Isiah Lord Thomas III, full of grace, smoothed a wrinkle out of his three-piece suit and smiled serenely. Thomas' face is of a type often described as cherubic, and although it had been through the 18-game brawl euphemistically known as the Big Ten race, there wasn't a mark on it. Indiana had just defeated Michigan State 69-48 to wrap up its sixth conference championship in the past nine years. As the Hoosiers' floor leader, Thomas had a great deal to do with his team's spectacular recovery from a doleful December in which nothing Indiana did seemed to work out. "We'd just do dumb things to beat ourselves," Thomas said. "It was like a boxer who knocks himself out." In that way, at least, the Hoosiers are the perfect champions for the Big Ten, because seldom has a conference fed more violently on itself than this one has.
Iowa started the week with an opportunity to win the championship outright but finished with a disastrous two-game losing streak, and its coach grimly suggested there would be some lineup changes for the NCAA tournament. Illinois, which received the league's third NCAA bid, after those to Indiana and Iowa, is good enough to be a contender for the national title.
Until the Big Ten can figure out a way to have every team in the conference finish 9-9 and get invited to the NCAAs, this year will serve nicely as a model of the league's amazing parity. Indiana won the conference title with a 14-4 record (it was 21-9 overall), but lost both its games with Iowa. The Hawkeyes (13-5, 21-6) finished second, but would have won the championship had they not lost three of four games to the two teams that finished in a tie for fifth, Ohio State and Minnesota. The Gophers (9-9) played five overtime games during the conference season—two of them double overtimes—and lost four. One of Minnesota's double OTs was against Michigan, which figures, because the Wolverines played five extra-period contests themselves and won four. Michigan began its season by running up a 9-0 record against non-conference opponents and was ranked as high as 12th in the SI Top 20. Naturally, it came as quite a shock when the Wolverines lost seven of their last eight Big Ten games and finished a dismal seventh.
No team was as great a disappointment as Ohio State, which opened the season as a threat to win the national championship and closed it as the group most likely to challenge for the American Kennel Club freestyle team title. The Buckeyes were so bad that during one stretch they lost to both Wisconsin and Northwestern, the Big Ten's only real patsies. When Ohio State played at Indiana two weeks ago, alleged All-America candidate Herb Williams—the Buckeyes' 6'10" center—took only one shot the entire second half.
March 16, 1981
"I don't know what happened to the ball," said Williams after the Hoosiers' 74-58 victory. "If the ball don't come inside to me, we don't win no games." OSU Coach Eldon Miller, whose job was reported to be hanging by a flea-and-tick collar, kept flexing his muttonchop sideburns and saying things like, "You'd better be able to defend Indiana with your offense." Huh?
Considering the kind of season it had been, it seemed only fitting, then, that the Buckeyes should play an important role in deciding the outcome of the conference race. Iowa had rolled into the final week of the regular season with an eight-game winning streak—the longest in the Big Ten this season—and a one-game lead over Indiana. All the Hawkeyes had to do was defeat Michigan State and Ohio State, two second-division teams, and nothing the Hoosiers could accomplish would matter. Both games were on the road, true enough, but Iowa Coach Lute Olson seemed to consider that almost an advantage. "I'd much prefer this team to go into games with its back to the wall," he said. "That's when we perform best." If that were true, the Hawkeyes couldn't have asked for more. Or come away with less.
Iowa is a team that was built not to self-destruct. Because its top eight players have almost equal importance, it hadn't had to depend on a star to win big games. Vince Brookins, a 6'6" senior forward, was the only Hawkeye among the Big Ten's top 20 scorers, and he ranked 17th, with a 13.9-point average, as the week began. In fact, Iowa didn't lead in even one of the conference's statistical categories. "We're a team in every sense," says Olson. "It really doesn't make a whole lot of difference if one guy doesn't have a good scoring performance. With us, our top three players could have a poor night and somebody else would pick up the slack." Or as 6'11" Forward/Center Steve Waite succinctly put it, "We really have to work hard to win because we don't have a lot of talent."
Iowa had prospered because of its balanced attack—the Hawkeyes had four players in double figures in 16 games this season—but when it fell behind both Michigan State and Ohio State and needed a quick run of points, no one was there. Brookins' long jumpers from the corners are usually reliable, but against the Spartans and the Buckeyes he shot a miserable 9-for-30 from the field. His most crucial miss came with five seconds remaining in overtime in the 71-70 loss to the Spartans.
On the same night Iowa was going down in flames in East Lansing, Indiana was rising from the ashes in Champaign, Ill. The Hoosiers were 12-of-15 from the field and 17-of-18 from the free-throw line in the second half, and they were able to neutralize Illinois' outstanding guard trio of Derek Harper, Perry Range and Craig Tucker in a 69-66 victory. "Indiana might be the best outside-shooting team in the country," said Illini Coach Lou Henson.
It is probably a fair indication of the kind of peculiar year the Hoosiers have had that going into last week they led in five of the conference's seven statistical rankings, and still trailed Iowa in the Big Ten race. Certainly the Indiana that brushed aside Michigan State 69-48 on Saturday wasn't the same Indiana that was so fitful in December, when it finished non-conference play with a 7-5 record, the worst of any of the league's 10 teams. Coach Bobby Knight's teams have always been noted for their mental discipline, particularly in close games, and yet, of the six Indiana games decided by four points or fewer, the Hoosiers had lost all six. In their second meeting with hated rival Purdue, they surrendered a 13-point lead by connecting on only 12 of 25 free throws.
"We've been a very immature team," says Knight, "and immaturity is synonymous with inconsistency. We've had a lot of opportunities near the end of games and we haven't taken advantage of them. We've only been beaten in three games. We lost the rest, and I just hate that. I'd rather get beat than lose."
Indiana didn't really begin to play well until 6'10" junior Forward Landon Turner had been in and out of Knight's doghouse a couple of times. At the start of the season, Knight was unsure whether Turner would ever be able to play for him; but while the rest of the Hoosiers were struggling during December, Turner performed well and often. Early in the conference schedule. Turner was back on the end of the bench, unable to give Knight the kind of consistent board-work the coach demanded. "We were all, like, searching for ourselves," says Turner of Indiana's early difficulties. "Now we've, like, found ourselves." Against Michigan State, Turner was, like, 7-for-9 from the field for 16 points and had, like, nine rebounds.
As important as Turner and Center Ray Tolbert are to the success of Indiana's offensive shell game under the basket, the one indispensable Hoosier is Thomas. Indiana's leader in scoring, steals and assists also happens to be the best pure guard in the country, probably the best college guard since North Carolina's Phil Ford. It is a measure of his value to the team that Knight took the unprecedented step of making adjustments in his team's offense this year to accommodate Thomas' creativity.
Some people in the conference feel that Knight has made other accommodations for his sophomore star. For instance, when Thomas slapped Purdue Guard Roosevelt Barnes in retaliation for Barnes' slapping him, Knight called a press conference for the express purpose of clearing Isiah's name. Nineteen days later, when Thomas was ejected from a game at Iowa for slapping 6'10" Center Steve Krafcisin with the back of his hand. Knight again defended Thomas. The purity of Knight's motives, particularly because Thomas has been rumored to be unhappy under Bobby's thumb and about ready to bolt for the pros, has been questioned by some obvservers. Knight insists that Thomas had been given bum raps, and also says that Thomas has taken more than his share of the blame for Indiana's erratic play this year. "I think a tremendous burden has unfairly been placed on him," Knight says. "People expect Isiah to be great every time he touches the ball."
It's not surprising that when the rumor that Thomas would leave Indiana for the NBA next season was reported as fact on CBS Radio by Brent Musburger, the Hoosier faithful got nervous. On the day Musburger delivered his scoop, the Ways and Means Committee of the Indiana House of Representatives abruptly halted its proceedings to call Bloomington and find out if it was true. Once they were given assurances that Thomas planned to stay in school for at least another year, the relieved legislators went back to work.
Last year Indiana won the Big Ten race and wound up being eliminated from the NCAA tournament by Purdue. The Boilermakers, who finished third in last season's conference chase, went all the way to the Final Four, as did Iowa, which tied for fourth. Olson feels that the brutal league schedule explains the Big Ten's postseason success. "You can't have a down game in this league and not get waxed," he says. "That's why our teams always do so well in the tournament."
Only Knight remains unconvinced that this was a vintage year for the league. "The Big Ten is very competitive, with a lot of good teams," he says, "but it's not as good overall as the past several years. The ACC is a better conference this year, even though a lot of the coaches in our league would probably disagree with that."
A lot of them might, if they weren't so busy getting ready to mop up on the rest of the country the next couple of weeks.