Maybe if he had counted to 10, it wouldn't have happened. Maybe if his team hadn't been playing so poorly, it wouldn't have happened. Maybe if he hadn't been exhausted, it wouldn't have happened.

But with 17,000 witnesses in Assembly Hall and a national cable television audience watching, Bob Knight picked up a chair and hurled it across the court. And another chapter was added to the saga of the Indiana basketball coach.

The next day, in a statement released by the university, he apologized for throwing the chair: "I do not think my action in the Purdue game was in any way necessary or appropriate. No one realizes that more than I do."

But the damage had been done. Not only does Knight face the possibility that Indiana or the Big Ten will take action against him, but his critics once again have been aroused.

Less than 24 hours before he tossed the chair, Knight had dined on Chinese food and talked calmly about the frustrations of this season. In private last week, he was rational, intelligent, reasonable. In public Saturday, he threw a chair.

This has been a strange winter for Knight. Last summer, he was the linchpin of an U.S. Olympic team that put on one of the most dominating performances in history on its way to the gold medal. Now, he finds himself unable to get his Indiana team, which is 14-10, to respond to his teachings and preachings.

In 19 years as a basketball coach, Knight has had great teams and he has had bad teams. He has had teams win 63 of 64 games in two years and he has had teams that couldn't beat anybody. And, during all that, he also has often found himself at the center of controversy.

But perhaps never before has he had a team so consistently break his cardinal rule. Perhaps never before has he had a team that he believes has so consistently failed to do the one thing he always demands: listen.

Friday, Knight reminded his team of that rule. "Remember this, boys," he said. "There's only one drummer you can listen to and that's me."

Earlier, sitting in an easy chair in his locker room, Knight talked about this, his most trying season. "I have told the players that when I think of the teams I've been involved with as a player and as a coach in the last 25 years and the players that I've been around and coached, it just boggles my mind that when I tell them something that they would stop and think for even a second," he said. "They should just automatically accept it. But this team hasn't done that. More than anything, that's why this is a bad team."

Whether it is because the team is bad or because he still is tired from the Olympics, this has been one of Knight's most bizarre winters. Saturday's chair-toss was just another chapter. Yet, after the defeat -- the Hoosiers' fifth at home, two more than in any of Knight's 14 seasons at Indiana -- he calmly told his players to hang in and not quit with two weeks left in the season.

Indiana began the season ranked No. 3 in the country. Last season, a young team thought to be rebuilding went 22-9, upset North Carolina in the NCAA tournament and reached the final eight. This year, with everyone returning, and Knight and star guard Steve Alford coming back from winning Olympic gold, many thought the Hoosiers had a chance to win Knight's third NCAA title.

Now, following three straight losses at home, Indiana needs a miraculous turnaround in its last four games even to make the 64-team NCAA field. And Knight says he has been forced to rethink his recruiting philosophy, one that has helped him build a remarkable 412-153 career record.

Knight, who has talked about getting out of coaching, now says there is no way he will leave Indiana while the team is struggling. But to rebuild, he says, he might be forced to alter his practice of recruiting in a small area and only going after a few players.

"I'm not going to leave while the team is struggling this way, that's for certain," Knight said. "I would much rather figure out a way to get us back to winning consistently rather than just say the hell with it. But we're going to have to get better athletes here than we've got right now . . .

"We've always eliminated a lot of kids in recruiting right from the start, either geographically or academically or because they weren't the right kind of kid for us. But now I think we've reached a point where we just aren't getting the kind of athletes we need in order to compete the way I want to. We can't play defense the way I want to any more.

"I think we're going to have to start recruiting junior college players. Maybe only one a year or every other year. We won't change the kind of kid we're bringing in -- if I have to do that, I'll quit -- but we're going to have to broaden ourselves, look at more players. We can't rebound with the athletes we have. We just can't afford not to have two 6-7 kids who can go to the boards. Right now, we haven't got it and we haven't for a couple of years now."

That Knight would be forced to take a look at his program this season probably is as shocking to him as it is to outsiders. At the end of last summer, he stood, at age 44, firmly atop the coaching mountain.

Today, he is nearing the end of a season of chaos.

"We started the season thinking we were some kind of great team," senior center Uwe Blab said. "Actually, we're a terrible team, horrible. We're not just losing, we're getting hammered, every game we play. I know Coach Knight blames himself. He shouldn't. We're the ones that stink. He's doing everything he can. But it's got to be very frustrating for him."

Knight put himself into the middle of another cause celebre last month when he benched four starters -- including Alford -- in favor of freshmen during a nationally televised loss to Illinois. Two days later, he threw leading rebounder Mike Giomi off the team for cutting classes.

Last Thursday, during a second loss to Illinois, Knight put his foot through a chair after getting a technical early in the game. Later, with the Hoosiers down 22 points, boos floated through Assembly Hall. One observer who has seen every home game Knight has coached at Indiana says he had never once heard boos directed at the Hoosiers in the building.

There are bags under Knight's eyes; he looks thin and haggard. His hair has been gray for a couple of years now, but only this winter has he started to look his age. His friends are worried because he refuses to acknowledge his fatigue.

"I really don't think I'm that tired," Knight insisted shortly before the Illinois game. "But maybe I can't see the woods for the trees. What's tired me out is that we haven't played well. The only player that's improved from last season to this one is Blab.

"The worst thing that happened to this team was beating North Carolina. We came into this season vastly overrated as a basketball team and our kids didn't understand that. They look around and say, 'Hey, we beat Carolina with Michael Jordan and Sam Perkins.' I said, 'Look at some of the teams you've lost to during the last two years right after big wins.'

"The last two years, more than any time since I've been here, our teams have not been able to go from one game to another and sustain the tenacity that we need in order to win. That's what's been so frustrating. I'm as upset as hell by it all because I just have so much faith in our system of play and the way we play that it really bothers me when our system doesn't succeed. It should succeed. This year, it hasn't."

Some of the problems are easy to pinpoint. Alford, the 6-foot-2 sophomore who became the darling of the entire state following his great freshman season and the Olympics, has been hounded by bigger, quicker players all season.

Sophomore forward Marty Simmons put on 25 pounds and has been benched. So has senior forward Winston Morgan. Neither is likely to play much -- if at all -- the rest of this season. Blab and Dakich, senior co-captains, are players Knight leans on for advice. He consulted with them before making the decision to cut Giomi. But, like most of Indiana's players, each is physically limited.

Knight has coached teams without great athletes before. He has prided himself on being able to send a Dakich ("I'm not even sure I can touch the rim") out to guard Jordan and somehow win the game. But this team has not done that. Even before the loss to Purdue, Knight said bluntly that he thought it probably was too late to save this season.

"This is what last year should have been, except last year we were picked seventh in the Big Ten. We'd lost five key guys, and Blab, who had just been a part-timer, was our most experienced player. So our kids read about how Indiana is rebuilding and don't expect much and they're ready to go out and show people they can play. Well, by the time the season's over, we've snuck around and won some games against teams playing badly and then we won our first game in the tournament against Richmond -- and that game was no lead-pipe cinch -- and then had the one great game against North Carolina.

"Now, everyone, including the kids, is judging us by that game. I judge us by losing to Virginia the next game or the four other games we lost after big wins last year. We went from relative obscurity to national prominence and we weren't ready to handle it.

"I have no problem with being highly rated. I've had four teams here (1975, 1976, 1980 and 1981) that I said flat out were the best in America. In '75, (Scott) May broke his arm, and in '80, three starters got hurt. The other two years, we won the championship.

"But this team wasn't close to those teams and it hasn't developed. This was a shaky team last year and it's at least as shaky this year."

That shakiness had national reverberations Jan. 27 when Indiana played at Illinois. Knight has made no secret of his dislike for Illinois Coach Lou Henson. It's no secret that he doesn't believe Illinois plays by the rules in recruiting. When he started the four freshmen and lost, 52-41, it started what Indiana people refer to as "Hell Week."

Knight was criticized around the country. And, shockingly, by some people in Indiana. Probably a minority, but never before had the minority been so vocal.

"A lot of it was Alford," Knight said. "Two years ago against Notre Dame, I started five freshmen and benched (Randy) Wittman and (Ted) Kitchel. But we won the game. No one said a word. Last year, I benched four guys against Michigan State. But we won the game. In '76, I benched Quinn Buckner for two games and no one said a word. But Steve's got the Olympic thing and we lost. Actually, that was our best defensive effort in two years and what people forget is that last year down there, we're down 19 with 12 minutes to go. This time, we were down seven with a chance."

Alford has said that Knight did the right thing. In fact, his play picked up for the next three games. A week later, he was Big Ten player of the week. But then he slid back again. "I guess I'm like the team," he said. "We all thought we were a lot better than what we are. Right now, it's a confidence thing with me. I'm disgusted with myself. I've been under pressure before and come through. But now, I'm not doing it."

Knight repeatedly has told Alford that, strictly in terms of this season, the worst thing Knight has done was putting Alford on the Olympic team. Only now, says Knight, is Alford beginning to understand that.

"Steve deserved his spot on the team," Knight said. "But he earned it strictly as a shooter. We only had two guys I would call great shooters out of 74 players at the trials: Alford and Chris Mullin. I had a need and Steve filled it. But making the team as a shooter and making it as a player are two very different things. I don't think Steve understood that."

Knight knows Alford is too good a player not to right himself eventually. But for Alford, as for Indiana, this might be remembered as the lost year. The players have backed their coach throughout. After the Giomi incident, all the players, including Giomi, said Knight did the right thing.

"If Blab and Dakich had come in here, or if five other guys had come in here, after Illinois or the Giomi thing and said, 'Coach, we think you were wrong,' well, then I would have had to rethink some things," he said. "But they didn't because they understand me.

"I ask a hell of a lot of my players. I tell every player I recruit that it will be tougher here for them to be basketball players and students than any place they go. I've told every single one of them that. I make different demands on different guys. You have to judge each kid as an individual and then do what is best for them.

"My players put up with me because they know that when I do things, even when I do things that I consider distasteful, I do it because I'm trying to help them be the best thing they can be, whatever it is. And I have enough of an ego to think I know better than anyone -- professors, girlfriends, the guy in the dorm -- what's best for them.

"I once put Tampax in Landon Turner's locker. I didn't enjoy doing that, I didn't feel good about it at all. But that and a couple of other things made Landon Turner the best player in America for 12 games. Is that risk-taking? I suppose it is. But I think it's a bigger risk not to do anything, to just sit back and hope everything turns out the way you want.

"I talk to our players about being warriors because that's what I want them to become as players. I know when I recruit them, they're not warriors. But what I would like them to do eventually is to reflect my personality on the court because there's never been any doubt that I'm a warrior. That's why I get on them the way I do, because I want them to understand what it takes to be that kind of a player. We've had guys do that: Buckner, (Mike) Woodson, Wittman.

"Wittman as a senior was just like me in a lot of ways. Woodson would stop practice, put the ball on his hip and say, 'If you guys are going to play like this, I'm just going to go in and take a shower and not waste my damn time out here.' We don't have that on this team. Our best teams have gotten on each other. This team doesn't do that."

Even as this season has slipped away from him, Knight has refused to let his heart believe what his head has already told him: that this team just doesn't have it. Last Friday, on a dark rainy afternoon, Knight gathered his team to try one more time to regroup.

"Your mental approach to this (Purdue) game is so much more important than anything else, I can't begin to tell you that enough," he said. "If you're into the game, our defensive rules will beat anybody. I've had teams here we didn't give anything, we didn't set up a thing. We just experimented and I'd say play our rules and go out there and knock their butts off. And we'd do it.

"That's the mental difference between you and those teams. There can be a talent difference, there can be a size difference, there can be a speed difference or a strength difference. But there should never be a difference in intensity. Never. That's been the problem this year."

Knight paused and looked from player to player. No one in the room dared breathe. "I've never minded losing a battle along the way. That's never bothered me," he said. "But we've never lost the war before. Let's not start now."

One day later, Knight hurled the chair and Indiana lost another battle. Inside, he seems to know that, this time, the war already may be lost.