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1992 Indiana Hoosiers: So Close, but yet so far!

Publish Date: 11/21/2023
Fact checked by: Simon Briffa

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Indiana was in a strong position going into the season after sharing the conference championship with Ohio State the previous year and returning all their key players. None more so than Calbert Cheaney, an incredible small forward who averaged 18 points per game during his junior year and set himself up for what would eventually become National Player of the Year honors in 1993. Cheany would establish himself as one of the five greatest to ever wear the candy stripes by the time his career was done.

Video: 1992 Indiana Final Four team discusses their season 25 years later

1992 Indiana Final Four team discusses their season 25 years later

Greg Graham and Damon Bailey each scored double-digit points in the backcourt, sharing playmaking duties. Without a true center in the frontcourt, Alan Henderson and Eric Anderson filled in admirably at power forward: they combined for 22 points per game while pulling down 13 rebounds.

Knight had excellent depth, particularly at the guard position. Jamal Meeks was an outstanding passer and led the team in assists, while Chris Reynolds was a defensive wizard and great playmaker. Todd Leary shot three-balls like no one this program had seen since Steve Alford did; it’s no wonder Indiana began the season ranked #2 nationally. But, as is usually the case nothing ever goes according to plan, and this season was no different as the Hoosiers at the start of the season would have their struggles.

With such high expectations, Indiana’s season opener was an epic failure. They played UCLA in a neutral-site tipoff classic and lost by an embarrassing 87-72 score. Indiana made up ground against archrival Kentucky by winning 76-74. Indiana did win some close games early in the schedule, though–beating St. John’s 82-77 before heading off to Cincinnati, where they prevailed 81-60 against a Bearcats team that would eventually end up in the final four with the Hoosiers. Although still ranked 10th nationally headed into Big Ten play, the expectations had dropped off some as the Hoosiers showed some unexpected weaknesses.

Big Ten Regular season

Knight’s team started to deliver as Big Ten play began. Indiana rattled off two impressive wins against bad teams in Minnesota and Wisconsin, setting up an eagerly anticipated home game with Ohio State that swept the season series in 1991. Led by Jim Jackson – an All-American forward and best player in the conference – and father to another future Big Ten star, Traevon Jackson of Wisconsin, high expectations were set for this epic encounter. The game would not disappoint!

Indiana dominated Ohio State at Assembly Hall with a 91-83 win, giving them the early edge in conference play. Following that up with three offensive explosions – dropping 291 points against Northwestern, Michigan and Purdue – the Wolverines would have plenty to celebrate before it was all said and done, as they would also find themselves in the Final Four at season’s end. While those first and last victories weren’t noteworthy, Michigan boasted a recruiting class known as “The Fab Five” that would make its presence felt long after the 1992 season.

The opening loss of the Big Ten season came against Michigan State, led by Mike Peplowski – the conference’s best center. Freshman Shawn Respert had already established himself as a great scorer and became an MVP candidate by his senior season. Indiana played poorly in a 76-60 loss at Illinois before topping Iowa. But Indiana couldn’t keep their momentum up after beating  an NCAA-bound Iowa team; their 71-67 defeat at Minnesota wasn’t expected, and Indiana no longer had the upper hand in the Big Ten race.

They regained the upper hand by dominating Northwestern and Michigan State at home before going on the road for a national TV game against Ohio State on the final Sunday in February. Indiana came out with an 86-80 victory, followed by victories over Illinois and Iowa; each was a close hard, fought game.

Indiana had made a strong start to the Big Ten Conference, sitting a game up in the conference and looking like an easy #1 seed for the NCAA Tournament. But on a big Sunday road game against Michigan on April 12, their momentum took a turn for the worse, and they lost 68-60 in Ann Arbor. Indiana responded with another convincing win against Wisconsin to close out their home schedule but was still tied for first going into the year’s final game.

On a Saturday night, Ohio State defeated Minnesota and secured a share of the Big Ten crown. Even though Indiana couldn’t take home all of the hardware, they could still claim their share and likely get a #1 seed, given their season sweep of the Buckeyes. All IU had to do was win at Purdue during an up-and-down year for them.

Video: Indiana at Ohio State - 2/23/1992

Indiana at Ohio State – 2/23/1992

The Boilermakers didn’t have any major stars on their team- the most notable being current head coach Matt Painter as a reserve- but they did have an enthusiastic crowd and the will to deny their rival a piece of the league title. Unfortunately, Indiana lost 61-59, ending up as a 2-seed in the NCAA Tournament, being sent to West Regional, and looking increasingly lost on their journey towards redemption. That game shows how hard winning at Mackey arena could be.

On the tournament’s opening weekend, Indiana traveled to Boise, where Henderson delivered 19 points/11 rebounds in an easy 94-55 win against Eastern Illinois. Up next was LSU, with seven-foot center Shaquille O’Neal.

Shaq was unstoppable, going for 36/12. But Indiana had more weapons than the Tigers: Cheaney scored 30 points and grabbed eight boards, while Henderson added 19 points on the night. Matt Nover, a future co-star in Nick Nolte’s Blue Chips movie along with Shaq, chipped in 13 points on 6-for-11 shooting for an 89-79 victory for the Hoosiers. The game was not as close as the score would indicate. Many thought LSU would beat the Hoosiers because they had Shaq; they forgot that LSU also had Dale Brown and Indiana had Bob Knight.

One year prior, Indiana had upset Florida State in the second round. This time around, however, the Seminoles had improved and were now a 3-seed heading into Albuquerque to start the regionals. In their backcourt were Charlie Ward and Sam Cassell–both future NBA stars.

This game was fast-paced and close at the half, 40-38. Indiana pulled away in the second half with scores from Cheaney (17/11), Greg Graham (19) and Anderson’s 24 to secure an 85-74 victory.

Revenge against UCLA

One final roadblock remained for Indiana as they headed back to where their journey had begun in November. UCLA had come out of that season-opening win and had an outstanding year, led by two prolific forwards: Tracy Murray and Don MacLean. Plus, they boasted some talented freshmen in Tyus Edney and Ed O’Bannon, who would go on to lead them to victory at the 1995 national championship – the Bruins were the number one seemed in the West region.

UCLA was favored but Indiana was just too hot to handle. They shot 58 per cent from the floor for another impressive performance. Anderson scored 17 points while Bailey added 22 more, and Cheaney completed his Most Outstanding Player award with 23 points – never close as Indiana cruised to victory 106-79. In my opinion, this win was one of the best-played games in the Bob Knight era as the Hoosiers were dominant on both sides of the floor.

Video: Indiana Hoosiers vs UCLA Bruins, 1992 NCAA West Regional Final, The Pit, New Mexico

Indiana Hoosiers vs UCLA Bruins, 1992 NCAA West Regional Final, The Pit, New Mexico

Knight vs Coach K

Knight was returning to the Final Four, and all eyes were on his rivalry with former protege Mike Krzyzewski. Coach K had come a long way since being a player and assistant coach under Knight. This would be Coach K’s sixth Final Four appearance, and he sought back-to-back National Championships. Indiana and Duke had met one other time in NCAA Tournament play in 1987, as the Hoosiers won that first matchup 99-82 in the Regional Semi-Finals on the way to winning the 1987 National Championship.

Indiana played well and led 42-37 at halftime, but Duke dominated at the free-throw line. The Blue Devils shot 42 free throws to 16 for Indiana, giving them a 28-12 scoring advantage that proved too much to overcome despite Leary’s best efforts. The officiating in this game was atrocious and played a big part in deciding the outcome of this game.

With the game seemingly lost, Leary came off the bench for one last minute and hit three three-point shots rapidly to cut Duke’s lead to 81-78. Indiana got possession with a chance to tie, but Duke guarded Leary who sent it to Meeks in the corner, who missed with a clean look. Duke would go on to win the NCAA title on that Monday by blowing out Michigan, but this Saturday’s national semifinal served as the true championship game. Michigan was no match for Duke in the title game.

In 1993, Indiana produced an even stronger team, winning the Big Ten outright and earning themselves a #1 seed in the Midwest Regional. Unfortunately, an injury to Henderson proved too much to overcome during NCAA play, and they lost a heartbreaking regional final game against Kansas. 1992 marked Robert Montgomery Knight’s last trip to the Final Four as part of this legendary Indiana basketball squad. The 1992 and 93 teams joined the 1975 Hoosier teams as teams that could have easily won National Championships.

Video: 1992 FINAL FOUR: Duke Blue Devils vs. Indiana Hoosiers

1992 FINAL FOUR: Duke Blue Devils vs. Indiana Hoosiers

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