Image courtesy of Evansville.com
Under ideal circumstances, someone would have given a heads-up that tonight’s scheduled Sweet Sixteen matchup between Indiana and Kentucky would actually feature a surprise screening of Rocky.
Excluding the final result, the Wildcats 102-90 triumph over the Hoosiers was every bit as entertaining and enjoyable as the final score indicated. If there’s been a better first half of college basketball this year, I’m not familiar with it. Both teams ran at every chance they had, put in shot after shot and gave everything they had. Tom Crean could be heard exhorting his team not to let up – that Kentucky was beginning to tire, that they would wear out.
They very nearly did.
With the Wildcats leading 82-77, UK’s offense began to stagnate. Players who had spent the entire game running began to stand around, stopped moving crisply and didn’t get a good look at the basket against a swarming Indiana defense – but Kentucky was still getting to the free throw line. After a pair of Doron Lamb free throws to make it a seven-point game, the Hoosiers headed up the court looking to score. With about four and a half minutes remaining, Christian Watford caught the ball near the top of the key and let fly a three-pointer that would have closed the gap to four. It hit the rim, clanged harmlessly away and took with it Indiana’s chances to win the game. The Hoosiers would never again get closer than seven.
The Wildcats were simply the better team. They were deep enough to deal with the foul trouble that hit them in the first half and the early lack of production from Anthony Davis. They were conditioned enough to run with – if not run down – an Indiana team that prides itself on being in superb shape. They were disciplined – some would say fortunate – enough to convert on 35 of their 37 free throws. As Crean said afterward, “It just came down to free throws… and it’s hard to win when they shoot 20 more than you.”
The atmosphere was incredible, especially in the scintillating first half. The closest comparison I can make is a fictional one, but one that every hoops junkie should be familiar with – it was what I always imagined the state championship game in “Hoosiers” to be like. The 24,000 in attendance booed and cheered at every call and the roar after a made basket – by either team – was as loud as I’ve ever heard in a neutral environment (considering the sea of blue, the greatly outnumbered Hoosier fans did themselves proud). For it to be this team to be involved in a game, an environment and a situation like that is incredible in itself.
At the end of Crean’s first season at Indiana, he stayed in the locker room long after the Hoosiers’ B1G tournament loss. His team has just lost its 25th game of a hellish season. They grieved together – they even shed tears together – over a year that had been more difficult than anyone had expected or could have envisioned. This team’s on court accomplishments so far outstrip those of that team; it’s not even funny. 27 wins – one shy of Crean’s win total in his first three years at the helm – the first IU Sweet Sixteen appearance in 10 years and going blow-for-blow with the most talented team in the country. To think of how far this team has come, even from last year’s 12-win season is astounding.
At the postgame podium though, the players were just as emotional as that tough day in 2009. Victor Oladipo looked to be holding back tears, the normally stoic Christian Watford flashed some emotion and Cody Zeller – who hadn’t finished a basketball season without a title since his sophomore year of high school – looked supremely disappointed. A team that had accomplished more than anyone thought they could sat before the assembled media like they had failed.
Tom Crean knew better.
“As I said to my team, there’s always sadness, tremendous sadness, that hits you later on,” he said. “But there’s a lot more sadness when you realize that your team or your players had something left and they didn’t give enough. The Indiana men, quote me, the Indiana mighty men, they gave it all. They left it all on that court. We don’t take moral victory in any sense, because we lost. But when you do everything that you can do and give every ounce of fight that you have, you can move on. That’s where we’re at.”
There were signs. Superstitious fans should have started worrying as the University began to take precautions, fearing an IU win. The fish were removed from Showalter fountain, cars were towed from Kirkwood and light poles were greased to discourage climbing. Hoosier fans everywhere discussed how they would celebrate if this team again managed to pull off the unthinkable. It simply wasn’t to be.
But there’s no shame in that.
For the last time, players who were at this program’s ground zero took the court, and served as reminders both to the fan base and their teammates how far this group has truly come. 2008-2009 – Verdell Jones’, Tom Pritchard’s, Matt Roth’s, Daniel Moore’s and Kory Barnett’s freshman year – saw plenty of similarities to this year’s team to go with the differences noted above. Similarities that Crean pointed out to end his press conference.
“That first team gave everything they had too, and nobody had an idea what we were in for, but everybody gave everything they had and along the way,” Crean said. “Those freshmen leaving here as seniors gave more and more every day and every year. If you can look back at your team and you can feel really good about everything they gave. I think these young men have affected Indiana – the Hoosier Nation – with their work ethic and with their love for Indiana. A long time ago, I don’t know if I would have looked at that as being important. I think that’s real important now, and the ones who are leaving here have done it.”
That – more than any other reason – is why this team has been such a blast to interact with and watch throughout the season. They took the scrapper’s mentality required by a no-talent, no-experience bunch to win even a single conference game and applied it to a group with plenty of talent, plenty of experience and a desire forged by three years of losing.
So concludes a chapter of Indiana basketball history that began with the worst season in program history and ends with the best campaign in a decade – and the most memorable one in much longer.
Like Rocky, this group lost a hard-fought battle to a bigger, badder opponent and just like in the film; their performance seemed to hold greater meaning for the fans than the outcome did.
Regardless of what happens in the seasons to come – including the elusive sixth banner – future teams will be hard-pressed to replicate that experience.