Cheaney’s Emergence Key for No. 1 Hoosiers : Indiana: A 6-foot-7 1/2 small forward, he leads Indiana in scoring for the fourth consecutive year, and needs 80 points to become the Big Ten Conference’s all-time leader.
It was mid-summer 1988, and Indiana assistant basketball coach Ron Felling had just come home from evaluating the nation’s top high school players at various camps and tournaments.
His phone rang. It was his boss, Bob Knight.
“Who did you see?” Knight asked. “Who’s the best player for us out there?”
“Coach, Calbert Cheaney is the best player I’ve seen,” Felling replied.
Knight had seen Cheaney play during the previous winter, as a junior at Harrison High School in Evansville, Ind., and Cheaney had performed poorly.
But Knight trusted Felling, so Indiana went about making Cheaney part of a freshman class that became known as the Magnificent Seven. Except for Cheaney and guard Todd Leary, it was a highly decorated group, but Cheaney has emerged as the star.
A 6-foot-7 1/2 small forward, he leads the No. 1-ranked Hoosiers in scoring for the fourth consecutive year, and needs 80 points to become the Big Ten Conference’s all-time leader. Depending on his health and how far Indiana advances in the NCAA tournament, he could finish his career among the top 20 scorers in NCAA Division I history.
Fifth-ranked Michigan paid Cheaney a major compliment last Sunday by assigning one of its best defensive players, forward Ray Jackson, to guard him--and then frequently double-teamed him anyway. Cheaney still scored 20 points. He also had a team-high four assists in the victory.
“All of this has been a surprise to me,” Cheaney said. “When I got here, all I wanted to do was be able to contribute to the team. I really didn’t think about scoring. I didn’t think about becoming the leading scorer as a freshman and becoming the leading scorer for the next three years after that.”
In addition to Cheaney and Leary, Indiana’s 1989-90 freshman class was composed of guard Pat Graham, Indiana’s 1989 Mr. Basketball; guard Greg Graham, USA Today’s Indiana player of the year and a Parade all-American; power forward Lawrence Funderburke, Ohio’s 1989 Division IV player of the year; guard Chris Reynolds, a Parade all-American; and center Chris Lawson, a Bloomington native who was third to the Graham in Indiana’s Mr. Basketball voting. (Funderburke and Lawson have since transferred--Funderburke to Ohio State, Lawson to Vanderbilt.)
“Really, I didn’t think I fit in,” Cheaney recalled. “I didn’t get as much notoriety as they did. All I heard about was Greg and Pat Graham and Funderburke and Reynolds. I’d see them on (ESPN’s) ‘Scholastic Sports America’ and everything. Coming in, I really didn’t think I had enough skill to play with players like that.”
Cheaney certainly understands his value to the Hoosiers. After endless cajoling by the coaching staff as well as his teammates, Cheaney finally began leading by more than example toward the end of last season. His development in that regard is seen as one of the main reasons the Hoosiers reached the Final Four last season.
“Being an introvert, he kind of brought that to the court with him,” said Reynolds, Cheaney’s longtime roommate. “But you don’t want your best player to be quiet on the court. We need our best player to be a vocal leader. . . . “
Although Cheaney said he tries to talk and emote more on the court than he used to, he added there still are days he has to remind himself of that role.
Cheaney has worked extraordinarily hard to reach this point in his career. But like other stellar players who have preceded him at Indiana, he has benefited from Knight’s system. Its offense flows freely, with few set plays. (If you see an Indiana player with a finger in the air on offense, he’s not calling a play, “just testing the air currents,” Felling said.)
It demands intelligence, good ball-handling and shooting skills, and the ability and willingness to play without the ball. Cheaney possesses all of these qualities as well as an explosive first step to the basket.
There is some doubt, however, whether they will mesh with that of the NBA team that picks him in this year’s draft. Knight has produced many NBA players, but few NBA stars.