Indiana's basketball crown the fruitage of gradual effort
People may still wonder what makes Coach Bobby Knight tick, but there's nothing mysterious about his Indiana basketball team, which kept it simple in defeating North Carolina, 63-50, for Indiana's fourth national championship.
Unrelenting, hard-nosed, and intelligent basketball -- not in spurts, but all the time -- is the team's formula for success. "Our objective is to break a team down over the course of 40 minutes, to stay with our defense, and to be patient with our offense," Knight explained after Indiana had undone a Tar Heel team also known for playing smart, textbook basketball.
Winning the collegiate crown this time carries special satisfaction, since unlike the undefeated Hoosier squad that won the 1976 title, this season's team matured gradually. Altogether it lost nine games, more than any other NCAA champion, while finishing with 26 victories.
The situation was totally different five years ago, although the scene of the ultimate triumph -- Philadelphia's Spectrum -- was the same.
"In the eyes of the public we were the national champion even before the 1975 -76 season began," Knight explained. "I actually thought we had the best team in the country two years in a row, but Scott May's injury may have kept us from winning the tournament in 1975. When we did win the next year, I just felt relieved, especially for the seniors. This time it's a very joyous experience."
Yet before the game both teams were saddened to learn of the attempt on President Reagan's life. Even while the consolation game was in progress (Virginia, 78, Louisiana State, 74), the tournament committee met to determine whether the final would be played.
Realizing that a postponement would be a logistical nightmare, especially with a pro basketball playoff game scheduled the next night in the Spectrum, some wondered if the NCAA might even declare co-champions. But the show went on , and for Indiana what a show it was, though in retrospect many people questioned the decision to play under such circumstances.
The contest was expected to be one of the closest and most physical finals in years. But just as it had done in beating LSU in the semifinals, Indiana blew the game wide open immediately after the intermission.
The momentum may have swung when Randy Wittman hit a corner jumper that gave Indiana its first lead, 27-26, as time expired in the first half.
Indiana guard Isiah Thomas would later call Wittman's play the most important of the game. North Carolina Coach Dean Smith begged to differ, calling Isiah's two steals at the start of the second half the turning point.
The thefts, which turned into breakaway layups, fueled a run that quickly jumped Indiana's lead to nine points, a margin never seriously threatened thereafter.
The Hoosiers wound up winning their five tournament games by an average of 22 .6 points, an incredible feat for a team ranked seventh in the country at the end of the regular season, and situated behind each of the other Final Four members.
The catalyst for Indiana throughout the season, and especially in Monday night's game, was Thomas, the sophomore playmaker with the impish smile who scored a game-high 23 points.
When it came time to select the Most Outstanding Player in the tournament here, writers easily gave him the nod over North Carolina's Al Wood, even though Wood had a record 39 points in Saturday's semifinal win over Virginia. The vote makes him the third consecutive back-court man so honored, following in the sneaker steps of Michigan State's Magic johnson and Louisville's Darrell Griffith.
Assuming the team's floor leadership responsibilities was not an assignment Isiah relished at first, but one he grew into rapidly during the season. "Taking over and telling others what to do," Knight said, "has made him a more careful and conscientious player.
Like Virginia's 7 ft. 4 in. Ralph Sampson, Isiah will probably come under heavy pressure to forgo his last two years of college and turn pro. After the championship game, though, he said, "I'm almost sure I'll be coming back nextyear."
If he does, the preseason polls could insert Indiana in the No. 1 slot, since only one starter, centra Ray Tolbert, graduates from the current squad. Returning with Thomas will be Wittman, Ted Kitchel, and Landon Turner, plus valuable reserve Jim Thomas (no relation to Isiah), who was largely responsible for holding Wood to 18 points in the Hoosiers' snarling man-to-man defense.
Jim Thomas is the only player Knight has ever recruited during 10 years at IU who does not hail from Indiana, Ohio, or Illinois. As if to justify the presence of this Floridian, Knight says, "Both of his parents went to grad school in Bloomington and like it."
North Carolina should be strong again, too; yet as Smith points out the trend is away from any team's reaching the Final Four in successive years, UCLA being the last to do so in 1976 and '77.
Of course, Smith has now taken a team to the Final Four six times, the best record after john Wooden's 12 appearances, but keeps coming up empty-handed
Twho two other times his Tar Heels got to the final, they were halted in their tracks by Lew Alcindor and UCLA in 1968 and by a Marquette team determined to send Coach Al McGuire into glorious retirement in 1977. McGuire, incidentally, worked probably his last NCAA final for TV in a while, since next year the tourney switches from NBC to CBS.
North Carolina would obviously like to shuck the "Minnesota Vikings" image in its postseason tournaments. Yet, if it's any consolation to the Tar Heels and the league they play in, no less an authority than Knight has called the Atlantic Coast Conference the best in basketball this year.
Knight, as his associates will tell you, can be honest to a fault. He says what he feels, and sometimes acts just as impulsively.
Oddly, he insists on discipline from his players, but lets his own hot-sauce temper get the better of him on occasion. Only hours after Indiana's semifianl win he was spurred into a shoving incident with an LSU fan, a blowup reminiscent of the dispute he got into with a San Juan policeman during the Pan American Games two years ago.
Despite claiming to be an abject failure in his only attempt to draw a technical fould he always seems to be a state of combat readiness. He shows up for games with his collar unbuttoned and his tie loosened.
Even if his public image grates on some fans, however, his players love him. for underneath the bluster he cares about them and the integrity of his basketball program.
But isn't winning success in his book? Not strictly by his definition of the word which is "being able to look back at what you've done and being able to say , 'I did it about as well as I could have done it.'"
His current team has won it all, yet, consistent with his own philosophy, Knight isn't content. "I don't think this group has fully matured yet," he says. "I hope it will reach maturity sometime next year."