WASHINGTON, D.C. — Started from the bottom …
Christian Watford committed to Indiana on September 9th, 2008. That was six-and-a-half months after Kelvin Sampson was bought out of his contract by Indiana in the throes of Big Ten play while Indiana was going through an NCAA investigation for illegal phone calls Sampson made.
When Jordan Hulls committed to Indiana on May 20th, 2008, it was just two months after the Hoosiers, a team that had ridden Eric Gordon and DJ White to a No. 8 ranking earlier that season, bowed out in the first round of the NCAA tournament as a No. 8 seed.
Neither player wavered from their commitment to Tom Crean’s program despite the fact that they stood idly by as high school seniors, watching the 2009 version of the Hoosiers finish with all of six wins, going just 1-17 in the Big Ten. They didn’t transfer after going 10-21 as freshmen or 12-20 as sophomores. Those two laid the foundation for the rebuild of Indiana, taking a program that had been napalmed by Sampson as he departed and turning it back into one of the elite.
One day, whether it’s in a week or a month or a decade, those two will be able to look back on what they accomplished and be proud of it. They will be able to pride themselves on the sheer determination that it took to grow an outright Big Ten champion and a No. 1 seed out of the smoldering ashes of that 2008 team.
But that won’t happen quickly, not when Indiana’s season came to a screeching halt on Thursday night. No. 4 seed Syracuse simply overwhelmed the Hoosiers with their zone, forcing 19 turnovers and holding Indiana to one of their worst offensive performances of the season in a 61-50 win.
“There will be a time to celebrate ’em, but they’ve done things that have not been done in Indiana in a long, long time,” head coach Tom Crean said after the game. “They did it from scratch. I think that every once in a while it’s easy to forget that.”
As talented as Indiana is, Syracuse simply provided the kind of length and athleticism that Indiana had never seen before. “Not too may teams are used to our zone,” Cuse guard Brandon Triche said after the game, and he’s right. Michael Carter-Williams is 6-foot-6 with go-go-gadget arms. Brandon Triche is 6-foot-4. Those two play at the top of the patented Syracuse 2-3 zone. Baye Moussa-Keita and Rakeem Christmas are both pushing seven-feet and man the middle while 6-foot-8 physical specimens CJ Fair, James Southerland and Jerami Grant take up residence on the wings.
Hulls and Yogi Ferrell are 6-foot-nothin’. There’s a reason they combined to go 0-8 from the floor with six turnovers and not a single point.
Cody Zeller struggled with the Syracuse length as well. He finished with ten points and ten boards, but he shot 3-11 from the floor and was completely overwhelmed by the Syracuse front line. The Orange played him an interesting way. When Syracuse got lit up by Georgetown in this very building three weeks ago, it was because they collapsed on Otto Porter every time he touched the ball in the middle of that zone, freeing up the Hoyas sharp-shooters. Jim Boeheim knew that he wouldn’t be able to beat Indiana if he allowed them to get open look after open look from the perimeter, so he opted to let Zeller try to go 1-on-1 with his center.
And it worked.
“[Zeller] got the ball a little bit away from the basket,” Boeheim said. “We forced him where he wasn’t underneath the basket, and we could get help back to him. You know, when one guy stood him up, now he doesn’t have the step to get up in the air so we can come back and get a block in that situation.”
Here’s the irony: Indiana, the best offensive team in the country all season long, according to Kenpom, played well enough on the defensive end of the floor to win. They forced 14 turnovers, they didn’t allow Southerland to get anything going offensively and they only gave up 0.968 PPP. If I told you that heading into Thursday night, few would have guessed that Indiana would have lost that game.
And that has to be the most frustrating part for Indiana.
By picking the wrong night to play their worst offensive game of the season, Indiana cost themselves a chance to cap off a pair of story book careers with the perfect ending: a national title.
“It’s been full of ups and downs,” Watford said, “but I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I love my team and I’m happy to be an Indiana Hoosier.”
This team could have won it all, and with the way that Indiana is recruiting and the talent that they are bringing into the program, that national title may not be all that far off.
Indiana is back on the college basketball map. Watford and Hulls may never play another game in Assembly Hall, but their legacy at Indiana will live on.
… now the whole team here.
You can find Rob on twitter @RobDauster.