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Great expectations: the 1973-74 Indiana Hoosiers.

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IU's Assembly Hall: a new, state-of-the-art arena back in the early 1970s. Kirby Lee/Image of Sport-US PRESSWIRE
IU's Assembly Hall: a new, state-of-the-art arena back in the early 1970s. Kirby Lee/Image of Sport-US PRESSWIRE

Last week, I wrote about the 1953-54 Indiana Hoosiers, and AJ wrote about the 1960-61 Hoosiers. The period between 1960-61 and 1973-74 was the longest drought in preseason top 5 appearances until now (IU hasn't been in the preseason top 5 since 1992-93). Between 1961 and 1973-74, much changed at IU and elsewhere. Branch McCracken retired after the 1965 season (never again returning to the NCAA Tournament), and died in 1970. McCracken's longtime assistant, Lou Watson, took over in 1966, but other than a Big Ten title and NCAA bid in 1967 (and some excellent recruiting, particularly in landing George McGinnis and Steve Downing) Watson disappointed. The 1960-61 season was IU's first in the "new fieldhouse," now the Gladstein Fieldhouse, located just east of Assembly Hall. In 1971, with Assembly Hall finally under construction, IU fired Watson and began its pursuit of a new coach.

Plenty of high profile coaches were rumored to be interested in the job. This newspaper article from March 27, 1971 implied that Norm Sloan, NC State coach/alumnus and Indiana native, would be hired in a matter of days. John Wooden recommended Jerry Tarkanian for the job (after turning it down himself). Pacers' coach Slick Leonard would have been a popular choice. Army's Bob Knight, who had come close to taking big time jobs at Wisconsin and Florida, was the hire, and succeeded almost instantly. In his second season, Knight led IU to its first Final Four appearance in 20 years, where the Hoosiers fell to Wooden, Bill Walton, and UCLA, then nearing the end of the 88-game winning streak, which ended a few months later in South Bend. IU lost its best player, Steve Downing (20.6 ppg/10 rpg) and second-leading scorer John Ritter after 1973, but returned every other key contributor (most notably John Laskowski, Steve Green, Quinn Buckner), and added Scott May, Bobby Wilkerson, and Kent Benson. It's no surprise that the Hoosiers faced high preseason expectations for the first time in a decade, ranking #3 in the preseason poll. Unfortunately, the #3 ranking was the high watermark for the 1974 team, which isn't to say that they weren't a very good team. After a 3-0 start that included wins over both Kansas and Kentucky, IU fell at home to #6 Notre Dame (one of only two wins ever by ND at Assembly Hall). IU then lost to Oregon State in the Far West Classic and dropped the Big Ten opener at Michigan to fall to 7-3. The Hoosiers then ran off 13 in a row in Big Ten play and appeared destined to coast into their second straight NCAA Tournament. Instead, IU lost on the road to a bad Ohio State team, and then edged Purdue at home to preserve a tie with Michigan for the Big Ten title. It was to the 1973-74 Hoosiers' great misfortune that they went 20-5/12-2 in the final season in which the NCAA Tournament invited only conference champions and independents. Because IU and Michigan tied, and because there was only one NCAA bid available, IU and Michigan faced off on a neutral court in Champaign to decide the NCAA bid. Michigan won 75-67, and IU lost its chance to seek a return trip to the Final Four.

Having failed to advance to the NCAA Tournament, the Hoosiers were faced with an unwanted trip to the Conference Commissioner's Association Tournament, a short-lived event for conference runners-up that was a half-hearted attempt to take on the NiT and that was rendered moot by the expansion of the NCAA Tournament field the next season. For a detailed discussion of this odd event, pay the $3.82 necessary to download Bob Hammel's "Perfect," an ebook-only version of two now out-of-print books that Hammel wrote in the 1970s about IU's two undefeated teams. It's fantastic.

As Hammel discusses, Knight's years coaching on the east coast at Army, and his multiple trips to the NIT while there, gave him a high opinion of the NIT, and a few weeks before, Knight had expressed a strong preference to go there rather than the CCA. Nevertheless, the Big Ten was contractually bound to send its runner-up to the CCA. The tournament was very poorly attended, and to add insult to injury, was played in St. Louis, at the same arena where IU had played in the Final Four a year earlier. According to Hammel, Knight elected to approach the CCA as the beginning of the 74-75 season rather than the end of the prior season. Laskowski and Benson were put in the starting lineup. After close wins over Tennessee and Toledo in the early rounds, IU dominated USC, 85-60, in the final and won this nearly-forgotten event.

The 1973-74 season ultimately was a disappointment. A team that had advanced to the Final Four the year before returned most of its key contributors and failed to return to the NCAA Tournament. As I mentioned above, the story of the 1973-74 Hoosiers would be different today. Under the current setup, the team almost certainly would have earned a #2 seed or a #3 seed. Under the setup that was instituted in 1975, IU almost certainly would have been awarded an at-large bid. The 1974 Tournament marked the end of UCLA's streak of seven consecutive titles. Norm Sloan and NC State knocked off the Bruins in the national semifinal and then beat Marquette in the title game. While UCLA would add another title in 1975, the era in which IU was college basketball's leading program was about to begin.