Keith Smart was everything Indiana basketball wasn’t.
An easygoing, Southern-bred JUCO transfer who used to flip burgers at McDonald’s? Not Bobby Knight’s kind of player.
A prickly disciplinarian bristling with conceit? Not Keith Smart’s kind of coach.
Smart, who stood just 5’9” after high school, was always a long shot to play big-time college basketball. That he wound up in Bloomington is stranger still.
But when the state is Indiana and the game is basketball, disbelief is always better left suspended.
Smart joined the Hoosiers out of Garden City Community College for the 1986-87 season and quickly found his way into Knight’s starting five, thanks to a 40-inch vertical and quick first step. Along with star marksman Steve Alford and senior forward Daryl Thomas, Smart guided Indiana to a Big Ten title and No. 3 ranking in the AP poll.
After close tournament wins against Duke, LSU and UNLV, Bobby Knight’s team found itself in the final against Jim Boeheim’s Syracuse Orangemen.
Syracuse came in as the lower seed, but one look at the Orange’s roster revealed what Indiana was up against. Future pros Sherman Douglas and Rony Seikaly led the way for the nation’s 10th-ranked team, but it was an unnaturally gifted freshman named Derrick Coleman who had the nation buzzing.
As expected, the game was tight. An Alford three put Indiana up one heading to halftime, but by midway through the second session, Syracuse led 52-44.
A Smart-led surge knotted the score at 63, setting the stage for five minutes of seesaw basketball that would culminate in perhaps the greatest single shot in championship-game history.
His team up 73-72 with 27 ticks left, Coleman, who had already grabbed 19 rebounds on the night, headed to the free-throw line for a one-and-one. Boeheim ordered his players off the blocks, leaving the freshman alone at the stripe.
Coleman’s attempt clanged off the front rim. Thomas corralled the rebound. The Hoosiers marched up court and readied their attack. Indiana tried to free Alford on a series of screens, but the Orange wouldn’t yield.
The ball ended up in Smart’s hands on the left wing. He drove and dished to Thomas, who ran flush into Coleman and froze.
“Coleman didn't move,” Thomas later told The Chicago Tribune. “So I thought if he's not going to jump, it would be wise to kick it out."
Thomas pivoted back toward the perimeter and spotted Smart hovering behind the arc.
Smart received Thomas’ pass with seven seconds left, took a dribble toward the baseline and launched.
All net. 74-73. Hoosiers win.
Smart, still just months removed from playing junior college ball in Kansas, was named the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player.
In the ensuing melee, a television reporter cornered Smart courtside and asked him, “Can you believe what’s happened to you in the last year?”
Smart replied with a shrug.
“This is a fairy tale, I guess.”