Bob Knight’s Indiana Hoosiers were facing a rebuild in 1984. The previous four seasons had seen IU collect three Big Ten championships—outright crowns in 1980, 1981 and 1983—and that ’81 season ended with a national title. With the loss of stalwarts Ted Kitchel, Randy Wittman and Jim Thomas, Knight needed some fresh blood. He got it in the form of one the most popular recruits in the history of the program. Steve Alford came to Bloomington and the 1984 Indiana basketball season would be a memorable one indeed.
Alford had won the prestigious Mr. Basketball award as the best high school player in the basketball-mad state, and he was smoothly inserted into the Hoosier lineup. The result was a team-leading 16ppg. He had help down low from a junior center, the 7’2” Uwe Blab, who averaged 12 points/6 rebounds.
Knight pieced together a supporting cast around this inside-out combo. Marty Simmons was a contributor at forward, as was Mike Giomi, one of the team’s better rebounders. Stew Robinson was competent in running the show from the point. And though junior swingman Dan Dakich only played 17 minutes per game, he would be central to this team’s biggest moment.
Given the rebuild, expectations were not high and Indiana ranked 19th in the preseason polls. Even that proved to be a little optimistic, at least at first. They lost their opener at home to Miami-Ohio. They went to El Paso to face a good UTEP team and lost there. A visit to top-ranked Kentucky ended in a 59-54 loss. With three losses in their first five games, the Hoosiers disappeared from the national rankings.
The balance of December saw IU start to find some rhythm. They beat Illinois State, who would end up with an 8-seed in the NCAA Tournament. And there were victories over Notre Dame and Boston College, both respectable NIT-bound teams. The Hoosiers went into Big Ten play at 7-3.
A visit to Ohio State started the 18-game conference run. The Buckeyes had been a foil for the Hoosiers in recent seasons, twice losing a winner-take-all game for the conference championship. OSU had a smooth small forward in Tony Campbell who could fill up the basket. But they would slip this year and miss the NCAA Tournament. Indiana won 73-62.
Home games with Illinois and Purdue, the teams that would prove to be the pace-setters in the Big Ten this season were next. IU got its most impressive win of the season with a 73-68 overtime W over Illinois, but fell to Purdue three days later.
The road trip to the state of Michigan didn’t go well. Indiana did not play well in East Lansing, where the Spartans were on their way to a bad year, but the Hoosiers were able to escape in overtime. They weren’t so fortunate at Michigan. A program that was rising and would win the NIT this year, the Wolverines beat IU 55-50.
The Big Ten wasn’t very good this season and the schedule remained manageable. Indiana beat Northwestern, Iowa and Minnesota. Consecutive games against Wisconsin were next. The Badgers were a bad team, but forward Cory Blackwell might have been the league’s best player, leading the Big Ten in both scoring and rebounding. No matter. Indiana won both games by double-digits.
Indiana was finally back into the polls at #17, and they went to Iowa and got a 49-45 win. Then a road trip to Northwestern went awry. The Wildcats had a good player in forward Art Aaron, but little else and there was no reason for the 63-51 loss. The Hoosiers slipped back out of the national polls.
Even so, when they won a revenge home game over Michigan by fifteen, Indiana was squarely in the mix for another conference title. They were 11-3 in the league, with Purdue and Illinois having two conference losses apiece. The Hoosiers would play both teams down the stretch. Yes, both games were on the road, but there was at least a reasonable path to a fourth conference title in five years.
Only that presumed taking care of business. Michigan State came to Bloomington’s Assembly Hall. Indiana again did not play well against Jud Heathcote’s Spartans. This time, they didn’t escape, losing 57-54.
The loss had to sting even more when Indiana went into West Lafayette and nailed Purdue 78-59. There was still hope, but there was no getting around the need to also win at Illinois. That proved to be too much, with a 70-53 beatdown on a Sunday afternoon in Champaign ending Indiana’s bid for the Big Ten title.
There was still the NCAA Tournament to look forward to. Indiana, Illinois and Purdue were the only Big Ten teams to make it, and when the Hoosiers finished the regular season by beating Ohio State at home, they picked up a #4 seed in the East Regional.
On the one hand, a 4-seed was an even bigger deal in 1984 than it would be today. The bracket was 48 teams. With 12 teams per regional, the top four seeds got byes into the Round of 32. Indiana edged out 5-seed Auburn for the bye. On the other hand…Auburn had Charles Barkley. The Hoosiers anticipated a tough game ahead.
It turns out that the 12th-seeded Richmond Spiders had a coach named Dick Tarrant who was about to start a run of first weekend NCAA Tournament magic. Indiana became all-too-familiar with Tarrant’s skills four years later, but for now it was enough that Richmond upset Auburn.
The Round of 32 game in Charlotte was still a tough battle. The Spiders had future NBA guard Johnny Newman, who knocked down 20 against Indiana. They had a point guard in Kelvin Johnson who poured in 27. But Indiana was able to answer. Alford scored 22. Blab added 14 and seven rebounds. Dakich dished five assists. The Hoosiers shot 55 percent from the floor to 50 percent for the Spiders and Indiana was able to win 75-67.
On to Atlanta for the regionals. It had been a nice run and now Indiana could prepare to make a graceful departure. They were facing #1 seed North Carolina. The Tar Heels had All-American Sam Perkins at forward. They had Kenny Smith, a future NBA champion and current TNT analyst, to play point guard. Matt Doherty, a holdover from the 1982 national championship starting lineup, was another forward. The center was Brad Daugherty, a future #1 overall pick in the NBA draft.
And the Tar Heels had a two-guard you may have heard of. Michael Jordan.
How was Indiana going to match up? Knight settled on Dakich as the man to guard Jordan. The future GOAT’s jump shot was not yet refined, and Dakich had instruction to force Jordan to shoot from the perimeter and not let him leave the ground. The result was Jordan shooting just 6-for-14, only getting two free throws and settling for 13 points. North Carolina never got into their flow of their offense. The Tar Heels as a team shot 42 percent.
Meanwhile, Alford and Indiana were sizzling. Alford hit 9-for-13 from the floor. He got to the free throw line ten times and finished with 27 points. Blab added 16 and Robinson chipped in 14. The Hoosiers shot 65 percent from the floor. The result was a stunning 72-68 upset.
An improbable Final Four trip was now right there for Indiana. Virginia was the last hurdle. The Cavs were on an improbable ride themselves. After the departure of Player of the Year Ralph Sampson, Virginia had low expectations in 1984. They were a 7-seed in this NCAA Tournament and barely survived Iona in the first round.
But then the Cavs upset 2nd-seeded Arkansas and 3-seed Syracuse. Virginia had some destiny of their own going. Indiana’s own magic ran out. Alford and Blab shot poorly. Dakich was a non-factor. A late turnover resulted in a 50-48 loss.
It was a tough loss, but 1984 was still a special year in the storied history of Indiana basketball. They overcame low expectations and a slow start. They still got in contention during the Big Ten season. And they handed the greatest basketball player of all-time his only notable postseason failure.