Just becauseIndiana University Coach Bobby Knight, that mellowing maniac, has not punched aplayer, strangled a referee, pistol-whipped a writer or howled at the moon inthe last few minutes, is no reason to ignore his team. After all, the Hoosiersare undefeated in 18 games this season. Practically uncontested, too. As a teamthey are solid residents of the No. 1 spot in all the polls. As individuals,unlike their coach, they are unranked and unrecognized.
What the men ofIndiana have done, apparently without realizing it, is become almost too goodtoo soon. They started mowing down the opposition before anybody had time tolearn their names. This dangerous practice usually is called peaking early; theextraordinary thing is that the Hoosiers peak again every time a center jump iscalled.
By the end oflast week, after Indiana had assaulted its closest challenger in the Big Ten,Purdue, by the hilarious score of 104-71, the Hoosiers possessed not only aperfect record but the widest average victory margin in the land, 27 points pergame. They also had the sixth best offense, the 12th best defense and a .520shooting percentage, and were ranked high in rebounding, yet their leadingscorer was only 12th in the Big Ten and their top rebounder stood 10th. Balanceis golden.
Starting ForwardSteve Green had the flu last week, so the Hoosiers opened against Purdue withtheir sixth man, the amazing John Laskowski, in the lineup. He scored 13 pointsin the first half. Then Indiana went to vastly improved Center Kent Boston forfive quick baskets after the intermission. When Benson came out to rest hisshooting arm, reserve Tom Abernethy replaced him, and there was no appreciablechange in the attack, except perhaps a faster tempo. Forward Scott May made 11of 15 shots and 23 points. The Hoosiers fouled out Purdue star John Garrett andheld the Boilermakers to 12 points in the first 14 minutes of the second half.Then the mop-up brigade checked in, and Knight halted play to instruct freshmanMark Haymore to tuck his drawstring inside his pants. And, oh, yes—Laskowskitook another shot in the second half. He missed. There is still hope.
To cope withbeing No. 1, Knight has begun playing inspirational tapes by legendary figuresand reading biographies to his troops. Storybook time has included Pete Newell,Jack Nicklaus and Rudyard Kipling. "Kipling's my favorite," sayssubstitute Steve Ahlfeld. "He's no sports guy."
"I'm justpushing the buttons," says Knight. "My language is coming alongtoo." Formerly the Emperior of Expletives, the new Knight has had only onetechnical foul all season, while rival coaches have been penalized 12 times."I'm not so much 18 and 0," says the coach, "as I am 1 and 12. I'mnot getting any more bleeping mellow, you son of a bleep-bleep. I'm onlygetting bleeping smarter." The Emperor is coming right along, allright.
Indiana'sexploits, if not Knight's new courtside vocabulary, have been accorded raves bythe opposition. Coach Fred Taylor of Ohio State says you must play Indianacautiously, "like making love to a porcupine." Gus Ganakas, the coachof Michigan State, speaks of the Hoosiers' "mobile bulkiness." And JohnLotz of Florida congratulated his Gators after they lost to the Hoosiers byonly 14 points. When Indiana whipped Iowa 102-49, Hawkeye Coach Lute Olsenkicked over a chair in the opening minute and later said, "There were starsin my guys' eyes."
Similar awe hasenveloped Kentucky, Texas A&M, Nebraska and Creighton, all squads which hadtheir systems cleansed by the Hoosiers and have gone on to become toughcustomers since the slaughter. Against Indiana, each was behind by as many as32 points before Knight called off the hunt. Even Minnesota's Gophers, thestrongboys from the north, who held the Hoosiers close for 30 minutes,succumbed 79-59 after Indiana's spread attack forced the Gophers out of theirzone.
Despite suchglorious numbers, the team has not grown complacent. "We are playingagainst our potential, not our opponents," says Laskowski. "There areno easy teams. We respect everybody." Being more realistic, May says,"I guess we really are blowing people off the face of the earth."
It was inIndiana's only close contest that the team gained its self-confidence. Forcedinto overtime at Kansas in the second game of the season, May rescued theHoosiers with four straight come-from-behind baskets. "The last one hitonly string and I knew that baby was over," May said. But, as usual, it wasleft to Laskowski to sink the winning bucket. Knight says his notedbench-warmer "has won more games in more different ways than anybody,including John Havlicek."
Though the 74-70victory seems tainted in hindsight because the Jayhawks have been destroyed ona couple of occasions since, at the time it was an invigorating conquest forIndiana. The Hoosiers played haphazardly on the road against a highly regarded,emotionally charged team, and won. They won while being outrebounded andoutshot 55%-42%. They won while their leader, Guard Quinn Buckner, wentscoreless and missed vital free throws near the end. In short, they won on abad night. "Our confidence shot right up after that," saysLaskowski.
Indianafrequently is portrayed as a crew of personalities submerged, even"consumed by fright," under Knight, the rampaging martinet. But whileGreen says, "We're just a bunch of simple, homely faces," there isconsiderably more to them than that.
Knight demandssilence and total obedience at practice, then smartly keeps his distance fromhis players off the court. His dressing quarters are on the opposite side ofthe Assembly Hall from the team's locker room, and he seldom invades the placeAhlfeld describes as "our little domain."
Knight has nocurfew, no training table and hardly any rules. When he is not around,Indiana's faceless wonders will listen to a rock tune, laugh at a Cheech &Chong record and wear denim overalls and shell necklaces, just like any othercollege derelicts. They walk and even talk now and then, drink beers, eatquarter-pounders, date girls and read Rolling Stone on road trips. ("I'veheard of that...I think," says Knight.) They even have something called aZemi machine in the locker room to dispense sno-cones in four deliciousflavors. "The first time they put the Zemi in here, 15 guys got sick withsticky red stuff all over their faces. It was awful," says Green.
On Knight'sbirthday, after he had whipped them through a few suicide drills, the Hoosierspresented the coach with a "Suicide Zemi," a combination of all fourflavors. He reacted with customary gratitude. "This doesn't mean you sonsof bleeps are clear of suicides next time," he said.
Sometimes Indianaalso is depicted as a group of no-name gym rats molded into a team by aneccentric genius, but that obviously is a misrepresentation. Buckner and Bensonwere genuine high school legends in Illinois and Indiana, respectively. FluidBob Wilkerson, the 6'6" guard who jumps center, covers the opposition'stoughest backcourt man and sports a stupendous gap in his teeth, was a prepstar, too. Coming out of high school, he was a non-predictor under the NCAA's1.6 rule. That undoubtedly kept some recruiters away and made Wilkerson seemlike a real find when Knight first put him out on the court as a sophomoresubstitute.
May, the 6'7"scoring leader, was also a non-predictor whose growing pains as a child inSandusky, Ohio were so severe that his mother says, "We had to hold himdown on the bed."
When May'sfailure to meet the 1.6 requirement forced him to sit out his first year atBloomington, he "ate his heart out and almost quit." But he stayed.Bucker calls May "Stonehands" because of the tendency he had to droppasses when he first joined the Hoosiers. May insists he has the finest pair ofhands in the state of Ohio. Buckner says, "That's nice, but May happens tobe playing in Indiana."
Native HoosiersGreen from Milan and Laskowski of South Bend are the only seniors amongIndiana's first seven players. They have developed into shooters of exquisitetouch. Laskowski's uncanny ability to come cold off the bench and put inbushels of points has provoked wagering on how many seconds will elapse betweenthe moment he checks in and the scoring of his first point.
Early in theseason Laskowski sat out four games with an injury, returning to play againstFlorida. He connected 27 seconds after entering that game, made seven of 10shots and went on to hit 26 of 31 in subsequent appearances. "Shooting isconcentration," he says. "Just routine."
"Whatshooters!" says Florida's Lotz. "If Indiana gets within 15 feet, youcan walk the other way." And you can, except when the mighty Quinn isfiring. A celebrated two-sport star, Buckner has played on four differentinternational basketball teams and toured more faraway lands than MarlinPerkins. But he shot only 34% and finished 50th among Big Ten scorers lastseason. Moreover, during Indiana's five defeats in 1973-74 Buckner convertedonly 13 for 58 attempts from the floor and made enough mental errors toconvince Knight that football was hurting Quinn's basketball. The coach madehim give up being a defensive back.
"I hope to goback someday," says Buckner of football. And he would probably be wise to.Indiana football Coach Lee Corso says, "If he returns he'll go in the fifthround of the NFL draft." Meanwhile the husky junior guard has come on toplay the best basketball of his career. Against Wisconsin early last week hemade 13 of 14 shots to go with eight rebounds, eight assists and foursteals.
"You missedtwo free throws tonight," Buckner shouted to Laskowski on the bus.
"Oh, O.K.,shooter," Laz replied. "Wait till you go 2 for 12 again."
Buckner says hisimprovement has not been the only difference in this season's Hoosiers."Last year we only thought we could get it done. This time we knowhow." And May says, "You ain't seen nothin' yet. We're just gettinginto shape."
Knight claims hisideal team would have better shooting at guard, plus more quickness andrebounding on the front line. But even he concedes that the Hoosiers'versatility is something to behold. Almost everybody is capable of filling inat any position and all hands contribute to the chewing, clawing defense."Their D will keep them in every game," says Kansas Coach Ted Owens.And so will Knight.
To report thatthe raging temper is gone would be sheer nonsense, but somewhere along the waythe thorns of Knight's belligerence have blunted a little. However, hisdevotion to the game at the expense of family and society endures. During aChristmas tournament in Hawaii, the coach and his family stayed in separatehotels, and Knight did not even see his mother, who had traveled out with therest of his clan. At home, Nancy Knight's little blocks that spell out "MyBob Sexy" have been up on the wall for about two years, but Nancy says MyBob Sexy has not noticed them yet.
Her husband canstill erupt at slight provocation. As a gag during a preseason booster luncheonin Bloomington, Knight was presented with a seat belt by a guest dressed up ina referee's shirt. Enraged, the coach exploded at the offender, shoutedwarnings and chastised the entire room, which was full of many of his ardentfans. "I really nailed 'em," he admits with relish.
About theinfamous "friendly pat" incident earlier this season, when Knightslapped Kentucky Coach Joe Hall on the head during a heated exchange atcourt-side, Knight claims it was a normal, meaningless gesture for him. "Ifit was meant to be malicious [as Hall suggested]," says Knight, "Iwould have blasted the bleeper into the seats."
Last week Knighthad an altercation with a member of another of the endangered species on hislist, journalists. Having observed a writer chatting with one of his playerswithout permission, Knight went into his one-on-one intimidation routine. Hescreamed, stomped and physically threatened the man, then stormed off reviewingevery bleep his military upbringing could dredge up. Later he apologized andshared a relaxing dinner with the culprit.
It was a typicalweek, awash with both Knight's disdain for the media—he is fond of tellingjournalists, "All of us learn to write by the second grade, then most of usgo on to other things"—and his delight in putting the press on. He recentlyrevealed to an interviewer his distrust of mankind generally. He said that hedoes "not like" people and that he "especially hates" women.Ah. No more Mr. Nice Guy?
Well, the imageprojected by Knight may change from game to game, but at least one thing now isvery sure back home in Indiana. No matter how scary Knight may choose tobecome, his team will remain the most frightening thing on the court.