Rick Pitino and Billy Donovan have each made their mark on college basketball history. Pitino coached three Final Four teams at Kentucky, including a 1996 national championship. He went on to take Louisville to the Final Four in 2005 and 2012, and won the 2013 NCAA Tournament.
Donovan took over the Florida program, made the Final Four in 2000 and won consecutive national titles in 2006-07. The 1987 NCAA Tournament was where each one first made their mark and they did it together.
Pitino was the coach at Providence and Donovan was his floor leader. The 1987 NCAA Tournament was the first time the three-point line was used in postseason play (conferences could previously experiment with their own lines during the regular season before it was standardized at 19’9”).
The Friars were the first team to implement the strategy of constantly gunning from the three-point line, including off the fast break. It was enough for Pitino to take a program that was well off the national radar, make them competitive in the Big East and get all the way up to a #6 seed for March Madness.
Pitino’s team kept right on running on the tournament’s opening weekend. They dropped 90 points on UAB in a decisive 22-point rout in the first round. Then Providence got a break. Third-seeded Illinois was stunned by Austin Peay, a game remembered for the fact that ESPN’s Dick Vitale promising to stand on his head if Austin Peay pulled the upset.
The following season Vitale visited the Peay campus and made good on his word. What might Vitale have done if Austin Peay made the Sweet 16? We’ll never know, because even though the Friars got everything they could handle, a 90-87 overtime win sent Pitino and Donovan into the Sweet 16.
It’s ironic, given the career path Pitino would take, that this first big moment—the Southeast Regionals of the 1987 NCAA Tournament—took place at Freedom Hall in Louisville. Providence was easily the odd team out when you looked at the four teams that convened, fighting for a berth in New Orleans and the Final Four.
Georgetown was the #1 seed, with a deep bench and a talented small forward in Reggie Williams who had won Big East Player of the Year. Kansas had been to the Final Four a year earlier and had sophomore power forward Danny Manning, who in two short years would electrify the nation and win a national championship. Alabama was the 2-seed, the SEC champion and a potent scoring force in forward Derrick McKey.
By comparison it was hard to say how Pitino, led mainly by the undersized Donovan, was going to stay competitive. It turned out Providence, not only competed, and not only won, but they dominated.
Alabama was the opponent in Thursday’s regional semifinal. Donovan scored 26 points, and Providence was a lights-out 14/20 from three-point range. The final was 103-82.
The last obstacle was Georgetown. It would be easy to write off the Friars in this game. You could argue that they were alive only because of a bracket break, and then playing a favorite who was unfamiliar with what was then a new style of play. Neither would apply against Georgetown, who gained familiarity with Providence during the Big East schedule.
None of that mattered. Providence wasn’t even hot from three-point range, hitting only five from behind the arc. But they still had a 17-point lead by halftime and won 88-73. Donovan was the regional’s Most Outstanding Player.
Even though the dream ended with a loss to Syracuse in the national semifinals, it was a magical moment for Providence and the 1987 NCAA Tournament provided a great coming-out party for two men the college basketball world would hear more of.
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.
Bob Knight, Wayne Gretzky and Magic Johnson had already made their mark on the respective histories of college basketball, the NHL and the NBA. All three were looking for redemption in varying degrees, and in the year of 1987 sports, all three got back on top.
None of the three won a championship in more dramatic fashion than Knight. After coaching the U.S. Olympic team to a gold medal in 1984, Knight’s Indiana Hoosiers had seen some hard times—missing the NCAA Tournament in 1985 and losing in the first round in 1986. Knight’s infamous, albeit vastly overplayed chair-throw incident took place in ’85.
It was appropriate that the year Knight returned to the top of the college basketball world took place in the same year the movie Hoosiers came out. Like the movie, the real-life version of the story ended up with a last-second shot winning the national championship, as Keith Smart’s jumper near the baseline gave Indiana a 74-73 win over Syracuse and their head coach his third national title.
The 1987 NCAA Tournament also provided a Cinderella, and one with lasting implications for college basketball. Providence made the Final Four. It was the first breakthrough for a young head coach named Rick Pitino. And his best player was Billy Donovan. We’re still hearing plenty from both Pitino and Donovan on the sidelines today. Read more about 1987 Indiana basketball Read more about Rick Pitino, Billy Donovan & 1987 Providence
Magic Johnson already had three championship rings and twice had been named MVP of the Finals. But the 1986 season ended badly for his Los Angeles Lakers, and there was talk that they might be supplanted by the Houston Rockets in the Western Conference.
Instead, Magic upped his game to become a top scorer, without losing his tremendous passing ability and he won his first league MVP award. The Lakers won the NBA title, and their battle with the Boston Celtics in the Finals was a historic benchmark—it was the last time Magic and Boston’s Larry Bird ever competed for a championship.
And on the hockey side, Wayne Gretzky’s Edmonton Oilers had seen their dynasty interrupted in 1986, after winning consecutive Stanley Cups in 1984-85. Gretzky won another MVP award of his own—making him 8-for-8 in his career, and Edmonton erased the upset loss of 1986 by capturing a third Stanley Cup in four years. Read more about the 1987 NBA Finals Read more about the 1987 Edmonton Oilers
Baseball and college football each provided good regular seasons and interesting finishes. The baseball season was highlighted by a dramatic AL East race, with the Milwaukee Brewers providing any number of streaks, both individual and team, while the Toronto Blue Jays and Detroit Tigers ran a great race to the final day of the season.
And baseball’s postseason was marked by a team making full use of the rotation system MLB then used to set homefield advantage for both the League Championship Series and World Series. The Minnesota Twins won their division on the one year in four that they were set to have homefield throughout, and the Twins used it win a surprise World Series.
College football saw the first advent of the four-team playoff that begins in 2014, albeit entirely unintended. But Miami-Florida State and Nebraska-Oklahoma ended up as a de facto national semifinals, with the winners playing for the national title and the losers meeting in the Fiesta Bowl. Miami won the national championship and Florida State ended up #2. Read more about the 1987 World Series Read more about 1987 college football Read more about the 1987 AL East race
The NFL toyed with fans with the second strike in six years. Four weeks of play were missed, but unlike the 1982 strike, the league used replacement players to cover for three of the weeks. The games counted in the standings and were retained even after the regular players returned.
What this strike year had in common with 1982, was that once again it was the Washington Redskins who held together and won the Super Bowl. The Strike-Year ‘Skins still had the magic and their 42-10 rout of the Denver Broncos sealed a title, with Doug Williams becoming the first African-American quarterback to start and win the Super Bowl. Read more about the 1987 Washington Redskins