Indiana basketball was on a high after the 1981 season ended. The program had won its second national championship in six years. The Hoosiers had taken each of the two previous Big Ten titles outright. But the aftermath of that season created a lot of challenges for 1982 Indiana basketball to overcome.
The personnel losses from the championship team were expected. Ray Tolbert, a terrific power forward, graduated. The fact that a little point guard named Isiah Thomas opted to go pro after his sophomore year was no surprise.
What wasn’t expected is that the head coach, the already-legendary Bob Knight, would flirt with leaving coaching to become to the top analyst at CBS, which had just won the bidding rights for the NCAA Tournament. Reports were that CBS’ lead negotiators were convinced that Knight was coming on board.
Then came tragedy. The focal point of the 1982 team was going to be center Landon Turner, who had emerged during the previous March. Turner had the makings of a player you could quickly build a new championship team around and could potentially be the first overall pick in the NBA draft.
But that summer, Turner was in a car accident. He was paralyzed from the waist down. Knight would stay at Indiana and help raise money to pay Turner’s medical bills and to remodel his parents’ home to make it suitable for wheelchair access.
Those were the most important stories of the 1982 Indiana Hoosiers, but there was still a basketball season to be played and a program that had been on a high was now in need of recovery.
Knight would build the ’82 team around Ted Kitchel and Randy Wittman on the wings. Kitchel averaged 20ppg, second in the Big Ten. Wittman knocked down 12ppg. Another player who had started to emerge in March of 1981 was Jim Thomas. The numbers didn’t dazzle you—9 points/6 rebounds/4 assists, but Thomas was a tough player and a leader on the floor. Steve Bouchie was a forward who could play the kind of defense Knight demanded.
And the Hoosiers had some depth. John Flowers was a good rebounder off the bench. There were two freshmen who would become notable. Uwe Blab was a 7’2” center from Germany and he began working his way into the rotation. So did Dan Dakich in the backcourt. Dakich later was an assistant coach at Indiana and today is as close as there is to a voice of Big Ten basketball on ESPN.
Indiana was ranked #12 to start the year. They easily beat Notre Dame at home, although this would be a year that the Irish would fall hard from national relevance. IU lost decisively at second-ranked Kentucky.
Kansas State was a good NCAA Tournament-bound team, and Thomas stepped up with 11 rebounds to key a 58-49 win. Indiana then went to Madison Square Garden for a holiday tournament just prior to the New Year. They were handed two losses, by a good Villanova team and a mediocre Kansas squad. The Hoosiers were unranked when Big Ten play began and still looking for answers.
Instead of answers, they got more questions. Conference play started with road losses to Michigan State and Northwestern, both of whom were on their way to losing seasons. Finally, a thirty-point blowout of mediocre Michigan at home got Indiana off the schneid in league play.
Ohio State and Clark Kellogg came into Assembly Hall and the Hoosiers churned out a 66-61 win. They paid a visit to another NBA-bound talent, this one Derek Harper and Illinois and pulled out a 54-53 win. When Indiana followed that up by burying archrival Purdue 77-55, they looked to be back on track.
Wisconsin was a bad team in this era and Indiana did not play well in a trip to the old Madison Fieldhouse. But Bouchie, who normally did his work in the shadows, bailed his teammates out with 18 points/10 rebounds and keyed the 62-56 escape.
A difficult three-game stretch was ahead. Minnesota and Iowa would lead the conference race. The Hoosiers were about to play both games against the Gophers with a trip to Iowa City sandwiched in between.
Minnesota was led by center Randy Breuer, a 7’3” force in the middle and Indiana lost at home 69-62. They played poorly at Iowa, who was coached by Lute Olson and lost 62-40. When IU went up to Minneapolis to finish this stretch of games, it looked like they too might be finished.
Only they weren’t. The freshman Blab, the one player with the height to match Breuer, stepped up with 18 points. Thomas crashed the boards for nine rebounds. Indiana pulled out a 58-55 win. At 6-4, they were still three games back of Iowa, but were within one game of Minnesota and still had a puncher’s chance at a third straight Big Ten title.
Those chances increased over the next two games. The Hoosiers came home and knocked off Illinois 73-60. Then they delivered a revenge blow to Iowa, who was up to #5 nationally, with a 73-58 beatdown. The Hawkeyes would start a fade that left them with a 12-6 conference record. Indiana blew out Wisconsin by thirty-one points to keep the momentum going.
But it would be Minnesota, not Indiana, that benefitted from the Iowa fade. The Hoosiers went up to West Lafayette. Purdue guard Keith Edmondson was the conference’s top scorer and the Boilermakers knocked off IU 76-65. A visit to Ohio State ended with a 68-65 loss.
There were three games left. Any hopes of a Big Ten title bid were gone. And at 15-9, in an era when 48 teams made the NCAA Tournament, even a spot in March Madness was no guarantee.
Kitchel stepped up and poured in 28 points at Michigan to lead a 78-70 win. Indiana closed the season with revenge blowouts of Northwestern and Michigan State. At 18-9, they were safely in the Dance and drew a #5 seed in the Mideast Regional (since renamed the South Region).
The road began in Nasvhille and the opponent was Robert Morris. The Colonials were overmatched and it showed on the boards, with Indiana held a 50-23 edge. Bouchie had nine rebounds, Thomas had eight and Blab pulled down to seven to the lead the way. IU cruised to a 94-62 win.
Alabama-Birmingham was the 4-seed and UAB was playing to try and get to a regional round that would be on their home floor. They were coached by Gene Bartow, who had led UCLA to a Final Four post-John Wooden and then bolted town for a place with more reasonable expectations
Kitchel scored 24 points, but had to shoot 10-for-27 to do it. Meanwhile, UAB guard Oliver Robinson knocked down 10-for-17 and scored 23. The Hoosiers were in an 18-point hole by halftime and lost 80-70.
Considering everything these ’82 Hoosiers went through, both on and off the court, the fact they were still one of the twenty best teams in the country by season’s end is a tribute to both the coach and the players. And by 1983, they were back on top of the Big Ten.