Three days ago, when someone jokingly referred to the Mideast regional as "the Hoosier Classic" a March version of the Christmas tournament Indiana hosts each year for three victims, Coach Bobby Knight bristled angrily.
"You're going to see three very tough basketball games this weekend," he promised.
Today, Hoosier Classic II came to its expected conclusion as Indiana dominated outmanned St. Joseph's, 78-46, in the regional championship game on its home court.
Indiana (24-9) now moves to the final four in Philadelphia Saturday for a semifinal game against Louisiana State. The Hawks, who upset top-ranked De Paul last week, finished 25-8 and had nothing to be ashamed of today against a superb basketball team.
Indiana shot 69 percent for the afternoon while its octopus man to man held St. Joe's to 33 percent. It was never a contest, Indiana leading, 16-8, after 10 minutes and building it to 32-16 by halftime. The second half was the same as the Hawks never scored more than two baskets consecutively the entire game.
Once again, Indiana's most effective player was Isiah Thomas, who came to the game today with crutches after spraining his right ankle during a walk-through practice yesterday afternoon. The 6-foot-1 baby-faced sophomore was powerful anyway, making only three of eight shots for eight points but passing off for 12 assists as he penetrated the St. Joe's zone time after time.
Thomas, the overwhelming choice as tournament MVP, spent Saturday night watching television with his ankle iced and did the same thing again this morning. But there was never any doubt in his mind about playing. "I would have played this game with my leg in a cast," Thomas said. "I was going to be in there."
Perhaps if all the Hoosiers had played with casts on their legs this might have been a contest. The Hawks came in hoping to slow the tempo with the same spread offense that worked to well against De Paul.
They never had a chance. Ted Kitchel opened the game for Indiana with a 15-foot jump shot. John Smith was called for five seconds at the other end. Indiana won the tap and Randy Wittman, who sat out the second half with a thigh bruise, scored on another jumper. It kept getting worse after that.
"When you fall behind right away like we did it's very hard to spread out and slow the tempo," said St. Joe's Coach Jim Lynam. "We've had people play our four-to-score (spread) offense tough, but no one played it as tough as Indiana did."
The only Hawk anywhere close to his average today was point guard Jeff Clark, the only double figure scorer, with 11. Bryan Warrick, the hero of the semifinal victory over Boston College, made three of 10 from the floor and had nine points. Tony Costner was three of eight; John Smith one of six; Lonnie McFarlan one of seven.
Conversely, all 13 Indiana players scored. Landon Turner (seven of eight) and Ray Tolbert (six of eight) and 14 apiece and Jim Thomas came off the bench after Wittman's four-of-four first half to make six of seven for 12 points. Those four shot 23 of 27 from the field.
"Coach had told us to come looking to shoot, not force inside against the zone," said Wittman. "We usually think pass first, then look for the shot if the inside isn't available. Today we did it the other way. We knew it was important to start well because if they got four ahead or something they were going to slow it down and make us play their way. We didn't want that."
The Hoosiers made sure they didn't get that by hitting eight of their first nine shots. The rest of the way the 17,112 fans in Assembly Hall were just waiting for Knight to pull the starters one by one so they could give them ovations.
The real star of this show was Knight. As soon as the game ended he grabbed the public address microphone and thanked the fans for sticking with his team through a 7-5 start. Then he thanked Athletic Director Ralph Floyd. And he thanked Otis Bowen, former governor. He was quick to point out that several of St. Joe's players were struggling with the flu this weekend. He told Lynam what a great job he had done. He yelled down a hallway to thank a friend for coming.
"I always know if we're going to play well because Isiah tells me," Knight said. "He's never wrong."
Knight could afford to bask. His team has won three games by average victory margin of 27 points. Their opponents have shot 41, 42 and 33 percent from the field while the Hoosiers have shot 65, 53 and 69 percent.
The Hawks were beaten, but not bowed. Their fans stood outside the locker room singing, "The Hawks will never die," 30 minutes after the game had ended. The players knew they had lost to a superior team.
The key for Indiana since its 7-5 start has been Thomas' emergence as the leader Knight wanted him to be. Once the other players saw Thomas doing as Knight wanted, they followed suit.
"It was hard for me to tell the guys, 'Go here, go there,' early on," Thomas admitted. "I'm only a sophomore so it's not natural for me to be the leader. Gradually though I've become more confident doing it. It's not like I'm a drill sergeant out there barking orders or anything."
He doesn't have to. Where he goes, the others follow. It makes sense. So too does the sign some Indiana fans unfurled today. It read: "And a little child shall lead them . . . to Philadelphia . . . Isiah."
The quote is from Chapter 11 of the Book of Isaiah. By the time this 19-year-old is through Indiana fans may want to change the spelling.
"He's an awfully special kid," Knight said.
As usual, no one argued.