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Indiana Hoosiers NCAA Tournament history: how has IU fared under the weight of expectations?

Indiana is a #1 seed for only the third time. How have highly touted IU teams performed in the past?

Joe Robbins

Indiana has earned a #1 seed for only the third time since the NCAA began the seeding process in 1979 and for the first time in 20 years. The Hoosiers have been to the Final Four more recently (2002) and won a title in the seeding era without being a #1 seed (1981), but without a doubt expectations are higher for this team than for any IU team since 1993. Over the summer, we did a series here called "Great Expectations," documenting the history of the fourteen IU teams that began the season ranked in the AP top 5 (the 2012-13 team was the 15th). The good news for the Hoosiers is that they are the eighth of the fifteen preseason top five teams to finish the regular season in the AP top 5 (the 1981 Hoosiers fell out, but redeemed themselves by winning the NCAA Tournament). So, how have the teams who finished the season in the top five fared?

1953: The 1953 Hoosiers began the season near the bottom of the top 20, but steadily ascended and spent the last two weeks of the regular season ranked #1 for the first time in program history. The Hoosiers finished the regular season 19-3 and with a 17-1 Big Ten record. IU won its first outright Big Ten title in 1953 and became the first of four IU teams to win 17 or more Big Ten games in a season (how many such seasons do other Big Ten teams have combined? Zero.). IU knocked off DePaul and Notre Dame in the early rounds of the Tournament in Chicago, and then went to Kansas City for the Final Four, where they beat LSU and Kansas for their second NCAA title.

1954: The defending champs debuted at #1, but despite returning all contributors from the 1953 team, this squad couldn't quite recapture the magic of the previous season. IU certainly had a fine season, going 14-4 and winning the Big Ten, and entered the NCAA Tournament ranked #2, but Notre Dame, which had lost to IU 66-55 in the regular season, avenged the prior season's elimination and handed IU its first-ever NCAA Tournament loss.

1975: It was another 21 years before IU would enter the postseason with such high expectations. The 1975 Hoosiers, Bob Knight's fourth IU team, cruised through the regular season undefeated, but lost Scott May to injury in the regular season finale at Purdue. May played sparingly in the Tournament, and the undefeated and top-ranked Hoosiers were eliminated by hated Kentucky in what may be the most devastating loss in IU history. Interestingly, or not, that game was played in Dayton in the same arena where IU will begin this season's Tournament.

1976: The story of this team is so well-known that it hardly bears repeating. After the heartbreak of 1975, IU followed up with another undefeated regular season, and then finished the job in the Tournament. The Hoosiers beat St. John's, Alabama, and Marquette in early rounds, and then dispatched UCLA and Michigan (in the first ever title games between conference rivals) in the Final Four to win IU's first title in 23 seasons and to finish what remains the most recent undefeated season in college basketball.

1983: The 1983 Hoosiers are the only team honored with an individual Big Ten championship banner in Assembly Hall. The Hoosiers briefly were #1 in January, but eventually struggled a bit after Ted Kitchel suffered a season-ending injury in late February. The Hoosiers finished the game with a three game home stand, and they beat Purdue, Illinois, and Ohio State to clinch the outright title. Bob Knight announced on senior night that he would raise a Big Ten title banner in honor of the fan support that helped the Hoosiers overcome adversity. In the Tournament, however, obviously the loss to Kitchel was felt, and IU lost to #12 Kentucky in the Sweet 16.

1987: The smoke-and-mirrors aspect of Bob Knight's career is often overstated. His best teams generally had plenty of NBA talent. But it is difficult to imagine any other coach earning a preseason top 5 ranking or winning the NCAA title with a squad that didn't include an NBA first round pick. IU dropped a couple of late season games to Illinois and Purdue that cost the Hoosiers the outright Big Ten title, and they needed a big comeback against a not-so-good LSU team to advance to the Final Four, but once there, the Hoosiers knocked off loaded UNLV and Syracuse teams to win their fifth and most recent NCAA championship.

1991: The 1991 Hoosiers overcame a rough season in 1990 by leaning heavily on underclassmen, including sophomore Calbert Cheaney and freshman Damon Bailey. IU won a share of the Big Ten title and was ranked #3 in the final AP Poll, but the young Hoosiers couldn't overcome eventual NCAA runner-up Kansas in the Sweet 16.

1992: With nearly everyone returning, the Hoosiers mostly met the high expectations associated with this season, but IU missed out on a share of the Big Ten title and a #1 seed in the Midwest by losing to NIT-bound Purdue in the regular season finale. This led to an epic instance of "BK Theater," involving walking home from the airport and canceling the postseason basketball banquet. Whether a tantrum or a calculation, it seemed to work, as IU cruised through the West region, where they pummeled #1 seed UCLA 106-79 in the regional final. In the Final Four, IU built a solid lead against Duke, but the Blue Devils came back to win, thanks in no small part to Ted Valentine placing nearly the entire IU starting lineup in foul trouble.

1993: It's unfortunate that none of these three early 1990s teams came through with a title, because other than that omission this was perhaps the finest multi-year stretch in IU history outside of 1973-1976. The 1993 Hoosiers were expected to be good, but the sophomore version of the Fab Five earned the preseason #1 and an inordinate level of hype that inexplicably continues to this day. IU won the Big Ten going away, sweeping Michigan and finishing two games ahead of the Wolverines in the standings. Unfortunately, the most important moment of the 1993 season happened in front of just a couple of dozen people: Alan Henderson's knee injury in a February practice. Henderson returned to play in a handful of games, but ineffectively, and while the #1-ranked Hoosiers reached the Elite Eight, they were no match for Kansas's front line without #44. This outcome becomes even more disappointing in retrospect. At the time, none of us entertained the idea that it would be another 20 years before IU entered the NCAA Tournament as a title contender.

Well, there you have it. Of IU's nine previous top 5 teams entering the Tournament, four have reached the Final Four, and two won the NCAA title. Of the five that didn't reach the Final Four, three teams (1975, 1983, 1993) may well have made it without injury problems. IU is among the all-time leaders in NCAA titles and Final Four appearances despite having fewer teams than programs such as UNC, UCLA, and Kansas that have appeared to be contenders. In short, IU historically has made the most of its opportunities. Let's hope that continues over the next three weeks.