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"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.