Spoiler Alert: The pre-season #5 rated Hoosiers have some memorabilia hanging from the rafters in Assembly Hall.
The '81 Hoosiers were pretty stacked. Not everyone was certain of that fact coming into the season because the team was still pretty young. It was headlined by standout sophomore and PG Isiah Thomas and had only six upperclassmen compared to nine underclassmen. Rarely does that kind of youth work out on a collegiate level but with the mix of leadership from Glen Grunwald and Landon Turner and the skills of the young guns this team turned out to be quite possibly Indiana's best. When all was said and done ten of the fifteen players on this roster were drafted into the NBA. Of the ten, three went in the first round and two in the second. But back to the actual season.
Indiana didn't look to be the National Contender that it wound up being to start off the season. They were slow going and dropped their first two competitive games to Kentucky and Notre Dame after beating 2 tomato cans. In fact, if it were today's sports coverage and media Indiana fans would be trying to claim the team is still a contender while all the opposing fans would scream at us, "they haven't beat anyone!" That would turn out to be true through the non-conference schedule. The '81 team beat the tar out of cupcakes but couldn't seem to land the W when they played more nationally relevant teams like North Carolina, Kentucky and Notre Dame. They were going to have to prove themselves in conference play after finishing 7-5 in noncon.
Isiah Thomas along with Ray Tolbert and Randy Wittman began to shoulder the load in conference play. The Hoosiers biggest weakness was probably getting to the bucket. They did a great job of keeping teams out of the lane but they struggled scoring in comparison to previous teams. Most of that could be explained away as the Knight motion offense being run through an elite PG where it was more about shot selection instead of shot volume. They still scored 70 ppg while holding their opponents to under 60.
Those defensive numbers echoed greatly to start on conference play. In the first 12 conference games the opponents broke 60 points only four times. Purdue scored 68 in a win and 51 in a loss; Wisconsin 61 in their loss to the Hoosiers, and Illinois 61 in defeat. Defense was not the problem for the '81 Hoosiers. The problem was that they lost two of their four games in conference by holding their opponents to under sixty and barely break fifty themselves.
Despite their occasional offensive woes, the Hoosiers were still able to finish the B1G season with a 14-4 record, good enough for first place. The first place finish in the Big Ten and an overall record of 21-9 was good enough to earn a berth in the NCAA Tournament as a #3 seed in the Mid East Region. Six seeded Maryland met with the waiting Hoosiers (at this time in tournament history the top 4 seeds in each region received a bye) after defeating Tennessee Chattanooga in the first round. The Hoosiers had no issue with the Terps though and sent them home to a tune of 99-64.
The Hoosier then got a look at Alabama Birmingham off of their fresh upset of #2 seeded Kentucky. This was the second year straight that Kentucky took an unexpected early exit. The previous year both Indiana and UK dropped games in which they were favored to face off again in the next round. This time Indiana held up its end of the bargain while the Wildcats watched IU walk into the Elite Eight from home.
In the Elite Eight, Indiana got it easy once again. This time they squared off with the Cinderella, St. Joseph's. St. Joe's had already knocked off the 9, 5 and 1 seeds to get to the position they were now. Unfortunately for them, they had seemed to run out of gas. The Hoosiers held St. Joe's to only 46 points scoring while IU fell just one bucket shy of 80. Indiana moved on to the Final Four, their first trip back since winning it all in the undefeated season of 1976. Knight and company would be looking to take on a formidable opponent for really the first time in the tournament. It had been a cake walk up to this point but now #1 seeded LSU was on the horizon. But again, defense saved the day. The Tigers couldn't put the ball in the basket and the Hoosiers once again cruised to a large margin of victory 67-49.
Thus came the National Championship. It was a rematch of the game played previously in the season. The North Carolina Tar Heels had already dispatched the Hoosiers once this season in North Carolina 56-65. The Heels would be looking to repeat the performance while the Hoosiers would be looking to redeem it. The game turned out to be the closest game of the the tournament for the Hoosiers but Indiana prevailed.
It was 26-27 Indiana at half but the game switched heavily towards Indiana from there. North Carolina went ten deep trying to figure out an answer to Indiana's ramped up defense but to no avail. Tar Heel legends, Sam Perkins and James Worthy could not get anything going. Worthy was specifically having a troublesome night as he finished the evening shooting only 3 of 11 from the field, for six total points. Meanwhile Indiana was relentless. The Hoosiers only went seven men deep the whole game and the two non-starters to get in (Ted Kitchel and Steve Risley) only played a combined 17 minutes. Wittman, Tolbert and Thomas all played the full forty, while Landon Turner and Jim Thomas combined for 63 minutes.
The Hoosiers aggressive D was enough to perplex the Tar Heels in the second half and the game finished with a score of 63-50 IU. This season would go down as Indiana's fourth National Championship run and third in eight years. As stated above Indiana would end up putting ten of the guys on this roster into the pros including Most Outstanding Player in '81 and future first ballot Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas.