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March 18, 2008

Indiana Hoosiers: It’s the season that could’ve been for IU. With a bad tournament draw, it may be over soon

[img_assist|nid=6446|title=Eric Gordon|desc=Photo by Paul Riley/IU Media Relations Eric Gordon —along with D.J. White — is one of the top two scorers in the Big Ten, but teams have lately figured out how to slow the dynamic duo.|link=|align=left|width=134|height=200]It is Senior Night at Indiana University, which is a very big deal, with many happy speeches and a celebration that goes on for maybe an hour. Perhaps 12,000 of the 15,000 or so in attendance stay around after the game for the show. Like the game itself, there are no constant blaring commercial announcements, the IU band plays all the time, and they don’t sell beer, so there’s never a mile-long line at the restrooms.It’s all very … collegiate. Cream and Crimson. It comes time for senior forward Lance Stemler to take the mike and he winds his speech up to a point where he acknowledges the five NCAA Championship banners that hang on the high wall of Assembly Hall and vows that he and his teammates will give it their all in the NCAA tournament, “to hang up that sixth banner.”IU fans have been seeking “that sixth banner” for 20 years now, and they cheer Lance’s fiery words. But they know, really, it’s not going to happen.When you possess the collective historical memory of what it takes to win NCAA championships in 1940, 1953, 1976, 1981 and 1987, and your team trails only UCLA (11) and Kentucky (seven) on the all-time tourney-champion list (North Carolina has four and Duke three), you can tell the 2008 Hoosiers just don’t have enough of what it would take to hang up that sixth banner.But Indiana does have something to play for in the NCAA tournament. Indiana (25-7) ended the season with a 3-3 record under interim coach Dan Dakich, including two last-second defeats and a cremation at Michigan State. Obviously dismissed as a team going the wrong way, IU was handed a No. 8 seed in the mid-pack no-man’s land of the NCAA East Regional. The Hoosiers play Arkansas (22-11) on Friday night in Raleigh, N.C., and if they win, would likely take on No. 1 seed North Carolina. It wasn’t always a foregone conclusion that Indiana would not be a contender for the 2008 NCAA championship. The Hoosiers sparkled early in the year behind senior center D.J. White and freshman guard Eric Gordon, who would start out, and finish, as the top two scorers in the Big Ten.But things happened. Other teams figured out that aside from White, Indiana had little inside muscle. And early on, opponents understood they could reduce Gordon from 35 points a game to 25 by luring him into defensive traps, or by fouling him, making him earn his points at the free throw line. Gordon absorbed the prolonged pounding, but if he thinks he got pounded in the Big Ten, wait till he plays a Big East team, who’ll just drop a house on him. It’s sad that basketball has turned so routinely into a test of brute strength rather than the finesse game it was intended to be — and once was. But there you are.(End of sermon.)Indiana had more problems off court than on. Second-year coach Kelvin Sampson got caught committing the exact same illegal phone-call recruiting violations he had been dialing up at Oklahoma, and then (apparently) got caught lying about it. In all its years, Indiana basketball had never been sanctioned by the NCAA, and it had been 48 years since the IU football coach was caught paying players — which landed all IU sports on four years probation. That lesson was enough for learning-minded Indiana University, and so when Sampson went bad, the school disconnected his phone and handed him a one-way ticket out of Bloomington.But as distracting as the late-season coaching-change turmoil must have been, it’s not IU’s biggest problem. That problem, according to interim head coach Dakich, and anybody with eyes, is that this team is not interested in playing defense.“A lot of teams are day-to-day on defense, and that’s the way we’ve been all year,” said Dakich, who certainly did not have the luxury of a day-to-day defensive attitude when he played for Bobby Knight at IU. “You’ve got to commit to the defensive end of the game.” [img_assist|nid=6447|title=Interim coach Dakich|desc=Photo by Paul Riley/IU Media Relations Interim coach Dakich says the Hoosiers need to commit to playing defense.|link=|align=right|width=134|height=200]Dakich, who was untarnished in the Sampson scandal, seems like a pretty good guy. He’s a lifetime Hoosier, an All-State forward out of the basketball-rich Calumet region near Gary and East Chicago. Dakich (pronounced Dock-ich) played at IU — he’s credited with shutting down Michael Jordan when the Hoosiers upset North Carolina in the 1984 tournament — then was an assistant at IU, then went away for a spell as head coach at Bowling Green and returned to Bloomington when Sampson came in. And now, there he was after a victory over Minnesota, running the show on Senior Night. His 12th, he noted.Afterwards, he reminded reporters that IU’s post-season fate depends on playing defense, and he cited Michigan State’s late-season 103-74 slaughter as fair warning.The two schools had been tabbed as Big Ten favorites, but when Indiana had a chance to show the Spartans who was boss, the exact opposite happened. Indiana didn’t play a nickel’s worth of defense, and worst of all: “We got out-hustled,” Dakich said. “We didn’t get back. Ray Charles could see Michigan State wants to run. They go. And we didn’t get back. When you get beat like that, it’s everything.”Indiana does have weapons, beginning with White and Gordon.White, at 6-foot-9, is one of those mountain-of-a-man guys. He’s a terrific shooter with a high-arcing shot. His shots don’t usually swish, either, but generally catch just a tick of the inside of the rim. Like the old-time expression, he cans ’em. Gordon? Well, he’s a freshman, which means he has periods when the points don’t come. But when his team needs it, he will take over, and then there is virtually no stopping him. Dribbling, driving, flicking, scooting and straightening up to fire from long range — no distance is too far — Gordon is the Real, Real Deal. Gordon and White get help smoking the scoreboard from 48-percent three-point shooter Armon Bassett, a sophomore; slick passing juco Jamarcus Ellis; and explosive freshman Jordan Crawford. It’s a high-scoring kind of “Hurryin’ Hoosiers” outfit IU that coaching legend Branch McCracken would have loved. McCracken, who hung up the 1940 and ’53 banners, once famously noted, “It’s not how many points you keep the other team from getting. It’s how many you get yourself.”But in today’s foul-all-you-want version of college basketball, the top teams won’t let anybody run. Try it, and see how hard you get fouled on the lay-in. Or somebody will step in front of you when you don’t have the ball. Or herd you toward the sidelines when you do.Does that mean Indiana is doomed in the NCAA?Well, there’s no reason Indiana can’t beat Arkansas, and then maybe go wild somehow on North Carolina — which is, by the way, trying to tie IU with its fifth NCAA banner. You know, college guys are entitled to give it the old college try. This would be an excellent time for Indiana to do just that. Contact the writer at leo@leoweekly.com