TGS SWEET 16 PREVIEW...PLUS TAR HEELS-HOOSIERS MEMORIES!
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor
After first and second rounds of the Big Dance that suggested all sorts of wild matchup possibilities for the Sweet 16 and beyond, order seems to have been restored-albeit narrowly. The spry upset winners from the first round, and many of the potential rich storylines for the tournament, all would go down to defeat (some in more heartbreaking fashion than others) in the second round. The lowest seeds remaining in the Dance are all college hoops brand names (7 seed Wisconsin in the East, 10th and 11th seeds Syracuse and Gonzaga in the South). Surprisingly, there are a record six Atlantic Coast Conference teams still alive, which makes the Sweet 16 almost look like a continuation of the recent ACC Tourney at Washington, D.C.'s Verizon Center. Meanwhile, the Big East, Pac-12, and SEC barely maintain a pulse with one entry each.
(For more info on the Sweet 16, check out our College Hoops Forecast on these pages; the Elite Eight forecast will be available this coming Friday and Saturday in TGS Hoops 35).
Yet, as we prepare for our 60th season of publishing next fall, we are always apt to reminisce, especially when it comes to this time of the basketball season. March has always been our favorite month at TGS; up until 1985, we would conclude our publishing season at the end of the month with the Final Four issue. But even when we extended our issues into April and the culmination of the NBA regular season, there was still something celebratory about March. Vivid memories of past NCAA Tourneys help us recall each year, and past hoops seasons, more precisely. Especially since the Big Dance often provides us with matchups that are reminders of years gone by. And if it seems as if we keep landing on Indiana for a lot of these trips down memory lane, it's because the Hoosiers have often been at the eye of the March hurricane, with memorable games, players, and one particular coach often as the centerpiece for some unforgettable hoops.
Sweet 16-bound Indiana is back on the big stage again this week in another all-hoops blue blood battle against North Carolina. The Hoosiers and Tar Heels have tangled several times over the years, though a couple of their most memorable battles occurred in the Big Dance during the early 1980s. Moreover, the Philadelphia site for this week's East Regional recalls not only the venue for the Indiana Final Four win in 1976, but also the 1981 Final Four held at the old Spectrum, its site now a parking lot between the Phillies' Citizens Bank Park, the Eagles' Lincoln Financial Field, and the current Wells Fargo Center, which will host the hoops action this weekend.
Big Dance action in Philly, however, will always recall 1981 and the title game between Bob Knight's Indiana and Dean Smith's North Carolina.
Of course, many historians remember that final game for an altogether different reason, played as it was on the evening of an assassination attempt on President Reagan earlier that day in Washington. The nation was unnerved, memories of JFK and Dallas in 1963 still fresh in many minds. The president's condition turned out to be more serious than was reported that afternoon and evening in a jumble of conflicting stories out of the D.C. news grid. Late in the afternoon, having determined that the president's condition probably wasn't life-threatening (which turned out to be an erroneous assumption), the decision was made in Philadelphia to go ahead with the Hoosiers-Tar Heels title game, to be televised by NBC. (The Academy Awards, scheduled to air on ABC on the same night, decided to postpone their event 24 hours until Tuesday.) So, there was a bit of surreal feeling surrounding the contest, with normal pre-game talk pre-empted, as was the halftime show, as NBC would be quick to switch back to Washington for news updates. Analyst Al McGuire, working alongside Dick Enberg in what would be NBC's last Final Four before CBS acquired the package in 1982, famously said on the air that he really didn't want to be watching or talking about a basketball game that night, setting the somber mood for the evening.
The 1981 Final Four, which also included LSU (IU's semifinal victim) and Ralph Sampson's Virginia (which lost to UNC in an all-ACC semifinal), had already been noteworthy for action earlier in the weekend, and not all of it on the court. Not surprisingly, the controversial Knight was involved in the middle of the storm, this time for a confrontation with an LSU fan, reportedly intoxicated and confrontational with Knight at a Cherry Hill, NJ hotel. The fan ended up deposited in a wastebasket by The General, one of the many bits of Knight folklore that are probably better addressed in one of the countless books chronicling the life and times of the former Indiana coach.
The title game vs. the Tar Heels was the culmination of a great stretch run by that Knight team, which finished with an unremarkable 26-9 SU record, but one that The General himself still believes might, by the end of the season, at least, have been the equal to his undefeated 1975-76 squad. In the outstanding biography Knight, authored by the legendary Bob Hammel, The General offered that opinion to which he and he alone could be considered the ultimate arbiter.
"Don't ever downgrade that (1980-81) team because of its record," The General would say in Knight. "By championship night in Philadelphia, that team had become one of the few in college basketball history that could have stepped onto the court with our 1975 and 1976 teams and competed very well.
"There'd have been a good matchup in the backcourt: Isiah Thomas and Randy Wittman against Quinn Buckner and Bobby Wilkerson. And Ray Tolbert and Landon Turner would have been a good counter to Scott May and Kent Benson. The fifth starter and the bench-no big edge either way. One team lost nine games, the other none. I have to wonder always what I did wrong in 1980-81. The answer quite possibly may be that the '76 team had a much greater focus throughout, and getting that is part of the coach's job."
In that 1980-81 season, the Hoosiers had played North Carolina in December and lost, 65-56, a game in which Isiah Thomas had played so poorly that he was benched by Knight. By the time the Final Four rolled along, however, Indiana was, to borrow the late, great race caller Chic Anderson's description of Secretariat in the 1973 Belmont, moving like a tremendous machine. Indiana "plays five guards--one point and four pulling," one coach had said jokingly earlier in the tournament, a reference to the quicksilver Isiah Thomas and his bludgeoning teammates.
But Isiah Thomas was a different sort of weapon for Knight. In preseason, Knight had retooled his offense and defense to take better advantage of Isiah's unique talents. Thomas did certain things so well and was so much a better player at that stage than the other Hoosiers, save Randy Wittman and Ray Tolbert, that Knight felt it would be wise to install some subtle changes in his intricate motion offense.
"Isiah is our most obvious asset," said Knight early in that 1980-81 season. "But to capitalize fully on his skills, we have to use him in a different way than we did last season. When we were recruiting Isiah, we told him he wouldn't have the freedom here that he'd have somewhere else. Now that's not true. Within our framework, he'll have more freedom than he would elsewhere. But it's not a freedom to throw the ball away or take bad shots."
With the previous year's stalwart, Mike Woodson, having moved to the NBA, Thomas was asked to do more shooting and scoring. To help him get more shots and points and take greater advantage of his quickness, ball handling and passing, Indiana tried to fast-break more often. And to ensure a maximum number of fast-break opportunities, Knight wanted the Hoosiers to do more trapping than usual on defense in an attempt to create turnovers.
There was another Thomas, Jimmy, on that IU team who would play a valued role, especially on defense. Trailing the Heels by a 16-8 count early in the finale, Knight had inserted Jimmy into the lineup along with Isiah to form an all-Thomas backcourt, with Wittman moving to a wing. Jim Thomas, a defensive stopper, immediately began to fluster one of Carolina's gunners, Al Wood. Meanwhile, Knight's adjustments moved the big, mobile Turner on to Carolina's Sam Perkins, who had scored seven points in the early going.
With the matchups now in order, Knight's team started to crawl back from the early eight-point deficit. Wittman began to shred the Heel zone from the perimeter, his four bombs providing the spark for the Hoosiers to seize the lead by a 27-26 count at the half.
The IU momentum would carry into the second half. Jim Thomas and Turner held the productive Wood and Perkins to a combined five baskets and five rebounds. Meanwhile, explosive Carolina soph F James Worthy was blanked by Ray Tolbert. The second half also witnessed the reawakening of Isiah Thomas, who seemed to be pressing too much in the first half, when he made just 1 of 7 shots. Early in the second half, however, it was a different Isiah, as he stole a pass near midcourt and went in for the layup. Although Perkins got the basket back with an alley-oop drop-in, Isiah was just getting started, feeding Turner for a bucket to put the Hoosiers up 31-28. Next Isiah picked off another pass, this one intended for Perkins down low, and raced in to give Indiana a 33-28 lead. "The way they jumped on us there broke our backs," UNC's Wood admitted later. Two more Isiah baskets and it was 39-30. Isiah from the circle and Wittman, who finished with 16 points, off the glass made it 45-34 at the 12:31 mark. Carolina was on the ropes. Meanwhile, at the other end of the floor, the Tar Heels were faring about as well vs. Knight's defense as the drunken LSU fan a couple of nights earlier against The General in Cherry Hill.
The Hoosiers were breaking down the Heels psychologically and physically in the purest Knight fashion. Even when Carolina's Wood, who finished with 18 points, brought his team back to within seven with eight minutes remaining, all the Hoosiers did was spread out against the Heels' half-court traps and get the ball into Isiah's fast and sure hands. The lead was more than safe as it expanded until the final horn, a thumping 63-50 win and Knight's second national title.
As for The General's comparisons with his first national title winner five years earlier, it should be noted that the 1976 national champ Hoosiers, regarded as the terror of the age, beat their five tournament opponents by a total of 66 points, while Knight's 1981 winners beat their five foes by 113 points, including a dangerous Maryland, swamped 99-64 in the second round at Dayton.
(There would end up a forever bittersweet taste about the 1980-81 Hoosiers when key F Landon Turner would suffer paralyzing injuries in an auto accident that summer. Turner's basketball star was on the rise and could have turned him into a dominant force on the hardwood. Though, after the accident, Turner would battle admirably and continue to lead a productive life.)
The 1981 title game wasn't the only memorable Indiana-Carolina battle in the decade. Three years later, with Michael Jordan having arrived at Chapel Hill and having helped lead the Heels to the national title in his freshman season of 1981-82, Carolina was at the top of the polls entering the 1984 Dance in Jordan's junior season that would be his last in Carolina blue before he moved to the NBA. The East Regionals were considered a mere stepping stone to the national title for the Heels, who were expected to beat underdog Indiana without much trouble in the Sweet 16 at The Omni in Atlanta.
Instead, it would turn into one of the finest hours of Knight's career. And it would involve an unlikely hero-Dan Dakich, who had started just five times that season but would be handed the unenviable task of tracking the undefendable Jordan in the Sweet 16. (That's the same Dan Dakich who would eventually coach at Bowling Green and would succeed Kelvin Sampson on an interim basis at IU, and is now one of the prominent college hoop analysts for ESPN.)
In Knight, The General recounted his thinking prior to facing Jordan, and his gamble of starting the little-used Dakich.
"There were only two things I thought we could do with Jordan: take away the backcut and keep him off the backboard," said Knight. "Dakich was about 6-foot-5, not very quick but a tough kid. I thought he was the best we had to do both of those things.
"We knew Dakich wasn't going to be able to overplay Michael and keep him from getting the ball. So we underplayed him-backed him off and pretty much gave him the jump shot, which wasn't nearly the weapon then that it became for him. He (Jordan) did two things that just killed you-he was great going to the bucket without the ball, and he was a very, very good offensive rebounder. But not that night.
"We told Dakich in the hotel the night before the game that he was going to guard Jordan. He told the press later his reaction was, 'I went back to my room and threw up.'"
Knight's strategic gamble was that he would try to contain the two Carolina stars, Perkins and Jordan, and let the rest of the Tar Heels beat him from the outside if they could. "They jammed Perkins and Jordan and were willing to pay the price for that," said Heel HC Dean Smith. "We could've taken all the 15-footers we wanted, but they would've been from the people they chose to allow to shoot." Dakich, with no meaningful vertical leap, was instead instructed by Knight to lay off Jordan, thereby cutting off any direct path to the basket. The tactic so confounded Jordan that he became indecisive about when to shoot, and he eventually fouled out after only 26 minutes of playing time. Further, Carolina had to play catch-up nearly the whole game. "One thing that hurt us was that (after the first few minutes) they never had to play from behind," said Perkins. "There was no need for them to play scared."
Tactics or not, the upset never really figured, because that was not a vintage Knight team in 1984. The Hoosiers started a couple of frosh and a sophomore. One of the frosh, however, was G Steve Alford. And while Knight's tactics worked splendidly, Smith did not push the same correct buttons from the Carolina sideline.
"North Carolina did the one thing in that game that they couldn't do: they tried to trap us," said The General in Knight. "Rarely did they trap us successfully in the games that we played against them. Even when they beat us in the 1979-80 and 1980-81 seasons, if they trapped us ten times, we scored nine.
"But in that 1984 game, it wasn't like those two games-we didn't have Isiah Thomas and Randy Wittman, and I think North Carolina underestimated what the kids we did have could do in terms of handling the ball. And we had some breaks. Late in the game Marty Simmons got trapped, the ball was jarred loose, it bounced on the floor three times, and we got a layup."
The Hoosiers built their lead mainly on Alford's nine points midway through the second half, and an Alford layup with 5:36 to play put the Hoosiers up by 12, the largest Tar Heel deficit of the season. Yet Carolina would rally, and by the end IU was hanging on for dear life before Alford broke a 10-0 Heels run and made 6 of 6 free throws in one-and-one situations after Indiana had failed on the front end of four consecutive bonus tries. The Hoosiers didn't even take a shot from the field in the final 5 1/2 minutes, but Alford made one big play after another en route to scoring 27 points. As for Jordan, he would end with only 13 points in what would be the last game of his college career, and Knight would have his monster upset, 72-68, shocking the college hoops world.
That was the last hurrah for those 1984 Hoosiers, however, as they would cough up a late lead and get pipped by post-Ralph Sampson Virginia, 50-48, two days later in the East finale, sending the Cavs instead of the Hoosiers to the '84 Final Four, held in Seattle. But that Indiana upset over North Carolina in '84 still resonates in Bloomington, Chapel Hill, and elsewhere in the minds of college hoops aficionados who all know where they were when Dan Dakich became a household name in the sport.
We can only hope they'll be remembering this Friday's Hoosiers-Tar Heels clash 32 years hence as we do that 1984 classic upset!
SWEET SIXTEEN & ELITE EIGHT ON DECK!
After underdogs fared extremely well in Sweet 16 action during the Big Dances of 2013 and 2014, covering six of eight chances each season, the tables completely reversed a year ago, with favorites prevailing in six of eight in 2015. Elite Eight underdogs, which had covered 5 of 8 chances over the 2013-14 span, split four chances with the favorites last season, though the dogs still stand 40-28 in this round since '98.
Conference-wise, the stickout performer is the Big 10 in the Elite Eight, standing 16-7 vs. the line since '98, including 2-0 last season (wins and covers by Wisconsin and Michigan State).
Following are spread breakdowns in Sweet 16 and Elite Eight action since 1998, with 2015 Sweet 16, and 2013-15 Elite Eight performance noted in ( ).
SWEET SIXTEEN FAVORITES
Spread category... W-L
1-3 points... 21-20 (2-1)
3 1/2 - 6 1/2 points... 21-27 (2-0)
7 - 9 1/2 points... 17-13 (1-0)
10 or more... 7-12 (1-1)
Total... 66-72 (6-2)
Spread record by conference since 1998: American 1-1 (1-1), ACC 19-19-1 (3-2), Atlantic Sun 1-0 (1-0), Atlantic-10 12-9-2 (1-1), Big East 17-26 (0-1), Big Ten 22-21 (2-0), Big XII 17-17 (0-2), CAA 2-0 (1-0), C-USA 5-3, Horizon 3-2 (1-0), MAC 2-1 (1-0), Mid-Continent 1-0, MVC 2-5 (0-1), Mountain West 1-3 (1-0), Pac-12 13-20 (1-2), SEC 20-12 (1-0), SoCon 1-0 (0-0), Sun Belt 1-0 (0-0), WAC 2-1 (0-0), West Coast 3-4 (1-0).
ELITE EIGHT FAVORITES
Spread category... W-L
1-3 points... 10-16 (3-2)
1-3 points... 10-16 (3-2)
3 1/2 - 6 1/2 points... 13-14 (2-3)
7 - 9 1/2 points... 4-6 (0-0)
10 or more... 1-4 (0-2)
Total... 28-40 (5-7)
Spread record by conference since 1998: American 1-0 (1-0), ACC 10-10 (2-2), Atlantic-10 4-2 (1-0), Big East 11-11 (2-1), Big Ten 16-7 (4-3), Big XII 5-16 (0-0), CAA 2-0 (0-0), C-USA 2-3 (0-0), Horizon 2-0 (0-0), Pac-12 7-8 (0-2), SEC 10-8 (1-3), SoCon 1-0 (0-0), WAC 1-1 (0-0), West Coast 1-1 (0-1).
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