Indiana Basketball: Ranking the 5 Best Seasons in Hoosiers History
Five things usually come to mind when thinking about the tradition of Indiana basketball. All five hang from the rafters at Assembly Hall.
The iconic image of the Hoosiers’ five national championship banners captures the program’s eminence unlike any other one shot could.
Success may be measured by winning records, conference titles or qualifying for the NCAA tournament for 99 percent of college basketball, but at Indiana, it’s measured by one thing: Banners. So expect any list attempting to identify the five best seasons in Indiana history to be heavily influenced by them.
But how do the championship seasons rank compared to one another? And can a non-national championship team challenge one of the title winners for a spot on this list? Let’s find out.
Small forward Calbert Cheaney (pictured) was the consensus best player in the country. Four other double-digit scorers, including future first-round pick Greg Graham, helped round out one of the most talented Indiana teams in school history.
The Hoosiers went 17-1 in Big Ten play, capturing what was the program’s last outright conference title until the 2013 season. But this team fell short of the ultimate prize, losing by six to Kansas in the Elite Eight.
This could have easily been the second-best season on our list if it would have resulted in banner six.
As one of the most forgotten teams in NCAA history, the 1975 Hoosiers are overshadowed by the undefeated squad of the following year. But these Hoosiers were nearly as dominant.
Indiana finished the regular season undefeated for the first time in school history, winning every Big Ten game by an average of 22.8 points.
Power forward Scott May breaking his left arm against Purdue was a big reason why IU eventually fell to Kentucky in the NCAA tournament, preventing this team from being at least No. 2 on our list, if not No. 1.
5. 1939-1940 (20-3)
Bob Knight may have been the face of Indiana basketball for nearly three decades, but the court at Assembly Hall is named after another Hoosier coach.
Branch McCracken was the original national championship head coach at Indiana, and he won the program its first title in 1940.
McCracken’s squad finished 20-3 overall and 9-3 in Big Ten play. However, it was the Purdue Boilermakers who captured the Big Ten championship. But Indiana beating Purdue twice was key in the Hoosiers qualifying for the eight-team national tournament, while the Boilermakers were denied an invite.
Indiana cruised to the title, blowing out Springfield 48-24 in the quarterfinals, topping Duquesne 39-30 in the semifinal and crushing Kansas 60-42 in the championship game. Indiana’s 6’2” forward Marvin Huffman was named tournament MVP.
4. 1980-1981 (26-9)
The 1981 Indiana Hoosiers were a talented team that struggled with inconsistency in the regular season. But when the lights were the brightest, this team played their best basketball.
Led by Isiah Thomas at point guard and Ray Tolbert at center, Indiana's 21-9 regular-season record was only good enough for a No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament. But you’d be hard pressed to find a No. 1 seed in the tournament’s history that dominated like these Hoosiers.
IU won every single tournament game by double-digits, including an 18-point victory over No. 1 seed LSU in the Final Four and a 63-50 beating of Dean Smith’s North Carolina Tar Heels for the championship.
If Coach Bob Knight would have only had his Hoosiers playing at that level all season, this team easily could have been one or two spots higher on our list.
3. 1952-1953 (23-3)
Branch McCracken’s second NCAA championship came during his second tenure as the Hoosiers’ head coach. McCracken returned to the bench in 1946 after serving three years in the Navy during World War II.
But he didn’t win as much as a Big Ten title in his first six seasons back. That changed in 1953 when the Hoosiers blazed through the Big Ten en route to a 17-1 conference record.
It was a young team that started three juniors and two sophomores but was led by five future NBA players in Bob Leonard, Lou Scott, Charlie Kraak, Dick Farley and Don Schlundt.
Indiana’s second national championship squad didn’t escape the NCAA tournament without a couple of close calls, though. A two-point win over DePaul in the opening round and a one-point victory over Kansas in the title game highlighted an exhilarating tournament run.
2. 1986-1987 (30-4)
The 1987 championship team was perhaps head coach Bob Knight’s masterpiece. It was a team void of elite NBA talent—it’s the only NCAA champion over the past 46 years not to produce a first-round draft pick—but made up for it with heart, grit and by becoming the essence of a team.
Steve Alford was the star, averaging 22.0 points per contest, but Daryl Thomas, Dean Garrett, Keith Smart and Ricky Calloway all averaged double figures as well, giving Indiana several scoring threats.
The Hoosiers’ last national championship season may not be good enough for No. 1 on this list, but it very well might have been the most clutch team in program history.
Near last-second shots propelled Indiana to tight victories over Michigan, Wisconsin (3 OT), Northwestern and Minnesota in conference play to claim a share of the Big Ten title. But the regular season served as a mere warning to the faint of heart.
In the NCAA tournament, a Ricky Calloway rebound lay-in gave the Hoosiers a 77-76 win over LSU for a trip to the Final Four. In the semifinal, Indiana overcame 10 three-pointers by UNLV’s Freddie Banks in a 97-93 shootout victory.
The Hoosiers trailed Syracuse by three late in the championship game, but two Keith Smart buckets in the final minute gave IU the title, culminating one of the most memorable tournament runs in college basketball history.
1. 1975-1976 (32-0)
Was there ever really a question what team would be No. 1?
The 1976 Indiana Hoosiers are the greatest team in program history and are considered by many to be the greatest team in the history of college basketball.They ran the table in merciless fashion and remain the last NCAA Division I men’s basketball team to go undefeated.
The Hoosiers were led by big-man tandem Scott May and Kent Benson. The former claimed National Player of the Year honors and was taken second overall in the 1976 NBA Draft by the Chicago Bulls while the latter took home the NCAA Tournament Most Outstanding Player award and was selected first overall by the Milwaukee Bucks in 1977.
But Indiana was far more than just that duo.
A third All-American in Quinn Buckner, two more future first-round picks and five more future NBA players comprised one of the most talented rosters college basketball has ever seen.
Indiana put the finishing touches on one of the most dominating seasons in all of sports by beating UCLA 65-51 in the Final Four and Michigan 86-68 in the championship game. It was the perfect ending to the perfect season.