Indiana, Michigan have a lot in common Big Ten rivals aren't so different

February 14, 1993|By Chicago Tribune

Their images reside at opposite poles, and are as starkly different as a blue work shirt and haute couture. Indiana's Hoosiers are the ones pictured always in that down-home garb, and inevitably they are portrayed as successful testaments to sweat, callouses, skinned knees and the discipline drilled into them by Bob Knight. Michigan's Wolverines are the ones pictured always in designer dress, and inevitably they are portrayed as successful testaments to precocity, impetuosity, inherent skills and gifts granted by a generous god.

Their images, surely, reside at opposite poles, yet viewing these teams only through that popular prism is the sheerest kind of folly. That is too facile, too simple, too limiting, and ultimately confines both within borders that do not exist, ignores traits that both have very much in common.

Their images, most certainly, reside at opposite poles, but when these No. 1-ranked Hoosiers and these No. 4-rated Wolverines meet today in Bloomington, they will share far more than the distinction of being two of the country's very best teams. For at root they are, no matter their apparent differences, nothing less than soul mates.

Their stars are certainly soul mates even though their own images are as divergent as their teams'. Calbert Cheaney, the stoic Hoosiers forward, is often perceived as little more than a willing worker, as nothing more than an automaton flourishing within his coach's prescribed system. Ignored, too frequently, are his wondrous talents. Chris Webber, the ebullient Wolverines forward, often is perceived as little more than wondrously talented, as nothing more than a physical phenom who is divinely blessed. Ignored, too frequently, are his workmanlike efforts.

Both are unfairly categorized then, but neither should be slotted in some pigeon hole or presented as a one-dimensional artifact. They are masterpieces, works of art that are defined by physical skills, by insistent wills and by the most-important characteristic of all. Both, you see, are as tough as the cheapest cut of beef.

Cheaney, a senior, has developed his toughness during his stay in Bloomington, and while laboring toward a future Knight predicted for him in his very first season as a Hoosier. He combines the best of Scott May and Mike Woodson, Knight said of Cheaney way back then, and if he keeps working hard, he someday just might be better than both.

Cheaney would work diligently to reach that status, but this was a struggle and there would be times when he inexplicably disappeared from games. He just took himself out of the offense then, and no matter that Knight raged at him about this, no matter that Knight talked publicly about this, Calbert Cheaney had to learn for himself.

"As you get older, you get a little wiser," is how he explained it earlier this year. "I know what coach is getting at now. If things are going bad for me, I have to try and make a basket. Get a basket on my own. A steal, an offensive rebound basket. A garbage basket. That's what he wants. He doesn't want me to just go out there and if my offense is not working, just stop. It's a matter of just pushing yourself. Being in the right spot. Working a little harder."

That is just what Calbert Cheaney has done this season, the season he finally reached his future, and no longer does he suffer those mysterious lapses, no longer does even Knight wonder about his toughness. Webber, too, has this season answered all questions about his own toughness, and has upended emphatically any notion he is nothing more than a talented-but-preening prima donna.

As a freshman last year, there were times when he did appear too vainglorious, and here he seemed to operate with a haughty disdain for basics like diving after a loose ball. But then -- just short of a month ago -- his nose was broken during a practice and he showed himself to be something very different. He showed himself to be a true warrior.

After an operation on his injury, which came courtesy of Eric Riley on a Monday afternoon, Webber was pumped full of pain killers, fitted for a plastic mask and driven to the plane that would carry him to Minneapolis.

"I don't even remember Tuesday night," he said later, but Wednesday night he was in the Wolverines' starting lineup when they trotted out to face Minnesota.

That alone was a measure of the steel he possesses, but an even-more defining moment came later, came when 235-pound Gophers forward Randy Carter floored him with a elbow to his broken nose. Play was stopped, a trainer tended him, but even then Webber did not want to leave the game, even then Webber would not leave until he was told the rules demanded it.

Only then did he agree to sit, but he rested for only two minutes and on his very first play back, Chris Webber, without hesitation, dove for a loose ball.

Indiana and Michigan are far more than their images, and that means any meeting between them will be far more than just a game. It means it also will be, most certainly, a test of wills.

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