Knight and day UMES is long way from Indiana for Wilkerson

Ken Rosenthal

January 14, 1992|By Ken Rosenthal

Near the end he grew so fed up he began playing five guards, "five midgets" he would say later, in total disgust. He didn't throw any chairs, but Bob Knight is without doubt his mentor, as his players with the ringing ears can attest.

Bobby Wilkerson started for Knight's 1975-76 Indiana team that went 32-0 and won the NCAA championship. Today he's the coach at 0-13 Maryland-Eastern Shore, arguably the worst Division I basketball team in the country.

Wilkerson can deal with the endless bus rides, but not the endless losing. He ripped into his players in a closed-door meeting after last night's 106-72 humiliation at Coppin State. Then he vowed to start the five midgets in the next game.

The little guys played hard, which is more than Wilkerson could say of his big men, most of whom spent the second half on the bench. Wilkerson quietly surveyed the wreckage through horn-rimmed glasses, barely raising his voice, rarely leaving his seat. Of course, he was smoldering inside.

Wilkerson, you see, has this crazy idea he can revive UMES, perhaps as quickly as next season. The sad truth is, not even Knight could escape this mess. Where have you gone, Talvin Skinner and Joe Pace? Princess Anne, that noted college basketball hotbed, turns its lonely eyes to you.

Skinner and Pace played in the NBA after igniting the 1973-74 team that finished 24-1 and advanced to the second round of the NIT. It was one of the best teams ever in the state, but coach John Bates left for Coppin the next year and took Pace with him. UMES has had only one winning season since.

How bad is it?

Since 1981-82, the school's average record is 5-21. Wilkerson, the third coach in three years, arrived last season as an assistant under Bob Hopkins, his former NBA coach in Seattle. Hopkins resigned Dec. 14 with the Hawks 0-6, including a 37-point loss to Division III Salisbury State.

This is easily the worst team in perhaps the nation's weakest Division I conference, the Mid-Eastern Athletic. The deeper question is, why is UMES still committing the financial resources to compete at this level? But that is not Wilkerson's problem.

He's serious about this, to the point where he declares, "I'm positive it can be turned around." UMES lost its previous two games -- to defending MEAC champion Florida A&M and Bethune-Cookman -- by a total of five points. Thus, last night was a major disappointment.

Before the game, Wilkerson said, "We're 100 percent improved. You can never count us out. Look at the record and assume what you want. We're getting better. I know we're going to win some games."

Afterward, he snapped, "I know what I have to do. I've got to go tothe junior colleges and recruit. For me, it can't be high school players. I don't have the time to bring someone in and let him get some learning experience. I need it right now."

Just your basic 0-13 mood swing.

Wilkerson got a late start on recruiting, but he already has signed one junior-college player, 6-foot-6 forward Darnell Robinson from his native Anderson, Ind. "Anyone out of Anderson who's good, if Knight doesn't want him, I'll get him," Wilkerson joked.

The Knight connection, of course, can only help recruiting. Wilkerson is the 15th former Knight player or assistant to become a college head coach. Duke's Mike Krzyzewski is the most famous member of that group. Knight nurtures them all, and already has predicted Wilkerson will do "extremely well."

Of course, many high school seniors probably never heard of Wilkerson, whose Indiana career began before some of them were born. "But the parents know, and with the kids, it filters down," Wilkerson said. "Coach Knight means a lot to the parents. They know the kids will have discipline."

Wilkerson began instilling that discipline immediately, outlining roles for each player, then explaining, "We'll do it my way. There's only one chief. I'm going to be in charge. That's it. Anyone who can't take it, they can quit, leave, whatever."

Senior guard Simon Edwards said the atmosphere was quite different under Hopkins, "when sometimes we didn't even know when practice was." Of course, discipline works both ways. Wilkerson's angry voice was the last thing the players wanted to hear after their 34-point loss last night.

"He got his message across -- quite clear," said Edwards, the Towson Catholic graduate who led UMES with 24 points. Other players chuckled nervously as Edwards described the post-game meeting. Wilkerson spoke for a good 15 minutes.

He played on one of the greatest college teams of all time, played with Quinn Buckner and Scott May, Kent Benson and Tom Abernethy. They all remain friends, and Wilkerson said a few might even attend the UMES homecoming. He would prefer not to be embarrassed.

There are days he gets uplifted, days when a player stops by his office at 9 or 10 p.m. on the way to extra shooting practice. And there are nights he gets deflated, nights like last night, when he was ready to dismiss half his team.

"It's coming together," he said before the game. "I can see bits and pieces of Indiana. Now I'm trying to find the Kent Bensons, the Scott Mays. Once I get them, I'm set."

For now, he's stuck with five midgets.

Indiana could not seem farther away.

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