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Greatest College Basketball Teams: Spotlight 1953 Indiana Hoosiers
The 1953 Indiana Hoosiers basketball team went 23-3 and won the NCAA Championship. All three of the Hoosiers’ losses came on last second shots. “The boys did it,” Indiana’s legendary coach Branch McCracken said of his team. “They hustled all the way.” When he was informed that Indiana finished the season ranked number one, McCracken said “I am very happy. I think it is right.”
Branch McCracken started coaching the Hoosiers in 1938-39. His second year, 1939-40, he led the Hoosiers to an NCAA Championship. The 1952-53 season was McCracken’s twelfth at Indiana (he did not coach for three years because of the war). During his first eleven years, McCracken’s run and gun style had led the Hoosiers to a 173-59 record, but McCracken had never led the Hoosiers to a Big Ten Championship. The Hoosiers had finished second in the Big Ten seven times, including the year they won the NCAA Championship. At the start of the 1952-53 season, McCracken said “we might win a few games this year.”
As a result of the Korean war, during one season, 1951-52, the rule making freshmen ineligible was lifted. That happened to be the year that 6’6” Don “Ox” Schlundt arrived at Indiana University from just outside South Bend, Indiana. Schlundt averaged 17.1 points per game his freshman year.
By the start of the 1952-53 campaign, Schlundt had grown to 6’9”. Schlundt was a tough inside player who could score with either hand. “Schlundt really had a lethal pair of elbows,” Michigan State coach Pete Newell said. “He had a great touch,” teammate Charlie Kraak said, “and if he was fouled trying to shoot, he was a good free throw shooter.” Schlundt also had the quickness and stamina to run up and down the court at break neck speed for 40 minutes. “Don has to run because we play a fast breaking game,” McCracken said. “Playing center in our type of game is no job for a lazy man.”
During 1952-53, his sophomore year, Schlundt averaged 25.4 points and 8.5 rebounds per game. Schlundt led Indiana in scoring four years in a row. He was an All-American in 1953, 1954 and 1955. Schlundt was such a prolific scorer that he broke the Indiana and Big Ten scoring records halfway through his sophomore year. When asked to say something about Schlundt at the end of the 1953 season, the always reserved Branch McCracken said “Don, here, is only a sophomore. If he continues to improve and if he works hard, he may turn out to be a pretty fair country ball-player before he’s finished.” Schlundt turned down a NBA contract and became a successful businessman.
At the beginning of the 1952-53 season, McCracken moved junior Bobby “Slick” Leonard from forward to shooting guard. During his high school days in Terre Haute, Indiana, Leonard grew from 5’4” to 6’3”, which made the transition from forward to guard easy.
Leonard was a deadly outside shooter and poured in 16.3 points per game in 1952-53. He was named to the 1952-53 All-American team and a Chicago sportswriter called him “pound for pound” the best college basketball player in America.
Indiana’s starting lineup was rounded out by third leading scorer junior forward Dick Farley (10.1 pts.), rebounder and defensive specialist junior forward Charlie Kraak (7.2 pts., 10.3 reb.) and sophomore point guard Burke Scott (8.0 pts.). All of the starters but Charlie Kraak were from small towns in Indiana.
The Hoosiers started the season with a 95-56 victory over Valparaiso, in which all five Indiana starters scored in double figures. Schlundt’s 6’11” backup, Lou Scott, also scored in double figures.
Leading Notre Dame 70-69 with just a few seconds left, the Hoosiers turned over the ball at mid court and allowed an uncontested layup at the buzzer, to lose 71-70. A week later, the Hoosiers went into overtime against Kansas State and lost on a last second bomb, 82-80.
Thus, the Hoosiers opened the Big Ten season with a woeful 1-2 record. The Hoosiers won their next eight in a row, including home wins over 19th ranked Minnesota 66-63 and 4th ranked defending Big Ten Champion Illinois 74-70 in double overtime. The Hoosiers moved up to number two in the nation, but when grades came out at the end of January, backup center Lou Scott was declared academically ineligible.
On February 2, 1953, the Hoosiers routed Butler 105-70. It was the first time Indiana had ever scored 100 points in a game.
After winning five more in a row, the Hoosiers stood at 15-2. Indiana broke their own scoring record with a 113-78 win over Purdue and then headed to Champaign for a rematch against the Illini, who had fallen to 10th in the national rankings. Bob Leonard missed his first two long outside shots and Illinois took an early lead. The Illinois crowd started chanting “Shoot! Shoot!” Leonard made his next seven shots in a row and the Hoosiers cruised to a 91-79 victory. Leonard scored 23, Schlundt 33 and Dick Farley 19. After the game, Illinois coach Harry Combes said of Indiana “It’s a great basketball team.” A few days later, the Hoosiers defeated Northwestern in overtime 90-88 and moved up to number one in the nation.
In a rematch against Minnesota, at Minnesota, the score was tied with seconds left when Minnesota guard Chuck Mencel hit a jumper at the buzzer to give Minnesota a 65-63 win. It was the third time the Hoosiers had lost a game on the road at the buzzer. The Hoosiers would not lose any more.
Despite the loss, Indiana held on to its number one ranking going into the NCAA Tournament. Seton Hall, the other contender for the number one spot, led by center Walter Dukes (25.1 pts., 22.2 reb.), elected to play in the NIT.
Indiana would play the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament at Chicago Stadium. The Hoosiers first opponent was Chicago-based DePaul. Indiana hung on to beat DePaul in an extremely physical game behind 23 points from Don Schlundt and 22 from Bob Leonard. After the game, DePaul’s legendary coach Ray Meyer said “We threw everything we had at you, but it wasn’t enough. Your guys are too tough.”
Next, the Hoosiers faced number 17 Notre Dame in a rematch of the 71-70 defeat the Hoosiers suffered in South Bend early in the year. The Irish got off to an early 8-4 lead behind the shooting of guard Jack Stephens. But Indiana just kept pounding the ball inside to Schlundt, for whom the Irish had no answer. At halftime, the Hoosiers led 42-32 behind 30 points from Schlundt. In the second half, Notre Dame collapsed on Schlundt, opening up shots for guards Bob Leonard and Burke Scott, who poured in 11 and 10 points respectively. Indiana extended the lead to 57-40 when Leonard, Burke Scott and Dick Farley all got into foul trouble. The Irish cut the lead to 71-63 with three minutes left, but the Hoosiers held the ball and held on for the victory, 79-66. After the game, Notre Dame Coach John Jordan said that to beat Indiana “you’ve got to figure out a way to stop that Schlundt, and nobody’s been able to do it yet.”
After beating Notre Dame, Indiana traveled to Kansas City for the Final Four. Indiana’s first opponent was Louisiana State, led by 6’9” center Bob Petit. Louisiana State was ranked 7th in the country, having lost only a single game. Petit and Schlundt battled in the middle all game. Each finished with 29 points. The difference in the game was Bob Leonard, who scored 22 points, most from long range, to give Indiana the 80-67 victory.
In the NCAA Championship, Indiana faced defending champion Kansas. Although star center Clyde Lovellette had graduated and taken his nation-leading 28.4 points per game to the NBA, he was replaced by outstanding 6’9” junior B.H. Born. There was no love lost between Indiana coach Branch McCracken and Kansas coach Phog Allen. McCracken’s Hoosiers beat Allen’s Jayhawks to win the NCAA title in 1940 and Allen stole Lovellette, a three time All-American and Indiana native, in a recruiting battle with McCracken.
Playing in Municipal Auditorium in Kansas City, Indiana was allotted 200 tickets for the Final Four. Kansas fans filled almost all of the other approximately 10,000 seats. Behind the deafening cheers of the Kansas faithful, the Jayhawks pulled away to a 39-33 lead. Kansas guard Dean Kelley held Bob Leonard to just two points in the first half and Don Schlundt hit the bench with three fouls. McCracken took a big risk and put Schlundt back in at the end of the first half. The risk paid off. The Hoosiers went on an 8-2 run and tied the game at 41-41 by halftime.
Late in the third quarter (college basketball was played in 10 minute quarters in 1952-53), with Kansas leading 53-52, officials announced that Kansas star B.H. Born had fouled out. Phog Allen ran to the scorer’s table and argued that Born had only four fouls. Press and radio men behind the scorer’s table agreed with Allen. The scorers changed the number of fouls on Born from five to four and announced that he could continue to play. An angry Branch McCracken ran to the scorer’s table and shouted “You had five on him and changed it to four. You know you did. We’re your guest and you’re robbing us!”
Born finally fouled out halfway through the fourth quarter, but the Hoosiers were upset with the officiating throughout the game. Don Schlundt and Bob Leonard each received technical fouls for using choice language while arguing calls with the officials.
Kansas held the ball for the last minute of the third quarter. With seven seconds left, they found B.H. Born inside and took a 58-57 lead. Bobby Leonard dribbled the ball to half court and heaved a shot at the buzzer. Swish. The Hoosiers retook the lead 59-58. It was one of 19 lead changes.
With less than two minutes left in the game and Indiana on top 68-65, Indiana forward Charlie Kraak was called for charging and fouled out. He slammed down the ball in anger and Indiana received its third technical foul. “I remember I got quite hot,” Kraak said. “I was fouled out, got a technical foul on me and lost my cool.” Kansas made only one of two from the line on the charging call and missed the technical foul shot.
Kansas inbounded the ball, trailing 68-66. With 1:05 remaining, Kansas guard Dean Kelley drove to the basket and scored to tie the game 68-68. Indiana tried to hold the ball for the last shot, but Dean Kelley fouled Leonard with 27 seconds left. “I wanted to make the shots as much as anything I’ve ever wanted in my life,” Leonard said. Leonard missed the first free throw, but made the second.
The Jayhawks ran the clock down to five seconds and, with Born out of the game, looked to get the ball to Dean’s brother, Al Kelley, the second leading scorer on the team. Kelley got the ball, but was mobbed by defenders. He passed to Jerry Alberts, a rarely-used reserve who had replaced Born. Alberts threw up an off balance shot from the corner. I was thinking “Please don’t let this go through,” Leonard remembered. The ball hit the front of the rim and bounced out. Indiana had won the NCAA Championship.
Schlundt finished with 30 points, including 9 of Indiana’s 10 points in the fourth quarter. Kraak scored 17 and Leonard scored 12, including the game winning free throw.
McCracken told reporters that Leonard “had ice water in his veins.” Leonard said, “If that was ice water, it sure felt warm to me.”
Name Pos Class Pts Reb
Don Schlundt C SO 25.4 8.5
Bob Leonard G JR 16.3
Dick Farley F/C JR 10.1
Burke Scott G SO 8.0
Charles Kraak F JR 7.2 10.3
Dick White F/C SO 5.6
Paul Poff G SO 2.7
Phil Byers G SO 2.7
James DeaKyne G/F JR 2.3
James Schooley F/C SR 0.8
How would the 1953 Indiana Hoosiers do against the teams of today? How would they handle the shot clock and three-pointer?
Indiana had a very good basketball team in 1953. Schlundt could really run for a big man, making Indiana's fast paced offense very hard to stop. Indiana also had an outstanding defense. They held opponents to just 29.9 percent from the field. With Schlundt at 6'9" and Kraak at 6'5", Indiana would be undersized today, but not horribly undersized.
Indiana's run and gun offense would be unaffected by the shot clock. Bob Leonard was an excellent outside shooter. The three-pointer would probably help the Hoosiers by spreading the floor and giving Schlundt and Farley more room inside.
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