Arkansas often runs a clinic on the basketball court; Indiana State often runs amok. So there is a temptation to insist the better team lost today in the NCAA Midwest Regional championship.

It is not quite true that Larry Bird and any four physics majors at ISU could go unbeaten in 32 games and reach the NCAA semifinals. But he surely is the most dominant collegian ever to lead an unheralded team this far, a player who combines the best of Bob Petit, Rick Barry and Bill Bradley.

Of course, at least two dozen teams have walked onto the court with that notion and walked off two hours later -- after losing -- with the same feeling. And the other ISU players are slightly more than Bird feeders, although even the opposition still refers to them as numbers.

As in No. 40 (Brad Miley) plays tough defense, No. 22 (Carl Nicks) allows Bird to grab so many rebounds because he shoots so often and No. 30 (Bob Heaton) is the designated late-second shot-maker in tight games.

"But Bird makes everyone else on the team 25 percent better," said Bullet General Manager Bob Ferry. "It's tough to dissect this team, because as individuals everybody else comes up short.

"You put Bird there, though, add 25 percent to all the others because of his passing, shooting and rebounding -- and the fact that everyone on defense concentrates on him. Bird is fundamentally exciting."

Today, he gathered another entire state of believers.

Alan Zahn was Bird's Arkansas shadow much of today and he said, with more than a slight touch of awe: "I hadn't believed he was like that, off of TV. I wasn't that impressed.

"But he's genuine. Now I'm a Bird fan. That's for sure."

Bird was more mortal than usual at times, with four air balls and only six of the final ISU 20 points. Still, he was so mesmerizing that the Razorbacks seemed to stop and watch his shots near the end -- which allowed Miley and some others either tip-insor unmolested jumpers.

Twice midway through the second half, Bird went into a gunner's daze, lofting shots that except for himself and possibly Elvin Hayes would have no chance even of drawing iron. With Zahn practically inside his jersey and his hand all but on Bird's bear, both shots swished.

"Just God-given ability," Zahn said. "Unbelievable eye and hand coordination. There's no way to defense something like that. Most people wouldn't try 'em. He makes 'em."

Zahn and Arkansas were frustrated but not crushed. In truth, they had been here before, victims of one of destiny's darlings. Arkansas made 64 percent of its shots today from the floor -- and lost. Two years ago, against Wake Forest, the Razorbacks shot 68 percent -- and lost by six.

"A lot of 'em live off Bird," Zahn said. But some of them allowed Bird to flutter in the NCAA's showcase event next week, even though they will be remembered largely as the answers to the latest hoop trivia questions.

Like the mostly forgotten cast with Bill Bradley's Princeton team, the smaller Sycamores are content with their roles and grateful Bird is so gifted and unselfish. And the coach, Bill Hodges, has risen from obscure assistant to genius in five months.

Hodges recruited most of the ISU players, but became head coach only because illness forced Bob King to the sideline Oct. 11. A few years ago, Hodges would have been gloriously happy winning the Indiana state high school championship. Now he has a chance to win an NCAA title that has escaped Dean Smith, Lefty Driesell and dozens of other more famous coaches.

Hodges is not the first first-year coach to enter the NCAA playoffs unbeaten. Lou Rossini managed that with Columbia in 1951. But no more intense coach ever led Chnderella toward NCAA glory.

And he thought most of the world beyond Terre Haute would give him and his team more credit much earlier in the season, especially after Nov. 19.

On that night, ISU defeated a touring Soviet team that had beaten the state's more illustrious athletic factories, Notre Dame, Purdue and Indiana. Hodges reminds everyone that Bird fouled out with 9:2k left in the game.

This week, Hodges was unfavorably compared with A1 McGuire in a local paper -- and he reminded everyone after today's victory that the Bird catcher can also be a forceful fellow.

"Don't expect me to be A1 McGuire," he said. "I don't drink Black Russians. I drink Tab. Don't expect me to dance. I'm here to do a job. I'm not A1 McGuire. I'm Bill Hodges." And, like each of the other Sycamores, he's anxious to discover how much higher their big Bird will carry him.