Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Knight Court

With all of his bluster and his dictatorial persona, it’s sometimes easy to forget how much Bob Knight knows about basketball. That’s why it was striking, when reading about Damon Bailey, to spot this quote from Knight after Indiana’s 96-84 victory over top-ranked Kentucky on Dec. 4, 1994:

“That was about as excited as I’ve been about basketball in a long time. The way we started, I almost became a fan because we were playing so hard.”

Those are heady words coming from The General. This is, after all, the guy who won a championship as a player with Ohio State in 1960 and three NCAA titles as a coach (including the last undefeated team, in 1975-’76), led the U.S. to a gold medal in 1984 and was a confidant of Pete Newell. This Hoosiers’ performance begged to be broken down.

The most striking aspect about the six-minute stretch that got Knight all excited is that, to the naked eye, it seemed so mundane. There were no monster dunks, no blazing feats of athleticism, no jaw-dropping assists. There were even some sloppy moments in the 9-2 run by Indiana to start the game.

Coaches often say they don’t care about mistakes as long as players are executing correctly and with the requisite amount of effort. That usually sounds like drivel, especially coming from an exacting coach like Knight.

But that cliché was true for the scrappy Hoosiers, who were looking to bounce back from a lackadaisical effort in a season-opening home loss to Butler. They needed to be on their game against Rick Pitino and his vaunted full-court pressure.

In the introductory segments, Knight laid bare the essentials of his motion offense. The Hoosiers didn’t run any scripted plays, they just read and reacted to what the defenses was giving. The key against the Wildcats’ tough defense would be the play of Indiana’s guards, foremost among them Bailey. An Indiana schoolboy legend, this was Bailey’s senior season after an up-and-down college career.

Bailey was tough, strong and smart with the ball, and those skills would serve the Hoosiers well in this game. He continually broke Kentucky’s pressure with his dribble, inviting the double team, then dribbling around the outside of it. Indiana’s only turnover in the first five minutes came when Bailey had his pocket picked after getting by the pressure and crossing half-court.

All of that was pleasing to Knight, as was the Hoosier’s intensity on defense. Knight’s rugged man-to-man system forced Kentucky into four turnovers on its first five possessions. The Wildcats’ only points in the first six minutes came on two free throws, while they missed the four shots that they managed to squeeze off.

With that level of defensive enthusiasm, Knight could live with mistakes like Bailey’s turnover or the missed reverse layups by freshman Steve Hart. Knight even commended Todd Lindeman after the center got a foul, because the big man was being aggressive going after an offensive rebound.

After that Knight-pleasing 9-2 run, thing settled down. Kentucky, as expected from the nation’s top team, rallied for a 35-29 lead. Then Bailey took over; this game was probably the high-water mark of his career. The interesting thing about Bailey is that he did not conform to the sweet-shooting classic archetype of Hoosier State folk heroes. In fact, flat-topped teammate Brian Evans probably fit that particular mold better.

Bailey was just gritty, and he knew how to score. He made frequent trips to the free-throw line and scored 23 points in the first half for a 55-44 lead at the break. He finished with 29 in the victory and also played cheek-by-jowl defense on Kentucky star Tony Delk (5-of-17 shooting).

When Bailey got a brief respite right before halftime, Knight gave him a playful slap on the head and then spoke a few words into the guard’s ear. CBS broadcaster Billy Packer informed the viewing public that Knight had mouthed the words “I’m proud of you.” The famed taskmaster was probably still on a basketball high from those first five minutes.

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