Indiana coach Bob Knight can make playing a basketball game seem like an incredibly complex undertaking. There's nothing wrong with having a cerebral approach, but Knight creates the impression that, compared with the technical demands required to properly execute the Hoosiers' intricate offense, performing a quadruple bypass is a snap.
But the simple truth is that Indiana reached its third Final Four in 12 seasons largely because its wandering shooting eye became focused again. No Hoosier had struggled more with his shot than 6'9" senior center Eric Anderson, and no one made a more spectacular reversal during the first four rounds of the NCAA tournament. Anderson's 15-for-22 shooting from the floor in two games in Albuquerque last week won him the West Regional's Most Outstanding Player award and was crucial to second-seeded Indiana's earning its ticket to Minneapolis with a 106-79 demolition of top-seeded UCLA in the regional final.
Anderson's accuracy looks to have returned as mysteriously as it had disappeared during the Big Ten season, when his shots clanged off rims with alarming regularity. Against conference opponents he converted only 38.4% of his attempts from the floor.
"That guy was in a shooting slump?" said Florida State guard Sam Cassell after Anderson burned the Seminoles with 24 points and 8-for-12 shooting in the Hoosiers' 85-74 win in the regional semis. "You sure? That guy?"
That very guy. Anderson's touch was so errant going into the tournament that Knight took him out of the starting lineup. "I had just completely lost confidence in my jump shot," said Anderson, who had never shot below 50% before finishing at 44.9% for this regular season. "I was worrying too much about my form, my release, every aspect of my shot, instead of just shooting it. I don't know if it started going in because I stopped worrying, or I stopped worrying because it started going in."
If Anderson's touch hadn't returned, he might have been remembered at Indiana less for what he did than what he failed to do. After he averaged 16.3 points a game as a sophomore, it seemed Anderson was on the verge of becoming a star. But he dipped to 13.7 during his junior year and 10.5 in the 1991-92 regular season. More important, Knight, a stickler for senior leadership, openly criticized Anderson earlier this season for not fulfilling that role.
"The coaches let me know that they expected [senior guard] Jamal Meeks and me to take charge more, as the only seniors on the team," Anderson said. "I don't think they were necessarily talking about yelling and screaming and being a rah-rah guy. I think leadership can come in the form of being consistent, of always being in the right spot and setting a standard for playing smart. That's what I've tried to do in the tournament, because I knew that the way I played for most of the regular season wasn't the way I wanted to be remembered at Indiana."
Anderson, who had 17 points, four rebounds and two blocked shots against UCLA, is the most obvious reason for the Hoosiers' timely revival. Indiana made only 61 of 169 shots (36.1%) in its last three regular-season games, two of which were losses that cost the Hoosiers a top seed in the tournament. But they couldn't have been much hotter than they were against UCLA, especially in the second half, when they converted 18 of 25 field goal attempts.
"It was a very enjoyable weekend in Albuquerque," said Knight, who was either forgetting or dismissing the flap he caused by appearing on Thursday in a newspaper photo in which he was shown playfully lashing Hoosier forward Calbert Cheaney with a bullwhip (page 9).
While Knight took heat for the bull-whip, the Bruins were frigid, making just 28 of 72 field goal attempts. The only things they shot with accuracy were glares of disgust—at the officials, the Hoosiers and each other. The Bruins, 87-72 winners over Indiana in the season opener, looked beaten well before they really were. Forced to play from behind for the first time in the tournament, they displayed all of the bad traits they had seemed finally to have buried. Instead of being unselfish, they forced shots—forwards Tracy Murray and Don MacLean, their offensive kingpins, were a combined 10 for 29 from the floor. Instead of being more physically aggressive, they turned into teddy bears again, allowing Hoosier freshman forward Alan Henderson (12 rebounds, four blocks) to dominate inside. And instead of showing their newfound maturity, they returned to their petulant ways, with MacLean in particular indulging in those disgusted glares and keeping up a steady stream of trash talk with several Hoosiers.
"It was the same old same old," said UCLA guard Mitchell Butler. "It was embarrassing."
It was also a reminder to the Bruin faithful that March performances will often erase the memory of everything that preceded them. No one knows that better than Eric Anderson.