Bob Knight is one of the all-time greats of college basketball, a man who won consistently and did it without compromising recruiting ethics or his school’s academic standards. Knight produced several great teams over the years, including three national championship runs at Indiana. The 1993 Indiana Hoosiers were his last truly outstanding team, and if not for an untimely injury might have added another national title to the trophy case.
Indiana was coming off a Final Four run in 1992, losing a close game to eventual national champion Duke. The Hoosiers had almost everybody back in the fold for 1993, and it started with Calbert Cheaney. A small forward with a smooth jump shot and an exceptional ability to work the baseline, Cheaney would average 22 ppg in 1993 and win National Player of the Year honors.
Cheaney was well-supported by a lineup oriented to the backcourt. Greg Graham and Damon Bailey could each shoot from the perimeter and handle the ball. The bench was deep and mostly with guards, ranging from pure shooters in Pat Graham and Todd Leary to a great on-ball defender in Chris Reynolds.
The frontcourt didn’t have the same depth, but they had Matt Nover, who was steady and consistent. And the difference-maker up front was Alan Henderson, a power forward who averaged 11 points/8 rebounds per game and added a shotblocking dimension to the Hoosier defense with his athleticism. Both Nover and Henderson could be classified as power forwards, so depth in this area was the one weakness the 1993 Indiana Hoosiers would have to navigate.
Indiana won the preseason NIT in New York City, beating Florida State (who would ultimately reach a regional final in the NCAA Tournament) and Seton Hall (who won the Big East). They also beat Cincinnati, another team destined for the regional finals in March. A close loss to Kentucky on a neutral floor rankled, and a loss to Kansas in the Hoosier Dome was an ominous foreshadowing, but Indiana was on everyone’s short list of national title contenders when conference play opened.
After two wins to start Big Ten play, Indiana traveled to Michigan on January 12. This was the age of “The Fab Five” in Ann Arbor. Chris Webber and Jalen Rose led a class of five sophomores who had made the NCAA final the prior year, the first team to do so with an all-freshman starting lineup. Michigan was even better in ’93.
The Michigan-Indiana games of 1993 had the undertones of a basketball culture war. It was Michigan’s relatively undisciplined style, it’s trash-talking, it’s baggy shorts and suspicions (ultimately proven true) that the recruiting methods to lure them to Ann Arbor were not in line with the NCAA rule book. All this against the squeaky-clean Indiana, with it’s discipline. And before any overly sensitive reader thinks that’s “talking in code” about race, Cheaney, Henderson, Greg Graham and Reynolds were all African-American.
Snow blanketed the Midwest that Tuesday night, so there was nothing to do but hunker down in front of the TV set. The game was fantastic, and the Hoosiers clung to a 76-75 lead. On the game’s final possession, Webber came up with an offensive rebound and looked certain to win the game. Henderson stuffed him clean. This writer, then 23-years-old, ran screaming through a friend’s house in jubilation.
Indiana showed its mental toughness in going on the road to NCAA Tournament teams in Illinois and Purdue immediately after this win, and keeping it going, stretching the Big Ten record to 5-0. The Hoosiers won a rematch with Michigan in Bloomington. It was another one-point affair, 93-92, but the score in this case is misleading. Indiana built up a comfortable lead and the Wolverines hit a couple late three-pointers, the last one at the buzzer to make it close.
The Big Ten record ultimately hit 13-0, with the closest call being a double-overtime affair at lowly Penn State. Indiana got some help from a rather shaky off-the-ball foul that bailed them out, and the Nittany Lions also missed a chance for a key overtime basket when Reynolds got away with grabbing a player’s jersey in the open floor. IU critics who felt officials often caved in to Knight had plenty of ammunition on this night.
It was the final win of this 13-0 start that proved the most costly though. Or, more accurately, the practice leading up to it. Henderson injured his knee and would be lost for the remainder of the season. Indiana beat Purdue without him, but given how thin this team was up front already, the only way the news could have been worse was if anything had been wrong with Cheaney.
Indiana lost their next game in overtime, at Ohio State, ending the hopes of being the first perfect team in the Big Ten since the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers had pulled off an 18-0 run. As of this writing, in March 2014, the ’76 Hoosiers are still the last Big Ten team to complete the league schedule unscathed. The 1993 Indiana Hoosiers were still able to right the ship, win their last four games and go into the NCAA Tournament as the #1 seed in the Midwest Regional.
There was home cookin’ on opening weekend, as Indiana was seeded at the Hoosier Dome. It didn’t matter in the first round, as they dismantled Wright State 97-54, but it helped in a tough 73-70 win over feisty Xavier. Cheaney scored 52 points in the two games combined, and led his team to St. Louis for the regionals.
How long until the lack of Henderson caught up with Indiana? That was the question analysts were asking, and ESPN’s Dick Vitale felt it would be in the Sweet 16 against Louisville. The Cardinals were a team of athletes, and Henderson was the man who might have helped Indiana match up. The fallen power forward had given it his best to come back and was getting playing time in the tournament, but they were inconsequential minutes and it was clear he just wasn’t healthy.
Cheaney came up with probably the best game of his life on Thursday night in St. Louis. He shot 83 percent from the floor and scored 32 points. Graham scored 22 points, and was 7-for-11 from the floor himself. The team overall shot 62 percent and they won 82-69.
The undermanned Hoosiers were one win away, but they now had to beat a team without Henderson that they had lost to with him–#2 seed Kansas. Even though Cheaney and Graham were again heroic, combining for 45 points on 18-for-33 shooting, Kansas had too much muscle inside. With three good big men, Nover had no chance to match up and KU was well-coached under Roy Williams. It was a good game, but Kansas always seemed a step ahead and they won 83-77.
Even amidst the disappointment, no one could have imagined that Knight would only make two more appearances in the Sweet 16 for the rest of his career, and that only one of those (1994) would be with Indiana. No one would have guessed that Indiana wouldn’t be in the Big Ten throne room until 2002, and even that was a quad-championship. The Hoosiers would not win the conference outright until 2013.
The 1993 Indiana Hoosiers were a special team for what they achieved, and they remain one of my favorite teams of all-time. They are a historic team for being what we now know was Bob Knight’s last great team.