The NCAA Tournament’s modern era officially began in 1975, when conferences began allowing more than one team per conference to enter the field. Each year marked a new progression into the event we know today.
1976 marked the first year of the post-John Wooden era. 1979 saw the first occasion of a regional being ripped apart with upsets. 1980 was the first time the Final Four was filled with middling-seeded teams. The 1981 NCAA Tournament elevated it all to another level, with an extraordinary first weekend, a memorable moment at the regionals and finally ending with a dominant champion on a night national tragedy was averted.
SECOND ROUND CHAOS
The top 16 teams nationally (the 1 thru 4 seeds in each region) still got first-round byes in this timeframe, a practice that would continue until 1985. Eight of these sixteen teams lost right out of the gate in Saturday/Sunday’s second round. The chaos was highlighted by a sequence of three stunning finishes, one on top of the other, that NBC, which then televised the tournament, couldn’t have scripted better if it wanted to.
DePaul was #1 in the country, but only led St. Joseph’s 48-47 in the closing seconds. The Blue Demons’ missed a free throw, didn’t pick up in transition and John Smith ended alone under the basket for the game-winner.
NBC shifted to Louisville-Arkansas, where the defending national champion Cardinals seemed to have finally prevailed after Derek Smith hit a tough jump shot give Louisville a 73-72 lead and five seconds left. Arkansas’ U.S. Reed heaved a halfcourt shot at the buzzer…and it went in.
Finally, the #2 seed in the West was Oregon State, but they were locked in a 48-48 tie against Kansas State. Wildcat forward Rolando Blackman got the ball on the baseline. He feinted a drive, created space and hit a jumper with two seconds left to finish the upset.
This trio of games is best remembered because the flurry in which they all went down, but the carnage continued. Also losing was Kentucky, the #2 seed in the East, to UAB 69-62. A pair of 3-seeds went down in Iowa and UCLA. Boston College was a 5-seed and nipped #4 Wake Forest, something more notable in the days of the 48-team bracket, because BC was playing its second game in three days, while Wake enjoyed a bye.
All in all, Saturday and Sunday of the 1981 NCAA Tournament wouldn’t be forgotten anytime soon.
Another team that pulled the upsets was sixth-seeded BYU, who had the National Player of the Year in Danny Ainge. There wasn’t a lot of drama associated with the Cougars’ 78-55 demolition of UCLA. It was at the East Regional, in the old Atlanta Omni, that BYU gave the nation its moment to remember.
Notre Dame was the two-seed and opponent in the Sweet 16. BYU trailed 50-49, when Ainge delivered one of NCAA Tournament history’s great individual efforts. He drove the length of the floor for the winning layup, beating seven men in the process—yes, seven, as Ainge beat two Notre Dame players twice.
It got BYU a ticket to the regional final against Virginia, where arguably the two best players in the country would square off. Ralph Sampson stood 7’4” and the sophomore center was Ainge’s rival for Player of the year. Ainge’s magic ran out, as he struggled to a 4-of-13 day, while Sampson had 22 points/12 rebounds. Virginia went to the Final Four, but Ainge had given March Madness a lasting memory in the process.
INDIANA IN THE END
There were upsets and great plays, but by the time the Final Four rolled around it was all about Indiana. Between the other top seeds in the Mideast all losing, and the regionals being held in Bloomington, Indiana ended up with a clear path to the Final Four. Isiah Thomas was outstanding player in the regionals as the Hoosiers first beat UAB, and then ended St. Joe’s dream tournament, 78-46.
In spite of all the upsets, power prevailed at the Final Four in Philadelphia, with two #1 seeds (LSU & Virginia) and a pair of 2-seeds in Indiana and North Carolina.
Indiana fell behind LSU by three points at the half of Saturday’s semi-final, but completely locked down the Tigers defensively and pulled away to a 67-49 win. The hero of the game was Landon Turner, with 20 points/8 rebounds. Later that summer Turner would end up in a tragic car accident that would leave him paralyzed.
North Carolina beat Virginia behind 39 points from Al Wood and set up a Dean Smith-Bob Knight coaching battle on Monday night. But that afternoon, there was an assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan. Both coaches waited for word on whether the game will be played. In the end, Reagan survived and the go-ahead was given to play.
Once again Indiana took over the second half. After leading 27-26 at half, Indiana rolled to a 63-50 win behind 23 points from Thomas, who again took Outstanding Player honors. Indiana won its five tournament games by more than a combined 100 points.
Indiana lost nine games during the season, the largest number for a national champion to date. This wasn’t a start-to-finish domination display, the way the 1976 Indiana basketball team was. But the way IU demolished the 1981 NCAA Tournament is as good as it gets. For the second time in six years, they were national champs and both times had been in Philadelphia.