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Wildcat men making second straight trip to March Madness

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The late Willard Tate coached ACU’s 1979-80 team to the NAIA Division I national tournament.
The late Willard Tate coached ACU’s 1979-80 team to the NAIA Division I national tournament.

Photo by Steve Butman

On Saturday night, Abilene Christian University will become the first Southland Conference men’s basketball team to play in consecutive NCAA Tournaments since Stephen F. Austin won the league postseason title and advanced in 2014, 2015 and 2016. The Lumberjacks also went in 2018.

But 2021 is by no means a postseason anomaly in Wildcat hoops history.

Dee Nutt (’50) took his 1965-66 ACU team to the Elite Eight of the NCAA College Division national tournament, losing to a North Dakota team on which future NBA coaching icon Phil Jackson starred. 

Then head coach Willard Tate led the last team he ever coached to a national stage. His 1979-80 Wildcats finished 27-5, advancing to the second round of the NAIA Division I tourney. In the first round in Kansas City, Missouri, ACU beat future seven-time NBA All-Star forward and Basketball Hall of Fame member Jack Sikma and Illinois Wesleyan 75-55 before dropping a 56-55 heartbreaker to LeMoyne-Owen.

The 2018-19 team (27-7 overall) of Joe Golding (’99) matched Tate’s 1979-80 outfit for the most wins in history by a men’s team at ACU. They pioneered Abilene Christian’s first experience at the Division I NCAA Tournament, but their No. 15 seed drew No. 2-seed Kentucky in the first round of the Midwest Regional in Jacksonville, Florida. 

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The late Dee Nutt was head coach for ACU’s Elite Eight team in the 1966 NCAA College Division National Tournament.
The late Dee Nutt was head coach for ACU’s Elite Eight team in the 1966 NCAA College Division National Tournament.

The SEC champs had a star-studded roster including five former McDonald’s All American high school honorees. And while Kentucky was making its record 59th appearance in the NCAA Tournament, ACU was making its first. Advantage: Goliath. ACU fell 79-44 after falling behind 39-13 at the half. A primetime audience on CBS, however, got a good look at the Wildcats’ grit.

So 2021 is a shot at redemption on a national stage after the pandemic canceled 2020 March Madness with ACU poised to make a run in Katy at a second Southland Tournament crown. Golding’s team ran roughshod over opponents in the league semifinals and finals late last week, never trailing for a second.

ACU teams have other postseason experience as well. Nutt’s teams in 1958-59, 1959-60, 1961-62, 1963-64 and 1964-65 made NCAA regional tournaments. Mike Martin’s teams won three straight Lone Star Conference titles and played in two regionals (1985-86 and 1986-87). Shanon Hays’ 1998-99 team reached the NCAA Division II regional final, and Golding took his 2017-18 team to the collegeinsider.com tournament following its regular season.

But nothing matches the exposure and experience of Division I’s annual extravaganza, whether cloaked in Bubble wrap during an unprecedented pandemic, or not. 

Golding’s team (#14 seed) makes another prime-time splash at 8:50 p.m. CDT Saturday in a game against The University of Texas at Austin (#3 seed). It’s another David vs. Goliath moment for sure, but the Wildcats believe they have a few more weapons in their arsenal this time, and no stage fright in sight.

Follow the Wildcats during March Madness at acu.edu/champions.

– Robin Saylor

Mar. 18, 2021

 
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