The NCAA Tournament expanded in 1980, going from 40 teams to 48, meaning that for the first time, a majority of the bracket (32 teams) would have to win six games to win the national championship. The extra hurdle didn’t stop upsets from happening—the 1980 Final Four was the first one that was mostly gutted of teams who could remotely claim to be a favorite.
While eventual champion Louisville was a power, Purdue, Iowa and UCLA all took the long road to Indianapolis. Here’s a look back on how each team reached the Final Four.
Denny Crum had taken Louisville to the Final Four twice before since becoming head coach in 1972. Both times, the end of the road had come against UCLA, where Crum had made his reputation as an assistant to John Wooden.
The Cards also lost to the Bruins in the first round in 1977 and made consecutive Sweet 16 appearances in 1978 and 1979.
In 1980, Louisville looked ready to take that proverbial next step. They had the best player in the country in Darrell Griffith. Nicknamed “Dr. Dunkenstein” for his athleticism, the guard averaged 22 ppg and won national Player of the Year honors. Griffith was supported by a good front line, quick and athletic, with Derek Smith, Rodney McCray and Wiley Brown.
Louisville went 28-3 and got the #2 seed in the Midwest Regional. After a first-round bye, it looked like the dream might die an early death, when Kansas State took them to overtime. The Wildcats were led by Rolando Blackman, on his way to a long NBA career and one year later they would oust #1 seed Oregon State in this same round. The Cards survived 71-69, forcing Blackman into 6-for-18 shooting and getting 20 points from Smith.
The regionals were in Houston, and Louisville would face Texas A&M, who had upset North Carolina. Yet again, the Cardinals were dragged into overtime by an undermanned opponent. The key to this win was free-throw scoring, where Louisville enjoyed a 20-7 advantage. Griffith scored 24 points and the ‘Ville finally pulled away in the extra session, 66-55.
Now it was time to face the region’s top seed, SEC champion LSU. The Tigers had just beaten Missouri in the Sweet 16, taking out an opponent with two future NBA players, Larry Drew and Steve Stipanovich. Louisville would have to play much better than what they’d shown in their first two games of the tournament.
It took into the second half, but Crum’s team finally took it over. Griffith finished with 17 points/8 rebounds/7 assists and was named the regional’s Most Outstanding Player. McCray and Smith grabbed ten rebounds apiece to key a decisive edge on the glass and the 86-66 win sent Crum to his third Final Four.
The seat that John Wooden had occupied as recently as a five years ago was proving to be predictably uneasy for anyone else to occupy. Gene Bartow was Wooden’s successor and made the 1976 Final Four, but Bartow opted to go Alabama-Birmingham after two years and build a program from scratch.
Gary Cunningham was next in line, and he produced two good teams, but came up a game short of the 1979 Final Four, losing a thrilling regional final to DePaul. Next up was a young head coach named Larry Brown.
It didn’t go well for the Bruins through much of 1980. They finished fourth in the Pac-8 conference and were seeded #8 in the West Regional. But they had individual talent. Kiki Vandeweghe was a 20 ppg scorer. Rod Foster scored 12 a game and was a good playmaker, while Mike Sanders averaged 11 points/6 rebounds.
Vandeweghe lit up Old Dominion with 34 points, while Sanders hauled in 18 rebounds as UCLA won their first-round game 87-74. The top seed in the West was DePaul, with national Coach of the Year Ray Meyer and All-American forward Mark Aguirre. The Bruins held the Blue Demons to 41 percent shooting, while Sanders had 15 points/12 rebounds. The 77-71 upset sent shock waves through the bracket.
The entire West Regional was gutted, with fourth-seeded Ohio State the only favorite to make it to Tucson for the regionals. UCLA won a tough 72-68 game over the Buckeyes in the Sweet 16. Vandeweghe didn’t shoot well, going 3-for-13, but Sanders and Foster each scored 19 apiece. Meanwhile, sixth-seeded Clemson, with future NBA players in Larry Nance and Mitchell Wiggins, beat Lamar 74-66 to advance.
UCLA was in control in the regional final against Clemson. Vandeweghe was back on his game, with 22 points/9 rebounds. The Bruins were up eleven at the half. Sanders continued to play great basketball, with a 22/10 day that earned him Outstanding Player honors in the 85-74 win. Even in a down year, UCLA basketball was still Final Four bound.
Joe Barry Carroll was the anchor of the Purdue team. The 7’1” center averaged 22 points/9 rebounds and was a shotblocker that controlled the interior. But in his senior year, the Boilermakers hadn’t taken full advantage of his talents.
After making the NCAA Tournament in his freshman year, Purdue missed the Dance each of the previous two seasons. With a supporting cast that included double-digit scorers in Keith Edmonson and Drake Morris, the Boilers needed to make a move.
Second-year head coach Lee Rose had taken a great player to the Final Four in 1977, when he advanced with Cornbread Maxwell at UNC-Charlotte. Purdue finished third in the Big Ten, but with a #6 seed in the Mideast, they were playing at home on the first weekend and had the chance for a big run.
The first game with LaSalle was a great showdown of All-Americans, as the Explorers had forward Michael Brooks. The battle was everything fans could have asked for. Brooks was great with 29 points/12 rebounds, but Carroll was even better, at 33/13. Purdue won the game 90-82. Carroll continued to dominate in the second round, with a 36/12 line against St. John’s in a 86-72 win.
Purdue had enjoyed home cooking, but there was the possibility it would turn on them at the Mideast (the forerunner of today’s South bracket) Regional. Lexington’s Rupp Arena was the venue and Kentucky was there as the #1 seed. The Wildcats would play Duke, while Purdue staged a grudge match with Indiana.
Bob Knight’s Hoosiers had won the Big Ten and Carroll didn’t have a great game, with 11/8. But Edmonson and Morris stepped it up with 20 points apiece. Purdue also went 32-for-44 from the free throw line, while Indiana was 13-for-17. Purdue won 76-69 and they also got the break they needed—Duke, with several of the players who had lost to Kentucky in the 1978 NCAA championship game, took revenge, with a 55-54 win.
Playing a worse opponent—Duke was the 4-seed—on a true neutral floor was a break, but it wouldn’t be easy to capitalize on. The Blue Devils had forced Kentucky’s All-American guard Kyle Macy into a 3-for-9 night, and they had a future pro center in Mike Gminski. Purdue trailed the regional final at halftime, 30-28.
Carroll’s defense was taking its toll though, and though Gminski got 17 points, he was forced into 6-for-16 shooting. Meanwhile, Joe Barry was efficient, hitting ten of sixteen shots and scoring 26 points. Purdue took over the second half with a 68-60 win. Carroll picked up MOP honors and the Boilers could get back to enjoying home cooking, with the Final Four in Indianapolis.
Basketball was a dead sport in the Hawkeye State when Lute Olson took the program over in 1975. By 1979 he got Iowa into the NCAA Tournament and one year later, Lute did even better.
The Hawkeyes had a potent backcourt, with Kenny Arnold and Ronnie Lester averaging close to a combined thirty points per game. And there was a balanced and deep front court with Steve Krafclsln, Kevin Boyle, Vince Brookins and Steve Waite. Iowa got to the 5-seed line by the time the bracket was unveiled and were placed in the East Regional.
Each of the first two games followed a similar script, with Arnold leading a balanced offense. Arnold had 23 points against Virginia Commonwealth, while three other players had 17 in an 86-72 win. Then Arnold had 18 while two others had 17 in a 77-64 win over N.C. State. The Hawkeyes had taken over that second game with a 51-point explosion in the second half to reach the regionals.
Iowa was the team that didn’t belong when the East Regionals convened in Philadelphia. They were only team not seeded in the bracket’s top four and they were the Midwestern interloper among Syracuse, Georgetown and Maryland.
The Hawkeyes faced top-seeded Syracuse in the Sweet 16. Iowa got to the line repeatedly, going 30-for-39 on free throws and the front line was in control of the game. Brookins had 21 while Boyle added 18 in the 88-77 upset. To complete the run, Iowa would have to face another Big East team, as Georgetown won its D.C.-rivals grudge match against Maryland, 74-68.
Iowa fell behind by ten points at halftime, but rallied. They pulled it out 81-80 on the strength of 22 points from Brookins. Georgetown’s Sleepy Floyd went off for 31 points and that got him Outstanding Player honors.
I’m not against a player from a losing team winning this award, but Floyd did not have a great game against Maryland. Meanwhile, Brookins had been special on both nights and his team won the regional. He should have been MOP, but in either case, Iowa was going to the Final Four.
THE 1980 FINAL FOUR
Indianapolis has become a common site for the Final Four, and 1980 was the first year they city hosted college basketball’s showcase event. A tradition that would eventually go to the Hoosier Dome and Lucas Oil Stadium began here at old Market Square Arena.
Louisville played Iowa in the first game on Saturday, and Griffith simply took over. He was 14/21 for 34 points, while the Cardinals shot 60 percent as a team in an 80-72 win.
Carroll played reasonably well in the Purdue-UCLA game, with a 17/8 line. But the Boilers needed him to be great and it wasn’t enough. Vandweghe scored 24 points and the Bruins pulled out a 67-62 win.
For the fourth time in his coaching career, Crum faced the program he had once helped stock as chief recruiter. When Louisville trailed 50-45 with less than five minutes left, it looked like Denny might fall to 0-4 against UCLA and the Bruins would improbably win yet another national championship. But Griffith came to the rescue.
The Player of the Year finished the championship game with 23 points on 9-for-16 shooting and he ensured the Cardinals controlled the late stages of the game. Louisville’s defense was tough all night, holding UCLA to 47 percent shooting and the Cards won it 59-54.
It was the year that belonged to Griffith and he capped it off with being named Most Outstanding Player at the Final Four. Louisville was finally national champs.