POPE: Hoosiers have come a long way in 5 years
By LaMond Pope 648-3090 or email@example.com February 22, 2013 9:32PM
** FILE **Indiana coach Kelvin Sampson, left, talks with Eric Gordon, center, and Lance Stemler while on the bench during the first half of a college basketball game against Wisconsin in Bloomington, Ind. in this Feb. 13, 2008 file photo. An NCAA report cited Sampson for making improper phone calls to high school players, then providing false and misleading information to investigators from both the university and the NCAA. Sampson has agreed to a $750,000 buyout with the school, university spokesman Larry MacIntyre said. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings, File)
Updated: March 24, 2013 6:08AM
The speculation began early.
A news conference — some thought — was set for noon. No, make that 2. Let’s try that again, 4.
Finally, later the evening of Feb. 22, 2008, nearly 50 reporters gathered in the Hoosier Room at Memorial Stadium in Bloomington. Athletic director Rick Greenspan fielded questions about the end of a chapter in IU basketball history.
Kelvin Sampson was out as the team’s coach.
The chaotic day crossed my mind nearly five years later just before the tip of Tuesday’s Indiana-Michigan State game at Breslin Center.
Boy, how times had changed.
One of the few similarities was the large media contingent. The auxiliary press box was packed Tuesday, with people standing behind reporters just to get a glimpse of the top-ranked Hoosiers battling the fourth-ranked Spartans. Magic Johnson and Dick Vitale were in the building, adding to the hype.
Thinking back to that day in 2008 — my first season on the IU beat for The Fort Wayne Journal Gazette — I’m not sure anyone could have imagined the road ahead. We spent most of the afternoon roaming the hallways of Assembly Hall, looking for someone — anyone — willing to talk.
Forget trying to guess who would be the next coach, reporters weren’t even sure how many players would show up for Indiana’s game the next day at Northwestern. IU was shorthanded that day as some players decided to skip practice.
The Hoosiers ended up having a full squad for the trip to Evanston and beat the Wildcats. It was one of the few remaining highs for the team that season.
What happened next went beyond a rebuilding project. It went beyond digging out of a hole. It went beyond starting from scratch.
“Those guys have been through a lot,” Indiana coach Tom Crean said after Tuesday’s 72-68 win, the program’s first victory in East Lansing, Mich., since 1991. “We don’t get on a soapbox and talk about all the hardships anymore. The guys like Jordan Hulls, Christian Watford and Derek Elston, and even Victor Oladipo and Will Sheehey have gone through in building this program back up.
“But we don’t forget it, either.”
Crean, Zeller, Oladipo, Watford and Hulls are just a few of the people who have helped IU get to here from there.
Walk-ons, even a member of Indiana’s baseball team, helped fill the roster in Crean’s early days. It was a scrappy bunch, but the wins were few and far between. Six in 2008-09. Ten the following season. And then 12 in 2010-11.
Last season marked the resurgence of the program, with the win against Kentucky serving as the obvious benchmark moment.
The surprising run to the Sweet 16 followed. And soon after that came the lofty expectations.
It’s one thing to sneak up on people. It’s a completely different situation to succeed when everyone is gunning at you.
“For Indiana to come in on this night with the crowd as good as it was and the national audience, I think that speaks volumes of them,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “They deserve the credit.”
To the team’s credit, IU embraced the top ranking from the beginning. And the Hoosiers have lived up to the challenge.
Part of it has been Oladipo’s evolution. The junior guard has always been capable of thrilling fans with his dunking ability. His hustle and lockdown defense are also staples. But he’s vastly improved his shooting (from 47.1 percent from the floor last season to 63.9 percent this year), and has rocketed into the conversations in the Big Ten and the national player of the year races.
Cody Zeller is also in contention for both honors, while Watford has taken his game to another level during Big Ten play.
Most importantly, defensive numbers have improved across the board. Opponents are shooting a lower percentage from the floor and 3-point territory, and scoring fewer points, against the Hoosiers than they were at this point last season. Defense was the one major point of emphasis in the preseason.
The collective effort has IU in contention for a No. 1 seed for the upcoming NCAA Tournament.
That 2007-08 season also began with lofty goals. The Hoosiers started the season in the top 10 in The Associated Press poll. They were still ranked No. 14 at the time of Sampson’s last game.
There wasn’t a big breakout quote on Feb. 22, 2008, from either Greenspan or Sampson— who released a statement tied to his resignation.
But interim coach Dan Dakich perfectly summed up the state of the program, and what needed to happen — about a month later after IU lost to Arkansas in the NCAA tournament.
“This needs to be built. This needs to be built with a foundation of discipline and accountability,” the Andrean graduate said. “This needs to be built back to where there is a real pride among the people that know everything that’s going on in the basketball program; where there are players that are former players that come and have pride in what is happening here in the program.”
Five years later, it’s clear what can happen when one follows those steps.