The 1987 Indiana basketball team was looking to redeem themselves. 1986 had ended with March disappointment—they’d been upset by Cleveland State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament—but they were also looking to avoid a dubious historical distinction. The senior class, led by sharpshooter Steve Alford, had never won a Big Ten championship and no team in the Bob Knight era had ever graduated without winning at least one conference title.
Alford was the leading scorer and team leader, and power forward Daryl Thomas joined him in the senior class. Rick Calloway was a smooth and athletic small forward. There were holes at point guard and center and Knight had gone with what, for him, was the unusual route of recruiting junior college players to fill them, adding Keith Smart in the backcourt and Dean Garrett in the post.
IU came through some tough times in the early part of the season, less about on-court performance and more about a brief suspension of Thomas for not going to class. The senior got back on track and the team was enjoying a big year. The problem was that it was a strong year in the Big Ten. Purdue would be in the hunt all year, as would Illinois. And no offense in the conference—perhaps in the nation—could score quicker than Iowa, under a fast-paced style by Tom Davis and they hung 101 points on the Hoosiers in a January win in Iowa City.
Indiana went through a trying stretch on the court in conference play, barely getting by three cellar-dwellers in Northwestern, Wisconsin and Minnesota. The game against the Badgers was a 9 PM ET start for ESPN and went to triple overtime before Garrett scored the game-winner in the 86-85 final. The game is best known for Knight lambasting the late starts for television, noting how late the kids were going to be back on campus on a school night and asking “Where’s the priorities?”
The mediocre performance and late nights didn’t stop Indiana from getting revenge on Iowa’s return trip to Bloomington, but against Illinois they faltered and it allowed Purdue to hold a one-game lead in the conference coming into the final week. The goals of Alford, Thomas and reserve forward Todd Meier, the third part of the senior class, were in serious jeopardy.
Indiana took care of its business, winning both of their games. On the final day of the regular season, as Alford signed autographs after a 90-81 win over Ohio State, the word came through to him—Michigan was killing Purdue and the Hoosiers would share the Big Ten crown with the Boilermakers.
The Hoosiers were the #1 seed in the Midwest Regional, and the first two games would be in Indianapolis. The blowout win over Fairfield to start the tournament could’ve happened anywhere, but a home crowd advantage was surely a help when they fell behind Auburn 24-10. After a chewing out from the head coach, Indiana quickly turned the game around and they won 107-90. The win sent them on to Cincinnati for the regionals, where Duke would be the opponent, while LSU and DePaul faced off in the other semi-final.
Today the names of Bob Knight and Mike Krzyzewski are inextricably linked, with the mentor-protégé relationship being well-known and Krzyzewski’s breaking of Knight’s all-time career wins record being a high point of the 2011-12 early season. Back then, even though Coach K had made his first Final Four appearance the previous year, he was still the up-and-comer without a ring, while Knight was the legend who’d already won it all twice. This year, Knight had the better team.
Even though Duke got out to a 29-21 lead, the Hoosiers had a ten-point lead by halftime. Calloway, playing in his hometown, scored 21 points and Smart added 21 more. Indiana shot 56 percent, won the rebounding battle and eventually the game, 88-82. On the other side of the draw, LSU, the #11 seed in the regional upset #2 seed DePaul and was looking to make the Final Four for the second straight year as a double-digit seed.
Indiana was the solid favorite, but they only led by one at the half and LSU controlled the early part of the second half, moving out to a 12-point lead. During the Tiger run, Knight became angry with the officials and went to the scorers bench where NCAA officials were and pleaded his case. The lasting image of this is Knight pounding a courtside phone and the receiver springing up.
The phone incident eventually cost IU a $10,000 fine and for a few years Knight and LSU coach Dale Brown were enemies over what the Tiger coach perceived as intimidating the officials. The two men traded insults in public, before they sat down, talked it out and became friends. To think, if they’d just used cell phones in 1987, the imagery wouldn’t have happened, and maybe none of the fallout.
LSU was still leading 75-68 with five minutes to play. A fast-break basket by sixth man Joe Hillman and a foul, cut the lead to four. The Hoosiers were down by a point at 76-75 when Tiger guard Fess Irvin went to the line to shoot a one-and-one. He missed the front end. Indiana brought it down the floor. Thomas took what looked like the final shot from the lane and it came up an air ball. Calloway swopped in for the rebound and put it back. Indiana had survived 77-76 and their hometown kid was the hero.
The Final Four was in New Orleans and Indiana was paired with fellow #1 seed UNLV in a high-profile semi-final. The Rebels were generally seen as the best team in the country, with a potent backcourt led by Mark Wade distributing and Freddie Banks scoring. Armon Gilliam was as good a power forward as there was in the nation and any team coached by Jerry Tarkanian would play hard on defense.
This year was the first time in the NCAA Tournament that the three-point line was in effect. It had been used in regular season play in different conferences at different distances since 1983, but the ’87 rules codified the distance at 19’9” and introduced it into postseason play. Today that worked to the advantage of the Rebels, as Banks drained ten by himself on the way to 38 points. Gilliam scored 32 and pulled down 10 rebounds.
But Indiana made a surprise decision to run with UNLV and Alford poured in 33 points and while the Hoosiers weren’t as prolific from behind the stripe they outshot Vegas from the floor 62-43%. Indiana led 88-76 and held off a furious UNLV rally that cut the lead to as little as four, which is where it ended, 97-93.
Syracuse would be the opponent in the Monday night final in the Superdome. The Orange had three future NBA players in their starting lineup, with power forward Derrick Coleman, center Rony Seikaly and point guard Sherman Douglas. All would have productive pro careers. Alford was the only player on Indiana’s roster who would last more than a year at the next level and it was far from productive. It’s the singular testament to Knight’s coaching that not only did this group win a national title, but they were so efficient all year that they actually entered this title clash as a favorite to beat the Orange.
The game would be a back-and-forth classic and this time it was Indiana who benefited from the three-point shot. Alford hit 7-for-7 from behind the arc, including one right before the half that put IU up by a point at intermission. But Coleman was rebounding ferociously and would have 19 boards by night’s end. Syracuse finally opened up some breathing room at 52-44 in the second half. It was time for Knight to turn to another hometown hero.
Smart hailed from up the road in Baton Rouge and he’d been briefly sat down by his coach with the firm admonition to “settle down.” With the championship in the balance, Smart took the game over. He had 23 points for the game and 12 came in the final five minutes. Trailing 72-68 he drove the baseline for a reverse layup. But when he went to tie it one trip later, his short jumper missed and was rebounded by Syracuse forward Howard Triche who was immediately fouled.
Triche hit the first free throw, but missed the second. Smart grabbed the long rebound off the and rapidly sprinted the other way for a basket that cut it to one as the clock neared the half-minute mark. It was a play that Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim would look back on with regret, feeling he should’ve pulled his rebounders off the lane and kept the defense back. It wasn’t that Smart had scored, it was that Indiana only had to use a few seconds of time to cut the lead to two.
Still, the Orange had the lead and just need to hit their free throws. It was the freshman Coleman who was fouled and had the chance. Coleman was in position to be Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four. But he missed the front end of the one-and-one.
Now that extra time that Boeheim lamented came into play as Indiana was able to work the ball around, first seeing if Alford could take the final shot, and then looking for other options as their captain was closed off. Thomas had the chance to take a decent shot from the free throw line, but he saw Smart whirling around the side to his left and slipped him the ball. Smart’s dribble took him close to the baseline and he pulled up for the shot, that with four seconds left, won the championship.
The final was 74-73. It was the fifth national championship in Indiana basketball history and their coach’s third. Bob Knight had taken a special place in history and in a year when the movie Hoosiers, later to be seen as one of the great sports films ever made, hit the big screen, the 1987 Indiana basketball team had provided a real-life dramatic finish.