No Big Ten team has yet recaptured the magic that the Hoosiers had from 1973-1976, so it’s no slight against the 1977, 1978, or 1979 Hoosiers that those teams didn’t dominate the college basketball world, either. As AJ documented last week, the 1976-77 Hoosiers probably never should have been given that top 5 preseason ranking, given such youth and inexperience. The 1977-78 Hoosiers rebounded to win IU’s fifth Big Ten title (and fourth outright) in the previous six seasons. In 1978-79, a young team led by junior Mike Woodson and sophomore Ray Tolbert, finished fifth in a loaded Big Ten (most notably including Magic Johnson and NCAA champ Michigan State), but advanced to the finals of the NIT, where IU defeated archrival Purdue in the title game. It was IU’s first NIT title, and was the third postseason tournament championship for IU in the previous six seasons (the 1976 NCAA and 1974 CCA titles are the others).
With Woodson, Tolbert, Butch Carter, and Randy Wittman returning, and with elite recruit Isiah Thomas entering as a freshman and former elite recruit Glen Grunwald returning from injury [edited for factual era about Grunwald's class], IU earned the preseason #1 ranking for the first time in four seasons. IU began the season with a 4-0 start, but by early January, after IU had dropped games at #5 Kentucky, against #8 North Carolina, and at #5 Ohio State, the Hoosiers had dropped all the way to 19. Unfortunately, Woodson missed all but the final 14 games because of offseason back surgery, and Wittman missed all but the first 6 games because of a foot injury. Compared to the excellent win-loss records of the mid 1970s, IU’s 20-7/13-5 regular season record didn’t stand out, but IU avenged its early season loss to Ohio State by beating the Buckeyes, 76-73 in overtime, on the final day of the season to edge OSU by one game in the Big Ten standings. The Hoosiers won the Big Ten for sixth time in eight years, and the fifth time outright during that period.
IU entered NCAA Tournament play with the Big Ten’s automatic bid, and thanks to a six game winning streak before the Tournament, moved back up to #7 in the AP poll and the Hoosiers were awarded a #2 seed in the NCAAs. At the time, the Tournament was a 40-team field, so the Hoosiers had a bye into the round of 32. IU handled Virginia Tech 69-58 in the round of 32, and for the second consecutive season, faced archrival Purdue in the postseason. The Boilermakers were the 6 seed, but had spent the entire season in the top 20 and had hammered 3 seed St. John’s in the round of 32. IU led 2-0 against Purdue in the Sweet 16 at Rupp Arena in Lexington, but that was the Hoosiers’ only lead. Purdue led by as many as 19 points in the second half before a late rally by IU made the final score, 76-69, closer than it had been for most of the game. Foreshadowing what was to come in 1981, Isiah Thomas led the Hoosiers with 30 points on 13-20 from the field.
Certainly, IU did not live up to the "great expectations" of a #1 preseason ranking. The Hoosiers spent most of the season out of the top 10, and after rallying to win the Big Ten and finish the season in the top 10, lost in the NCAA Tournament to their biggest rival. Certainly, the injuries to Woodson and Wittman played a role, although Woodson's numbers suggest that he was at full strength at the end of the season. Nevertheless, the young Hoosiers returned every key contributor in 1980-81, and despite lower preseason expectations than in 1979-80, won the NCAA title. Entering the regional in Lexington, Purdue looked to have an impossible road. The Boilermakers would have to beat archrival IU in the round of 16 and then expected to face #1 seed Kentucky on the Wildcats’ home court. Instead, 3 seed Duke upset UK (and Purdue transfer Kyle Macy), and the Boilers advanced to their second, and most recent, Final Four. Losing to Purdue in the NCAA Tournament is pretty awful, but it is some consolation that IU rendered the loss a footnote a year later, while Purdue still is looking to recapture the magic of 1980.