Tuesday, March 06, 2007

A Cosmic Smorgasbord Of College Basketball Delight

Saturday night was the last home basketball game for Errek Suhr, Earl Calloway, and Roderick Wilmont at Assembly Hall, on the campus of Indiana University, in Bloomington, Indiana. They and the rest of the Hoosiers pummeled a hapless Penn State squad, winning 94-63 and locking up the #3 seed in next weekend’s Big Ten Tournament in Chicago. They also completed their first undefeated season at home since the 1993-94 year, which was my freshman year in college - and the year that the Bob Knight machine began to unravel in Bloomington.

(The best game I went to that year was a game I didn’t even get a ticket to originally. It was the Purdue game, and one of my friends who had a ticket to that game was not going to use it, and let me have it. What a game. Purdue had the services that year of one of the best players to ever suit up for the Boilermakers, Glenn Robinson. He played only two years at Purdue because he was...well...not the most rigorous academic who ever attended Purdue. He did wind up being the #1 pick in the 1994 NBA draft, though - but he was never as good in the pros as he was those two years in college, during at least one of which I believe he led the nation in scoring. The night he came to Bloomington during my freshman year, he lit the Hoosiers up for 39 points, knocking down shots from all over the floor. Indiana won the game, but it was a lot of fun to watch the Large Pooch - his actual nickname was “Big Dog,” but my buddy Scott always called him the Large Pooch - hold court, so to speak, in Assembly Hall that night. After the game was over, those of us who had gone together hung around for a while, and got to hear the pep band do some improv stuff, including a pretty nice solo by the drummer.)

Indiana bowed out of the NCAA Tournament in 1994 in the Sweet Sixteen round, losing to Boston College. The Hoosiers would not again see the light of the Sweet Sixteen until the unlikely, but quite remarkable, run to the title game in 2002 - about which we shall speak more by and by. An ignominous run of first- and second-round exits would follow for the next seven years. Bob Knight was fired by former Indiana University President Osama Brand Laden in 2000, the second-to-last year of that foul run of tournament futility.

But I digress. The Hoosiers Saturday night solidified a place in this year’s NCAA Tournament, which they returned to last year after missing it for two years in a row, the first time they had missed the dance since 1985. Solidified a spot, I say - as though there had been some doubt. Going into the game, the Hoosiers were 19-9, which seems like a good enough record. However, their record in the last ten games, a benchmark looked at closely by the selection committee (which will meet in an undisclosed location somewhere in downtown Indianapolis next Sunday to choose the at-large teams in the tournament who do not qualify automatically by virtue of having won their conference tournament, and to determine how those teams are seeded) when selecting at-large teams, was a meager 6-4. It should be noted, though, that those four losses were all road losses in Big Ten games - and it’s no secret that the Big Ten was a tough place to win this year if you were the road team.

To wit: The average number of road wins among the eleven teams in the Big Ten is...get ready...a whopping 2.36. Yes, you read that right. Big Ten teams, on average this year, each won less than three road games, of the eight they each play. And that includes the fact that Ohio State won seven of their eight road games. If you take their seven wins out, the other ten teams won an average of 1.9 road games in the league this year. Of the 88 games played in the Big Ten this year, the home team won 62 of them. That’s a winning percentage of over 70% for the home team. So the competition in the Big Ten is fierce. Some people say the Big Ten is weak this year, but that is not accurate. When you start filling out your brackets next Monday, look at some of the lower-seeded teams from the Big Ten - Michigan State, Purdue, Illinois, and especially Michigan (I think three of those four teams get in, and maybe all four, depending on how well each does in the Big Ten Tournament - but Michigan is for sure the most underrated of them all) and start thinking Upset City.

Indiana finished the season 20-9, and undefeated at home, with quality wins over Southern Illinois, Wisconsin, at Connecticut, and Michigan State. Their RPI (a goofy computer number that’s supposed to give you some indication of how strong a team is, and which is roughly as useful as the NFL’s quarterback rating statistic) is 21, which is a high number; but when you consider that 31 teams get in automatically, that leaves only 34 at-large bids, which means that an RPI of 21 out of 34 doesn’t look nearly as good as an RPI of 21 out of 65. The 5-9 road record doesn’t help the Hoosiers in the eyes of the selection committee, but finishing third in the Big Ten, which is going to send at least four teams, makes them a lock.

And senior Rod Wilmont was there Saturday night, pouring in buckets and bringing the crowd to its feet time and time again. This kid has been fun to watch play over the five years he has been at Indiana. From humble beginnings as a freshman to his position of leadership as a senior this year - all the while developing a three-point shot that is just scary good - Rod Wilmont has made Indiana basketball electrifying again. In the last game, on the road at Northwestern, Rod dropped in nine treys, a school record, on the way to 31 points and 12 boards. On Saturday night, he had 21 points and 11 boards.

Wilmont has gotten better and better each year, but really turned a corner this year, adding almost four points and two boards to his averages from last year. And his three-point shooting? He made 70 treys this year, compared with 73 in the previous three years that he played. Sure, his minutes were up because he’s a senior, but he capitalized - and is one of the reasons the Hoosiers are a dangerous team going into the Big Ten tournament and the NCAAs. He was fun to root for as an underdog when he first came to Bloomington, but now he’s a team leader who, I would argue, is the most important player on the team, in terms of how well Indiana will do in the Big Ten and NCAA Tournaments.

It’s possible that Indiana could make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament. Possible - but not likely. But stranger things have happened. It wasn’t at all likely that the Hoosiers would get to the title game in 2002, but that happened. Granted, luck played a huge part in that happening, but it did happen; and it could happen again this year. I doubt it, but who knows? The Hoosiers only lost to Ohio State by seven points, in Columbus - and Ohio State might be the best team in the country. (I still think the best team in the country is Florida and that they are going to prove it come tournament time, but the Buckeyes are nothing to sneeze at. Overrated teams? Wisconsin, and any tournament-bound school located in the state of North Carolina.)

Ah, that magical run to the title game in 2002. That was fun. That was the year that Another Major Competitor ate General Cinema and I cut my hair. (Actually, I pretty much obliterated my hair.) It was also the year I flew on a plane for the first time. But anyway...the NCAA title run for Indiana. I didn’t actually think Indiana was going to get out of the first round. Usually I pick them to win way more games in the tourney than they actually do - such as one. That year, however, I picked them to lose in the first round. They did not; they beat a decent Utah team in what, if I recall correctly, was fairly convincing fashion.

Not really a surprise, even though I did not pick it. Looking ahead to the second round, Indiana would get the winner of the USC-UNC Wilmington game. Wilmington actually wound up beating a pretty good Southern Cal team, otherwise the Hoosiers were probably out in the second round. But they lived to die another day. It was their first Sweet Sixteen berth since 1994. It would have been sweet if Boston College could have been waiting in that Sweet Sixteen game, so the Hoosiers could exact some revenge - but it was not to be. BC was way over on the other side of the bracket, and they lost in the first round to Texas anyway. Instead of Boston College, the Hoosiers got to face an old, old tournament foe in the Sweet Sixteen. Duke.

Yes...the gold old Duke Blue Devils. I won’t go into just why Duke is such a nightmare for Indiana fans - just suffice it to say that they are. In 2002, Duke wasn’t just a #1 seed in their bracket - they were also the overall #1 team in the tournament. I don’t remember all the details of the game, only that Indiana somehow found a way to keep it close, all the way to the end. After what I think I recall was a missed free throw, Duke’s Carlos Boozer got the rebound, and - with time running out and Duke down by one - put up a second-chance shot from right under the basket. The kind of thing that goes in 99 times out of 100. This was the 100th time - the shot rimmed out, and, thanks to a huge dose of luck, the Hoosiers had knocked off Duke and were going to the Great Eight for the first time since 1993.

To put it in perspective, Duke is to Indiana in college basketball what the Patriots used to be to the Colts in the NFL - except that the Indiana frustration with Duke goes back to at least 1992; the Colts-Patriots rivalry is considerably more recent than that.

But back to the dance! The Sweet Sixteen matchup that would give Indiana its opponent in the Great Eight was #3 seed Pittsburgh and #10 seed Kent State. Like the #4 seed USC, Pittsburgh was a really good team that year - and they also got bounced out of the tournament by a team they might have been overlooking. In Pitt’s defense, though, Kent State is just one of those teams that gets overlooked - even in this era of mid-majors making noise, teams like Kent State are going to get overlooked. Sometimes when that happens, they rise up with fists and knock off a better team. They showed Pittsburgh the door that year, completing the Great Eight matchup of 5th-seeded Indiana and 10th-seeded Kent State.

Now, the Carlos Boozer miss that gave Indiana the win over Duke was luck. Good old dumb luck. Whatever combination of circumstances it was that brought Indiana and Kent State together in 2002, for the right to go to the Final Four, wasn’t just plain old luck - it was Forrest Gump-style shrimp boat luck. See...not only did it mean that Indiana got to avoid playing another highly-seeded team, it also meant that Indiana got a rematch with the team that had bounced them out of the previous year’s dance - the very same Kent State Golden Flashes. This time, however, the Hoosiers were starting to feel it - they were starting to feel like they might be able to make some real noise in this tournament. And they beat Kent State, earning their first regional championship, and a place in the Final Four, for the first time since 1992, where they lost in the Final Four to...Duke.

In 2002, they drew #4 seed Oklahoma in the Final Four. At the time, Oklahoma was coached by Kelvin Sampson, who is now the head coach at Indiana. Small world! It was Sampson’s first ever trip to the Final Four, and he had a good squad that year. After Duke, they were the best team Indiana played in the tournament that year. And wouldn’t you know it? The Hoosiers beat the Sooners - and they beat them handily, leading most of the way and simply dominating a very, very good Oklahoma team.

Where was I while all this was going on? Having dinner at a place called Ivar’s Salmon House in Seattle, Washington. There was some other game on the big-screen TV when we sat down to eat, but we asked if they were going to show the Final Four game when it came on. Our waitress was pretty sure they were, she said, because the chef that day was originally from - wait for it - Bloomington, Indiana.

And, like I said, Indiana manhandled Oklahoma, earning their first appearance in the National Championship game since 1987. Amy and I were in Seattle visiting her parents, who had moved out there on September 12, 2001, after her dad got...well...he was not treated very nicely by Safeco Insurance, the company that assimilated American States Insurance, where he had worked his whole life. Anyway, Amy and I had flown out there to visit, and we watched the National Championship game in their living room.

I wish I could report that Indiana had played well in that game and brought home their sixth title in as many tries (other victories coming in 1940, 1953, 1976, 1981, and 1987); but they did not play well. Neither did their opponent, the Maryland Terrapins. Apparently nobody had told either team that one of them would be compelled to win the game - it sure didn’t look like either team much wanted to win that night. In the end, Maryland played slightly less poorly than Indiana, and won their first title.

So, yeah. I don’t expect anything like that to happen this year, but you never know. That’s what makes the NCAA Tournament the greatest post-season playoff system in all of sports. All you have to do is qualify to participate, by winning your conference tournament or earning an at-large bid, and anything can happen. Last year, George Mason shocked the world and represented the Colonial Athletic Association in the Final Four

Other college basketball notes from Saturday: Texas and Kansas played in an early game, and had a monster first half; the Longhorns were up 54-42 at the break, but ended up losing 90-86. Lesson learned? Kansas good. Kansas very, very good. Funny story. Kansas head coach Bill Self took the job in Lawrence when Roy Williams left after losing the national title game to Syracuse in 2003, to take the head coaching job at North Carolina. The school Bill Self left? Illinois. Also in action earlier Saturday, concurrently with the Texas-Kansas game, was an Illinois-Iowa game. The score of that game, at halftime, was 28-27 for Illinois. So check that out - Texas alone in their first half (54) almost outscored both Illinois and Iowa (55) in the first half of that game.

1 comment:

Last King of SCOOTland said...

Oh, this will be fun. Good chance this will be the longest reply ever. I'm gonna break it down into sections, as you did.

First off, on the hoosiers, this year. Couldn't agree more. As I said in a previous post, this was far more than anyone could've rationally hoped for.

As for the tournament, I am a bit torn. I could see us losing in round 1, or I could see us making a run to the Great 8(that's right Jom Nantz, here is one person who still calls it the Great 8).

As for Wilmont being important, I would totally agree. Just look at his average in games we lost. It can't be more than 6 points.

As for Wisconsin being over-rated, I couldn't disagree more. Remember, this is a team that would've swept Ohio State this year if they hadn't lost their third leading scorer and leading rebounder early in the first half (Brian Butch) of the game at OSU, and they still only lost by a point. I will agree with Carolina to an extent, but I think they might be pulling a Florida (who I also still think is the best team) and relaxing. They are so talented that it wouldn't surprise me at all if they make it to Atlanta, or where ever it is.

OK, back to IU,

you left out the greatest part of the Duke game. First off, we trailed by double digits the whole first half, and by 14 at half time. Duke built a 20 point lead before we went on the sickest run in Indiana basketball history. They crazy thing was that it was in Lexington, at Rupp Arena, and WE WERE THE CROWD FAVORITES. That's right, the Kentucky faithful were pulling for good old IU, or maybe it was just against Duke. Ah, who cares. Anyways, remember AJ Moye hit 2 free throws to put us up 4 with 11 secs. left. Jason Williams then hit a three while being fouled by Dane Fife. Williams (the national player of the year) then missed the FT, and the rest is as you said. (and it was 1992 that they beat us in the final 4, good call). Only area I disagree with is that I don't think it was similar to NE/Indy because after '93 I don't think we were ever in Duke's league talent wise. Indy and NE were always so evenly matched. Duke should've killed us all those times, but that is neither here not there. (great call out of Kent State BTW).

ok, again, back to IU...this team is so hard to figure out because they have no real stars. Noone on the team is consistent. DJ Whiite disappears at times, as does Wilmont, Calloway, Ratliff, etc. However, if they all happen to show up, we can literaly beat anyone in the country. As you said, we only lost at Columbus by 7 (BTW, I bet we would've beaten them in B-town) and we led for about a quarter of that game.

Anyways, I could see a good wun, but ultimately, it doesn't matter. This year is gravy. Next year is when IU basketball is officially back. We will probably be pre-season wop 10 (especailly if DJ stays) thanks to the arrivale of one Eric Gordon. he will be next years Kevin Durant. We will be a tough team to handle next year. We will also be much, much bigger and really be able to play the style that Sampson wants.

All in all, this year has been a treat, it really has. I wanted a shot at a tourney bid. What did I get? a 20 win regular season and a 10 win conference season, and a shot to make a run in the Big 10 and NCAA tournaments. I can't wait!!!