ON THIS DAY: March 30, a Day to Celebrate 3 Indiana National Championships

Tom Brew

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — If there is ever a day to raise a glass and toast the Indiana Hoosiers, today is it. Because March 30 is Championship Day in IU basketball history.

Three of Indiana's five national championships have been won on this day, the first one in 1940, and the last two, in 1981 and 1987. That makes this a very full day.

It is a day very much worth celebrating.

These are national championships, so there's no way we can leave any of the three out. They all deserve their proper day in the sun, and they all deserve a celebratory toast. We'll chat quickly about the first two, and then we'll celebrate the last one with story of a recent celebration of that 1987 title just six weeks ago. 

So here we go.

1940: A title won, with an assist from Purdue

We count the 1940 title as one of our five national titles, but this was a completely different time for Indiana basketball. It was Purdue, not Indiana, that was the dominant basketball team in the state, and had a 51-11 all-time record against IU before the Hoosiers had beaten them twice that year, the first time in school history they ever had a sweep against the Boilermakers.

The 1940 NCAA tournament was just the second of its kind, and the first actually run by the NCAA. The National Association of Basketball Coaches put on the first event in 1939 and it lost so much money that they bailed on it. The NCAA took it over, but it wasn't a big deal in any way. Piggy Lambert, Purdue's legendary coach, actually won the Big Ten in 1940 but declined to even play in the event, opening the door for Indiana to go.

It was just an eight-team event, and Indiana beat Springfield and Duquesne to advance to the championship game in Kansas City against Kansas. The Hoosiers won 60-42, the most points they had scored all year, and were led by Marvin Huffman and Jay McCreary, who had 12 points each.

The championship was the first of any kind for IU, which had never even won a Big Ten title prior to that.

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Indiana's 1940 national champions beat Kansas in the final, 60-42, on March 30, 1940. (Courtesy: IU Archives)

1981: Isiah Thomas, Hoosiers finish off dominating tourney run

On March 30, 1981 in Philadelphia, sophomore point guard Isiah Thomas, possibly the best individual talent to ever play at Indiana, led the Hoosiers to a national title after a dominant performance against North Carolina. The Hoosiers won 63-50, winning all five tournament games by at least 13 points and posting an average margin of victory of 23 points.

Thomas was spectacular that night, playing all 40 minutes and leading all scorers with 23 points and also — maybe even more importantly — leading everyone with four steals. So was Randy Wittman, who scored 16 points, and Landon Turner, who added 12 before fouling out. 

The Hoosiers won their last 10 games that season to finish 26-9. Those nine losses were the most by an NCAA champion at the time. It was later broken by Villanova (10) in 1985 and Kansas (11) in 1988. 

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The Sports Illustrated cover after Isiah Thomas and Indiana beat North Carolina 63-50 to win the 1981 NCAA championship.

1987: A winning shot, and a celebration for the ages

On March 30, 1987, Indiana senior Daryl Thomas caught a pass in the paint in the waning seconds of the 1987 national championship game against Syracuse and took a look at the basket. He was well covered, so he kicked the ball out to Keith Smart in the corner, who knocked down the jumper a few seconds later to give Indiana a 74-73 win and its fifth national title.

"The Shot.''

"I understand everything that's been made of 'The Shot,' and I've always appreciated it all  these years, but that pass from Daryl was really important, too,'' Smart said in February when he was in town for Bob Knight's return to Assembly Hall. "I always thought that was overlooked, because Daryl never panicked. When he didn't have anything, he kicked it out to me, and I took it from there.''

He sure did, and even 33 years later, he's still idolized for it. That was blatantly obvious in February when Smart and his wife Carol and Indiana center Dean Garrett and his wife Cristy and I got together at Nick's English Hut the night before the reunion. Dozens of fans came by to get pictures with the pair, and the Nick's staff made sure Smart signed their autograph wall, which he gladly did — and added "THE SHOT'' underneath his signature.

Smart had 21 points that night in 1987, including the game-winner. Steve Alford had 23, making 7-of-10 three-pointers. Thomas had 20 points and Garrett had 10 points and 10 rebounds. The four scored ALL of Indiana's 74 points.

Smart and Garrett and their wives loved that night at Nick's, if only for all the love and adoration that still pours that way for that 1987 team. It will always be celebrated, and it has been ever since that magical night.

"After that game, we celebrated back at the hotel,'' Garrett said. "Daryl and I were roommates and our parents and people were in our room, and we had a great time. We had gotten like a $50 per diem that night, so we went out to Bourbon Street and it was just amazing, everyone high-fiving us and giving us pats on the back. It was a great moment.''

The moments have never stopped, really. And that was obvious at Nick's that night. Hoosier Nation is still enamored with these guys, and with Alford, too.

After taking several pictures and signing a bunch of autographs that night, Smart said back down in his chair and looked at me, just shaking his head in amazement.

"What would have happened if I would have missed that shot?'' he asked with a smile. 

Garrett, as always, had him covered.

"I would have tipped it in,'' he said, slapping his buddy's leg.

Champions. Forever.

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Keith Smart (left) and Dean Garrett (right), heroes of the 1987 national championship team, join me for a photo at Nick's English Hut in February 2020. 
Image (20)
Keith Smart signs the wall "The Shot.''

Related 'ON THIS DAY' stories

  • March 16, 2017: Indiana fires Tom Crean after nine seasons. CLICK HERE
  • March 17, 2000: Indiana loses to Pepperdine 77-57 in Bob Knighjt's final game as coach of the Hoosiers. CLICK HERE
  • March 18, 1953: Hoosiers win their second NCAA championship on Bobby Leonard's last-minute free throw. CLICK HERE
  • March 19, 201
  • March 19, 2016: Indiana knocks off Kentucky in second round in Des Moines in Tom Crean's final NCAA tournament win for the Hoosiers. CLICK HERE
  • March 20, 1987: Bob Knight and Mike Krzyzewski meet in the postseason for the first time, and IU prevails. CLICK HERE
  • March 21, 2002: Indiana's huge second-half comeback helps take down No. 1-ranked Duke in regional semifinals. CLICK HERE
  • March 22, 1975: Indiana's unbeaten season gets spoiled by Mike Flynn and Kentucky in an epic 92-90 regional final. CLICK HERE
  • March 23, 2002: Mike Davis and Indiana punch their ticket to the 2002 Final Four with a regional final win over Kent State. CLICK HERE
  • March 24, 1973: Indiana comes oh so close to taking down Bill Walton and the UCLA dynasty in the Final Four national semifinals. CLICK HERE
  • March 25, 2016: Yogi Ferrell plays his final game with the Hoosiers in a loss to No. 1 North Carolina in the regional semifinals in 2016. CLICK HERE
  • March 26, 1992: Eric Anderson and the Hoosiers start a nice tournament run in 1992 with a win over Florida State. CLICK HERE
  • March 27, 1993: Indiana's dream season in 1993 comes to a bitter conclusion with a loss to Kansas in the regional final. CLICK HERE
  • March 28, 1987: Steve Alford scores 33 points to lead Indiana past once-beaten UNLV in the national semifinals in 1987. CLICK HERE
  • March 29, 1976: Indiana completes its perfect season with a 32-0 record after beating Michigan in the NCAA final, a record that still stands 44 years later. CLICK HERE

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