If any other player had done at the free throw line what Calbert Cheaney did with 5½ minutes to play in Indiana's game with Michigan on Sunday, it would have been too incidental to remark upon. Moments earlier the Hoosiers had taken only their second lead of the afternoon. Now, as Cheaney waited to be handed the ball to shoot the back end of a one-and-one, the crowd struck him as being altogether too indifferent to a game that was still very much in the balance.
Looking down, furrowing his brow ever so slightly, he began to clap his hands—respectfully, like a choirmaster. By the standards of this young man, a taciturn fellow as All-Americas go, it was a fit of extroversion, and most of the 17,269 people in Bloomington's Assembly Hall accepted his gentle rebuke, mustering their voices into a swollen roar. "No need to showboat or anything," Cheaney would say later. "I was just trying to get everybody involved."
Cheaney, a 6'7" senior, rode this wave of sound like a surfer making his last run of the day. He bottomed out his free throw. On Michigan's ensuing possession he bottled up the Wolverines' point guard, Jalen Rose, to force a bad pass. Moments later he pitched an offensive rebound out to Hoosier freshman Brian Evans, who threw in a three-pointer to put Indiana ahead by six. Soon enough Michigan's Fab Five, who had played superbly to that point, began to look as if they had been named after a laundry detergent, and the Hoosiers went on to a 93-92 victory that was much more emphatic than the final score suggests.
If you were to go ahead and pull the lever for Cheaney as the NCAA player of the year, the choice would be eminently defensible. He has had a season of all-around efforts like Sunday's, in which he led Indiana in assists (four), rebounds (nine) and, as usual, points (he and teammate Matt Nover each scored 20). Still, you might find yourself wondering whether it's really fair to single out one player on so splendidly balanced a team. Lord Calbert and the Serfs they're not.
The Hoosiers' record stood at 22-2 after the Michigan victory, and Indiana was unbeaten through 11 games in a league likely to send seven teams to the NCAA tournament. And all of this was done without benefit of a true point guard or center. That is testament to how expertly this group is executing what Indiana has always run under coach Bob Knight: the motion offense.
Shaker-like in its simplicity, motion can impose the same order in an offense that a shrewd point guard can. Run well, it can provide as many easy shots as can a dominant big man. To the untrained eye it appears to be as unstructured as the traffic flowing around the Arc de Triomphe during the Parisian rush hour, with players passing and moving in seemingly un-choreographed haphazardness. But what makes these Hoosiers so good—and if they succeed in negotiating their final seven league games without a loss, they'll become the first team since Knight's 1975-76 NCAA champions to go undefeated in Big Ten play—is that so many of them, big and small, can perform each of the skills this offense requires: passing, cutting, setting and reading picks, and, ultimately, putting the ball in the basket. This may be because all but one of these Hoosiers are truly Hoosiers; the only alien is backup guard Chris Reynolds, who learned to play in Peoria, Ill., and also happens to be the one nonshooter on the team.
There may be no player more perfectly suited for this system than Cheaney. Over the past dozen months Knight has so systematically diverted attention from his players—whether by lecturing the press on his psychological theory of "cerebral reversal" (as he did during last season's NCAA tournament) or creating a nonexistent Croatian sensation ("Ivan Renko," the Hoosiers' mythical recruiting signee for next season) or wielding a bullwhip (at least Cheaney got a photo op out of that episode during last year's NCAAs)—that Cheaney is the least-scrutinized star at a high-profile program in recent memory.
But his myriad skills, many of them subtle and only recently honed, are a purist's delight. When he cocks to shoot, his upper body looks like a hood ornament. Even when he misses he suggests Ted Williams whiffing. He has a knack for playing off screens—"You just read your man," says Cheaney, "and do what he lets you do"—and every double team he encounters is an invitation to an assist. The result is a basketball player in such perfect balance, equal parts athlete and analyst, slasher and shooter, that he presents defenses with the conundrum they most dread.
"If you don't guard him tight, he shoots the jumper," says Michigan coach Steve Fisher. "If you do get up on him, he's by you. And all the while the rest of his teammates are bumping you and screening you and giving him angles, and you don't get a square look at the guy."
At week's end Cheaney needed only 76 more points to supplant Steve Alford as the Hoosiers' alltime leading scorer. Eighty more and he'll pass Glen Rice of Michigan to become the Big Ten's career point leader. Throw out Isiah Thomas and George McGinnis, for they stayed only briefly in Bloomington, and you can argue that Cheaney is the school's greatest player ever—better than Alford, better than Scott May, better than Mike Woodson, Steve Downing, Walt Bellamy, Don Schlundt or the immortal Jimmy (the Human) Rayl.
"He probably doesn't have Steve Green's range," says former Hoosier All-America Quinn Buckner, who believes Cheaney is the best forward to play at Indiana. "And Woodson was a great scorer. But he's a better athlete than both of them, and he's quicker than May. This kid plays with much more ease. There were times early in his career when Calbert would coast. He'd get lost in the game. Now he knows how to get shots."
Unlike the aforementioned Indiana greats, Cheaney came to Bloomington with scant fanfare. At Evansville's Harrison High he was known as a shooter and not much else. Indiana assistant coach Ron Felling thought highly of him, but the first time Knight saw him play, Cheaney failed to demonstrate the one skill he was supposed to have. "Coach always tells people I shot five for 31 that day," he says. "Actually it was eight for 25. Not a whole lot better."
After his junior season Cheaney told Evansville coach Jim Crews that he wanted to commit to the hometown Aces. Crews asked him whether he had talked over his decision with his mom. Cheaney said he hadn't, and at Crews's suggestion he did. Bad suggestion: Mom counseled him to wait. Soon the cattle call of the summer-camp and all-star circuit began, and Knight finally caught Cheaney on a good day. He signed with the Hoosiers before his senior season, a move that sorely disappointed Crews, who had played for and coached under Knight.
Sixteen games into his senior year, with Harrison High unbeaten, ranked second in the state and playing at No. 1 Terre Haute South, Cheaney landed awkwardly on an opponent's shoe and broke his left foot. That ended his season. But with a screw surgically implanted in the foot, he set about his rehabilitation, applying the same sense of purpose to the task that he has to developing a dribble-drive and a more determined rebounding attitude. The screw is still there.
"There's an old saying that the only trouble with lefthanders is that they think lefthanded," says Indiana State coach Tates Locke, another former Knight assistant, who is himself a southpaw. "Calbert's different. McGinnis, Downing, Isiah, they all came to Indiana with great credentials and All-America status. This guy was a one-dimensional player in high school. So many kids love to go into the gym and work on their strengths. He's always working on his weaknesses. And he has taken all the praise from the outside, and all the criticism from the inside, so well."
As Indiana, the fifth team to top the polls this season, enters its third week ranked No. 1, the Hoosiers' most conspicuous flaw remains their spotty free throw shooting. All that motion is designed, at the very least, to place a player at the foul line, that blessed spot where, in the Abe Lemons phrase, "you get to shoot unguarded." The Hoosiers have made more free throws than their opponents have attempted this season and have knocked down better than 70% of their tries. Yet Indiana has been a charity-stripe basket case in its two defeats, going four for 13 in a 74-69 loss to Kansas and 18 for 36 while losing 81-78 to Kentucky. On Sunday the Hoosiers held an 11-point lead with less than a minute to go, only to miss four free throws and let Michigan sneak to within a point at the buzzer. It's a most curious weakness in a Knight team, for he has always insisted, first and foremost, on doing well the things you can control.
It figures that every team taking its turn at the top during this discombobulated season would have some flaw. Now, at least, this season-with-a-screw-loose may have a player of the year with all his screws in place.