Early on, it had all the earmarks of a Season on the Blink for the Indiana Hoosiers. In coach Bob Knight's 17 years at the school, Indiana had given up 100 points in a game only once, yet during one four-game stretch beginning in late November, Syracuse, North Carolina and Louisville each ripped the Hoosiers for more than 100, with Indiana losing by 24, 14 and 22 points, respectively. In early December the Hoosiers were 3-4, and it looked as if a Knight-coached team might finish below .500 for the first time since his West Point days.
And now, with a week left in the regular season, Indiana has won 21 of its last 23 games and clinched at least a tie with Illinois for the Big Ten title. Even Knight is slightly incredulous about the turnaround. Ask him if there's anything his 18th Hoosier team does particularly well, and, after a moment of reflection, he'll shrug and say, "Naaaaah."
He is, of course, overlooking a spindly, bowlegged, imperturbable sophomore guard named Jay Edwards, who already has staked his claim to a place high on the list of alltime Hoosier shooters, right up there with Jimmy Rayl (1961-63), Scott May ('74-'76), Randy Wittman ('79-'83) and, yes, even Steve Alford ('84-'87). The 6'4" Edwards, his face set in an emotionless mask, looks almost bored until the end of a close game, when suddenly he seems to demand the ball so he can show everyone why he just might be the best clutch player in the college game.
Ask Purdue, which watched helplessly as Edwards hit a jumper with :04 left for a 64-62 Hoosier win in Bloomington on Feb. 12. And ask Michigan, the preseason Big Ten favorite, which saw its title hopes flicker out on Feb. 19 when Edwards hit the most exciting and important shot by a Hoosier since Keith Smart canned that jumper against Syracuse with five seconds left to win the 1987 NCAA title game in New Orleans.
Even Smart's shot didn't cause Knight to charge onto the floor and jump for joy, which is what he did after Edwards's three-pointer from the top of the key against Michigan. When Edwards took a bounce pass and went up, the scoreboard clocks in Indiana's Assembly Hall showed 00:00. The buzzer sounded with the ball in the air, meaning that Edwards had released it at the last possible moment and with the straining hand of Michigan's 6'9" Sean Higgins right in his face.
Amazingly, in the locker room after the game, the hero had a hard time working up so much as a smile for the press. "I was falling backward and couldn't see," Edwards said. "Then I heard everybody cheer. I couldn't believe that it went in."
Believe, Jay. Indiana is now 24-6 after last week's 73-66 victory over Ohio State on Wednesday and its last-second 70-67 loss to Illinois on Sunday. That ran its Big Ten record to 14-2 in what is arguably, top-to-bottom, the nation's best conference. The turnaround came when Knight, identifying the Hoosiers' problem as too much bumbling on the perimeter, went to a three-guard alignment in which 6'1" Lyndon Jones joined ex-high school teammate Edwards and senior leader Joe Hillman on the outside, with 6'9" freshman whiz Eric Anderson and 6'9" senior banger Todd Jadlow left to patrol the paint and hold their own under the boards.
The new lineup made its debut against Notre Dame on Dec. 6, and despite a 13-point loss, Knight saw "the first real hope for this season." The turnovers disappeared almost immediately, replaced by excellent shooting, crisp passing and cutting, better defensive play—and grace under pressure. Six of Indiana's Big Ten wins have been by four points or less.
"We must be doing something right because we've beat some good teams and they sure as hell have a hard time playing against us," says Knight. But he only laughs when asked if this team is strong enough to contend for his fourth NCAA title. "I'm still not sure we can play with teams like Syracuse, North Carolina and Louisville. I think I know a great team when I see one, and this is not a great team. But I like this team." He smiles and shakes his head. "Imposing physical specimens, aren't they?"
No, not really. A nice collection of athletes, certainly, but also a cut or two below what's currently available at Michigan, Illinois and Iowa. So, what's the story? Well, Illinois coach Lou Henson points to Knight, whose milestones this season include his 500th career win and a 214th Big Ten victory, making him the conference's alltime winningest coach. "Bob might be doing the best job he has ever done," says Henson.
Hillman, a fifth-year senior from Glendale, Calif., who spurned scholarship offers from Santa Clara and Stanford to walk on at Indiana, sees a subtle difference in Knight this year. "I think he's become more patient in the five years I've been here," Hillman says. "I know he's been really patient with this team. Had he not been so patient with us early in the season, I know we wouldn't be the team we are today."
This isn't to say that the old fires no longer burn in Knight. His players, not to mention various referees, will tell you that his sarcasm is as biting as ever. But at 48, Knight also seems more at peace with himself, at least in part due to a happy second marriage, to the former Karen Edgar, a quiet, publicity-shy woman who was a successful high school coach in Oklahoma.
Typically, Knight cringes at the idea that he has mellowed. Yet it's also true that this team's success stems from how Knight has dealt with problems that could have deprived him of his best players, Edwards and Hillman. Of the two cases, Hillman's was by far the easier to resolve.
Hillman has a stiff, mechanical style that belies his ability to almost always make the right play. While the willowy Edwards is so smooth he seems at times to glide effortlessly, Hillman moves about like a windup toy gone berserk.
After receiving his degree in finance and real estate last spring, Hillman spent the summer playing first base for the Oakland A's Class A team in Medford, Ore. He got nine hits in his first 18 at bats and so impressed A's scouts that he was invited to spend the fall playing in the instructional league. Forced to make a choice between the sports, the 6'2" Hillman would have picked baseball, because he knows he has no future in the NBA.
Instead, Knight worked it out so that Hillman could take his first graduate-school courses by correspondence while playing baseball, then report two weeks late for basketball practice. "He was real supportive," says Hillman, whose leadership and steady play are best illustrated by his sparkling ratio of assists (116) to turnovers (45).
By the time Hillman reported for duty on Nov. 1, Edwards had already failed a random drug test administered by the school. Edwards continued to practice with the team but was warned that any further misstep would result in his suspension.
During his years at Marion (Ind.) High, which he and Jones led to three straight state titles, Edwards had developed some bad habits off the floor. As Indiana associate athletic director Steve Downing puts it, "He was pretty much used to doing what he wanted."
Edwards spent his first year under Knight in and out of the coach's doghouse. In December of 1987, he was suspended for five games for academic reasons. In July of '88 his scholarship was revoked because of further academic difficulties and an accumulation of parking tickets and library fines. The positive drug test was a more serious transgression, given Knight's militant posture on drugs. Knight is so obsessed with the subject that he sees no reason why the U.S. shouldn't identify the Colombian cocaine sources and bomb them into oblivion.
After Edwards tested positive—his mother, Rosemary, last week told SI's Tim Crothers that it was for marijuana and alcohol—Knight urged that Edwards be enrolled in a 30-day rehab program in Nashville, which would have caused him to miss at least the first month of the season. But Edwards, his mother, Downing and a drug counselor agreed that a 10-day program in Indianapolis was all he needed. Reluctantly, Knight went along, but he assigned Downing, a star of his first Indiana team, to ride herd on Edwards.
"The drug counselor talked to me and said I'm not really that bad off like everybody says I am," Edwards told The Indianapolis Star. "I've got a past history of doing drugs.... I'm not an addict. I started doing it for recreation, and that can lead into other things. And I wanted to stop."
Predictably, Knight's detractors accused the coach of a double standard. They said Edwards would have been long gone had he been a bench warmer instead of a star. They pointed out that in 1978, when a drug problem was discovered on the Indiana team, three players were dismissed summarily. Mention that to Knight today and the old anger flashes in his eyes.
"It amuses me no end that the same people who accuse me of being too hard on my players are now criticizing me for being too easy on Edwards," he says. "I've handled this thing the same way I've handled other ones. I got rid of those three kids because they lied to me about it. There were five others involved, and two of them were players who were not particularly important to Indiana basketball. But they stayed to the end. So if I can try to help them, I don't have any problem with helping Jay Edwards."
Besides, says Knight, the drug problem has become so much more pervasive in the last decade that coaches today have an obligation to help troubled athletes. "Any kid can make a mistake," Knight says. "Some people are capable of not doing what the crowd does, and some are not. My greatest hope for Edwards is to see him reach his potential as a person, as well as a player."
For his part, Edwards refuses to be interviewed about that part of his past except to credit Knight and Downing for "not giving up on me." Says Edwards, whose scholarship was restored in January, "It's a combination of Coach and me working together to overcome it. And Steve Downing, well, he's been there beside me the whole way, even more than Coach."
As part of his rehabilitation, Edwards agreed to make speeches to school groups in the Bloomington area. He tried to beg off his first appointment, pleading nerves, only to be told by Knight that he had no choice. In his second speech three weeks ago, he felt more confident and got high marks from Downing, who accompanied him.
While Downing says Edwards has come out of his shell and is "now part of the jokes in the locker room" and Hillman believes that "Jay's a lot more involved in what we're doing," Edwards still is wary around the media, which, naturally, is fine with Knight.
"When he made that shot against Michigan, the media couldn't understand why he wasn't more excited about it," Knight says. "Nobody knows this kid or what he can do. Edwards would have been far more disappointed if he had missed than elated if he had made it. He's like me in that he doesn't care if the writers don't talk to him. He's the most unselfish kid for a scorer that we've ever had here."
Indeed, Edwards is virtually tied with Hillman for the team lead in assists, an impressive achievement for a guy who also leads the team with a 20.6 scoring average. When he can use picks and move without the ball as well as Alford did, he'll be unstoppable. Says Knight, "I'd like to see his game come up to the point where he does everything as well as when he has the ball."
And Edwards has had to perform under a new kind of scrutiny, that of a public figure fighting a backslide into drugs. So in a curious way he might be speaking of himself when he describes the Hoosiers' newfound notoriety. "We have to be ready," he says, "because everybody's looking for us now."