The Journal Gazette
Monday, April 06, 2020 1:00 am

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'81 Hoosiers overcame poor start to season

DYLAN SINN | The Journal Gazette

On Dec. 30, 1980, Indiana lost to Pan-American 66-60 to fall to 7-5 in their nonconference schedule, including 0-3 against ranked opponents. The Hoosiers, who came into the season No. 5 in The Associated Press Poll and harboring championship aspirations, were unranked and seemed to be too inexperienced to reach their potential.

Exactly three months after that loss to the Vaqueros, on March 30, 1981, the Hoosiers hoisted their fourth national title trophy. They finished the season on a 10-game winning streak and took down Dean Smith-coached North Carolina in the championship game to give coach Bob Knight his second national championship in six years.

“That other championship (1976) was won by a very experienced team,” Knight said the night the Hoosiers won the title. “This bunch of kids just wouldn't quit all year long.”

Indiana finished the season 26-9 and won the Big Ten title in addition to the national crown. Here is a look back at the Hoosiers' 1981 national championship team, which won its title 39 years ago.

Best player: Ray Tolbert

Tolbert, a senior forward in 1981, earned Big Ten Player of the Year honors after averaging 12.2 points and 6.4 rebounds and shooting nearly 59% from the floor. The 6-foot-9 captain also helped anchor one of the best defenses in the country – the Hoosiers gave up just 58.5 points per game – and averaged 1.1 blocks. 

The 1977 Indiana Mr. Basketball went on to be a first-round pick in the 1981 NBA draft and played 14 pro seasons, including a stint with the Fort Wayne Fury in 1993-94. He still ranks 20th all-time in points for the Hoosiers and sixth in rebounds.

Most important player: Isiah Thomas

Thomas was a captain of the team despite being only a sophomore and proved his leadership abilities when the Hoosiers struggled early.

“Isiah has been the spokesman for our team all along,” Knight said after Indiana won the title. “He has been telling this team, even when we were 7-5 and seemed to have no hope, 'We know we can be a good team. All we have to do is work at it and improve and we can go where we want to go.' The team never lost sight of that and Isiah saw to that.”

Thomas earned All-American honors after averaging 16 points and 5.8 assists while shooting better than 55% from the field. He was named the NCAA Tournament's Most Outstanding Player thanks to a five-game run in which he poured in 18.2 points per contest and dished 8.6 assists per game. 

He left Indiana after winning the championship and was the No. 2 overall pick in the draft.

Best non-title game: March 28 vs. LSU

The Hoosiers took on the No. 1 seed Tigers, led by guard Howard Carter and forward Rudy Macklin, in the Final Four and ended LSU's season with a 67-49 win. Indiana trailed 30-27 at halftime, but stifled the Tigers to the tune of 19 points in the second half and 19 turnovers for the game. LSU shot just 32% from the field, while Landon Turner paced Indiana with 20 points and eight rebounds.


Indiana faced North Carolina, which had beaten the Hoosiers 65-56 in December and came into the game 29-7, for the championship The Spectrum in Philadelphia, the same arena where IU captured the championship in 1976. That afternoon, President Ronald Reagan was wounded in an assassination attempt. Then-North Carolina assistant Roy Williams recalled later that the championship game almost wasn't played.

“We came over (to the stadium), yet everybody knew in the back of their mind, 'Hey, we may not play this. What's the right thing to do?'” Williams told Newsday in 2016. “I remember us being in the hallway outside our locker room, and it was either (tournament officials) C.M. Newton or Dave Gavitt who came and got Coach Smith and Coach Knight and they went and talked. Coach Smith came back and said 'The president looks like he's going to be OK, and we're going to play.'”

Randy Wittman put Indiana in front 27-26 with a buzzer-beating shot at the end of the first half. In the second half, Indiana held the Tar Heels to only 24 points – Tolbert hounded James Worthy to just one rebound and no points after halftime – and Thomas erupted.

Thomas had just one basket in the first half. He finished the title game with 23 points, five assists and four steals.

“We were very happy with our situation in the first half and hoped to come out in the second half and take charge,” Smith said. “Thomas kept us from doing it. He broke the game open.”

What The Journal Gazette said

The March 31, 1981, edition of The Journal Gazette featured a story from the paper's then-Indiana beat writer Mark Montieth, who described the championship this way:

“Indiana, a team coach Bob Knight has said is still a year away from reaching its full potential, proved it was grown up enough to win a national championship Monday night. ... The 1976 title was won by an undefeated team that included four seniors in its starting lineup. The 1981 title went to a sophomore-heavy group that entered the new year with a 7-5 record and finished with nine losses, the most ever for an NCAA champion.”

The Journal Gazette also recorded that Knight's “voice was shaking and (his) eyes showed signs of tears as he described the victory.”

How theydefended title

With Tolbert and Thomas in the NBA in 1982, the Hoosiers took a step back, though they were still a contender in the Big Ten, finishing second with a 12-6 record. They went 19-10 behind Ted Kitchel's 19.6 points per game and reached the second round of the NCAA Tournament before falling to Alabama Birmingham 80-70.

Coming up

This weekend would have been the Final Four in Atlanta. In honor of that event, The Journal Gazette is reminiscing about IU's three most recent NCAA men's basketball championships teams, continuing today with the 1981 team.

Sunday: Indiana's 1976 title team

Tuesday: Indiana's 1987 title team

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