When Indiana college basketball ruled the world

Apr. 3—With Purdue making its first Final Four since 1980, and Indiana State heading to the title game of the NIT on Thursday, I thought that it might be interesting to look at how impactful 1979 was for both schools, the last time ISU went to NCAA finals and IU and Purdue meet in the NIT at the same time. It shows how dominant the state of Indiana was in college basketball was from the mid-70s through the mid-1980s.

Most people know that Purdue and ISU share John Wooden's legacy, as a player and coach. Wooden, and All-American and national champion at Purdue in the 1930s, got out of the Navy in 1946 and became the head baseball and basketball coach at ISU. Purdue wanted Wooden to return to West Lafayette in 1947 as an assistant to Mel Taube and take over after Taube's contract expired. But Wooden rebuffed the offer, saying he was loyal to Taube and didn't want to make him a lame duck coach. Shortly after that, he headed to UCLA and the rest is history.

And when Rick Mount and the Boilers finally got to the Final Four in 1969, who beat them in the championship game? John Wooden and UCLA (with a little help from Lew Alcindor).

It's well-known that the Indiana State Sycamores greatest season was 1979 and that story has been well documented. Simply put, Larry Bird became a legend and in turn, helped change the tide of the NBA and a lot of ways, how sports are perceived and marketed today.

But during that spring, they weren't the only major Indiana program playing in a tournament. The NIT finals featured Indiana and Purdue.

The NIT was much more powerful then, as only 40 teams made the NCAA tourney and Big 10 only had Magic Johnson and Michigan State and Iowa, make the NCAA. So, very good teams like IU and Purdue, who easily would make the NCAA tourney today, went to the NIT and were happy to do so.

That 1979 NIT championship game was won by IU after a 20-foot jump shot by Butch Carter with :04 seconds left, enabled Indiana to edge Purdue, 53-52.

The game featured the two teams that would go to the final four over the next two season. Purdue's roster would feature the National Player of the Year Joe Barry Carroll along with Bird's Celtic teammate Jerry Sichting (who came from Wooden's hometown of Martinsville and played there {span}under head coach Sam Alford of Washington){/span}, while IU featured Randy Wittman and Ray Tolbert, all part of the 1981 title team. And just for the record, the man who hit the shot that pulled IU within a point in that NIT game — current IU coach Mike Woodson.

In the following year's NCAA tourney, Purdue would have to beat IU in the NCAA Regional semis to make its own run to the final four. And who would beat Purdue in the Final Four in 1980? UCLA — again.

That NIT, and those three final fours between 1979 and 1981 may have been the high-water mark for Indiana college basketball, and those teams (along with some very good Notre Dame teams at the same time) resonated far beyond just the banks of the Wabash. The Celtics (who drafted Bird the previous year) also held the No. 1 pick for 1980 and could have selected Carroll to play with him. However, they dealt that pick to Golden State and got Hall of Famers Kevin McHale at No. 3 and a young Robert Parish. That duo (along with Bird) changed the NBA for the next 15 years. And just to bring it all back around to today, Mike Woodson also went in the first round that year with the 11th pick of the same draft.

I think everyone is excited to see Indiana teams playing well this year in tourneys, however sometimes its nice to see what a rich legacy and history it came from, just 45 short years ago.