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In Bobby Knight's office there is a red metal folding chair on which the Indiana coach often sits while reviewing game films. The chair is of some sentimental value to Knight because, legend has it, it is the one he used for sitting and kicking purposes while guiding IU to the 1976 NCAA championship in the Spectrum in Philadelphia. "I honestly don't know if it's the chair I used or not," Knight said last week. His son, Timmy, is certain that it's not. "No," said Timmy. "The chairs we used had all kinds of cigarette burns and dents. This one looks brand new."
Nevertheless, the chair, a gift of the Spectrum, has served for five years to remind Bobby of the night of March 29, 1976, when Scott May, Quinn Buckner, Kent Benson & Co. completed a 32-0 season with a victory over Michigan in the championship game.
The chair will stay in Bloomington this week, but Knight will be going back to the Spectrum with a competent, if not quite great, team that has developed into perhaps the most pleasant surprise of Knight's decade at Indiana. Only 7-5 against a tough December schedule that included North Carolina, Kansas State, Kentucky and Notre Dame, Indiana was such an uneven team that, one wintry morning in January, Knight was moved to moan, "This is the worst hand of cards I've ever been dealt."
So then all the Hoosiers did was shuffle 14-4 through the treacherous Big Ten, winning the championship on the final day of the season for the second straight year. The Hoosiers did it with a typical February surge—Knight's teams are at their best down the stretch—and with the cooperation of Iowa, which lost its last two Big Ten games to blow the league championship.
According to Knight, IU's season began to turn for the better when Isiah Thomas, the splendid 6'1" guard from Chicago, finally came to terms with himself and his role—and with Knight—in late December. Early on it seemed as though the coach and the star were engaged in a test of wills. At Indiana there has never been a question as to who wins those battles. When Thomas finally decided to do things Knight's way, the coach in turn gave him more freedom to operate in the open court, to use the myriad passing and shooting skills that make him the best point guard in the nation. Says Knight, "Isiah has matured tremendously since Christmas in terms of the responsibility he handles on the floor."
When Thomas came around, the other players fell into line. The 6'9" senior center, Ray Tolbert, a pussycat in December, became such a tiger that, Knight believes, he was the Big Ten's most valuable player. IU's other big man, 6'10" Landon Turner, finally began to understand his role as a scorer and rebounder. Burly Forward Ted Kitchel and brainy Guard Randy Wittman shot well from the perimeter and contributed mightily to the man-to-man defense Knight loves so dearly. The result is that while this team doesn't compare with the '76 champs, it has become consistent and, at times, sensational.
After a spectacular performance in an early-round game against Maryland at Dayton, the Hoosiers came home last Friday to play upstart Alabama-Birmingham in the Mideast semifinals. By tip-off time in IU's Assembly Hall, Knight was almost a basket case. His team had practiced poorly. Once, Knight even had to climb all over Thomas. Everyone in town, the players included, seemed to be looking ahead to the final four. After all, wasn't IU playing at home? Didn't the Hoosiers look just great against Maryland? And just what is an Alabama-Birmingham, anyway?
It was the perfect spot for another big upset, or so it seemed to Knight, and for a while the coach's fears seemed justified. Showing more quickness—and more heart—than most teams the Hoosiers played this season, the Blazers used a tight zone and some nice offensive moves to give Indiana all it could handle before finally losing 87-72. It was close to the end when too many fouls and too much Isiah finally wore Alabama-Birmingham down. Taking charge after UAB's 5'10" Glenn Marcus got into foul trouble, Isiah scored 12 straight IU points, eight on free throws, as Indiana stretched it out in the last three minutes. The unsung hero was the other Thomas, Jim, who came off the bench to give Indiana much-needed quickness and maneuverability in the second half.
"You tell me a team in our league that has more talent than UAB," Knight said.