In the years following Bob Knight’s third national title with the 1987 Indiana basketball team, the Hoosiers had yet to make another serious assault on the summit of college basketball. They went out in a shocking first-round loss in the 1988 NCAA Tournament. A first-round loss in 1990 as an 8-seed was less surprising. There were two pretty good teams in 1989 and 1991, each winning Big Ten titles, but losing in the Sweet 16. The 1992 Indiana basketball team got Knight back to the Final Four.
Indiana was loaded coming into the season. They had shared the conference championship with Ohio State the prior year and all the key players were back in the fold. None was more important than Calbert Cheaney, the great small forward who averaged 18ppg in his junior year and set the stage for what would be a run to National Player of the Year in 1993.
Greg Graham and Damon Bailey were each double-digit scorers in the backcourt and each shared playmaking duties. The frontcourt didn’t have a true center, but they had two guys that played the power forward spot awfully well. Alan Henderson and Eric Anderson combined to average 22 points/13 rebounds per game.
Knight also had good depth, particularly at the guard spot. Jamal Meeks was an excellent passer and led the team in assists. Chris Reynolds was a defensive whiz and another good playmaker. Todd Leary could shoot the three-ball as well as anyone this program had seen since Steve Alford. It was with good reason that Indiana was ranked #2 in the nation to start the season.
With those high expectations, the season opener was a big letdown. Indiana played UCLA in the neutral-site tipoff classic and was terrible in an 87-72 loss. The Hoosiers played better against archrival Kentucky, but lost 76-74. The early portion of the schedule wasn’t bad—Indiana beat NCAA Tournament- bound St. John’s 82-77 and went on the road to an eventual Final Four team in Cincinnati and won 81-60. Indiana was still ranked 10th in the country, but more was expected.
More was what Knight’s team started delivering as Big Ten play opened. The Hoosiers tuned up with blowout wins over bad teams in Minnesota and Wisconsin. A highly anticipated home game with Ohio State was up next. The Buckeyes had swept the season series in 1991 and had similar high expectations for this season. They were led by Jim Jackson, an All-American forward, the best player in the conference and the father of another later Big Ten star, Traevon Jackson of Wisconsin.
Indiana turned back Ohio State in Assembly Hall with a 91-83 win and took the early upper hand in conference play. They followed it up with offensive explosions, dropping a combined 291 points in three wins over Northwestern, Michigan and Purdue. The first and last of those wins wasn’t necessarily impressive, but the Wolverines had a recruiting class known as “The Fab Five” that would be heard from before it was over.
The first loss of the Big Ten season came at Michigan State. The Spartans were led by the conference’s best center, Mike Peplowski, and freshman Shawn Respert was already a good scorer and turned into a conference MVP by his senior season. Indiana played poorly in a 76-60 loss. After beating Illinois and handling an NCAA-bound Iowa team, the Hoosiers lost again. A 71-67 loss at Minnesota was not excusable and Indiana no longer had the upper hand in the Big Ten.
They got that upper hand back by blowing out Northwestern and Michigan State at home and then going to Ohio State for a national TV game on the final Sunday of February. The Hoosiers got an 86-80 win. They followed it up by beating Illinois and then going into Iowa and coming out with a tough 64-60 win.
Indiana was 13-2 in the Big Ten, a game up in the conference and primed for a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. But in another big Sunday road game, the momentum stalled. The Fab Five kids at Michigan were rounding into form and knocked off Indiana 68-60 in Ann Arbor. Indiana answered with an easy rout of Wisconsin to end their home schedule, but they were still tied for first when the final game of the year arrived.
On Saturday night, Ohio State won at Minnesota and clinched a share of the Big Ten crown. Even though Indiana couldn’t win it outright, they could still grab their own half of the hardware and they were still likely to get a #1 seed, given their season sweep of the Buckeyes. All IU needed to do was win at Purdue, in the midst of a down year.
The Boilermakers didn’t have any notable players—the most notable in retrospect is that current head coach Matt Painter was a reserve on the team—but what they did have was a lively crowd and a desire to deny their rival a piece of the league title. Indiana lost 61-59. They ended up a 2-seed in the NCAA Tournament, were sent to the West Regional and were most decidedly going in the wrong direction.
IU traveled to Boise for the tournament’s first weekend. Henderson delivered 19 points/11 rebounds in an easy 94-55 rout of Eastern Illinois to get it started. The next test was a big one—7-seed LSU and a junior center named Shaquille O’Neal was waiting.
Shaq was unstoppable, going for 36/12, but Indiana had more weapons. Cheaney was brilliant, dropping 30 points and grabbing eight boards. Henderson had another 19-point night. Matt Nover, a future co-star with Shaq in the Nick Nolte movie Blue Chips kicked in 13 points on 6-for-11 shooting. The Hoosiers won a fast-paced game 89-79.
One year earlier, Indiana had ousted Florida State in the second round. The Seminoles were an improved team, up to a 3-seed this year and they were the opponent in Albuquerque to start the regionals. FSU had a backcourt of Charlie Ward and Sam Cassell—a future Heisman Trophy winner and another who played a long time in the NBA.
This was another game that moved at a fast pace, and it was close at the half, 40-38. Once again, Indiana was able to pull away in the second half. Cheaney went for 17/11, Greg Graham popped in 19 and the big star of the night was Anderson who scored 24 to key the 85-74 win.
One last roadblock awaited for the Final Four and IU was back to where the journey had started in November. UCLA had come out of the season-opening win and went on to an outstanding year. They were led by two prolific forwards, Tracy Murray and Don MacLean. The Bruins had a couple really good freshmen in Tyus Edney and Ed O’Bannon, players who ultimately keyed a run to the 1995 national championship. UCLA was the 1-seed in the West.
But the Hoosiers were just too hot. The y shot 58 percent from the floor. Anderson had another good game, this time scoring 17 points. Bailey added 22 more. And Cheaney put the finishing touches on his Most Outstanding Player of the regional run, with 23. The game was never close and Indiana won 106-79.
Knight was heading back to the Final Four and all the media focus was on his battle with former protege Mike Krzyzewski. Coach K was now well on his way to becoming what he is today, which is the greatest college basketball coach ever. He was in his sixth Final Four and aiming for a repeat national championship.
Indiana played well and led 42-37 at half. But they weren’t getting to the free throw line and Duke was. The Blue Devils shot 42 free throws to 16 for the Hoosiers and that translated into a 28-12 scoring advantage. It was too much to overcome, although Leary gave it a noble effort.
With the game seemingly over, Leary came off the bench for the final minute of play and hit a trio of three-point shots in rapid succession to cut the lead to 81-78. The Hoosiers got the ball with a chance to tie. Duke finally guarded Leary and the ball had to go to Meeks in the corner. It was a clean look, but Meeks wasn’t a shooter and the shot missed. The game ended there. Duke won the NCAA title on Monday by blowing out Michigan. But this Saturday national semifinal was the real national championship game.
Indiana came back in 1993 and produced an even better team, winning the Big Ten outright and earning the #1 seed in the Midwest Regional. An ill-timed injury to Henderson was too much to overcome in NCAA play and they lost a tough regional final game to Kansas. The 1992 Indiana basketball team was the last time the great Robert Montgomery Knight went to the Final Four.