Saturday, March 18, 2000

Controversial week for Knight ends with exit




BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        BUFFALO — Indiana can look past Bob Knight's bullying. It can condone his crudity. It can excuse his foul mouth, his harsh methods, his self-righteousness, even his sweaters.

        But will it forgive failure?

        How long can America's most controversial basketball coach continue to leave the NCAA Tournament on its opening weekend before his constituents start calling for change? How many times can the Hoosiers flame out in the first round before Knight's eccentricity is seen as excess?

        The General was ambushed again Friday night, and this time he couldn't blame it on a disgruntled ex-player or some misanthropic sportswriter. The Pepperdine Waves drubbed Knight's Hoosiers, 77-57, and a sounder beating would have required a bullwhip.

        “There really wasn't any time we were in the game,” said Indiana guard Michael Lewis, “except right before the tipoff.”

        The Hoosiers have grown accustomed to March Mediocrity. Friday's loss was IU's fourth first-round defeat since 1995, and marked the sixth straight time the Hoosiers have failed to survive the tournament's opening weekend. Knight has won three national championships, but some of his current players were still in diapers when an Indiana team last cut down the nets at the Final Four.

        Dare we describe it as a pattern?

        “When we have been really good, we don't have as many early exits,” Knight said. “We haven't been really good. But every team isn't in the tournament. There are a lot more that aren't in than are.”

        It would be ludicrous to think Knight has lost his strategic touch. It would be risky to suggest his players no longer respond to him. One popular premise is that Knight's reputation has cost him some of the top-flight talent necessary to compete for a national title, yet his incoming recruiting class is regarded as one of the best in the country.

        But at some point, the bottom line is beyond spin control, beyond the reach of Knight's apologists and revisionists. At some point, even in Indiana, administrators and fans have to ask themselves if it isn't possible to do better.

        Though guard A.J. Guyton is an All-American, IU's overall talent is thin. Guyton was unable to score a field goal Friday night because Pepperdine was confident shutting him down would effectively silence Indiana.

        Judged in this narrow context, it might even be said that Knight has overachieved; that his technical brilliance and motivational skill has gained more victories than his players had a right to expect.

        Yet to judge Knight only by the players he has on hand neglects the number of high-profile players who transfer to other schools as a means of escape. Every college basketball program experiences defections, but few have lost as many players who have figured so prominently in the plans.

        Luke Recker, once Indiana's leading scorer, resurfaced at Iowa. Jason Collier, a 7-foot high school All-American, left Indiana for Georgia Tech. Neil Reed, the primary source of the recent CNN/Sports Illustrated expose, started 72 games before transferring to Southern Mississippi.

        “It's always some kind of malcontent that always has something to say,” Knight said Thursday. “I don't know why Indiana was picked. You can go to any school in America and find kids that were upset about the way things went. Why not a series about kids that have really represented their schools well?”

        It's a fair question. Knight's recruiting is untainted after 29 years in Bloomington, and 77 of the 80 players who have stuck it out for four years have graduated. Reasonable people might conclude that Knight's stature, his temper and his long-running antagonism toward the media has made him a target; that his misdeeds are comparative misdemeanors in a sport up to its corneas in corruption.

        Fans and administration have always believed that the ledgers balanced — that Knight's behavior was never so bad as to obscure his skill, his standards and his record (763-290).

        Only four college coaches in history have won more games. In five years, Bob Knight could eclipse them all. Provided, of course, Indiana can put up with him that long.

        Tim Sullivan welcomes your email at tsullivan@enquirer.com.

Pepperdine 77, Indiana 57
Tournament game coverage at Cincinnati.com/madness
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