Bob Knight was coming off the roughest season of his career. The 1985 season had been marked by Indiana opening in the national top five and ending in the NIT. In between, Knight delivered his infamous chair throw. 1986 Indiana basketball convened with low expectations and the feeling that the program was being overtaken by others in the Big Ten. The ’86 Hoosiers got things turned around and even though this particular season ended with the thud of disappointment, it set the stage for better things to come.
Steve Alford was in his junior year and led Indiana in scoring with 23ppg. Alford got help from his forwards. Freshman Rick Calloway averaged 14 points/5 rebounds. Daryl Thomas contributed a 15/5 line from the power forward spot. Knight went into the junior college market for the first time to get Andre Harris and the 6’7” forward provided more rebounding help. Seniors Winston Morgan and Stew Robinson ran the offense.
Indiana was unranked to start the year, but quickly got people’s attention with a fifteen-point win over Notre Dame, a team bound for a 3-seed in the upcoming NCAA Tournament. The Hoosiers were ready to go to Lexington and play Kentucky.
In between the Notre Dame and Kentucky games, word leaked that Alford had posed for a calendar that a sorority was using as a fundraiser to help disabled girls. The long arm of the NCAA reached out, decided this was unacceptable and suspended Alford for the Kentucky game.
Indiana still put up a good fight at Rupp Arena, but lost 63-58. They lost another tough game to Louisville, the eventual national champion, 65-63. But the Hoosiers knocked off another NCAA Tournament-bound team, Knight’s future employer at Texas Tech. Indiana concluded the non-conference schedule at 8-2 and were up to #15 in the polls.
Michigan had run away with the Big Ten in 1985 and they had their key people back in ’86. That included center Roy Tarpley and point guard Gary Grant. The Wolverines were #2 in the country and they came into Assembly Hall and handed Indiana a 78-69 loss.
Michigan State had the conference’s MVP, point guard Scott Skiles, who averaged 27ppg and the Spartans would be the Big Ten’s only team to reach the Sweet 16 come March. They came into Assembly Hall and handed Indiana a 77-74 loss.
The promising season now reeling, the Hoosiers welcomed a couple soft opponents. Northwestern had Shon Morris, a Big Ten Network TV analyst today and a good rebounder back then. Wisconsin had a 20ppg scorer in guard Rick Olson. But neither the Wildcats or Badgers were good. Indiana got wins of 102-65 and 80-69 to get back to .500 in the league.
A stretch of three home games awaited with Ohio State, Purdue and Illinois. The Buckeyes had an explosive guard in Dennis Hopson and a top big man with Brad Sellers. Ohio State would miss the NCAAs this season, but win the NIT. Purdue and Illinois would both punch their tickets to the Dance before all was said and done. A key early stretch to the Hoosier season had arrived. They passed the test with three straight wins, including overtime against the Boilermakers and winning by two over the Illini.
Another NCAA-bound foe in Iowa was next and the road trip didn’t go well, ending with a 79-69 loss. But Indiana bounced back by rolling lowly Minnesota, then winning their rematches with Wisconsin and Northwestern.
It was time for the stretch of Ohio State, Illinois and Purdue again, this time on the road. An 84-75 win in Columbus was followed by a 61-60 escape in Champaign. Even though the road swing ended with a 17-point loss in West Lafayette, Indiana was flying high.
They were 10-4 in the Big Ten and against all odds, were tied with mighty Michigan for the conference lead. Michigan State was nipping at the heels at 9-5, as the season hit its final four games.
The Hoosiers came home and blasted Minnesota by thirty-plus, then delivered an 80-73 win over Iowa in the home finale. The Wolverines and Spartans each held serve. Indiana would conclude the conference season as they had begun, against these two opponents.
A trip to East Lansing simplified the conference race drastically. Indiana won 79-69. They were still tied with Michigan. It was winner-take-all on a Saturday afternoon in Ann Arbor.
It was also the last high point of the 1986 Indiana basketball season. The regular season finale was an unmitigated disaster, an 80-52 loss that was over by halftime. IU still picked up a 3-seed in the East Regional and had opportunity for redemption in the NCAAs.
But even though Alford scored 24 points, while Harris went for 16 points/10 rebounds, 14th-seeded Cleveland State proved to be a lot better than anyone thought. The Vikings beat the Hoosiers 83-79 and ultimately reached the Sweet 16.
The events of this season would be immortalized in John Feinstein’s book A Season On The Brink, a behind-the-scenes look at Knight and the entire program and the bestselling sports book of all-time.
More important from the perspective of Indiana fans is that the disappointing ending didn’t change the fact that the program had gotten back on the right track. And one year later they were the ones cutting down the nets on Monday night.