They came to Louisville last Saturday, driving farm tractors and fried-chicken limousines, wearing mink and flannel and red and blue, Hoosiers, hillbillies and big-city hicks, tobacco specialists against flatland corn growers, crossing the lines of Mason-Dixon, Rupp-McCracken, Indiana-Kentucky to settle this thing once and, likely, not for all.
The war between the states had all the ingredients: a sellout crowd in Freedom Hall, seething emotions and two teams playing for pride, honor and a chance to walk back on campus without getting booed. In the end Indiana, braced by a commodity Kentucky did not have—Polish power—carried the day 77-68.
John Laskowski, Indiana's skinny sixth man, had three steals and hit his first eight shots in the second half; Indiana made 12 of its first 13 and Kentucky, which had led 44-39 at halftime, was mired in an energy crisis. "They hit 82% in the second half, we hit 32%. That's a 50-point spread," said Kentucky's disillusioned Coach Joe Hall.
Ronnie Lyons, the diminutive Kentucky guard who gave away about a foot in reach in his matchup with Laskowski, sounded almost like a fan afterward. "Whew," he said, "I didn't really think he was that quick. All those steals he made. Whew. How about that left-handed move he made on me? They picked for him once, but all the rest he just shot over me."
Time was a team filled up the early part of its season with the bakery division of its schedule, eating a couple of cream puffs. No more. The Indiana-Kentucky game was another of those early sectional battles, but it was more than that. It was a baptism of new dogma, a cleansing of relics and traditions and, above all, a Knight and a Hall, two honorary colonels—one Army, one Kentucky—jockeying for supremacy in basketball's cradle and heartland, a place where kids digest box scores for breakfast and shoot baskets by moonlight.
For seeming eons, during the spells of Adolph Rupp in Lexington and Branch McCracken in Bloomington, Kentucky blue had prevailed over this scene, with more national titles, conference championships and All-Americas. Lately the balance of power has swung to Indiana. Last year the Hoosiers beat Kentucky twice, the second paddling in the finals of the NCAA Mideast regional. In that game Kentucky came from 13 down in the second half, took the lead and almost pulled out the win, fouling the Hoosiers' offense with a 1-3-1 zone defense. When Kentucky tried the same ploy Saturday night, Indiana was ready, having practiced during the week for just that eventuality. In fact, it turned the defense to its own advantage, going into a stall with eight minutes left that squandered four minutes and sealed the Cats' fate.
The teams' coaches had spent the week burdened with the importance of the date. Indiana's Bobby Knight, who still displays many of the military trappings he acquired as a coach at Army, drove his car absentmindedly around Bloomington, nodding his head in apology for the near accidents caused while he ruminated at the wheel. Hall had been disheartened by a doleful offensive performance and a loss at Kansas on Monday night. Two nights later Indiana throttled Kansas to further deepen Hall's gloom.
Both coaches have stood the challenge of erasing lingering memories; Hall took the coaching scepter from Rupp last season, Knight is in his third year at Indiana. He has replaced the team's perennial scatter-gun offense with a cleaving defense that opponents claim combines the worst elements of mugging and pocket picking. Hall has been followed by ghosts. Cries for impeachment reached a crescendo early last season when his team stumbled to a 1-4 start. Worse, this year there is the haunting fact that for the second straight time Kentucky recruiting has been woeful.
Knight, by contrast, has had considerable success at enticing the best and the brightest, such as freshman Kent Benson, whom Hall followed all the way to Germany last summer, and failed to catch. A master of motivation, Knight has his players respond with the reliability of programmed systems. Endless drills and preaching achieve an Army basic training effect, with the recruit conditioned to submerge his individuality, to react, not think, under pressure.
"You got a leader on your team?" someone asked Knight recently.
"Yeah," he answered. "Me."
With the bombs bursting and the shrapnel flying, the Hoosiers are cool, even though most of them have not been around long enough to learn how to operate a college shower. The team starts the freshman Benson, three sophomores, one of whom did not play a minute last year, and a junior. There is not a senior on the roster.
The coach is a mixture of old Patton and neo-Rotarian. He can be curt, rude and cantankerous when it suits him or wrinkle his dimpled cheeks and exude boyish charm if he wants. His inch-long sideburns are a concession to the times, but only recently has he relaxed his dress code to where players can wear turtle-necks with their traveling blazers. One day Quinn Buckner showed up dressed in a pair of very wide-bottomed trousers. "You know, a few years ago I wouldn't have let my players wear those," said Knight, kind of startled at himself.
On the floor the team is nothing but an extension of its coach; for that matter many of the players physically resemble the 33-year-old Knight. "They don't have great talent but they really play well together," said Kentucky's Kevin Grevey before the game. And, as Buckner pointed out one day, the Indiana players are believers.
A defensive back on the Indiana football team, Buckner is the one deviation Knight overlooks. Knight hesitated when Buckner came to claim his NCAA tournament ring this fall, hoping to barter a promise of no football in exchange for the memento, but Buckner finally got it. "I was determined that he wasn't just going to come in here after football this year and get a starting position," said Knight, "but after a couple of practices I said, 'Why be bullheaded about it?' "
Kentucky obviously was well prepared for the game. The Wildcats fast-broke in the first half, getting down before Indiana had time to organize its defense. But in the second half there were few rebounds to fast-break. Indiana got most of them.
Although both Forward Scott May and Buckner had three fouls at halftime, Knight was unruffled. He came out with a different starting lineup, inserting Laskowski, Tom Abernethy and Bob Wilkerson, and changing his defensive assignments. "It was like somebody had turned a switch off," Grevey said later.
With Indiana ahead 67-62, Lyons was out in front on one of Kentucky's few fast breaks of the half as Laskowski trailed him. He tried a blind pass backward and Polish Power intercepted it. Moments later Laskowski intercepted another, this time from Grevey to Lyons, and raced the length of the court for a layin. After another Laskowski jump shot Indiana went into its delay game, and the stands started to empty.
Until the teams meet again, Indiana has control of the towns and the farms where basketball reigns supreme, and—why not say it?—the state lines.