Indiana Basketball: How Does 2013 Squad Stack Up Against IU's NCAA Champs?

Scott Henry@@4QuartersRadioFeatured ColumnistFebruary 14, 2013

Indiana Basketball: How Does 2013 Squad Stack Up Against IU's NCAA Champs?

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    Indiana basketball fans are justifiably proud of their program's five NCAA championship banners. Even fans who weren't alive when Keith Smart hit his dagger against Syracuse are indoctrinated early to the tradition of Hoosier hoops.

    This season's top-ranked squad may present the best chance in two decades to end a drought that eats at the IU faithful. The program may not have had an opportunity like this since Alan Henderson's knee gave out in 1993.

    If this team does raise banner No. 6, however, the question will be raised along with it: Which title team was the best?

    Being a proactive sort, I'll raise it now. Let's ponder how this season's Hoosiers compare to the ones who put some hardware in the trophy case back in the day.

    Now, questions of whether Kent Benson could back down Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo could check Isiah Thomas will have to wait until some other story. This piece will examine how strong this team looms over this season's college basketball landscape relative to the championship teams of yore.

2013 vs. 1940

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    Today's 68-team NCAA tournament doesn't require that a team win its conference to be eligible to participate. In 1940, though, the event was only open to eight teams and primarily geared toward league winners.

    Indiana didn't win the Big Ten in the 1939-40 season, but the selection committee was impressed by IU's sweep of league champion Purdue. The university took some convincing to allow the team to travel for the games, but IU didn't hesitate to wrap itself in glory when the players returned toting the trophy.

    Equally impressive was the Indiana team's pace of play, a tempo that earned the group the original nickname "The Hurryin' Hoosiers."

    Former Bloomington Herald-Times sports editor Bob Hammel described an Associated Press account of the championship game that alludes to IU shooting "'an amazing .333' in an era when about half that was more normal."

    Indiana's 2013 offense is one of the most efficient in America, but the 1940 team was on another level in that final game. The best players of the day made between 25 and 30 percent of their shots. A team shooting .333 would be similar to a team pushing 70 to 75 percent today.

    The balance of the 1940 offense was also noteworthy. Four players scored between nine and 12 points in the championship game.

    With scorers like Cody Zeller, Christian Watford, Victor Oladipo and Jordan Hulls on today's roster, it's not at all inconceivable to see this season's team strike a similar balance in a big game.

2013 vs. 1953

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    If Cody Zeller stayed all four seasons, he might have the kind of historical stature as Don Schlundt.

    The 6'9" Schlundt was a sophomore in the 1952-53 season, coming off of a 17-point-per-game freshman year. He was only eligible to play that first season thanks to the Korean War, with a host of young men getting drafted to fight and the NCAA suspending its no-freshmen rule for that year only.

    Zeller has improved from last season, but at a much more subtle rate than Schlundt did. Schlundt exploded into a 25-PPG man, making 80 percent of his foul shots to propel his team from the fringes of the AP Top 20 to IU's first outright Big Ten championship and second national title.

    Both Schlundt and 6'5" forward Charlie Kraak carded double-doubles in the national championship game, combining for 47 points and 23 rebounds in a contentious win over Kansas.

    Sophomore guard Bob Leonard joined Schlundt as an All-American, giving the Hoosiers an inside-outside punch similar to Zeller and Oladipo on today's roster. It remains to be seen if Oladipo will be put in a similar pressure situation to the one Leonard faced in the final, making one of two free throws with 27 seconds left to set the winning margin.

    The 1953 squad could put up points by the pound, becoming the first IU team to score 100 in a game when it thrashed Butler in February. Not bad for a team full of sophomores and juniors that was supposed to be a year away from its peak.

    The makeup of this team could be the most similar to the present-day Hoosiers, especially on days when Zeller takes over. Today's team is more experienced, with senior leadership from veterans like Watford, Hulls and Derek Elston. Additionally, Oladipo is in his third season of playing a significant role.

    Thanks to the 1953 team's youth, however, everyone was back in 1953-54 to successfully defend the Big Ten title, if not the national. With the seniors set to depart and Zeller and Oladipo staring at potential NBA riches, next year's Hoosiers will certainly have a new look.

2013 vs. 1976

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    Advantage 2013, because Tom Crean would hopefully never be caught dead in that plaid jacket.

    Okay, that was a joke.

    In truth, the 1976 undefeated national champions can stand very favorably against any team ever assembled, and there's not a team in this tornado of a season dominant enough to make a case. The 1976 crew started the season with the No. 1 bullseye on its back and kept it there all season, a feat that this year's preseason darlings could not accomplish.

    The roster makeup is somewhat similar.

    Both teams had forwards capable of playing anywhere on the court, but we've never seen Christian Watford take over games in the fashion that made Scott May famous.

    Cody Zeller has shown the occasional flash of Kent Benson's knack for putbacks off the offensive glass.

    Bobby Wilkerson was a freakish enough athlete that he would often take the opening tip at 6'7". Victor Oladipo likely would try it if he were only three inches taller.

    There was even a guard who could be a little shaky offensively, but carried fierce defensive credentials. Only in his freshman season, Yogi Ferrell can aspire to a career as decorated as Quinn Buckner's.

    The road to the 1976 title, though, was the ultimate argument against the common belief that teams can't go undefeated today because the game is somehow tougher. While that team became the second straight to sweep its entire Big Ten schedule, the NCAA tournament was an even more strenuous challenge.

    Coach Bob Knight's Hoosiers had to slog through five teams that had at one point been ranked in the top 10. Four of the five finished the season that way.

    The second-ranked Marquette Warriors were a difficult opponent—in the Mideast regional final. Seeding was implemented for the express purpose of saving such a matchup for the Final Four.

    There's a real, legitimate case that the 1976 Hoosiers were the greatest team ever assembled, never mind the grumbling from UCLA fans spoiled by the individual dominance of Alcindor and Walton. This 2013 team may go down as being a champion, but it'll never breathe this kind of rarified air.

2013 vs. 1981

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    Remember, Indiana fans: Don't write off a potential March opponent because it started the season slowly. Your 1981 national champions started their season 7-5, including a loss to Texas-Pan American. Adding in a shaky Big Ten start, the Hoosiers were 10-7 before they truly caught fire.

    And catch fire they did. The 1981 IU team smacked its NCAA opponents around by an average of 22.6 points per game, pounding 18th-ranked Maryland by 35 in round one. This after dropping five of its first six games against ranked opponents.

    Only three teams all season cracked 70 points against that Indiana defense, the first being Iowa in dealing the Hoosiers their final loss on February 19. Still, seven of IU's nine losses came by four points or less.

    Contrast that with this season's team, which has likewise not given up a ton of points, allowing only six 70-point games thus far. The 2013 team has only failed to score 70 itself on four occasions. Only 13 of the 1981 team's 35 games ended with a number bigger than 70 on IU's side of the scoreboard.

    If we were somehow able to set up a matchup between the 1981 team and the one from today, it would truly be the irresistible force and the immovable object.

    Imagine if Victor Oladipo or Yogi Ferrell was assigned to shadow a 20-year-old Isiah Thomas. Cody Zeller battling Ray Tolbert. If Oladipo guarded Isiah, who would work against Randy Wittman?

    The 1981 team was a smoky, misfiring machine until the final two months of the season, but it survived through a host of crushing near-miss defeats. It never really learned how to win close games, as only three of its wins were by five or less.

    That's a bit of a similarity with this year's team, which carries a 2-3 record in games decided by five or less.

    Unlike this season's team, though, the 1981 squad took the particular brand of pressure provided by the NCAA tournament, chewed it up and spit it out. If 2013 brings a title, this year's team could have a good claim to rank ahead of 1981.

    The chances aren't all that good, though, that this year's Hoosiers can win their six tournament games by a combined 137 points.

2013 vs. 1987

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    The 1987 Indiana Hoosiers were another squad that worked from the backcourt in, spearheaded by the sharpshooting of Steve Alford and the athleticism of Keith Smart.

    The new-fangled three-point line was a fun toy for Alford, who made 107 of the team's 120 bonus jumpers. Of course, that's not to say that Alford was the team's only shooter.

    At 82.5 PPG, those Hoosiers could score with anyone.

    All five 1987 starters averaged in double figures, similar to this year's team if we fudge a bit and include Will Sheehey's 9.8 as "close enough." With a couple of decades of familiarity with the three-point line, this season's team is more capable of spreading the floor than the championship squad.

    The most interesting comparison may be in the post.

    Cody Zeller is more of a finesse center, skilled at finding penetration lanes himself. Dean Garrett was a rugged rebounder, low-post scorer and shot-blocker who twice led the Big Ten in the latter category.

    Both teams faced expectations, with the 1987 Hoosiers still smarting from being upset by 14th-seeded Cleveland State in the first round of the 1986 tournament.

    Despite that loss, the addition of junior college players Garrett and Smart bolstered returnees Alford, Daryl Thomas and Rick Calloway, keeping the Hoosiers in the AP Top 10 all season long.

    IU's freshman class was supposed to make it one of the deepest teams in America this year, but only point guard Yogi Ferrell has contributed consistently. Despite the thinner-than-expected bench production, these Hoosiers have likewise clung to the top 10 all year.

    By the time he's done—even if it is this season—Cody Zeller may very well rank behind only Alford among IU's greatest-ever folk heroes. Christian Watford has his own iconic shot, but does it really hold a candle to Keith Smart's torrid second half in the NCAA final?

    Since the '87 team finished 30-4, IU hasn't added another banner and has experienced only one more 30-win season. While the final basket remains iconic, the 1987 Hoosiers were a lot more than Smart.

So, Rank 'Em

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    These are purely subjective rankings, and I encourage you to throw your own in the comments. Supply some reasoning, and let's discuss. If you don't think this year's team should be in this elite company, move on quietly and let the rest of us have some fun.

    6. 1940 National Champions

    First off, 33 percent shooting qualified as a breathtaking burst of offensive efficiency. Secondly, if the committee had gone by the letter of the law, Purdue would have been in the tournament instead.

    5. 1953 National Champions

    Schlundt was destructive, for sure, but he was still playing in an era where 6'9" players didn't grow on trees the way they seem to today. He also gave up 26 points (and an alleged triple-double) to Kansas beanpole B.H. Born in the title game.

    4. 2013 Indiana Hoosiers

    We may still see a lot out of this season's team. Victor Oladipo gets more assertive with every game. Cody Zeller will have plenty of chances to make clutch shots, unless the Hoosiers simply blow a lot of people out. Yogi Ferrell may find his range on a consistent basis.

    Still, it's hard to put this team on the level of a Bob Knight squad just yet.

    3. 1981 National Champions

    They were extremely difficult to score on. Also, even if an opponent could shackle Isiah, the offense could run through Wittman or Tolbert. It wasn't a team too proud to drag the game into a defensive slugfest.

    2. 1987 National Champions

    Alford and Smart were both capable of working in either backcourt role, scorer or facilitator, which made them hard to defend.

    The forwards, Thomas and Calloway, were tremendous athletes, and you did not come in Dean Garrett's lane if you knew what was good for you.

    The bench didn't scare anyone, but that was a common condition for Knight's teams.

    1. 1976 National Champions

    May and Benson provided the bulk of the scoring, but everyone else had a role and played it well. The Undefeated Ones outscored opponents by 17 PPG, held opponents to 43 percent shooting and played the roughest series of tournament games we will ever see. This is simply one of the best teams of all time.

    For more from Scott on college basketball, check out The Back Iron, home of the exclusive Back Iron Index and Bracketometry, telling us which teams SHOULD be in the NCAA tournament come March.