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B1G Basketball Historical Perspective - Isiah

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NCAA Basketball: North Carolina at Indiana Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

In considering what to write about Indiana basketball, there was no shortage of topics. Hell, just one season under Bobby Knight was the subject of a best-selling book (that I read over winter break while a student at the University of Maryland). As a Maryland alum and fan, the 2002 National Championship game quite obviously comes to mind. Also, one shouldn’t ignore Indiana’s 1987 National Championship (which between that game versus Syracuse and the Academy Awards Show airing the same night, was the reason a Wang Chung concert was very poorly attended at Cole Field House). However, the most relevant memory for me is the early 80’s National Championship won by an Indiana team led, of course, by a sophomore point guard from Chicago.

The 1980-81 Indiana Hoosiers weren’t exactly Bobby Knight’s most talented team, finishing with a 21-9 record; including a season sweep by Iowa, and non-conference losses to Clemson and Texas-Pan American in the old Rainbow Classic Tournament (which must have been a VERY long flight back to Bloomington from Honolulu). Indiana also lost to North Carolina in Chapel Hill 65-56 in the regular season.

Directing the Hoosiers on the court was sophomore point guard Isiah Thomas. The 5’11” Thomas averaged 16.0 points and 5.8 assists a game; not appearing overly impressive, but note this was in the pre-shot clock era and Thomas was running Bobby Knight’s motion offense. As a top recruit from Chicago, Isiah Thomas was offered by the top schools in the country; however, both he and his mother Mary Thomas were sold on Bobby Knight and Indiana University. After his arrival in Bloomington, Thomas had learned to grow within Knight’s system; going from a player who was kicked out of practice to the team captain as a sophomore (something Knight wasn’t usually inclined to do).

Indiana found its way into the 1981 NCAA Tournament as a #3 seed in the Mideast Region (now the South Region). At that time, the top 4 seeds got a first round bye, meaning the Hoosiers automatically advanced to the Round-of-32 against #6 seed Maryland. Lefty Driesell’s Terrapins were led by All-America forwards Albert King and Buck Williams; however, they were no match for the Hoosiers getting blown out of the Dayton Arena 99-64 behind Thomas’ 19 point, 14 assist performance. (And this was the final game for both Albert King and Buck Williams for Maryland.)

Also during the Round-of-32 #1 seed DePaul and #2 seed Kentucky were both upset, making the Hoosiers the highest seed remaining. And, oh by the way, the Regional Semi-Finals and Finals would be played at The Hall of Calls in Bloomington (the NCAA didn’t abolish teams playing these games on their home court until after the 1984 NCAA Tournament). On their home court, Indiana easily dispatched Alabama-Birmingham and St. Joe’s (78-46!), booking their ticket to the Final 4 in Philadelphia.

The 1981 Final Four was notable for several reasons, including:

  • It was the last time NBC would be covering the Final Four, making this the last time the late, great Al McGuire would be doing color commentary along side Dick Enberg and Billy Packer.
  • In the National Semi-Finals against LSU, Bobby Knight got into a shoving match with an LSU fan after the game and allegedly shoved said fan into a garbage can.
  • And, on the day of the National Championship game March 30, 1981, President Ronald Reagan was shot by would-be assassin John Hinckley, Junior. This event, for obvious reasons, overshadowed the upcoming game as President Reagan was rushed to emergency surgery for the gunshot wounds he suffered. The NCAA decided to go on with the National Championship game that Monday night after President Reagan had successful surgery and was recovering that evening.

Against this backdrop the game tipped off at the old Spectrum Arena in Philadelphia. North Carolina was led by sophomore forward James Worthy and freshman All-America center Sam Perkins. The first half was a tight affair, with Indiana holding a tight 27-26 lead. In the second half, Knight turned things over to Isiah Thomas who scored most of his 23 points after halftime. Indiana started pulling away in the second, and nothing North Carolina tried seemed to work. In fact, in the YouTube video of the game Al McGuire exclaims that North Carolina needed to get out of their ‘Mickey Mouse defense’ (Dean Smith’s trademark 1-3-1 run-and-jump half-court trap) and play man-to-man defense. James Worthy’s 5th foul sealed the Tar Heels fate and Indiana’s free throw shooting and ball handling led the Hoosiers to a 63-50 victory and the 1981 National Championship.

Isiah Thomas Cutting Down the Nets March 30, 1981
Manny Millan/SI

Following the National Championship, Isiah Thomas declared for the NBA draft and had a long career with the Detroit Pistons winning 2 NBA Championships. But it was “Pee-Wee’s” performance on the night the President of the United States lay in intensive care in a Washington, DC hospital that led the Hoosiers to the National Championship that I, as a high school freshman, watched that Monday night.

As an epilogue, I nearly wrote about Indiana’s 1984 Sweet 16 upset of #1 ranked North Carolina, where Dan Dakich (yes, THAT Dan Dakich) joined Dean Smith as the only people to hold Michael Jordan under 20 points a game (as memories of the Tar Heels gagging in big games are good things).