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NCAA Tournament Final Four Historical Perspective - Natty #3 for The General

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Bobby Knight’s Indiana Hoosiers won the 1987 National Championship with the help of a JuCo transfer or 2

1987 National Champion Indiana Hoosiers
AP Photo/Bill Haber

On Monday night March 30, 1987 the band Wang Chung played at Cole Fieldhouse at the University of Maryland. There might have been maybe 250 people in attendance; with half the campus watching the Academy Award ceremonies, and the other half (myself included) watching Indiana play Syracuse in New Orleans for the 1987 National Championship.

Heading into the 1986-87 season Bobby Knight’s Hoosiers appeared to be primed for a very successful season. The team was anchored by seniors Steve Alford and Daryl Thomas; however, Indiana had experienced some recent post-season difficulty. After advancing to the 1984 Elite Eight, the Hoosiers played in the 1985 NIT, and suffered an epic first-round upset in the 1986 NCAA Tournament first round against Cleveland State (serving as the climax to John Feinstein’s A Season on the Brink). Indiana’s major shortcomings during 1985-86 were Daryl Thomas playing out of position at center (at 6’7”), and Steve Alford being both the primary scorer and ball handler.

To address these 2 issues Knight did what many thought he’d NEVER do: bring in 2 junior college transfers. Point guard Keith Smart from Garden City Community College (Kansas) and center Dean Garrett from San Francisco City College were recruited to Bloomington to fill these roster spots, allowing Steve Alford to play shooting guard and Daryl Thomas to play power forward.

With the roster set Indiana ran through the 1986-87 season going 24-4 overall, 15-3 in conference play. The only non-conference loss was at Vanderbilt, and the 3 conference losses were on the road against ranked Iowa, Purdue, and Illinois teams. There was some drama though, particularly after a narrow victory at Northwestern where Bobby Knight had some “kind words” for Steve Alford. Earning the #1 seed in the Midwest Region, Indiana dispatched Fairfield, Auburn, and Duke before needing a last-second layup to knock off LSU to get to the Final Four (a game where Indiana University was fined $10,000 and Bobby Knight was reprimanded for punching a courtside telephone).

Keith Smart’s Game-Winning Shot Versus Syracuse
AP/Bill Haber

In the National Semi-Final the Hoosiers defeated UNLV 97-93, setting up a game against Syracuse for the National Championship. Jim Boeheim’s Orangemen went 26-6 during the regular season and Big East Tournament; led by Sherman Douglas, Derrick Coleman, and Rony Seikaly (who Dick Vitale infamously predicted would foul out in the first half of Syracuse’s Elite Eight game against North Carolina).

The game was a back-and-forth affair. Syracuse was strong inside; with Rony Seikaly netting a double-double (18 points/10 rebounds) and freshman Derrick Coleman grabbing 19 rebounds. Indiana was staying in the game by virtue of the 3-point shot: new to the NCAA for 1986-87. Indiana attempted 11 3-point shots, 10 by Steve Alford. Alford connected on 7 of these 10 attempts from deep (part of his game-high 23 points). Also for the Hoosiers Daryl Thomas and Dean Garrett were holding their own inside.

As the game wound down it looked like Syracuse might pull off the upset. The Orangemen were up 73-72 with 28 seconds left when Knight had the Hoosiers foul Derrick Coleman. This strategy worked as Coleman, a poor free throw shooter, missed the front end of a 1-and-1 (there was no double-bonus for 1986-87). Indiana got the rebound and worked the ball until with 5 seconds left, Keith Smart hit an elbow jumper from near the same spot at the Louisiana Superdome where Michael Jordan hit the game-winner versus Georgetown 5 years earlier.

Smart’s shot was the difference in Indiana’s 74-73 victory over Syracuse. In winning Most Outstanding Player Keith Smart scored 21 points on 9-for-15 shooting with 5 rebounds and 6 assists. Fellow JuCo transfer Dean Garrett chipped in with 10 points and 10 rebounds. Thus, in getting National Championship #3 for Bobby Knight, it was 2 junior college transfers who (along with seniors Steve Alford and Daryl Thomas) who led the Hoosiers that night in New Orleans.