Bob Knight’s Indiana basketball program was on a good roll coming in the early 1980s. They had won Big Ten titles in 1980 and 1981, the latter being punctuated with a dominating run to the national championship. Even a step-back in 1982 was modest, as the Hoosiers still tied for second in their league and reached the Round of 32 in March. The 1983 Indiana basketball team got back on top of the Big Ten and if not for an untimely injury might have done even more.
Indiana was led by two lights-out shooters on the wings. Randy Wittman went 6’6” and averaged 19ppg. Ted Kitchel, at 6’8”, was good for 17ppg. These two fifth-year seniors were the focal point of the team and were augmented by a solid senior point guard in Jim Thomas. Uwe Blab, a 7’2” sophomore center from Germany provided some height in the middle and Tony Brown was a valuable role player in the backcourt who averaged four assists per game.
The Hoosiers opened the season ranked ninth in the country and rolled out to a 10-0 start in non-conference play. They beat respectable teams in UTEP and Notre Dame. And they knocked off #2 Kentucky 62-59 in Bloomington just prior to Christmas. When Big Ten play opened after the New Year, Indiana was ranked #1 in the country.
A 70-67 loss at Ohio State opened the league schedule and knocked IU from the top of the polls, but even that wasn’t a bad thing. The beginning of the conference schedule was abnormally tough. The Buckeyes, along with Illinois and Purdue would be Indiana’s primary competition in conference—and the Hoosiers had to play all three on the road to start January. After dropping the opener, IU promptly picked up where they left off and beat Illinois by fourteen, then edged Purdue 81-78.
Indiana returned home to face Michigan State and Michigan, neither of whom were particularly good this year. The Hoosiers didn’t play great defense against Sparty, but still won 89-85. And IU coasted past Michigan 93-76. After a road win at Northwestern, the Hoosiers played poorly at Iowa in a fifteen-point loss. But Indiana was still 5-2 in Big Ten play as January came to a close.
The Big Ten schedule was set up to go “in reverse”, meaning you took the order of the first half of the schedule (nine games) and simply reversed it for the second half. That meant the next four games would all be against Wisconsin and Minnesota. The Badgers had a good inside man in Brad Sellers, although they weren’t very good. The Gophers were the defending conference champs and 7’3” center Randy Breuer was one of the conference’s best scorers and rebounders.
Indiana won all four games and for Minnesota it started a path when they fell from the land of the ranked (#17 prior to the first meeting) and would end up missing the NCAA Tournament altogether. The Hoosiers were riding high.
Then came a big bump in the road. Simply saying Indiana lost three of their next four would, on its own, be sufficient explanation. But there’s more. One of the losses was at home, to Iowa by a point. The other two were to non-NCAA Tournament teams in Michigan and Michigan State. The win was over Northwestern. The losing skid dropped IU into a first-place tie with Ohio State, Purdue was a half-game back (tied in the loss column) while Illinois, Iowa and Minnesota were all giving chance one game behind.
And that isn’t even the worst of it. In the Michigan loss, Kitchel aggravated a back injury. He would require surgery. His season was over.
The decisive moment of the 1983 Big Ten basketball season had arrived and only Wittman was a reliable scorer. The opponents would be Purdue, Illinois and Ohio State. If nothing else, the “in reverse” nature of the conference schedule meant that Indiana would have all three games at home.
The state of Indiana—and the flagship university in Bloomington in particular—have a reputation for their love of basketball that needs no further expounding here. Suffice it to say, the fans rallied to the moment. After Kitchel was flooded with get-well cards, the fans came determined to make Assembly Hall rock.
And the team responded. Indiana hammered Purdue 64-41 with a vintage Knight-style defense in a big game. They knocked off Illinois 67-55. The race was narrowed to Indiana and Ohio State, each at 12-5 in Big Ten play. Just like 1980, the Hoosiers and Buckeyes would play a winner-take-all game in Bloomington to settle the conference championship.
The 1980 game had been a thriller. Not so much in 1983. Indiana, feeding off the energy of the fans and determined to win for Kitchel, simply took over. An 81-60 blowout win culminated the devastating closing push where they posted double-digit victories over their top three competitors with the second-leading scorer in the hospital. For the third time in four years, Indiana was Big Ten champs.
They also got the #2 seed in what was then called the Mideast Regional of the NCAA Tournament (today it’s the South bracket). The field was only 48 teams in 1983, so anyone seeded on the 1-4 lines got a bye into the Round of 32. Indiana watched as Oklahoma earned the right to meet them in Evansville.
OU had a great low-post scorer in Wayman Tisdale, who would eventually become both a whipping boy and all-time favorite of Knight on the 1984 U.S. Olympic team. Tisdale scored 14 points and was respectable, but it wasn’t nearly enough. Wittman knocked down 10 of his 17 shots from the field and scored 22. Thomas added 13. The Hoosiers shot 51 percent compared to 39 percent for the Sooners. Indiana was up twelve by the half and won 63-49.
It was on to the Sweet 16 and what a regional weekend awaited. Indiana was facing an old friend, #3 seed Kentucky. The other game in the Mideast bracket was Louisville-Arkansas. That’s four passionate fan bases all within pretty reasonable travel distances of Knoxville, where the games would be held.
The regional lived up to the hype. All three games were sizzling and down to the wire, but Indiana’s time had run out. Even with Wittman getting 18 points and Blab adding 17, the Hoosiers couldn’t slow down Kentucky. The Wildcats shot 63 percent and without Kitchel, IU wasn’t going to keep pace with that kind of offensive efficiency. A 64-59 loss ended the season. Louisville would end up going to the Final Four.
1983 was still another banner year in Bloomington—quite literally, as the Big Ten championship banner went up and Knight declared it to be in honor of the fans for the way they rallied to the cause in the stretch run.
The next three years would be a volatile roller-coaster for the program. In 1984, Indiana pulled one of the most stunning upsets of the decade in the NCAA Tournament when they knocked off Michael Jordan’s North Carolina team in the Sweet 16. Two days later they lost to vastly less talented Virginia team. In the summer of 1984 Knight and freshman guard Steve Alford won an Olympic gold medal. In 1985, a season of great expectation ended in the NIT. A nice turnaround in 1986 was followed by a shocking first-round upset loss in the NCAAs to Cleveland State.
Finally in 1987, Indiana returned to the top. They won a share of the Big Ten title, got a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and behind Keith Smart’s shot on Monday Night, won Knight his third national championship.