A measles epidemic has gripped the Indiana University campus the last few weeks, so Ohio State's basketball team had to be inoculated after its game in Bloomington last Saturday afternoon. Which is an obvious setup: After being shot down for the Big Ten championship 81-60 in the last game of an emotional season, the Buckeyes got shot up.
Ohio State probably realized this wasn't going to be its day when Indiana's 7'2" center, Uwe Blab—listed as a questionable starter because of a sprained right ankle—charged on court five minutes late to join his team in warmups, a bit of theater enhanced by the shouts of "OOH-vay, OOH-vay" from the 17,000-plus fans in Assembly Hall. A few minutes later The Star-Spangled Banner was preceded by the German national anthem (Das Deutschlandlied, if you're scoring) in tribute to Blab, a native of Munich. The psychological ploy was the brainchild of university President Dr. John W. Ryan, and, no, he does not have better things to do, especially during basketball season.
Although Blab later admitted he doesn't know the words to Das Deutschlandlied, the song obviously inspired him. Showing no aftereffect from his ankle injury. Blab handled Buckeye Center Granville Waiters easily: He scored six straight Indiana points in a two-minute span that increased a 13-5 lead to 19-5 with 10:30 left in the first half. After Blab's spurt, Ohio State never again drew closer than nine points.
Blab wasn't the only reason for the blitzkrieg. The Buckeyes got an early (Randy) Wittman sampler when he scored eight of the Hoosiers' first 10 points with his textbook jumper. After Wittman, a 6'6" forward, had shot 11-for-16 and finished with 24 points and zero turnovers, Hoosier Coach Bobby Knight said, "You have just seen the only person who could be considered the MVP of the Big Ten." On that point, no one would argue with Knight, even if there were someone around Bloomington who would dare to argue with Knight.
Collectively the five Hoosier starters (all seniors except Blab) shot 69% from the floor (32 of 46). Steve Bouchie, a 6'8" forward, had 10 points but, more important, held Buckeye Forward Tony Campbell to a mere 10 shots and 12 points, well below his 19.5 average.
Guard Jim Thomas, who canned six of 10 from the floor and five of five from the line en route to 17 points, had four steals, all leading to Indiana baskets, and five rebounds, just below his team-leading 5.3 per game average. Indiana got a fine performance, too, from Point Guard Tony Brown, who dealt eight assists and made all four of his shots. Knight has been struggling to find a playmaker all season, sometimes starting Brown, sometimes freshman Stew Robinson and occasionally using Thomas, Wittman or Winston Morgan in that role.
Wittman, Blab, Bouchie, Thomas, Brown. Das Deutschlandlied. Add Assembly Hall, where Knight is now a phenomenal 145-14. Add Knight's record in season-ending Big Ten games, which is now 11-1. In short, the Hoosiers threw everything at the Buckeyes except the Kitchel sink.
Which is quite the point, really. In the first five minutes of a game at Michigan on Feb. 24, Forward Ted Kitchel, Indiana's leading scorer and one of the most accurate shooters in the country, removed himself from the action because of an aching back. Four days later he underwent surgery for a ruptured disc at Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis. Indiana went sour without him, losing to Michigan 69-56 and two nights later to Michigan State 62-54, and with those defeats a two-game Big Ten lead. Ohio State had pulled even with three games left.
No one was more shattered by the loss of Kitchel than Wittman, Kitchel's four-year roommate, fellow grad student in Indiana's School of Public Environmental Affairs (each missed a year of basketball because of injuries but finished his undergrad studies in four years) and buddy. Wittman made only seven of 29 shots from the floor in the nightmarish two-game set in Michigan. Kitchel could've shot as well in a body cast. "We've been through too much together for my injury not to affect him," Kitchel said.
The post-Kitchel preparation officially began at 6:30 on Feb. 28, the Monday morning following the loss at Michigan State. That's when Shirley Wittman, mother of Randy, called WIRE in Indianapolis, the flagship of the Indiana University basketball radio network, with an appeal for Hoosier fans to stay behind the team and to remember Kitchel with cards and letters. "I might've tried to stop her," Wittman says, "but I guess it turned out all right." Kitchel was deluged with mail following his four-hour surgery that night, and the fans turned out with fire in their eyes when Purdue came to town on Thursday.
Knight had been preparing for three days. He didn't change any X's and O's—"It was too late in the season for that," he said—but he did alter some p's and q's. To wit:
Every shot would be taken within the context of the offense. The basic Knight passing game would be elongated by four or five passes per possession. This wasn't a chore because Kitchel, for all his contributions, was the only Hoosier with a tendency to take bad shots.
Thomas would have to go to the basket more. Ditto for Blab. Bouchie, who bounced between regular and sub so often in his four-year career he never knew whether he was supposed to be Larry Olivier or Larry Storch, would have to adjust to being a full-time starter. Wittman would simply have to forget Kitchel's problems and take care of his own.
At noon on the day of the Purdue game Kitchel was still in his hospital bed, resembling "a corpse in a three-piece suit," according to Mrs. Wittman, who visited him that day. Late that afternoon, unbeknownst to any of his teammates or Knight, Kitchel checked out of the hospital, hobbled into his parents' van where he rested on a makeshift bed during the one-hour drive to Bloomington and limped into the dressing room minutes before game time. If this had happened in South Bend, they would have made a movie about it.
After Kitchel had been given a lengthy standing ovation Indiana unveiled its offense—the Hoosiers would take an average of only 41 shots in their final three games, as compared with their average to that point of 53—and a Knight man-to-man defense that was different only in its intensity and its emphasis on double-teaming and helping out. After a 64-41 victory over the Boilermakers, Knight told the crowd over the public address system, "We need you Saturday night, too." The fans responded and so did Indiana; the 67-55 win over Illinois clinching a tie for the conference title, with Ohio State remaining to be played.
"Indiana could play three nurses and two wounded veterans and win in that place," Purdue's Gene Keady told Bill Estep of the Columbus Citizen-Journal. Iowa's Lute Olson figured Assembly Hall was "a 15-to 20-point advantage for Indiana." Augury, it seems, is his specialty.
But on the Thursday before the game, Ohio Coach Eldon Miller still had reason for hope. He had taken a team that was picked to finish seventh in the Big Ten and whose best player, Clark Kellogg, had gone to the pros, to a 19-win season and the top of the league. He had a player in Campbell whom he considers "one of the best forwards in America." He had two lookalike, playalike guards in Troy Taylor and supersub Ron Stokes, whose quickness had been the major factor in a 70-67 win over Indiana on Jan. 8.
But last Saturday none of that mattered. Miller had no one to contain Wittman, who first burned Forward Joe Concheck, then Guard Larry Huggins, who's considered Ohio State's best defensive player, then backup Guard Dave Jones. He had no one to contain Blab when Waiters went MIA. Offensively, Taylor and Stokes, who are each 5' 11", looked like a pair of Smurfs trying to run against the Dallas Cowboys when they penetrated against Bouchie, Blab and Wittman. "We always help out, but we wanted to cut them off out farther this time," Bouchie said. Then, too, Miller had no one to match the vocal cords of Roy Samuelsen, the Indiana music professor who sang Das Deutschlandlied.
Whether Indiana will be nearly as effective away from home remains to be seen, but going into the tournament the brief postgame comment of Mitch Haas, an Ohio State reserve forward, seems appropriate. "Wow!" said Haas. "That's my quote. Wow!" In German, that roughly translates to wunderbar!