The month of November was not a pleasant one in Bloomington, Ind., a town where the local weather is determined in part by the prevailing mood of the big guy in the red sweater. And Robert Montgomery Knight was not a happy camper in November. His Hoosiers lost to Utah, Tulane and Notre Dame, leading to Indiana's worst start (1-3) since the 1976-77 season. His backcourt was shaky, to say the least, but worse was the soft and uneven play of an experienced frontcourt. There were whispers that Knight was playing his courtwise but cement-footed son, Patrick, too much, and then, to top things off, freshman guard Michael Hermon, perhaps Knight's most controversial recruit ever, went AWOL at the end of the month.
The situation improved a bit on Dec. 7 when the Hoosiers played inspiringly, if erratically, in a 73-70 loss to No. 7-ranked Kentucky, and there followed two predictable victories (over Morehead State and Miami of Ohio) in the annual slaughter of the lambs known as the Indiana Classic. But all in all, there was nothing in the wind to foretell what happened last Saturday in that red and raucous visiting-team boneyard known as Assembly Hall.
"It just goes to show you," said Kansas coach Roy Williams, after Indiana had dismantled his theretofore undefeated Jayhawks by the not-even-that-close score of 80-61, "that you never, ever stage a premature burial for a Bob Knight team."
The thoroughness of the defeat was stunning, even considering the fact that the Hoosiers have now won 47 straight home games, the longest such streak in the nation. No, Indiana is not nearly that good, and Kansas, which owns impressive wins over Massachusetts and Florida, is not nearly that bad. But the game was nonetheless a telling one for both clubs. The Hoosiers appear to have overcome most of their early problems and will certainly be a factor in the Big Ten—and possibly in the national picture. And the fear, expressed separately before the game by both Williams and point guard Jacque Vaughn, that the Jayhawks sometimes lack team intensity, was borne out. "Indiana just wanted that game more than we did," said Kansas guard Jerod Haase. "Every single possession, every single minute. It was a big, big lesson for us."
It was not as if the Hoosiers did anything out of character, either. Two days before the game Williams sat in his office in Allen Fieldhouse and sketched out the Indiana strategy: Offensively, the Hoosiers would set two, three, even four picks on every possession, bouncing around like molecules under heat until they created an open shot in Knight's motion offense. Defensively, they would deny the entry pass to Kansas's big men with double teams and dare the Jayhawks' weakest outside shooters to fire away. Assembly Hall is not a place, after all, where shaky marksmen suddenly develop a touch.
Alas for Kansas, things went exactly as Williams had predicted. Thanks to a game plan flawlessly constructed by Indiana assistant Dan Dakich, the Hoosiers were unerring in deciding which Jayhawks to challenge and which to allow the open shot. At one point in the second half, Kansas forward B.J. Williams had the ball at the top of the key while his defender, Brian Evans, stood 10 to 12 feet away from him, fronting the Jayhawks' 7'2", 270-pound center, Greg Ostertag. Finally, Williams let fly...with a brick.
"Who knows how many hours Dakich spent watching film," said Evans after the game. (Can you imagine an Indiana player referring to the head coach as "Knight?") "By the time he finished with us, we could've run Kansas's offense."
Certainly they could've run it better than Vaughn did on Saturday. A savvy sophomore with a grade-point average (3.77 as a prelaw major) as gaudy as his assist average (9.0 through Sunday), Vaughn seemed to be just the man to find a weakness or two in the Hoosier defense. But he made only two of eight shots, had four turnovers to go with his eight assists and was not a factor in the game. Stranger still, the usually analytical Vaughn had no explanation for his and his team's failure. "We just got beat," he said.
Well, Vaughn's nightmare had a lot to do with Indiana freshman Neil Reed, an Arkansas native whose red hair appears to have been styled by a threshing machine. Never mind his modest numbers on Saturday (14 points and three assists)—the Hoosier offense simply doesn't run right without Reed.
His path to Knight's doorstep sounds like something out of, well, Hoosiers. About 10 years ago Neil's father, Terry, then a high school basketball coach in Louisiana, made a pilgrimage to Bloomington, hoping, as many whistle-blowing supplicants do, to catch a Knight practice session. In Assembly Hall he met a Knight assistant, Ron Felling, who took him to lunch. Felling was impressed with Reed's enthusiasm and knowledge of the game and became his mentor. When the coaching job at Lawrenceville (Ill.) High (where Felling had worked) opened up, he helped Reed get it. When the eager coach came north, he brought his young gym rat of a son, Neil, with him.
Neil began attending Indiana's summer basketball camps, and Felling took a special interest in him, pointing out his talents to Knight. The kid never had to be sold, that's for sure. From the first moment he saw Assembly Hall he told his father that's where he wanted to play; the family still has a photo of nine-year-old Neil and his 11-year-old sister, Michelle, standing at midcourt on their first visit there. "He already knows where he wants to be buried," says Felling. "Somewhere between the McDonald's on campus and Assembly Hall." Neil even played at Bloomington High South his sophomore year, when his father was briefly out of coaching and working at a Budweiser distributing plant in Bloomington.
The following year, Terry took an assistant's job at East Jefferson High in Metairie, La., and it was there that Neil was named the state's top Class-5A player in both his junior and senior years. Through all the Reeds' meanderings, Felling kept track of Neil's progress, and when the time came, Indiana offered him a scholarship, which Neil eagerly accepted. "It would've been my ass if the kid couldn't play," says Felling, and he wasn't kidding.
It's a wonder Reed doesn't get called for traveling with a history like that. But he has got the whole point guard package, the kind some coach could put on video and sell at clinics—the stop-and-go dribble, the knack for splitting defenders at precisely the right moment, the jab step, the pivot under pressure, the ball fake, the retreat dribble that forces a half-court trap to commit too early, the skip pass. (Say, didn't Bobby Hurley have kind of a bad haircut too?) The argument could be made that as Reed continually broke Kentucky's swarming full-court press in that game on Dec. 7, Indiana's season officially started to turn around.
The only concern about Reed is a history of myocarditis (inflammation of the heart), the same malady that plagued Reggie Lewis and Hank Gathers and one that once caused him to collapse during an AAU game in St. Louis in 1992. Dr. Larry Rink, a Bloomington doctor who has treated Reed since the incident, says that the player's abnormal heart rhythm was probably caused by a virus and was not life-threatening.
Installed as a starter in the season's fourth game, Reed seemed to get the big men going, particularly forward Alan Henderson, who, after a slow start, once again looks like a first-round draft pick. The versatile 6'9" senior had 22 points against Kansas, including a phenomenal baseline dunk that all but spelled the end for the Jayhawks. That it happened just three minutes into the second half is an indication of just how completely Indiana dominated the game.
The emergence of Reed and the resurgence of Henderson and Evans (who had a game-high 29 points with his smooth, southpaw stroke) have all but buried the strange saga of Hermon, which is perfectly fine with Knight. The college basketball world was shocked when Hermon became a Hoosier. A talented guard out of Chicago, he caused a mild uproar in the Windy City when he changed high schools twice before his senior year, going from Hales Franciscan to Westinghouse and then to Martin Luther King. When he showed up at King to play for Landon (Sonny) Cox, who has long been accused of abusing Chicago's transfer rules, it rankled a number of that city's public league coaches. Soon after, they decided to forfeit their games against King to protest what they considered Cox's cheating. The boycott ended after just one game, however, when the school board promised to look into the matter. (Its investigation turned up no proof of wrongdoing, but it did result in tighter transfer rules.)
Hermon was rumored to be headed for either USC or Illinois, but both schools backed off from offering him a scholarship, reportedly because of his poor academic background. In any event, Hermon didn't seem like a Knight kind of a guy.
But there he was at Bloomington in September, having attained his ACT qualifying score in June, pledging fealty to the Knight program. Knight never spoke of Hermon's background but only of what he liked about him as a player (his inquisitiveness and competitiveness) and what he didn't (his lack of endurance and shortcomings on defense), and it seemed as though Hermon would slide easily into the Indiana rotation.
Then came the Hoosiers' loss to Notre Dame in South Bend on Nov. 29. Hermon played only six minutes and hit one of two free throws to tie the game at 69 with 54 seconds left in regulation. Indiana got the ball back and, after a timeout, tried to set up a final shot. But the play broke down, and Hermon was left to improvise with a shot that didn't even hit the rim. The Irish went on to win 80-79 in OT. Knight took full blame for the blown opportunity, regretting his uncharacteristic decision to call a timeout rather than just let the play flow, but Hermon may have gotten a different message. When the Hoosiers returned from the trip, he promptly disappeared and surfaced in Chicago a couple of days later. "Michael thought they blamed him for the loss," Cox told the Champaign (Ill.) News-Gazette. "That wasn't true. He had it all wrong. Michael was a big man in Chicago, but he's just a freshman at Indiana now. He has to accept discipline and be more patient."
Hermon came back to practice on Dec. 5, six days after the Notre Dame game, and was accepted back on the team. Neither Knight nor Hermon has spoken publicly about the incident, but there are obvious questions: Was his benching for the Kentucky game his only penalty for bolting school and the team? Would Knight have handled a lesser player so delicately? And would he have handled anyone that way, say, five years ago?
Whatever the answers, there was Hermon on Saturday afternoon, nodding his head as he took his verbal licks from the master, just as Patrick Knight (who played only 13 minutes against Kansas) took them when he threw the ball away against a trap, just as backup center Todd Lindeman took them when he failed to get good defensive position, just as Henderson took them when he made the wrong maneuver on an inbounds play. Bob Knight once again has a very good team to coach, and while storm clouds are never too far away, the weather in Bloomington seems just fine right now.