The 1981 Indiana Hoosiers Peak In March

It had been a tumultuous four years for Bob Knight and the Indiana basketball program since their unbeaten national title run of 1976. They missed the NCAA Tournament twice. In 1980, they won a Big Ten title, but lost to archrival Purdue in the NCAAs, then watched the Boilermakers and Iowa go to the Final Four. The 1981 Indiana Hoosiers completed the journey all the way back to the top, as they not only repeated as Big Ten champs, but won another national title.

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A brilliant sophomore guard named Isiah Thomas keyed the team, with 16ppg and six assists as he ran the floor show. Randy Wittman, a lights-out shooter with an NBA career ahead of him, averaged 10ppg to complete a well-rounded backcourt. Another Thomas—Jim (no relation to Isiah) gave Knight quality minutes as a passer and defender.

The frontcourt was in equally good hands. Ray Tolbert averaged 12 points/6 rebounds per game and won the Chicago Tribune’s Silver Basketball Award, which was as close as the Big Ten had to a generally acknowledged MVP in those days. Elevating Tolbert over Isiah in terms of value and impact is pushing it, but it does underscore Tolbert’s ability to control the paint.

Another forward, even more talented, was on the rise. Landon Turner averaged 10ppg, but the junior was coming into his own as the season went on and emerging as a possible #1 overall NBA draft pick for 1982. Ted Kitchel rounded out the frontcourt, and though he only scored nine points per game, he was another sharpshooter who could space the floor.

Indiana was ranked fifth in the nation to start the year, but December was a disappointment. They played good teams in Kentucky, Notre Dame and North Carolina, all of whom would be 2-seeds come March and the Hoosiers lost all three. The games were close to be sure—68-66, 68-64 and 65-56 respectively, and the games against the Irish and Tar Heels were on the road. But it didn’t suggest a special season in the offing.

A trip to Hawaii between Christmas and New Year’s was a disaster, with losses to Clemson and Texas Rio-Grande Valley. Indiana completed non-conference play at 7-5. Forget a national title—in an era when only 48 teams made the NCAA Tournament, the Hoosiers had their hands full just trying to get to the Dance.

Indiana opened up Big Ten play on a stronger note at home, beating Michigan State and Illinois by double digits. The Spartans were on hard times after the departure of Magic Johnson following the 1979 national title run, but the Illini were a good team that would compete for the Big Ten title and be one of three conference teams to make the NCAAs.

The Hoosiers then dipped again, losing two of three. They dropped an overtime game at Michigan, who had a prolific scorer in Mike McGee, but was not a well-balanced team. Another loss came to Iowa, who didn’t have big-time talent, but had Lute Olson at head coach. In between these two defeats, Indiana knocked Ohio State, who was led by future TV analyst Clark Kellogg.

At 3-2 in the Big Ten and 10-7 overall, the moment was urgent for Knight’s Hoosiers and they responded with a four-game win streak. Indiana blew out Northwestern, then got a clutch overtime win over Minnesota, a team that was on the rise with a big center in Randy Breuer and who would win a Big Ten title of their own in 1982. IU beat Purdue 69-61 and then blew out Wisconsin to get back in position in the conference race.

A return visit to Purdue ended the win streak. The Boilermakers and first-year head coach Gene Keady were able to pull out a 69-66 win. Indiana responded by winning at Wisconsin and setting up a big game at Iowa on February 19. Both teams came in with 9-3 league records and the winner would take sole possession of first place. The Hoosiers did not play well and lost 78-65.

It’s in this latter stage of February that the 1981 Indiana Hoosiers began to look like the team history remembers them as. They beat Minnesota 74-64, took out Ohio State 74-58 and outgunned Michigan 98-83. Iowa held serve, including a win at Purdue that gave the Boilermakers a sixth conference loss and ultimately knocked them out of the NCAA Tournament. Minnesota would also fade from NCAA consideration.

The final week of the regular season opened with Iowa appearing to be in command, still up a game in the league at 13-3 and having winnable road games at Michigan State and Ohio State. Indiana was 12-4, with Illinois giving chase at 11-5.

Indiana visited Illinois in a conference championship elimination game. The Illini had talented forwards in Eddie Johnson and Mark Smith who combined for 30 points/14 rebounds per game and they would ultimately make the Sweet 16. But the Hoosiers stood strong with a 69-66 road win. When Iowa was upset 71-70 at Michigan State, the Big Ten race was tied.

On the final Saturday of the season—there was no conference tournament played then, so this was the day before Selection Sunday—Iowa went to Ohio State. Kellogg had averaged 17 points/12 rebounds this season and while he didn’t have enough help, the Buckeyes were no easy out. And they completed Iowa’s final-week collapse with a 78-70 upset. The Hawkeyes would lose in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. And the door was open for Indiana to win the Big Ten outright.

The Hoosiers were peaking and a visit to East Lansing wasn’t going to stop them. They took home an easy 69-48 win and a second straight Big Ten title. After the problems of the early season, they were going to the NCAA Tournament as a 3-seed in the Mideast. DePaul and Kentucky were the regional favorites, but Indiana had one big hole card—the regionals would be played in Bloomington.

After a first-round bye, Indiana played their second-round game in Dayton against the Maryland Terrapins, led by forward Albert King. Indiana played its best game of the season to date, with a dominating 99-64 win. Tolbert and Turner dominated the interior, combining for 46 points/15 rebounds. Isiah scored 19 of his own and dished out 14 assists.

On a weekend where upsets played havoc with the NCAA field, no one benefited more than the Hoosiers—both DePaul and Kentucky lost. Indiana would not only play the regionals at home, but would do so against a gutted field.

The backcourt of Isiah and Wittman rolled through UAB, combining for 47 points and the Hoosiers won 87-72. They closed out their regional run with a 78-46 blowout of St. Joseph’s, holding them to 33 percent shooting from the floor. Indiana was on its way to another Final Four and ironically it would be at the same venue as in 1976—the Philadelphia Spectrum. There had to be good luck in there somewhere.

If the regionals had been gutted the Final Four most definitely was not. Indiana played the early afternoon game on Saturday against LSU, the 1-seed out of the Midwest. The Tigers were led by forward Rudy Macklin, a second-team All-American and Indiana trailed 30-27 at the half. But the combination of a great defense and a heavy dose of Landon Turner—20 points/8 rebounds—completely turned the game around in the second half and Indiana cruised to a 67-49 win.

North Carolina was the last hurdle. As the teams got ready to play on Monday, word came from Washington D.C. that there had been an assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan. There was real doubt as to whether the championship game would be played. When later word came that the president was stable, the teams were given the go-ahead to play.

The Tar Heels had not only beaten Indiana in December, but they had a tremendous frontcourt. Al Wood was a second-team All-American. Sam Perkins and James Worthy were players that proved to be pretty good, both at this level and the next one. They had just beaten Virginia and its All-American center Ralph Sampson to get here.

But Indiana was just in too good of a groove. The game followed a similar pattern to Saturday. The first half was fairly even, with Wittman hitting a baseline jumper as the horn sounded to give the Hoosiers a 27-26 lead at intermission. And the second half was all IU.

Isiah owned the stage, scoring 23 points. Tolbert dominated the inside with 11 rebounds. Wittman kicked in 16 points, while Turner added 12 points/6 rebounds of his own. Isiah was named Most Outstanding Player, just as he had been in the regionals, and the 63-50 win gave Indiana another national title.

Knight had added to his legend. He was now a multi-national title winner and considered stepping back from coaching and perhaps going into broadcasting. CBS acquired the rights to the NCAA Tournament for the following season and was pushing hard to get the Indiana coach as their number one analyst.

But in the summer, tragedy struck. Turner was in a car accident and ended up paralyzed. Knight would not leave the program and he returned to coach and to raise money for Turner’s ongoing medical care and to have his home fitted with ramps to allow for wheelchair use.

All of it is part of the legacy is the 1981 Indiana Hoosiers. From the strong finish on the basketball court, to the humanitarianism off of it, this all became part of the history of one of college basketball’s great cultures.