The Road To The 1979 Final Four

The 1979 Final Four was a landmark in the history of college basketball. The national championship game of Michigan State-Indiana State, with Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, remains the most-watched college basketball game ever. But there were other great stories that have been lost to history–1979 was the last year an Ivy League team made the Final Four, and it was the one appearance on college basketball’s grand stage for a venerable coach. Here’s a look back at how all four–Michigan State, Indiana State, Penn and DePaul made it to Salt Lake City.

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Jud Heathcoate became the head coach at Michigan State in 1977 and one year later he had Magic in the fold and they won a Big Ten title. The Spartans reached a regional final in 1978 before losing a close game to eventual national champion Kentucky.

Michigan State’s 1979 team actually came up a little short of its immediate predecessor in terms of regular season success–a loss in the season finale at lowly Wisconsin put them in a three-way tie for the Big Ten crown with Iowa and Purdue, and the Spartans were the #2 seed in the Mideast Regional in this first year the NCAA Tournament bracket was formally seeded.

Magic led the way all year, a first-team All-American who averaged 16 points/7 rebounds per game and had more assists than the rest of the team combined. But he had quality help, most notably Greg Kelser, who averaged an 18/9 and Jay Vincent, with his 14/6 per game average.

In the first game of the NCAA Tournament–with 40 teams in the field, the top six teams in each regional only had to play once on the first weekend–the Spartans rolled Lamar 95-64 behind 31 points/14 boards from Kelser, while Magic kicked in a triple-double, with 13/17/10.

The regionals were in Indianapolis. Michigan State was slated to face 3-seed LSU, while regional favorite Notre Dame was paired up with Toledo. The Spartans again won easily, jumping out to a 36-19 lead at the half against the Tigers and winning 87-71. An unlikely hero in Ron Charles stepped up, with 18 points/14 boards, while Magic scored 24 and dished 12 assists.

Notre Dame had considerable talent of its own. Kelly Tripucka was the top player and he scored 24 in a 79-71 win over Toledo. The Irish also had good college players in Orlando Woolridge and Bill Hanzlik. And they had future NBA mainstay themselves in Bill Laimbeer, who would one day be fighting with Magic in the 1988 NBA Finals, when Laimbeer was with the Detroit Pistons and Magic on the Los Angeles Lakers.

Michigan State’s dismantling of Notre Dame showed how Sparty was peaking at the right time. An anticipated showdown ended in a decisive 80-68 win. Kelser was outstanding, with 34 points/13 rebounds. Magic scored 19 and dished 13 assists. The Spartan defense, in a foreshadowing of what was to come later in the tournament, forced Tripucka into a 4-for-11 shooting game and no one else could really step up.

Kelser was named Most Outstanding Player (MOP) of the regional for his performance in the final, although Magic was clearly the better player over both games. Michigan State was rolling into Salt Lake City.


The Sycamores had not made the NCAA Tournament since qualifying three straight years in 1966-68. Indiana State went 25-3 in 1978, but lost in the Missouri Valley Conference tournament. Then head coach Bob King had a heart attack before the 1979 season began and had to be replaced by Bill Hodges. Fortunately, Hodges had Bird to fall back on.

Bird rolled up 29 ppg and won National Player of the Year. He led the team in rebounding and was second in assists. Carl Nicks was a quality secondary scorer, with 19 ppg and Steve Reed ran the offense. Indiana State finished the regular season undefeated and was the top seed in the Midwest.

The Sycamores crushed Virginia Tech 86-69, with Bird and Nick each going for 22 points and advanced to Cincinnati for the regionals. The Sweet 16 opponent would be Oklahoma, while Arkansas and Louisville battled in the other regional semifinal.

Bird kept right on rolling against OU, with his 15 rebounds keying a massive 47-19 edge for the Sycamores on the glass in an easy 93-72 win. Arkansas had an All-American of their own putting on a show–Sidney Moncreif went for 27 points/12 rebounds in a 73-62 ousting of the Louisville team that was just a year away from a national championship run.

The regional final saw both Bird and Moncreif answer the bell. These two would see plenty of each other in the NBA, as Moncreif led some good Milwaukee Bucks teams that were always nipping at the heels of Bird’s Celtics, even if they usually came up a little bit short. This 1979 NCAA regional final was a harbinger of that

It was tied 71-71 and Arkansas had the ball, when a controversial traveling call was made on U.S. Reed. Indiana State came down. Bird had scored 31 points and grabbed 10 rebounds, but Moncreif–with 24/8 of his own–didn’t let him get free. The ball went to little-known Bobby Heaton. Today he’s a Congressman from the state of Indiana. In 1979 ,he was simply the guy who hit an off-balance jumper that bounced around the rim and fell through to win the game 73-71.

Memories in Arkansas are long and they haven’t forgotten this game. Reed made a bigger impact on NCAA Tournament lore when he hit a half-court desperation heave in 1981 to beat Louisville. But it was small consolation, as Indiana State was going to the Final Four with Bird as the regional’s MOP.


Ray Meyer was an institution on the DePaul sideline, having coached the team since 1942. He had never been to a Final Four. The previous two years had seen fellow Jesuit independents, Marquette and Notre Dame, each get there. To make matters worse, Notre Dame had won its regional final in 1978 over DePaul, while Marquette won a national title. Meyer finally got his moment in 1979.

The Blue Demons were built around veterans, in guard Gary Garland and forward Curtis Watkins. Then they got a big addition in explosive freshman forward Mark Aguirre. It was enough for a 23-5 record and a #2 seed in the West Regional.

DePaul’s game with USC was tight at the half, but the Blue Demons’ Big Three delivered. Watkins and Aguirre combined for 52 points/16 rebounds, while Garland scored 17 and handed out eight assists in the 89-78 win. They were going to Provo where a familiar foe awaited–third-seeded Marquette. And looming beyond that was top seed UCLA, which had to play San Francisco in the round of 16.

The victories over Marquette and UCLA followed a similar pattern–the starters logging heavy minutes and using balanced scoring within the starting five to outlast a great individual effort by the opposition.

Marquette’s Bernard Toone was high-scorer in the Sweet 16 game, with 26 points. DePaul answered with Garland, Watkins and Aguirre combining for 53. The Blue Demons also won free throw scoring 16-8 and advanced with a 62-56 win.

UCLA had won with 36 points from Roy Hamilton overcoming a 34-point game by San Francisco center Bill Cartwright. The Bruins pulled away by scoring 58 points in the second half. DePaul had to overcome a similar surge.

In the regional final, Garland, Watkins and Aguirre stepped it up even further, combining for 64 points and DePaul led 51-34 at half. David Greenwood was putting on a show for UCLA, scoring 37 points and the Bruins made a furious rally, but the Blue Demons held them off for a 95-91 win.

To say DePaul’s starters played the lion’s share of the minutes understates the case–Garland, Aguirre and guard Clyde Bradshaw played all 80 minutes of the two games in Provo. Watkins played 78. The other starter James Mitchem played 70. And yet they still won an up-and-down battle with a great team in UCLA in the second game in three days.

Garland was the regional’s MOP and DePaul would get to return to the state of Utah for the Final Four.


Penn was the dominant Ivy League program of the 1970s, winning the league’s NCAA Tournament berth in seven of the nine years leading into the ’79 campaign. They had been coached by Chuck Daly, future leader of the two-time NBA champion Detroit Pistons and the 1992 U.S. Olympic Dream Team. Bob Weinhauer replaced Daly and kept the winning going, reaching the Sweet 16 in 1978 before losing to eventual national finalist Duke.

The Quakers were led by Tony Price, who averaged 19/8 and was second on the team in assists. Tim Smith and Matt White provided further help down low, combining for 24 points/14 rebounds per game, while Bobby Willis ran the offense. Penn won another Ivy League title and was seeded #9.

The #9 seed gave Penn the opportunity to be the first team to win four games to reach the Final Four. They beat Iona 73-69 in the opening round as Price and Jeff Ruland staged a great battle. Price went for 27/12, while Ruland had 19/15.

No one expected Price to keep it going against top-seeded North Carolina. But he delivered a 25/9 effort and Penn jumped out to a lead, and then held on by hitting free throws down the stretch to preserve the 72-71 shocker. On the same day in the same gym in Raleigh, #2-seed Duke was upset by St. John’s. The day remains known as “Black Saturday” in that ten-mile stretch from Chapel Hill to Durham.

Penn returned to the state of North Carolina for a regional round scheduled in Greensboro. It was also the first time in NCAA history that a regional had been gutted by upsets. Fourth-seeded Syracuse was the only favorite to advance. And Penn kept their run going with an 84-76 win. The difference was at the free throw line–the Quakers were 22/26, while the Orangemen were 12/23. And the Price continued to be right, as the Penn star scored 20 points.

St. John’s beat Rutgers 67-65 behind 22 from Reggie Carter. Thus, an improbable matchup was set. Penn, as the #9 seed, was not only in a regional final, but they were the higher seed. St. John’s at #10, joined them as the two bottom seeds in the bracket playing for the Final Four.

Penn used the same formula–free-throw shooting and Price–to pull it off. They hit 20-for-27 on the line, while the Redmen were 12-for-16. Price scored 21 points and the Quakers prevailed 64-62.

Price was the MOP, and let’s not forget the run of coaches that Weinhauer beat. Jim Valvano was the coach at Iona. Then it was Dean Smith at North Carolina. Finally it concluded with Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim and St. John’s legend Lou Carnesecca. Not a bad little coaching run that made Penn the last Ivy League time to reach the Final Four.


Michigan State played Penn in the early afternoon game on Saturday and the Quakers’ dream season came crashing down hard. Magic went for another triple-double, this one with numbers of 29/10/10. Kelser scored 28 points and grabbed nine rebounds. It was 50-17 at the half and ended 101-67.

Indiana State and DePaul in the marquee game provided the entertainment value. Those workhorse starters for DePaul? In this game all five played all 40 minutes. The Blue Demons saw a similar game as those they had won in the regionals play out–balanced scoring from their starters against a singular star from the other team. Aguirre, Garland and Watkins combined for 51 points.

But, meaning no disrespect to Bernard Toone or David Greenwood, this was Larry Bird that DePaul was now up against. Bird poured in 35 points, he hauled in 16 rebounds and he delivered his Sycamores yet again, this one a 76-74 barnburner.

The national championship game on Monday Night has been the subject of books, documentaries and more. And the reporting is basically accurate. It’s transformational effect on college basketball is accurate, and to the credit of historians, they haven’t shied away from pointing out that the game itself wasn’t very good. Michigan State had too much balance and they were a much better team.

The Spartans got an early lead, 37-28 at halftime, and then just kept the Sycamores at arm’s length. Magic scored 24, while Kelser went for 19. Small forward Terry Donnelly went to the corner and popped in all five of his jumpers to give Michigan State another X-factor. The defense suffocated Bird, and he was forced into a 7-for-21 shooting night. Nicks was more effective, scoring 19 points, but the final was 75-64.

Magic Johnson was Outstanding Player of the Final Four and deservedly so. Magic, Bird–and all of college basketball–were off and running.