1985 continued a trend that we saw a lot of in the Bob Knight era. When Indiana was nationally competitive under Knight they were the best of the best. Knight had his top flight Hoosier teams scrapping for a National Championship when they had the horses to keep up. However, there were lulls in national competitiveness under Knight’s regime as well. Despite that they always proved to be a best of the rest when they weren’t good enough to handle the big dogs.
This year was slightly different from season’s past though. The ’84 Hoosiers went all the way to the Elite Eight and lost by only two points. They would return everyone from that team except for senior role player Chuck Franz from that ’84 team. So for once, a Hoosiers team that failed to even come close to pre-season expectations was actually justified to be ranked #4 coming into the year. The ’85 Hoosiers were returning sophomore and leading scorer Steve Alford, second leading scorer and 7’2" big man Uwe Blab, everyone’s favorite in Dan Dakich and a plethora of supporting cast members (including several future coaches) Delray Brooks and Marty Simmons. This team should have been good. They weren’t.
They actually started off pretty darn well. Sure they dropped two games to Notre Dame and Louisville in their first three, but as a whole the non-conference schedule was pretty solid. They would go into conference at 8-2 and be looking like the team they were expected to be at the beginning of the year. That, unfortunately, is where it all fell apart. The Hoosiers stepped into conference play ranked 12th in the nation and the second highest ranked team in the conference. They wouldn’t finish that way.
Indiana lost five of their first eight in conference, essentially killing their chances at winning the conference. Knight, not one to wait around to get results, started switching lineups around to find the results he was wanting. This strategy which he has employed in the past was unsuccessful. By the end of the season everyone on the team except freshman Magnus Pelkowski had started at least one game. Even summer of ’84 gold medalist Steve Alford and future NBA first round draft pick Uwe Blab started some games on the bench.
The Hoosiers just could not find a combo that was consistently successful. Now some of this could be explained away by the injury bug as it certainly ran rampant across the team, but I don’t think it accounts for the entirety of the season. Blab was the only player that year to play in all 33 games. Everyone else missed games here or there due to injury or rode the end of the bench.
Despite finishing the conference season at 7-11 and in seventh place, yes it got that bad. Indiana was invited to the NIT where they excelled. In fact, the Hoosiers proved themselves to be the best of the rest the way they cut through the NIT field on their way to the championship game. IU was able to topple Butler, Richmond and Marquette all by double digits before dropping Tennessee by seven on their way to a faceoff with the UCLA Bruins in the championship. There the Hoosiers fell by three, but put up a solid run to at least end the season on several positive notes.
In the end, an NIT Runner-Up title would be added to some trophy case somewhere, Uwe Blab would head for the NBA as the 17th pick by the Dallas Mavericks and Dan Dakich would leave us as a senior (but return as an assistant). I truly think this season was an example of Knight overthinking things. The inconsistent lineups likely threw everyone out of whack every night and they struggled to maintain a good on court chemistry. Alford and Blab each started 31 games in ’85 and no one else started more than 14. The constant flipping of lineups and minor nagging injuries did in a Hoosiers team that should have been much better than what their results were. Who do we blame? This may be blasphemous but I think Knight has to take a large responsibility for the failed season.