era blueblood. The Blue Devils, who claimed the ACC’s regular season and tournament titles, featured six high school All-Americans and five future NBA pros. Duke also had a coach, West Point alum Mike Krzyzewski, who was not going to take another service academy lightly. 

Duke star Johnny Dawkins stole the show with a dazzling 28-performance that propelled the Blue Devils to a 71-50 victory and the first of 12 Final Four appearances for Coach K at Duke.  

Though falling short of the Final Four, Navy nevertheless closed out its season with a historic 30-5 record. 

“We captured lightning in a bottle that season,” Whitaker said. “It was a team with tremendous chemistry. Nobody executed as well as we did, nobody was as unselfish as we were, nobody was as disciplined as we were. It was the perfect team for Navy.”