As the 1986-87 season began, the Hoosiers were ranked in the top 5, but also were in the midst of what was at the time IU's longest Final Four drought under Bob Knight. As AJ documented last week, the Hoosiers stumbled in 1984-85 despite a top 5 rating, sipping into the NIT and finishing with a losing Big Ten record for the first time in Bob Knight's career. IU rallied in 1985-86, the season documented exhaustively by John Feinstein in A Season on the Brink, finishing the regular season with a 21-7 record, and rallied from an 0-2 Big Ten start (home losses to Michigan and Michigan State) to finish 13-5 in the Big Ten, a game behind champion Michigan. Unfortunately, IU lost to Cleveland State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, which was IU's first opening round loss since 1967. Still, the Hoosiers returned their top three scorers from 1986 (Steve Alford, Ricky Calloway, Daryl Thomas) and added talented junior college transfers Dean Garrett and Keith Smart, and debuted at #3 in the AP poll, one slot ahead of archrival Purdue.
The initial ranking was well-deserved. After a surprising road loss to unranked Vanderbilt, the Hoosiers ran off 20 wins in their next 21 games. The only loss was on the road against #1 Iowa. Unfortunately, the Hoosiers relinquished their firm grip on the Big Ten by losing back to back road games against Purdue and Illinois, but IU finished with a win over Ohio State to tie with Purdue for the Big Ten title at 15-3. The Hoosiers entered the NCAA Tournament with a 26-4 record and earned the #1 seed in the midwest. Fortunately for IU, that meant that the Hoosiers played their first two NCAA Tournament games in front of a partisan crowd at the Hoosier Dome.
In my mind, the 1987 squad is the team that truly entrenched Bob Knight's legacy. His 1976 team, of course, is the last undefeated NCAA champion, and as much credit as Knight deserves for that team's accomplishments, all five of IU's starters were first round NBA draft picks, including 1977 #1 Kent Benson. The 1981 team was led by Isiah Thomas, perhaps the greatest player of his size in the history of basketball. Knight deserves the ultimate credit for assembling those teams and coaching them, but other coaches could have won titles with those squads. The 1987 Hoosiers, on the other hand, are the only NCAA champion of the past 46 seasons without an eventual first round NBA draft pick on the roster. Alford, Smart, Garrett, and Calloway all had brief NBA careers, but none stood out in the NBA. Alford was an all-time great as a college basketball player, but unquestionably his talents were a perfect match for Knight's offense. I'm not sure there is a coach other than Bob Knight who could have won a title with his 1987 roster.
In Indy, the Hoosiers handled Fairfield and Auburn, setting up a Sweet 16 matchup between IU and Duke. Not only was it the first matchup between Knight and his protege Mike Krzyzewski, it was the first time IU and Duke had ever played in basketball. IU prevailed 88-82, setting up a regional final between IU and LSU. In 1986, LSU had made a surprising run to the Final Four as a #11 seed, knocking off #1 seed Kentucky in the regional final. In 1987, the Tigers again were a double digit seed (#10), but LSU upset #2 Temple and #3 DePaul to reach the regional final. IU trailed by 12 in the second half, but rallied to take the lead on a Ricky Calloway putback of a Daryl Thomas miss with seven seconds remaining. The Hoosiers were Final Four bound for the first time since 1981.
The 1987 Final Four included Knight, then a two-time NCAA winner, and three other coaches who eventually would win the Tournament: Jerry Tarkanian (UNLV), Jim Boeheim (Syracuse), and Rick Pitino (Providence). None of them would win their first in 1987. In a semifinal matchup of the Final Four's two remaining #1 seeds, IU ran with the Running Rebels and prevailed 97-93. In the final, despite strong performances from both Smart and Alford, IU trailed Syracuse by 1 with 26 seconds remaining, with Syracuse freshman Derrick Coleman on the line for the front end of a one and one. You know what happened next.
And there you have it. Based on preseason record and ranking, the NCAA championship appeared to be an expected outcome--top 5 preseason, 26-4 record, #1 seed. Considering the roster, this truly was a masterful coaching job by the best coach of his generation. Entering the 1986 Tournament, Bob Knight was one of only six coaches who had won multiple NCAA titles, and when Keith Smart intercepted Syracuse's desperation heave, Knight became only the third coach to win three or more titles, joining John Wooden and Adolph Rupp. In the succeeding 26 years, only Mike Krzyzewski and Jim Calhoun have been added to that elite list. Only with Knight on the bench could IU's 1986-87 roster have been accurately picked as a preseason top 5 team.
As I mentioned above, Keith Smart has said in many interviews that he is asked about this game on a near daily basis during his travels as an NBA coach. It unquestionably is an iconic moment, and any Indiana resident who was old enough to remember knows where he or she was when it happened. Still, these clips are a bit bittersweet. Bob Knight was only 47 years old on March 30, 1987. Who could have known then that it was Knight's last title at IU and that the Hoosiers would come close only twice in the next 25 seasons? Still, it's a nice reminder of what is possible at IU.
After the 1987 title game, CBS aired "One Shining Moment" for the first time. Could the Hoosiers finally be the main feature again, 26 years later?