The Indiana Hoosiers had slipped a bit after their glorious run of 1975 and 1976, where they posted undefeated seasons and in ’76 capped it off with a national championship. They missed the NCAAs in 1977 and 1979. Even allowing for a Sweet 16 run in 1978 and the fact that punching a ticket to March Madness in this period was considerably tougher than it is today (the field ranged from 32 to 40 teams), Bob Knight still needed to get the program back on track. The 1980 Indiana basketball team did just that with a memorable conference championship run and a legacy that still reverberates forty years later.
1987 NCAA TOURNAMENT
The Game-By-Game Narrative
It’s all here–from Austin Peay’s first-round upset to Keith Smart’s shot that won Indiana University’s fifth national championship. Get the PDF download delivered to your inbox FREE!
Expectations were high for a turnaround in 1980. The Hoosiers had Mike Woodson and Randy Wittman on the wings, along with a talented 6’5 guard in Butch Carter. Landon Turner was a rising star at center and Ray Tolbert was strong at power forward. And the real buzz came from the best recruit Knight ever hauled in—a baby-faced point guard out of Chicago named Isiah Thomas.
Indiana won their first four games, including a 76-69 home win over a Georgetown team that was bound for the Elite Eight in March. Even some tough losses weren’t devastating—69-58 at Kentucky and 61-57 to North Carolina, both of whom would have their customary high seeding positions in March.
But the problem was injuries. Wittman hurt his foot and was gone for the year. Woodson had gone in for back surgery and there was fear he would be lost. Indiana still had talent—Tolbert would average 10 points/7 rebounds on the year and Isiah averaged a 15 points/4 rebounds/6 assists stat line. But this wasn’t the team Indiana expected to have on the floor as conference play beckoned.
And the first two games were not the start the Hoosiers anticipated. They lost a tough 59-58 game at Ohio State—again, perhaps understandable with the Buckeyes having a quality combo of Kelvin Ransey at the point and Clark Kellogg down low. But less understandable was losing 52-50 at mediocre Wisconsin and Indiana fell from the national polls.
Knight’s team got back on track with wins over a decent Michigan team and a Michigan State squad that was in a major rebuild mode after winning the national championship in 1979 with Magic Johnson. IU knocked off Iowa, a solid contender and NCAA Tournament-bound team. And they took care of business on the road against Northwestern.
Things were looking back upward until a trip to Minnesota. Kevin McHale’s Gopher team knocked off IU 55-47 and dropped their league record to 4-3.
Purdue had the conference’s best player in Joe Barry Carroll, a shotblocker who led the league in scoring and rebounding. The Boilermakers were a legit contender in both the conference and on the national stage. Indiana got a clutch 69-58 win at home and then knocked off a pretty decent Illinois squad 60-54.
But the return trip to Purdue came quickly and it turned into a 56-51 loss. After the expected win over Northwestern, Indiana also lost their return trip to Illinois.
The conference schedule was two-thirds of the way through and the Hoosiers were 7-5. That’s pedestrian in our own day and in the world of 1980, it had them squarely on the bubble of the NCAA Tournament. But the Big Ten didn’t have anyone who could grab a hold of the race. Ohio State and Purdue led the way at 8-4. Minnesota and Iowa were also 7-5. Even Michigan at 6-6 was still lurking.
And Indiana had one card left to play—Woodson was coming back and would be in the lineup for the final six games of the year. The first one was on February 14 and Mike Woodson would be a lot of Hoosier fans’ Valentine.
With their newly fortified lineup, IU won 66-55 at Iowa and then came home to beat Minnesota. Those wins got them separated and into a three-team race with Ohio State and Purdue. Indiana got two tough battles in the state of Michigan. The first one came in East Lansing and ended with a 75-72 win. The second was in Ann Arbor and the 65-61 win knocked the reeling Wolverines out of the picture for good.
Indiana and Ohio State were now tied at 11-5, with Purdue a game back at 10-6. In the season’s penultimate game, IU beat Wisconsin 61-52 and awaited word from West Lafayette where their two rivals were playing. The Buckeyes got an impressive 64-60 road win. It set up a showdown between Ohio State and Indiana in Assembly Hall on the final day of the regular season.
Even today, with the enlarged NCAA Tournament bracket and the arrival of a conference tournament, the Big Ten’s regular season championship is still significant in this part of the college basketball world. A head-to-head showdown would draw eyeballs through the Midwest. In 1980, it was even bigger.
And the battle was worthy of the stakes. Woodson and Isiah went for 21 apiece. The game went to overtime. Indiana scored its final seven points from the line and won 76-73.
It was an improbable Big Ten championship, so much so that Woodson was voted the league MVP even though he’d only played a third of the schedule. That was an overreaction—Carroll, the most dominant player in the league and leader of one of the four teams that would make the NCAA Tournament was the logical choice.
But the sentiment behind the overreaction was appropriate. What Woodson had done for the program was incredible and Knight never forgot it. So much so that his friend, the sportswriter Bob Hammel once referred to the great Michael Jordan as simply “Michael”, per the norm in the 1980s. Knight sternly informed his friend that there was only one Michael in the Indiana program—Woodson.
Indiana got the #2 seed in the Mideast Regional and a bye into the Round of 32. They knocked off Virginia Tech 68-59 behind 17 points/7 assists from Isiah, 16 from Carter, 14 from Tolbert and 13 from Woodson.
That set up a trip to Rupp Arena for the regionals and the atmosphere was electric. Kentucky was the 1-seed. Duke, with the core of players that had made the Final Four in 1978 was the 4. And Purdue, seeded sixth, had survived opening weekend and was going to play Indiana.
Alas, the magical ride came to an end. Even though Isiah went off for 30 points and Carroll was kept reasonably under control (11 points/8 boards), the Boilermaker backcourt of Keith Edmondson and Drake Morris lit it up for 40 combined points. Purdue took an 11-point lead at halftime and won 76-69. To further deflate the atmosphere, Duke upset Kentucky in the night’s second game. It was a tough ending to the season—Purdue, along with Iowa would end up in the Final Four, in Indianapolis no less.
But the excellence of the season has outshone that short-term heartbreak. This is still remembered as one of the special teams in the long history of Indiana basketball. They set the stage for a nice four-year run that included two more Big Ten titles and a national title in 1981. And on their 40-year anniversary of 2020, they achieved what many of us thought impossible—they brought their coach back home to Bloomington, reconciling his 21st-century estrangement from the program.