1987 was an interesting year for basketball. It wasn’t yet clear that Mike Krzyzewski was going to go on to an unprecedented career. Dean Smith was still in high gear at UNC. The brief Georgetown dynasty was nearly over. The Hoyas made the Final Four as a one seed but the Ewing era was the high water mark.
UNLV made the Final Four as well but everyone was aware that Jerry Tarkanian had, at best, a questionable program but one that was undeniably competitive.
The Finals were between Bob Knight’s Indiana and Jim Boeheim’s Syracuse.
The Big East was very much on the rise in the 1980’s and Boeheim was racking up big-time recruits and going toe-to-toe with Georgetown.
But in 1987, Knight was seen as the greatest coach of the day. He had beaten Smith in the 1981 championship game, which took place on the same day President Ronald Reagan was shot by John Hinckley.
In 1981, Knight had Isaiah Thomas, one of the greatest guards in the history of basketball. In 1987, he had nothing of the sort.
Syracuse started Sherman Douglas, Greg Monroe, Howard Triche, Rony Seikaly and Derrick Coleman. Indiana started Ricky Calloway, Dean Garrett, Daryl Thomas, Steve Alford and Keith Smart.
On paper, it was a mismatch; Syracuse had much better talent.
But Syracuse - well, Boeheim - used to have a reputation as being stupid - well, that’s probably too harsh. But certainly people felt that Syracuse tended to choke and, fair or not, Boeheim was tagged as a guy who couldn’t win big games.
For all his well-documented faults, Knight was a superb tactician and at the end of the game, Syracuse had a 73-72 lead with :28 seconds left when Coleman whiffed on a free throw. Indiana got the rebound and after a few passes, Smart got the ball and shot from the left side of the lane, putting IU up with :05 left.
Both coaches would see their reputations change considerably. Knight’s cruelty and volatility eventually brought him down at Indiana and forever changed the way people saw him. Boeheim, meanwhile, would go on to win the 2003 national championship and help Syracuse shake its reputation as an underperforming program.
And Smart is remembered today for one of the great clutch plays in Final Four history.