In my post last week about IU's 1949-50 team, I mentioned that I wasn't sure to what degree teams of that era endured the sort of preseason expectations that today's teams face. I would guess, however, that the 1953-54 Hoosiers faced plenty of expectations. 1952-53 was, at that point, the finest basketball season ever for IU, and even today I think it's arguable that only the 1976 team has exceeded what the 23-3/17-1 1953 team accomplished when considering both regular season and tournament accomplishments. In 1953, IU ascended to number one for the first time on March 3, and remained there for the remainder of the season. Thanks to some last minute heroics from future Indiana Pacers' coach/broadcaster Bobby "Slick" Leonard, IU edged Kansas by one point to win the NCAA Tournament for the second time in 14 seasons. The 1954 team included the top seven leading scorers from the 1953 team--Don Schlundt, Slick Leonard, Dick Farley, Burke Scott, Lou Scott, Charlie Kraak, and Dick White. Unsurprisingly, IU began the season ranked #1 in the AP Poll.
The Youtube video below relates mostly to the 1953 team, but because the 1954 team had a nearly identical roster, it's worth posting. There are some excellent highlights as well as an extended interview with Slick Leonard, who addressed the disappointment in the Hoosiers' failure to repeat as NCAA champions.
The first AP poll of 1953-54 was issued on December 8, and the defending champs, already 2-0, debuted at #1 and remained there for the first three polls of the season, dropping to #3 after a December loss to Oregon State on a neutral court in Eugene (after defeating the Beavers in Corvallis on the same road trip). IU recovered nicely, opening Big Ten play 9-0 before an inexplicable road loss to Northwestern, which finished 5-13 in the conference. On February 22, with the Big Ten title within grasp, IU suffered a lopsided home loss (92-64) to #10 Iowa, but thanks to season-ending wins over Ohio State and Illinois, the Hoosiers won the Big Ten by a game over the Hawkeyes.
As I mentioned above, nearly every key contributor from the 1953 champs returned. During my post last week on the 49-50 team, I mentioned that the individual statistics showed that the game was very different from what we know today. By 1954, just four years later, the numbers are a bit closer to what we would expect today. Don Schlundt's numbers would have been beautiful in any era: 24 points per game, 50 percent shooting from the field, 77 percent from the line on over 11 attempts per game. Not bad for a guy who was 6-10.
The Hoosiers' second consecutive outright Big Ten title sent IU back to the NCAA Tournament. IU faced #6 Notre Dame in Iowa City, on the homecourt of the team IU had edged to win the Big Ten. IU had defeated the Irish earlier in the season, but ND entered the game with a 17-game winning streak and knocked off IU 65-64. So, the season ended in disappointment for a group of players who knew, from personal experience, that they were good enough to win it all. Nevertheless, finishing the season in the top five and losing in the NCAA to the hottest team in the country wasn't a huge step back for the program.
Unfortunately, IU's NCAA glory was over for the decade. IU made just one more NCAA appearance in the decade, in 1958, and again lost to Notre Dame in the first round. More on the 1960s on Thursday.