The sports world is dormant right now, and that’s brutal for all sports fans. What I am missing the most is the NCAA Division I Basketball Tournament. Instead of March Madness, it is March Sadness this year. With nothing new to watch, I have been watching classic March Madness games, and I came up with the idea for this series called “The Runners-Up,” where I take a deeper look into the teams that came up just short.
This series will highlight some of the best teams in the last 20 years that made it to the National Championship game but lost. A different bounce here or there and these teams may have gone down in history, but instead they had to settle for the silver medal. This series serves to give some of those teams — which may have been forgotten — the recognition they deserve. I already have a few ideas in mind, but if anyone has any tournament runners-up they would like me to cover, shoot me an email. I hope you enjoy!
The 2002 Indiana Hoosiers basketball team was one of the most surprising runners-up of the past 20 years because as a five seed in the tournament, they had to beat multiple 30-win teams to get there. This team will always be remembered for its incredible upset over Duke in the Sweet 16, but that team actually had a very good season besides that.
Led by consensus All-American and Big Ten Player of the Year Jared Jeffries, the Hoosiers made their only Final Four appearance in the post-Bob Knight era. The roster also featured Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Dane Fife and Tom Coverdale, who averaged about 12 points and five assists per game.
Under second year head coach Mike Davis, Indiana wasn’t regarded as a real title contender. They were only ranked sporadically throughout the season and never higher than No. 20. But they put together a solid regular season, specifically in conference play, where they went 11-5 to tie for the regular season Big Ten title. The Hoosiers beat ranked conference foes Illinois, Ohio State, Michigan State and Iowa over the course of the year, showing they could play with high competition, something they would reinforce in the tournament.
Despite the good showing in conference play, a one-and-done performance in the conference tournament left Indiana with a less-than-ideal seeding as a No. 5 in the South region. However, they benefited from an upset by UNC Wilmington in the first round, so they didn’t have to face a ranked USC squad in the second. But there was no getting away from Duke.
Duke was the top seed in the tournament and by most accounts the top team in the country. They had the unanimous National College Player of the Year Jason Williams and two other All-Americans in Mike Dunleavy and Carlos Boozer. The Blue Devils seemed almost unbeatable that season at 31-3, with most of those wins being blowouts.
Duke was a 13-point favorite in the game, and based on the first half, Vegas was correct. Indiana was down 42-29 at halftime. Duke’s lead grew to 17 in the second half, and they still had a comfortable double-digit lead with under 10 minutes to play. But then the Hoosiers, led by a masterful 24-point, 15-rebound performance by Jeffries, went on a 17-2 run to cut the deficit to one with under five minutes to play.
Indiana beared down and traded baskets with Duke but didn’t ever lead in the game until a Coverdale shot with under a minute left. The Hoosiers survived 74-73 after Williams missed a game-tying free throw with four seconds left. It was one of the most memorable upsets in recent tournament history.
But Duke wasn’t the only big gun that Indiana had to go through to make it to the National Championship. After defeating Kent State, the Hoosiers found themselves matched up with the 31-4 Oklahoma Sooners, ranked third in the country, in the Final Four.
Indiana once again got off to a slow start and trailed at halftime. But even though Oklahoma held Indiana’s top scorers in check, the Hoosiers were fueled in the second half by terrific production from their bench, especially Jeff Newton, who finished with 19 points. Indiana got 41 of its 73 points off the bench, while the Sooners managed just 12 bench points. Indiana also shot 8-for-13 from 3-point range compared to Oklahoma’s brutal 2-for-18 shooting display.
Indiana won 73-64 to advance to its first National Championship game since defeating Syracuse in the memorable 1987 title game. This time, they would find themselves up against top-seeded Maryland, who was a consistent top-five team all season.
The Hoosiers’ magical run would end in the championship, where they were outplayed throughout by the Terrapins. Maryland would win 64-52 to bring home their first and only national title.
This Indiana team was special. Their tough road to the final, highlighted by their finest hour against Duke, makes them one of the most memorable runners-up of the millenium. The storied Indiana basketball program hasn’t found this level of success since that year, but I would expect them to be coming back soon under Archie Miller.