The 1979 Notre Dame basketball team came into the season with high expectations, coming off the first Final Four appearance in school history the previous year. The ’79 team spent much of the year mostly meeting expectations, until an NCAA Tournament loss to eventual national champion Michigan State signaled the end of an era in South Bend.
Digger Phelps had taken over the Fighting Irish basketball program in 1974 and since then had managed to end UCLA’s 88-game winning streak when John Wooden was still coaching and had made the Sweet 16 each of the previous five years, culminating with the Final Four run of 1978. Phelps’ team was loaded for bear in 1979 and ranked #3 in the country to start the season.
Kelly Tripucka was the best player and averaged 14ppg, but he was first among equals. Orlando Woolridge averaged 12ppg alongside Tripucka at forward, and Tracy Jackson came off the bench and did the same. Bill Laimbeer, a future mainstay of the Detroit Pistons’ championship teams was the starter at center, and while he only averaged 6 points/5 rebounds, Phelps brought Bruce Flowers off the bench to chip in 10/5.
The frontcourt talent and depth defined Notre Dame, but there were two good playmaking guards in Rich Branning and Bill Hanzlik. It wasn’t hard to see why optimism was running rampant in more places than football, where Notre Dame would win the Cotton Bowl in January on a historic comeback led by Joe Montana.
After three easy wins, the first big test came with a December 9 road trip to second-ranked UCLA. The Bruins had explosive forwards in David Greenwood and Kiki Vandeweghe, but Notre Dame survived a high-scoring game to win 81-78. Three weeks later though, the Irish lost to Kentucky in a game played at Louisville. This wasn’t a good Kentucky team this season, and the loss started what would become a pattern during the season—losing to the perennially proud program on a down year.
Jesuit rival Marquette, two years removed from a national title, was not on a down year. The Warriors had a terrific forward in Bernard Toone and would end up a 3-seed in the NCAA Tournament. Notre Dame went up to Milwaukee and came home with a 65-60 win that moved them to the top of the national polls.
ND held the top spot in the rankings even through a 67-66 loss at Maryland, another generally good program that failed to reach the NCAAs in 1979. The Irish were 17-2 when UCLA made a return visit to South Bend. The Bruins were as good as anticipated in the preseason, on their way to the 1-seed in the West Regional and they showed why on February 11. Notre Dame lost at home 56-52 and gave up the #1 ranking.
Phelps’ team bounced back and reached 22-3 before a hiccup at the end. On the final Friday of the season, Notre Dame visited DePaul. The Blue Demons were having a big year themselves. They would get a 2-seed in the NCAAs and ultimately knock off both Marquette and UCLA en route to the Final Four, where they took Larry Bird’s Indiana State to the wire. Notre Dame lost this game 76-72.
There was no shame in losing that game, but a visit to Michigan two days later was another embarrassment against a program with a record of success that was struggling in 1979. Notre Dame lost.
Even with the two losses to end the year, the Irish still got the #1 seed in the Mideast, over and above Michigan State, who hadn’t been great much of the year before surging to share the Big Ten title.
There were 40 teams in the NCAA Tournament, so the teams seeded 1 thru 6 went straight to the Round of 32. Notre Dame played their first tournament game on Sunday against Tennessee. The Vols had a potent forward in Reggie Johnson, who averaged 21/7 and they were coached by Bob Knight disciple Don DeVoe.
It was a tough game that was tied at the half, but the Irish held Johnson below his average, at 13/5. Tripucka led the way with 21 points, Hanzlik knocked down 16 and Laimbeer played the most complete game with 12 points and 12 rebounds. Notre Dame won 73-67 and punched their ticket to Indianapolis and old Market Square Arena for the regionals.
The anticipated opponent had been Iowa, coached by Lute Olson and who would make the Final Four in 1980. But the Hawkeyes had been knocked off by MAC champ Toledo. The Golden Rockets were another team built around a versatile forward, in this case Jim Swaney.
Swaney was all the Irish could handle, going for 26 points while fellow forward Dick Miller went off for 18/10. But Notre Dame had much more balance. Tripucka score 24 and the Branning/Hanzlik duo controlled the backcourt battle, each scoring in double figures. Laimbeer, Woolridge and Jackson all rebounded, keying an interior edge that resulted in an advantage on the boards and at the free throw line, where Notre Dame outscored Toledo 23-9. The Irish built a ten-point lead at the half and won 79-71.
There was just one more step to return to the Final Four and with the bracket in the East Regional—whom the winner of the Mideast would play—being gutted—the ND-Michigan State game was basically a de facto battle for a trip to Monday night and the right to play Bird and Indiana State.
From the perspective of history, a Bird vs. Magic showdown seems almost preordained, but in the moment, there was every reason for Notre Dame to be confident. Yes, Michigan State had Magic Johnson and Greg Kelser, but the Irish were deeper and had future pros of their own. But Magic was very good, with 19 points/13 assists, while Kelser was simply unstoppable with 34 points and 13 rebounds. The game wasn’t competitive as the Irish fell 80-68.
Notre Dame, along with DePaul and Arkansas, each of whom lost by a bucket to Indiana State, might well have been the second-best team in the country. But there would be no Final Four reprise in South Bend. In fact, the loss to Magic marked the last real high point in Phelps’ tenure. He coached through 1991, but never again reached a regional final and only made the Sweet 16 two more times.