Alas for Bailey, he came to Indiana the year after Knight had signed one of his deepest and most talented recruiting classes ever. An around-the-basket player in high school, Bailey was asked to be more of a perimeter player in college and to play a complementary role on a team built around Calbert Cheaney, last season's national Player of the Year. The best that could be said about Bailey was that he was woefully inconsistent. He might light a team up for 25 one night, then be missing in action the next.
As Knight put it, "All of those, including me, who have played slo-pitch softball, you just kind of go out and have a good time and play. And you cither win 17-15 or you lose 17-15, but you don't worry about it one way or another. That's kind of been Bailey's approach."
In Indiana's last game against Kentucky, an 81-78 loss on Jan. 3 in Louisville's Freedom Hall, Bailey was at his worst. In 31 minutes he made only one of his six field goal attempts and one of four free throws, for a total of three points. Also, he turned in a sorry defensive job on Kentucky's Travis Ford, who torched the Hoosiers for 29 points. After the game Knight was furious with Bailey, who came off the bench only three days later to score 21 in Indiana's next game, a 75-67 win over Iowa in Bloomington.
This was typical Bailey, college-style. Through his first three seasons he averaged only 11.3 points a game, but he still remained the darling of the state as Indiana went 87-16 in that time and made a Final Four appearance in 1992. Even when Cheaney was the team's star, the Hoosiers' sports information office received more requests for Bailey photos, autographs and appearances than for any other player. "It's amazing," says Indiana sports information director Kit Klingelhoffer. "No matter what he does, Damon always will be Damon in Indiana."
Knight was less kind. Throughout this year's preseason practice and exhibition games, he felt very good about his team's progress, but in a number of public appearances he tried to turn up the fire under Bailey. "We've done all we can in terms of trying to get Bailey to see the game and understand how he's got to play and use his abilities," Knight said in one interview. "Now it's up to him. What kind of player Bailey is will depend on what Bailey puts into it."
Henderson also became a Knight target. He had recovered slowly from surgery to his right knee in May, and his play against Butler particularly incensed his coach. "Henderson acted as if he was too good to play against them," Knight said.
Between the Butler and Kentucky games Knight demoted Henderson to the second team in practice and was disappointed when Henderson didn't seem angry enough to win back his spot. That convinced Knight he had to do something drastic, so he benched Henderson and senior Pat Graham for the Kentucky game and started freshman guards Sherron Wilkerson and Steve Hart in their stead. Before Saturday's game, Knight's final message to his team was this: "Honest to god, I don't give a——if we get beat by 40 if I can walk off the floor thinking we gave the kind of effort that Indiana has always given and is expected to give."
The effort was there against Kentucky, much of it fueled by Bailey. Slowed for most of the second half by cramps in his calves and an upset stomach, Bailey nevertheless set the tone for his teammates. Every time Kentucky mounted a challenge—the closest the Wildcats got in the final 20 minutes was three—Indiana responded. Henderson, who came off the bench with 12:20 remaining in the first half, had 17 points and 11 rebounds in 26 minutes. He teamed with sophomore Brian Evans, who had 19 points and nine boards, to dominate the inside against Kentucky's Rodney Dent, Andre Riddick, Rodrick Rhodes and Jared Prickett.
The Hoosiers attacked Kentucky's press as effectively as they shut down the Wildcat offense. The most frustrated Wildcat was Ford, the 5'9" point guard, who scored 20 points but made only seven of his 20 shots, including an uncharacteristic three of 11 from three-point land.
But in the end the game belonged to Bailey. "I never thought he'd have a chance in the NBA," said Wildcat coach Rick Pitino, who coached the New York Knicks before taking the Kentucky job in 1989. "I never, ever, considered it before. But now I think he has an excellent chance. Today his self-confidence was so much higher. He was challenged, and he took it on. He wanted to be a dominant player."