Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Congratulations, Coach Knight.... I guess

Robert Knight announced his retirement, and did it just like he did everything... his way. Coach Knight was easily one of the five best coaches to ever coach the game of college basketball, and perhaps for pure basketball intelligence is unmatched except for his protege, Mike Kryzyzewski (who I actually do think is a tad sharper by virtue of being a little more flexible).

I started watching Knight in high school, when Indiana was underachieving in the Big Ten race and choked away the conference championship to Ohio State. They came back and destroyed the opposition on the way to Knight's last Final Four. They came up painfully short against Duke. I watched that game again on ESPN classic, and really IU didn't get hosed by the refs, except that Cal Cheaney got hosed on a lot of ticky-tacky stuff. It's a little sad, because I think that team had such a great offense, and the following year was honestly one of the best college teams I've ever seen play the game, and to lose it all due to Alan Henderson's busted leg seemed crueler with each passing year as the Hoosier program spiralled into mediocrity.

By the late '90's, I was pretty tired of correcting Knight's critics (growing louder by the minute) on the facts, as he was a guy that I didn't ever want to be an apologist for. Facts being facts, the man's a very abrasive jerk with no sense of humor about himself and he just does some stupid and inexplicably mean stuff. I'll grant you, the sportsmedia love to blow it all out of proportion, but it's hard to see Knight as a "good guy." And Knight's brilliant coaching seemed to retreat behind a shell of stubborn counter-productive decisions as talented recruits lost their shooting touch or just refused to take the initiative on offense (Michael Lewis, Charlie Miller) or just transferred (Luke Recker). I think Dane Fife was the worst example of what Knight had created at the end of his tenure at IU, a McDonald's All-American that Duke had pursued strongly, who after 2 years of Knight's berating had completely lost confidence in his offense. And it wasn't like he didn't have it to start with, as he started out the year hot, and not only did Fife score like 20 points in his first game, but he hit huge shots that year (the end of regulation against Kentucky he had a duck-under three to send the game to OT, and against Michigan about to pull ahead he crossed over & hit a long pull-up two over Lou Bullock. You may have seen Bracey Wright trying to hit that same shot many, many times). And the heck of it was that Knight *liked* Fife.

I've seen some chatter that Knight was too inflexible and unchanging to utilize the three, and that his impact was in the 60's and 70's. But his teams from 1991-1994 both shot and made a good amount of threes. Only in Alan Henderson's senior year do I remember the Hoosiers shooting threes significantly less than other teams. I think Knight just got depressed or something at the end of his career. But in the early '90's, Knight had tough defenses and dynamic offenses that other teams just couldn't stop, so I think saying his coaching is 20+ years obsolete is incorrect, at best. The 1991-1992 and 1992-1993 teams would be title contenders today. It was those teams and their games against UCLA and Michigan that made me not only a college basketball fan, but a Hoosier fan.

So, I say thanks to coach Knight for having the right idea about the way basketball is to be played, for getting recruits honestly, for yanking starters who weren't playing hard, and for showing me that there's a lot to think about and analyze in even just one game of college basketball. Maybe he should recognized the writing on the wall and quit when Luke Recker left, but I really do appreciate many of the things RMK did for the game. I just hope that he enjoys the retirement, and try to stay out of the news.


Devin of CBC f/k/a Hoosier Fun Ball


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