March Memories 4: First (3-pt) shots fired in the revolution

As of Indiana's defeat of Syracuse to win the 1987 national title, there were eight active head coaches in the NCAA who could boast a national title (11 total). From that point forward, only one (Dean Smith) would win another national title, and the other seven would combine for only one more Final Four appearance (Bob Knight, 1992). 1987 was the first year the 3-point shot was implemented uniformly across the NCAA. These things are intimately connected.

To be fair, plenty of these coaches continued to have success, and some were on the tail end of their careers so the advent of the 3 is not the only explanation. Still, all you had to do was look at the '87 tournament's Cinderella to know that this new rule could potentially transform the game. 6-seed Providence, coached by Rick Pitino, stormed through the Southeast region by shooting 40-76 from 3 point range over four games, including 13-19 from regional outstanding player Billy Donovan. Providence's run ran out of steam in the Final Four where they fell to conference foe Syracuse (their second straight intra-Big East matchup, having defeated 1-seed Georgetown to win the Southeast).

As for the Big Ten, well let's put it like this: The league notched 12 victories in the NCAA tournament, featured 4 top-3 seeds, and produced the national champion...and underachieved. This may not have been the best season in Big Ten history, but it was close, and with a bounce or two, could have been. Alas, it wasn't quite to be. Here's why:

  • Michigan and Ohio State--both of whom show up as top 20 teams per's Simple Rating System--each received 9-seeds. Both won their opening round games. Michigan defeated Navy despite David Robinson going for 50 points (becoming one of four players even to hit half a century in a tournament game), but then ran into top-seeded UNC. OSU ran away from Kentucky in their opener but then fell to Georgetown in a tight 82-79 affair.
  • 3-seed Illinois fell on their face, losing to 14-seed Austin Peay in their opening game. Illinois finished 4th in the Big Ten at 13-5, but their losses included two 1-point losses to Purdue, a 3-point loss @ Indiana, and a 3-point loss as home to Iowa in OT where they blew a 22 point second-half lead. They could've made a run.
  • 3-seed--and Big Ten co-champs--Purdue hit their ceiling. Purdue fans know the drill: Keady had a cohesive, sound team that played "Big Ten" basketball, but then ran into an uber-talented squad in the tournament. That year, it was Florida. The only consolation was that, unlike '84 and '86, this loss was truly on a neutral court (the Carrier Dome).
This leaves Iowa and Indiana (and the team that connects them, UNLV).

Iowa, under first-year coach Tom Davis, sprinted out to an 18-0 start, reaching #1 following successive wins @Illinois, @Purdue, and vs. Indiana (where they became the first team to ever score 100 points against a Bob Knight-coached team). They slowed a bit, finishing the regular season 27-4/14-4, a game out of a Big Ten title. This was still good enough for a 2-seed though.

Because I am occasionally a nice person, the video I will include of Iowa's tournament run is from their Sweet 16 matchup vs. Oklahoma:

If I weren't nice, it would've been Iowa's Elite Eight loss to #1 UNLV, where Iowa saw a 19-point first half lead disappear in the first 10 minutes of the second half. Iowa did rally down the stretch after falling behind by 8, which only made the 3 point loss all the more painful. Honestly, ask any Iowa fan who can remember. It's one of the most gutting losses in Big Ten hoops history.

Indiana survived a regional final against LSU, winning by a point, which set up a showdown of 1-seeds in the national semifinals. To many, this was Bob Knight's defining piece of coaching. Instead of trying to slow down UNLV's high octane offense, Indiana went out and ran with them, holding on for a 97-93 victory.

Indiana won despite attempting 22 fewer shots (!) (82-60), and despite Freddie Banks's 38 point, 10 3-pointer performance, because they scorched the nets to the tune of 37-60 (61.7%). The more you look at the box score, the harder it is to believe Indiana won. UNLV grabbed 21 offensive boards and turned the ball over five fewer times than Indiana did (14-9) (PG Mark Wade had 18 assists and no turnovers!!). See for yourself:

Of course, Indiana went on win the title in a classic win over Syracuse, but, as noted in my first post, I'm trying to avoid the most obvious choices. Either way, this was Knight's last title. Clearly the least talented of his title teams, and maybe not even one of his five most talented teams at Indiana. (Dean Garrett scored 1737 points in his NBA career, which is the most of anybody on that team. Very few NCAA champs have had so little collective success in the NBA.)

Most importantly, though, the 1987 tournament saw the debut of the greatest tradition in human history. Get ready for maximum 80's!