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What Knight Has Here Is Failure to Dominate : College basketball: Indiana coach trying to get message across to young team.

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NEWSDAY

This is an important point, Bob Knight says, so lissenup. He takes a red grease pencil and draws three words on the white board above the television set in the coaches’ dressing room at Assembly Hall.

LOOK

SEE

LISTEN

An audio-visual aid, like flash cards or filmstrips. “Communication,” Knight said. “There is a singular instance where you help yourself on the basketball court by communicating. That’s when you call for the ball.” Here Knight shouts--a loud, disarming burst of sound in the belly of a cavernous building emptied of spectators 90 minutes earlier, after Indiana’s 88-51 victory over Vanderbilt.

“JOHN!” Knight yells. “Give me the ball. I’m open.” He pauses and returns to the lecture at hand. “Any time I communicate, I’m helping somebody else on the floor.” More loud noise: “I GOT IT, CUTTER, SCREEN LEFT. “ Another pause. “Our team doesn’t communicate,” he said. “That’s an indication of selfishness.” Room quiet. Teacher sits. Quiz tomorrow.

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So we are reassured in knowing that as college basketbell -- the game and the games -- melts persistently into a stream of formless, albeit exciting, track meets contested among hundreds of teams that can all beat each other (See: Florida State over North Carolina, the Michigan Freshmen almost over Duke), there is a place to go for meat and potatoes. Reliability thy name is Knight.

It was on this very evening, the second Monday in December of his 21st season at Indiana, that Knight, 51, resurrected a familiar motivational tactic for a team that has disappointed him. He benched three of his best players: senior forward Eric Anderson, junior forward Calbert Cheaney (who had started all 63 games since coming to Indiana) and sophomore guard Damon Bailey. Didn’t play them for the entire first half and said later, “We didn’t get the kind of effort from them in the last game they played (a 76-74 loss to Kentucky).

“It’s unusual if they play hard,” Knight said. “And like Casey said, ‘That’s not my style.’ Strike one, the umpire said.”

He benched them for the start of the game and when he needed a frontcourt reserve he sent in 7-0 true freshman Todd Lindeman, who seldom plays, and the crowd booed a little. He started Cheaney, Anderson and Bailey in the second half and Cheaney and Bailey got tangled up on a switch that allowed Vanderbilt an open three-pointer. Knight walked to the end of the bench and threw a piece of chalk to the floor. It exploded at the feet of Knight’s son, Pat, a sophomore redshirt.

Because Knight has done nothing recently to thicken his dossier of publicly reviled acts -- “Sometimes you get smarter,” he said -- there is a groundswell to proclaim him mellowed.

“I hear people saying that all the time,” Anderson said. “I don’t see it.”

Now, Point No. 1 here is that Knight’s past indiscretions mostly served to deepen an image of the coach as monster. Point No. 2 is that they also cast a shadow over a remarkable career: three national championships (‘76, ’81 and ‘87), with entirely different teams and styles, which nobody except John Wooden has done, seven outright Big Ten championships and three shared, a .750 winning percentage at Indiana and .734 overall, with 566 victories and 25 winning seasons in 26 years.

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He was inducted into the Hall of Fame last spring after refusing for several years to appear on the ballot because of his anger at the election process.

But this is 1991-92 and there is no better evidence of Knight’s thriving passion than this very team, which stands at 5-2, ranked No. 14 in the country and plays No. 10 St. John’s Saturday afternoon at Madison Square Garden.

“This isn’t a very good team,” Knight said, in the small hours long after that Vanderbilt victory. “We don’t have shooting, we don’t have inside play. Most important is we don’t have the personality of a good team. Somehow, if we can just be competitive with great teams ... but we aren’t even that right now. We may never have another team here that’s capable of winning a national championship, but I know this team isn’t. I don’t think we’re going to win a hell of a lot of anything.”

This team only went 29-5 last year, shared the Big Ten championship and advanced to the regional final of the NCAA Tournament before getting ripped by a Kansas team that was better than anybody realized. One player was lost to graduation. Hence, it was presumed that the Hoosiers would be very, very good this winter. “Everybody around here has been talking about us going to the Final Four,” Anderson said.

Knight saw things differently. “I don’t think that anybody appreciates that this team won 29 games last year,” he said. And then you realize: Knight sees most things, basketball-wise, differently.

You see a team with Cheaney, a 6-6 finesse forward who averaged 21.6 points a year ago and will play someday in the NBA; Anderson a 6-9 post man with 1,400 career points; Bailey, the hero child of Bedford-North Lawrence High School’s emotional Indiana state championship two years ago, a 6-3 guard. Added to the mix was 6-9 freshman Alan Henderson, a lithe, skilled baseline player.

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Knight sees no inside force, no dangerous outside shooter; wins over the likes of Boston U. and Butler, losses to UCLA and Kentucky. He sees a team that, above all, must play with the tireless drive that he cherishes above money. Anything less will lead to defeats, embarrassment and the wrath of the coach in the red sweater. Which proves a man needn’t throw a chair to show he hasn’t mellowed.

“I thought we could be a better basketball team than last year and not even win 29 games,” Knight said. “But we’re not even a better basketball team.”

And does this bother him from day to day?

“It bothers me from minute-to-minute,” he said.

Not because it will delay for Knight the accrual of another national title or another Big Ten title, but because it slaps the face of those things that he cherishes most fanatically: diligence, hard work and discipline. “Frame of mind,” he calls it. Its absence -- or his perception of its absence -- is responsible for most every Knight tirade you’ve seen on ESPN’s SportsCenter. “I’ve had teams that when it came down to it, you goddamn couldn’t beat them,” Knight said.

And he brings up Ted Kitchel, the earthbound center on the 1981 national championship team. Or Scott May, the All-America forward on the unbeaten ’76 team, of whom Knight said, “I’m not even sure he could dunk the ball.” Or Steve Alford, the star of the ’87 team, “The hardest-working kid we’ve ever had without the ball.” He remembers them all and sees reason to bench Cheaney and Anderson and Bailey.

“It’s a weird thing, kind of like a mind game,” said Cheaney, who was restored as a starter for the second game of the Indiana Classic last weekend. “I’ve had a couple players from the past tell me about it. He wants to see how you’ll respond.”

Anderson said: “I get to the end of a game and I get tired. Against Kentucky, (Knight) didn’t think I was fighting (Jamal) Mashburn in the post enough. Sure, there’s times when you think you’re giving your best effort and trying. But he’s not really talking to us at all right now and he’s probably not going to have anything to do with us until we sustain an effort against a top contender.” Anderson still hasn’t started again.

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Knight is particularly unhappy with Bailey, who was the pride of the state when he arrived here last fall. Bailey has been shuffled from point guard to shooting guard to small forward and has had to deal with the personal weight of a 15-year-old sister with leukemia.

Not insensitive to this, Knight nonethless demands from Bailey more time, more effort, more improvement. “Bailey hasn’t worked hard enough to be a good college player,” Knight said. “Hasn’t put enough time into it.” Bailey started the first game of the tournament, not the second.

Cheaney? “Really good skills,” Knight said. “Too soft a player.”

Sure. Knight is testing his best players with abuse, probing their resolve with a hot knife. In a time when coaches recruit entire teams of coddled high school players on the premise that they will be allowed to shoot as much as they please (Rick Pitino at Kentucky, Tom Penders at Texas, to name two of many), it is a striking philosophy.

One, we might add, not soon to change.

“We’ll always do things this way.” Knight said. “We teach kids how to play here. The last game I coach I’ll still be doing that.”

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