Wednesday January 6th, 2016

When I took to Internet for my internationally acclaimed Twenty for Tuesday Twitter chat, I got a lot of questions about Indiana. Most of them came from anxious Hoosiers fans (is there such a thing as a non-anxious Hoosiers fan?) asking about how the team will play without James Blackmon. But one other Indiana-related query stood out:

Will Bob Knight ever come back to [Bloomington]? They're honoring undefeated ‘76 team [Tuesday night]. — Jared Sanders (@jaredsanders88)

Jared is referring to the 40-year anniversary celebration of the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers, which was voted two years ago as the best team in college basketball history. That team was the last to go undefeated and win an NCAA championship. On Tuesday night, the 76ers were honored during a ceremony at halftime of Indiana’s home game against Wisconsin. All the living players, managers, doctors and their families were there, but there was one very conspicuous absence: Robert Montgomery Knight.

Coach Knight, of course, was fired by Indiana in 2000. The divorce was acrimonious, to say the least. It was also 16 years ago. Many people Knight believe transgressed him are no longer at the school—including the president who fired him, Myles Brand, who passed away in 2009. Yet, Knight is still so angry that he will not participate in any type of reconciliation at Indiana, including the wonderful tribute that took place this week.

I reached Knight on his cell phone late Tuesday night, and as you can imagine, it was a cordial but very brief conversation. He did not want to discuss it. The school’s athletic director, Fred Glass, told me that he had sent Knight a hand-written letter inviting him to participate in the ceremony, but he never heard back. Since taking over as AD in 2008, Glass has had several interactions with Knight, including a friendly, five-hour lunch meeting in Indianapolis a few years ago. But he was not surprised that Knight did not return his letter, nor that the coach did not show on Tuesday.

“What we’ve tried to do is create an environment where he knows he’s welcome here,” Glass said. “We put him in our Hall of Fame, and we’ve reached out to him in a number of ways. We put him on the Jumbotron so the fans could acknowledge him, because it was his team. He has been good to me, but Coach is going to do what he wants to do.”

That Knight is still carrying around such hurt and enmity is sad for his family, his friends, and especially his former players. “I was hoping against hope that he would be there, but I’m not surprised,” Quinn Buckner, the team’s starting guard, told me by telephone after the game on Tuesday night. “It’s disappointing, not just for me but for him. I’m sad for him because it would have been a terrific opportunity for the people of Indiana who appreciated what he had done to show that appreciation. As life’s pendulum swings back, those opportunities are few and far between.”

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​Buckner told me that he did not speak to Knight about coming back for the ceremony, but he was aware of others who had reached in hopes he would change his mind. Knight, alas, did not budge. “His strength is his curse. That’s true for all of us,” Buckner said. “His strength was always his conviction. I know he believes he’s right about a lot of things that happened, but the question becomes, what do you do now that you’ve proven that you’re right?”

To hear Buckner describe it, Knight missed quite a special evening. Indiana set up a huge dinner and panel discussion in Cook Hall, which serves as the current team’s practice facility. Everyone who was connected with the team was invited, along with their families. At halftime, the players were called onto the court. Each player was given a framed jersey. A video was played on the scoreboard. A banner was unveiled commemorating the team being named the greatest champion in NCAA tournament history. The shame is that Knight would have appreciated more than anyone the chance to see how the years have validated his convictions, at least in the eyes of his players.  

“All of us shared throughout the night the things that he taught us. The drive, the focus—it was all there,” Buckner said. “He wasn’t there physically, but he was certainly there in spirit.”

Spirit is all well and good, but it is long past time for Bob Knight to allow this very deep and painful wound to heal. The pendulum won't keep swinging forever. Go home, Coach. Your family is waiting for you.

Now on to the rest of the Twitterbag ...

Is Blackmon injury a blessing in disguise for IU's defense? #matadordefense — Brian (@bklarich11)

Think IU can make up for Blackmon’s injury and still make a run in March? — Evan Stedronsky (@evski13) 

Nobody is ever going to confuse Blackmon with Gary Payton, but there is nothing positive to come out of his being lost for the remainder of the season. In the first place, Blackmon is a gifted scorer, the kind of guy you don’t have to run a play for. He was the team’s second-leading scorer, a 46% three-point shooter, and he was improving at getting to the line and setting up his teammates. He is big and quick, so there really is no excuse for him being a poor defender. All he needed was a little more time, teaching and commitment. 

With Blackmon gone for the rest of the season, Indiana will need some quality minutes from 6'8" freshman forward OG Anunoby. He gave a promising performance Tuesday night, when he made all three of his three-point attempts, but what he really brings is another dynamic athlete. He’s not quite Oladipo quality, but he’s close. Still, even with Anunoby contributing Indiana struggled to beat a mediocre conference opponent at home. It is going to be harder without Blackmon. Time will tell just how much harder.

Has KU been that good to win all those conference championships in a row or has the Big 12 been that bad? — Angie and Rick (@TigersNTarheels)

I include this question because I saw where Bill Self said recently that there is not nearly enough national respect given to his string of 11 straight conference championships. I always suspected that Self never read anything I wrote or heard anything I said on television, and now I know it’s true—because I have been launching a personal crusade to draw attention to what I believe is one of the most incredible feats in all of sports. (See that, Bill? I used italics!) In an era of hyperactive roster turnover in college hoops, the fact that Kansas has won all those titles is truly mind-boggling. I was reminded recently that the streak includes not one, not two, but three seasons in which Kansas won the league with a completely new starting lineup.

So don’t give me the argument that this is more of an indictment of the Big 12 than anything else. There are plenty of leagues that are weaker than the Big 12. How come nobody else is winning championships at nearly the same rate? I’ve also heard the argument made by some TV analysts (I won’t name names, but it rhymes with Bug Knottlieb) pooh-poohing the achievement by pointing out that during the first few years of the streak, the Big 12 did not play a true round-robin schedule. Balderdash.

Any way you slice it, any way you dice it, it is hard to win your league even once. For Kansas to do that 11 straight years—and it now has the inside track for a 12th thanks to Monday night’s riveting win over Oklahoma—is simply amazing. Respect, indeed.

Can Monmouth steal an at large away from a [Power Five] school or is the MAAC still a one-bid conference? — Luke Hoffman (@lhoff526) 

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This is an interesting question, because once you get past the eyebrow-raising nonconference wins and the hilarious antics of the bench, you realize that there is a better chance than not that Monmouth will not be in the NCAA tournament. It will be very hard to win the league tournament, and the league has only earned two at-large bids in its history. Right now, the Hawks are ranked No. 22 in the RPI, but that number will surely sink as conference play moves along. Monmouth already has losses to two teams ranked outside the top 100, Canisius and Army. That would indicate that there are probably more losses in the offing.

Worst of all, one of the starting guards, Je’lon Hornbeak, who scored 18 points in the win at Georgetown, has been suspended indefinitely for conduct detrimental to the team. If he does not return this season, it will make it harder for the Hawks to build a strong résumé during conference play, and it will cast a shadow over the wins they earned when he was in the lineup.

David K Purdy/Getty

Your thoughts on Hawkeyes basketball? — Timmy Stotlar (@TimmyStotlar)

My main thought is that Augustana must be really, really good! That’s the Division II school (it’s in South Dakota, if you care) that won an exhibition game at Carver Hawkeye Arena back on Nov. 6. That loss was not as bad as it seemed, because at the time Augustana was the top-ranked Division II team in the country. (It's currently No. 2. What, you didn’t know there were Division II rankings?) The Hawkeyes’ biggest problem that night was their rebounding. Augustana beat them on the glass 42–35, and Iowa only got 10 offensive rebounds off of 39 missed field goal attempts.

At the time, it looked like a disaster, but in restrospect, there were a lot of benefits to the early setback. “I’m telling you, it was the best thing that could have happened for our program,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffrey told me by phone Tuesday night after his team’s win at home over Nebraska. “Our young guys weren’t ready for them. A lot of coaches won’t schedule teams like that, but I think you’re better off playing a game where you have to think, you have to compete, you have to play defense, and if you don’t, they expose you.”                   

The Hawkeyes have grown up a lot since then, none more so than Jarrod Uthoff. Against Augustana, the 6'9" senior transfer from Wisconsin (now you know why Bo Ryan didn’t want to let him go) scored just 10 points on 5-for-12 shooting, and he did not attempt a free throw. In the last few weeks, however, Uthoff has played like an All-American. He had 30 points in the first half of the Hawkeyes’ loss at Iowa State, and he had 25 in last weekend’s comeback win at Purdue.

This is a mature starting lineup, and McCaffrey was particularly pleased that after the great week his team had, they still managed to find a way to beat Nebraska. “Everybody’s been telling them how great they are the last two days,” he said. Now the Hawkeyes have nine days off before they play at Michigan State, which will likely have Denzel Valentine back in the lineup. Whatever happens, win or lose, these Hawkeyes will be ready.

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