Hoosiers celebrate silver anniversary of '87 title

Updated: December 3, 2011, 4:30 PM ET
Associated Press

INDIANAPOLIS -- The highlight reel condenses Indiana's 1986-87 season to one unforgettable image -- Keith Smart's winning shot in the national championship game against Syracuse.

His teammates and coaches remember so much more than that 74-73 victory.

From the other game-winning shots that season, to the upset of No. 1 UNLV in the national semifinals, to the pass that set up Smart's shot and the book written about that remarkable season, those gathering in Bloomington for this weekend's 25th anniversary celebration know the bond goes deeper than one shot.

"It was a team," said Dean Garrett, the starting center who now works at a Las Vegas casino. "We definitely had a star player, but there were days where we still ended up winning the game just because we were a team. We were a typical Bobby Knight team. We weren't the most talented or the most athletic, but we were the smartest."

Since that memorable day when March Madness actually ended in March, most of the players have gone their separate ways.

They played in pro basketball and became coaches. They went to law school and into the business world. Most returned to their alma mater at some point to see that crimson banner hanging alongside the other four at the south end of Assembly Hall.

On Sunday, 12 players, a handful of managers and assistant coach Royce Waltman will be honored as the Hoosiers face Stetson (4-3).

The most notable absentee, of course, will be Knight, the man whose firing in September 2000 sent Indiana basketball into a spiral.

With Knight, the school won three national titles, the last coming in 1987 on what he still calls the greatest pass in the history of basketball. Without Knight, Indiana has been to one Final Four, endured four losing seasons, had four different coaches and dealt with the biggest NCAA scandal to hit the school in a half-century.

Everybody wishes he'd come back.

"It'd be great to have him there," said Joe Hillman, a backup guard on the '87 team who still works in Indianapolis. "I'm sure they asked him. He was a big part of what we did. We weren't the most talented team, but we took on his personality a little bit."

Current coach Tom Crean is among the Knight fans who would like him back, too. Instead, he'll have to settle for sharing a live link to Hoosiers history with a whole new generation of students.

It's a fitting time for the tribute, given the Hoosiers' remarkable resurgence. After three straight sub-par seasons, Indiana is one win away from its first 8-0 record since 2003, and the players from the '87 team see some similarities between their squad and this one.

"This is a good basketball team," Hillman said. "As a group. They've gotten better. I think this is a team that can be something pretty special this year."

Maybe not as special as the '87 version.

But they can empathize with what these guys have endured. After going three straight seasons without a Big Ten title and losing to Cleveland State in the first round of the '86 NCAA tournament, people had started wondering whether Knight had lost his touch. By bringing in two junior college players, Garrett and Smart, Knight changed everything. He had a selfless roster filled with perfectly designed roles.

Steve Alford, now the head coach at New Mexico, was Indiana's sharp-shooting All-American. Athletic forward Darryl Thomas gave Indiana a tough inside matchup and another senior captain.

Forward Rick Calloway started 27 games and his quick hands allowed him to finish second on the team in steals. Smart and Garrett wasted no time in making an immediate impact, breaking right into the starting lineup for a coach who usually rewarded loyalty and experience. All averaged double figures, and most had their own shining moments long before Smart's.

Thomas helped Indiana avert Northwestern's upset bid in mid-February, the start of a remarkable eight-day run that set the tone for the rest of the season. Garrett scored on a putback with 4 seconds left to beat Wisconsin 86-85 in triple overtime. Then Alford's deflection and Calloway's defensive rebound preserved a 72-70 win over Minnesota.

Playing together was what the Hoosiers did best.

"I don't think anybody worried about themselves," Alford said. "We accepted our roles very well. During the course of that year, I think we had five different guys make last-second shots and that just doesn't happen very often in college basketball."

Or anywhere.

That Indiana team was blessed with brilliant shooters. It set a single-season NCAA record by making 50.8 percent of its 3-pointers, a mark that may never be broken. Knight jokes, even now, about how conned the Big Ten's other coaches into adding the 3-point shot that season.

The players made Knight look like a genius.

They shared the league title, roared past Fairfield and Auburn in the first two tourney games, then beat Duke in the regional semifinals. Hillman's old-fashioned three-point play capped Indiana's rally from a 12-point deficit to beat LSU 77-76, a game that sent Indiana into the Final Four though it will always be remembered for Knight banging his fist on the scorer's table after a technical foul.

Next came the 97-93 upset of No. 1 UNLV, a game Indiana fans and players sometimes call the forgotten victory.

"Beating them was a huge accomplishment," said Todd Meier, a senior and one of the team's captains.

But when Smart got the pass from Thomas against Syracuse, took one dribble to the baseline and hit the 2-point floater with three seconds to go, the game and the play went down as one of the most memorable.

"(Derrick) Coleman goes to the free-throw line with about 29 seconds left and misses and we get the rebound," Knight recalled at an October speech in Indianapolis.

"Now I can call timeout, but I don't because they know what to do. Joe gets the ball and says `I've got to get it to someone else.' He hits Darryl inside and Darryl says `I could get this shot off, but where do I go?' With that, he sees Keith Smart at about the foul line extended and he (Smart) sees Darryl looking for an option. Keith sets the guy up, Darryl makes the pass, Keith hits the shot and we win the game. The biggest play on that sequence was Darryl's pass. I've always said it was the greatest pass in the history of basketball."

Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press

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