BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — The irony of Indiana's bid for a second straight college basketball title is that the Hoosiers are in a far better position to succeed this time.
Just go back a year, when questions were numerous and options limited. Last season the Hoosiers started practice with two unproven junior college newcomers, both of whom were needed as starters. There was little depth and the team had to reestablish its self-esteem after being knocked out by Cleveland State in the first round of the 1986 NCAA Tournament.
This year, the questions are few. Once-untested Keith Smart and Dean Garrett are established college stars. Depth is a strength, particularly in the frontcourt, where Coach Bob Knight has several lineup combinations to try. And, the national title was the ultimate answer to any doubts of Indiana's grit.
The Hoosiers aren't openly talking of a second straight title, but they are resolved and far more confident about the opportunity to become the first school since UCLA in 1973 to take back-to-back championships.
"I think we can be at the Final Four again," said Ricky Calloway, a junior forward on a personal mission to erase memories of an inconsistent sophomore season.
"If you had asked me last year at this time, I probably wouldn't have said that. At this point, we didn't know how Dean and Keith would come along. Now, we have Dean and Keith and we have guys on the bench we know can step in and do the job."
For now, the priority question is how much Indiana will miss Steve Alford, who provided both the fuel and fire to last season's 30-4 record. Alford not only led the scoring (22 points a game), he was the leader.
Much of Alford's scoring will be picked up by Smart, who was Most Valuable Player of the Final Four and hit the winning shot to beat Syracuse, 74-73. Smart will take over Alford's role as the focal point of Indiana's motion offense and, though he can't match Alford's shooting range, Smart is a superior athlete who needs fewer screens and picks than did Alford.
"Keith has so much more confidence now," Calloway said. "If you look at our season, Keith only had one outstanding game before the tournament started. He just did what he had to do, get the ball to the right people and score when he was open.
"Then, the Syracuse game and the Pan American trials is where he started asserting himself. At the trials, nobody could handle him, none of the guards could handle him."
Garrett, who led Indiana in rebounds and blocks, also has improved. Veterans Steve Eyl, Todd Jadlow and Magnus Pelkowski will vie for minutes vacated by Daryl Thomas. And Joe Hillman, a fourth-year junior, gets the first chance to fill Alford's leadership void.
"We've got to have somebody to take charge," Hillman said. "I have no problem getting on people when it's needed. I've been around and I know what coach expects."
The newcomers are more of a luxury this time, but forward Mark Robinson, a junior college transfer, and freshmen guards Jay Edwards and Lyndon Jones have the talent to contribute.
Indiana's trump card could be Calloway. He was UPI's Big Ten Freshman of the Year two seasons ago when he averaged 14 points. Then came a difficult second year--three injuries within 10 months, tentative and hesitant play, and finally a benching from Knight for the final home game against Ohio State.
The benching had an effect. Calloway came in and scored 20 points in 24 minutes, then played well through the six NCAA Tournament games. He would like to think the cloud has passed. He will be without one reminder, the brace he wore after injuring a knee in the season opener.