"There's no license or anything saying how old you have to be to play." Indiana coach Bobby Knight told a luncheon audience last November. "You can be 18 years old and play the game well, or you can be around it four years and still not know how to play." Knight was about to open the season with the youngest team he has had in his 13 years as coach of the Hoosiers, having lost to graduation five of the top six players and 77% of the scoring from the 1982-83 Big Ten champions. But rebuilding is a word that isn't in Knight's vocabulary. He has started at least two freshmen in every Big Ten game this year—twice he started four. And after the Hoosiers beat Michigan 72-57 and lost to Michigan State 57-54 last week, they were 11-4 in the conference, just 1½ games behind league-leading Purdue and one of only three legitimate contenders for the conference title.
Knight has lost key players before, but never without a couple of seasoned underclassmen to take their places. When junior forward Winston Morgan was redshirted in December because of a stress fracture in his right foot, the only remaining veteran with significant experience was 7'2" center Uwe Blab, who is inconsistent at best. No matter. With Knight, the system is greater than its parts. It demands patience and intelligent shot selection on offense and fanatic devotion to man-to-man defense—or else.
What's unusual about this Indiana club is that it's rarely dominating. The Hoosiers have won more on coaching than on talent, not that the raw material isn't there. Indiana leads the Big Ten in field-goal percentage (52.9%), but it dies, as well as lives, with shooting accuracy: The Hoosiers lost both conference games in which they shot less than 50%. Of the four games in which their opponents made better than 50% of their field-goal attempts, three resulted in Indiana losses.
Steve Alford, a 6'2" freshman guard, has a jump shot as smooth as his baby face. He leads the Hoosiers in scoring, with 15.2 points per game, and is shooting 60.1% from the floor despite rarely firing from inside 15 feet. His 92.1% from the free-throw line is second-best in the nation, and he has a good chance of making the U.S. Olympic team, which Knight will coach. In a program infamous for its rigorous testing of freshmen, Alford has had little trouble at Indiana. A native of New Castle, Ind., he has attended Knight's summer basketball camp for seven years. "There was no doubt in my mind I wanted to come here," he says. "If you have the right frame of mind, it doesn't matter if you're a freshman or a senior."
Along with Alford, Marty Simmons, a 6'5" freshman forward from Lawrenceville, Ill., has started all of Indiana's conference games. Simmons has been more erratic than Alford—he scored zip against Illinois and 30 at Wisconsin—but his ball handling has been a key to Indiana's delay game, which helped beat Iowa and Michigan.
Knight hasn't treated his kiddie corps, which also includes freshmen forwards Daryl Thomas and Todd Meier, with kid gloves. Everyone has been in his doghouse at some point—a rite of passage at Indiana—but most emerge the stronger for it. Thomas came in for Simmons against Michigan and shot 4 for 4 from the floor.
Knight, meanwhile, remains his usual self. When Miami of Ohio stunned the Hoosiers 63-57 in their home opener, Knight ordered his players back for practice that evening. After Purdue ran off 22 straight points in a 74-66 win at Bloomington, he all but razed the Indiana locker room. The players, as always, got the message.
They're playing the same tune under the same baton in Bloomington. Only the musicians have changed.