What’s next?

The Verizon Wireless Centers floor gleamed bright orange late Thursday night as joyous Syracuse fans flooded the court.  In the mix of ‘cuse fans too bewildered to leave  the stands, Indiana University friends, students, and alumni slumped in their seats, heads hung low, burying their solemn faces in their Hoosier attire. Despite the significant score range, Indiana fans were stuck in a daze. Shocked by the poor performance of their beloved team, they struggled to accept the reality of the buzzer.

The implications of this loss were massive. The Hoosiers would not only leave the tournament so early [thus failing to meet Obama’s predictions], but they may have just blown their last best shot at another National title in a long time.

As the year unfolded, discussion of Oladipo and Zeller as top ten NBA picks circulated, but the excitement of the season prevented fans from comprehending the impact such projections would have on future Indiana basketball. When the Hoosiers stepped off the plane in Indianapolis from their short-lived business turned tourist trip to D.C., the suspense truly began.

…Until Oladipo made his announcement—he is moving on to the NBA, graduating this spring, a year early, to join the ranks of professional basketball players. A day later sophomore Cody Zeller mimicked Oladipo’s response. Different wording, similar message; both expressed sincere gratitude to the IU community and assured their feelings of pride as forever a Hoosier.

Two starters down. And while some may have been distracted by the decisions of Oladipo and Zeller, let me tell you, I had further concerns. My personal long-time favorites, Watford and Hulls, are graduating.

Every game I sport my Watford number 2 jersey, but unless decisions to retire his number are confirmed, I am haunted by the fact that next year I may be representing an entirely different player. Similarly, when I’m visiting home next year during the holidays and run into Jordie at the supermarket as I occasionally do, I will feel uneasy knowing he wasn’t at practice that morning.

Watford and Hulls both play with a particular poise that can be accredited to their experience as seniors. They have committed themselves to this team for four years,  experiencing extreme highs and lows and confronting countless obstacles, whether those were tough competitors, feelings of disappointment, or challenges in creating the correct team dynamic. Some struggles they overcame and others they learned from but most are forever engrained as memories. It goes without saying the Hoosier nation will miss them dearly.

The IUBB schedule site is now a sad, sad place. The top right—the countdown to football season. The top headline of tweets rotates from honors and awards won by Oladipo and Zeller to IU tennis news. But still, in the fall when the IU students go to football tailgates to socialize and drink, they are truly only flaunting their cream and crimson attire to test it out before the real season begins. As the song proclaims, “This is Indiana,” and it is all about basketball. Despite the weak class of recruits and the loss of 4/5 of the starting line-up, it will continue to be about basketball. Season tickets will sell out, and students will still chant the Indiana fight song in the crowded lines outside of Assembly Hall when November rolls around. The rest of the world might not recognize the new roster, but the school’s spirit lives on. Here is hoping it does not take another ten years for another Hoosier revival.

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Following in his brothers’ footsteps…

During my senior year of high school, my basketball team won the state championship. Yet no player from our Bloomington High School South received recognition like Cody Zeller, the 7 foot center and power forward , whose smaller high school played in a different division. In November of 2010 when Zeller officially signed with Indiana University, a subtle curiosity lingered throughout town. It had been a while since the school won over a top recruit, but the Hoosier hysteria intrigued Zeller. Similarly, he intrigued us. Only good could come from this fresh talent, but few expected Zeller’s entrance to create team unanimity so strong.

I won’t recap the 2011 season. In short, Zeller proved himself a key player, but he decided not to join the NBA draft. He needed more time and experience in competitive basketball, and he was a crucial component of a team on the rise—he couldn’t leave it so soon.

Then this past week following the end of the 2012-13 NCAA season, Zeller sang a different tune. On Wednesday April 10th, a day after Oladipo confirmed his decision to enter the NBA draft, Zeller proclaimed his same plans. Sophomore Cody Zeller would follow in his brothers’ footsteps, and he would leave the team he had played such an instrumental role in revitalizing. Unlike Oladipo’s decision, Zeller’s was met with a much wider range of responses.

A few factors play into the less approving comments: Junior Oladipo can graduate this May, while Zeller’s decision will put his college degree on hold. Zeller has been known for his strong academics and his impressive work ethic, which he balanced with his diligent commitment to his sport.

But for those stuck in this mind set—don’t fret. Zeller will graduate! With 35 more credits to go until graduating from Kelley School of Business, the current sophomore has mapped out his academic career to be finished within two intense summer sessions. A degree at Kelley Business School is something to take great pride in. If he fumbles in the NBA, Zeller has the credentials and ambition to pursue a career elsewhere.

Maybe some disapproval derives from Watford’s decision the previous year. Watford had decided to stay with the Hoosiers, saying “I’m looking forward to the opportunity to complete my degree and to continue restoring the winning tradition at IU. I believe in Coach Crean and our staff and I am eager to lead my new teammates and build on what we started.”

But come on… Zeller might have played half as many years as Watford, but in that short time, he contributed enormously to the team, alongside primarily senior and junior players. He served as a member of the Wat Squad, the name that I have adopted for my favorite starting line-up. (I only chose to highlight Watford’s name because I could make it rhyme.) This may be the best time for him to move on. It would be too difficult to recreate that strong dynamic with a fresh bunch.

Although I believe more experience would have helped him, I think he seized the opportunity at the right time. Next year, with a dwindling of starting talent, Zeller might not be showcased as prominently.  I look forward to rooting him on in the NBA, but I am also curious to see exactly how he will be able to adapt to the big leagues.

Check out his press conference:

#OladiPRO

Oladipo

Oladipo (Photo credit: Indiana Public Media)

During this past season, Indiana seesawed between the ranks of number one and number three. Despite their lack of perfect consistency, a few athletes improving at a noticeably rapid pace. Fans could only expect that a few cream and crimson players were outgrowing the league. And while the entire Indiana starting line up is comprised of unique and talented young men, let’s face it—at 6 foot Jordan Hulls knows his senior year is the end of his basketball career. Some players just have the NBA potential, and others don’t, whether their detriment be height or skill.

Number four Victor Oladipo is Indiana’s 6’5” shooting guard Junior hailing originally from Upper Marlboro, Maryland. In his sophomore year, Oladipo was an instrumental character in the Hoosier’s return as a competitive force in the league. But the team’s most unique quality that season was their impeccable teamwork, and although many often attribute the comeback status to the fresh talent of Cody Zeller, for Indiana, basketball is never a one man show. The team cooperated as a united front, perfecting plays and utilizing all five men, one of which was Oladipo. Oladipo, an explosive force, sometimes erupted from the court, racing down to the offensive and executing the most beautiful of slam-dunks.  It was all foreshadowing. This year Oladipo emerged as a crucial facet to the team.

Throughout the season, sports journalists were fascinated by Oladipo’s steadily improving shooting accuracy. While he perfected his jump shot, he increased his offensive presence and began performing with an enhanced sense of confidence and intensity. And when the ball was turned over, Oladipo played aggressive and effective defense becoming an earnest obstacle for opponents. He played such a significant role in each game that when he fell short, both the crowds and his teammates noticed. Anyone remember first half of the Sweet Sixteen game? But his faults only illuminate his influence on the team, and for that matter, on the entire world of college basketball. He was announced Sporting News Men’s College Basketball Player of the Year and the National Co-Defensive Player of the Year. Without surprise, he made the first Team 2013 All-American by the USBWA and Sporting News.

When the Hoosiers fell short in the Sweet Sixteen, reality came crashing down. At the end of the season loomed the major decisions for Indiana’s star athletes. Eyes turned to Oladipo and Zeller. On Tuesday April 9 at a press conference, Oladipo eloquently and thoughtfully honored his Hoosier home, expressing the deepest sentiment to the community, where he thrived as an individual and player.  In this sentimental and honest statement, Oladipo announced his plan to join the NBA draft as he was predicted a top ten pick.

See video of his announcement:

Personally, I cannot wait to see what Oladipo brings to the NBA. Although I am not an NBA enthusiast like I am the NCAA, I fully support #OladiPRO in all his endeavors. I look forward to watching him keep on improving in the big leagues.

Wondering what the Indiana Daily Student has to say about Oladipo’s departure? Check out Michael Norman’s column: http://www.idsnews.com/news/story.aspx?id=92249

The Not So Sweet Sixteen

While the digital numbers on the New Orleans Superdome scoreboard transformed from seven to six during the NCAA championship game in 1987, no member of the crowd thought to watch the countdown. They knew it would be a close game and their attention was all where it mattered. As many NCAA tournament games promise, the court scene was driven by both sweat and pure intensity. In those last five seconds, millions of eyes followed the game ball as it swooshed through the hoop. “The shot”, as it was later dubbed, clenched the championship game for the Hoosiers, and for the Syracuse Orange, Keith Smart became the most despised player of all time. It was the shot that cemented the Hoosier’s second national title of the decade and completed the row of five banners now hung proudly across Assembly Hall.  But fans had no Assembly Hall banners to turnto in hopes of a comeback during Syracuse and Indiana’s last meeting. By 11 pm on Thursday March 28th at the Verizon Center of D.C. the mood was all but hopeful for another Hoosier championship title.

My bank account is now $210 short, and while her season pass lessened the financial cost of a Sweet Sixteen ticket, my friend Alex’s beat up Jeep now feels the weight of the 1200-mile voyage through the Pennsylvania hills. But for long time Indiana Hoosier fans, the distance and the money are sacrifices that go without question. That’s the spirit of the town, and the nature of both a townie and an IU student. The Indiana Hoosiers, finally merging from their 25-year hiatus, are back on the radars of Americans everywhere. Cody Zeller’s name rings at least a bell to any ESPN follower. So for those within his campus vicinity, the feeling of pride is like none-other—he, Victor Oladipo, Jordan Hulls, Christian Watford, Yogi Ferrell, and Will Sheehey have become the idols that have redeemed the school from its lull.

So that was the reason for traveling 1200 miles or spending twice my bi-weekly pay. And on the night of, feelings of disappointment and shock could still not shake the priceless opportunity of seeing my favorite team from the 20th row of the Verizon Center court-level floor.

The Marquette v. Miami game played earlier in the evening proved to be a lackluster game as far as competition; Marquette did not exactly sail by, but Miami fans began plotting their escape earlier than the final two minute mark, ready to part from the sea of orange ‘Cuse fans and shed the layers they were so unused to wearing under the Florida sun.

After trading in balcony tickets for first floor tickets, thanks to a solemn Miami couple, I was prepared for a game nothing like that of the previous, unless of course, Syracuse forfeit from the fight early.

After Zeller won the tip off, we were settled in for the game, prepared for the battle that could be a game of to and fro but would surely conclude with a three from Watford or a dunk from Oladipo that would send us on our way to the Elite Eight. But Oladipo had butterfingers; the ball was slipping beneath his grip, finding itself in a huddle of players, with an orange jersey always retrieving it in the end. And no player was making shots. Not one with a white jersey that is. The tall Syracuse line up seemed even taller in the light of the magnitude of the game. At 6’1” 184 pounds, Hulls matched on Syracuse’s Brandon Triche, 6’4” 210 pounds, just didn’t quite work out. By half time, Syracuse was up 34-22, and it was obvious that the Hoosiers played a broken first half under pressure.

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But the beginning of the second half caused uproars in the cream and crimson crowds. Hoosiers were coming back, winning rebounds, and putting up the ball as much as possible. They were aggressive, ready to get back in the game they had been working for all season. And then Syracuse picked up on what was going on; the Orange began to play just as well as they had in the first half, with a strong defense that the nerve-shaken IU players just couldn’t get passed.

And although the game unwound during the second half just like it had the first, not one particular player was to blame. While some may say Yogi Ferrell played the worst he ever has, the freshman starter had never experienced the high intensity of a Sweet Sixteen game, one where not only were the competitors tough but the stakes were high—tournament advancement was on the line.  Despite his final season lacking a scene nearly as memorable as his buzzer three against Kentucky in the 2011-2012 season, Christian Watford carried his weight in the last game of his career. He did almost as much as possible to offset the mistakes of other players, but of course, one player was not enough. Will Sheehey played as much time as any starter, as he often does. When Syracuse defense grew tiresome the second half, fans watched as Sheehey stood open on the outside, but his teammates never found him.  It was a mess, and during the last ten minutes of the game, both teams struggled to hold the ball. At best, it was a frenzy of keep-away and nothing more, mostly turnovers and few points, besides a fair share of fouls.

The once re-invigorated Indiana fans refuted back to their dismayed ways as it became clear that IU was not closing the score’s margin by more than nine for more than 30 seconds.  As optimistic as I am as a basketball enthusiast and Hoosier fan, I knew that the final minutes of the game would hold no surprise victory for Indiana. We were done. My fellow Bloomington native Jordan Hulls was done. As was Christian Watford, and very likely, Zeller and Oladipo from any NCAA roster. Then I heard a Syracuse fan repeating, “WOW we beat the best team in the nation. We beat Indiana. Best team in the nation!” Whether or not I believed his statement at the time, after watching the struggle, the Hoosiers had made their impact. The Hoosiers were an NCAA favorite because of the way they commanded the court; they entertained, worked hard, and responded to the cheers of their fans. They were no longer lovable because of their comeback status; after being predicted number one pre-season, they were very much recognized as a force to be reckoned with, but they never basked in the glory undeservingly. All season they worked for the applause. On Thursday March 28th, Syracuse deserved the Sweet Sixteen win, as would have Indiana had they played like the number one team they were ranked as.

Big Ten Pride

English: Big Ten Conference logo since 2010.

English: Big Ten Conference logo since 2010. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Big Ten is my favorite conference of NCAA basketball. I might be a little biased… I like to think of my recent time in the Patriot’s League as justification for fair judgment, but in reality, no reasonable basketball fan would compare the Patriot’s league and Big Ten. See, even when I try, I cannot revert from my bias opinion. In all honesty, I really enjoy all conference college basketball games as so many unexpected match ups transform into exciting, intense, nail biters. But as a Midwesterner, and a child of the Big Ten, no conference quite compares. It’s all about the long-lived, thriving rivalries between MSU, OSU, UMICH, Iowa, and Wisconsin. Sometimes, we can let the students of fellow Indiana school Purdue think they are a threat.

Conference games always occur during my spring break. I often spend that time in California, shaking my head as my grandma raves about the Pack Twelve…the who?? Thankfully, this year I was in Florida, with non-basketball fans, so it was untainted ground. I could watch number one Indiana wipe the courts with the Big Ten title, and no one would be nagging me about a “better” conference. This also meant I was the only one glued to the 50inch plasma in my friend’s beautiful home. My spring break crew of six sorority sisters casually munched on guacamole and chips until one stopped to address me. “Miriam, you’re so quiet—what’s wrong?” Katie asked. We were down five with a minute to go, and it wasn’t looking good. I didn’t make a sound because I was focusing all my energy on channeling Zeller. Come on, use your height, drive down center and score a lay up. Back in reality, I responded, “They’re coming back.” Because I knew they were.

That night the Indiana Hoosiers gained a massive Big Ten feat and six new fans.  The six friends I had come to Florida with had once been apathetic towards the NCAA and were often annoyed by my frequent references to the Hoosiers, but they were on the edge of their seats while the Hoosiers faced off against the Michigan Wolverines.

In the beginning of the season, Zeller was placed on an intimidatingly high pedestal, and as other players pulled their weight, many critics felt Zeller failed to live up to the high expectations set out for him. With a calm head and an unstoppable intensity, Zeller proved critics wrong when he swooshed two clutch shots at the 13-second mark and four second mark. Like all IU games though, the victory was earned through teamwork. With an assist from Watford, Zeller put the ball up for that game changing shot that ended the game 72-71.

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To hear more about how Indiana did not end up clenching the overall Big Ten Title, see: http://fox59.com/2013/03/05/ohio-state-keeps-indiana-from-clinching-outright-big-ten-title/#axzz2QCPxEGDC

The Starting Six*

After being announced Pre-season player of the year and the “savior of Indiana basketball”, Cody Zeller’s name graced many newspaper headlines, and it still does. Similarly, Victor Oladipo, although not projected as a top ten pick in the NBA after only his freshman year of high school like his teammate Zeller, received enormous recognition, all of which he deserved throughout this past season. With the highest shooting percentage of the Big Ten and many perfect dunk moments highlighted on ESPN, Indiana fans and general NCAA fans a-like worship Oladipo’s accuracy and speed. Seniors Christian Watford and Jordan Hulls are expected favorites also. Watford serves as a power forward and strong senior leader, with a strong loyalty to the Hoosiers, and Bloomington’s own Jordan Hulls, a high-school state champ in his earlier days, has court presence and composure unexpected for a six foot star facing some of the NCAA’s largest players. To close up the regular Indiana starting five is freshmen Yogi Ferrell. As is Indiana tradition, a freshman comes in strong, learning the traits of a dynamic and fluid team to create a sense of longevity; when Watford and Jordan graduate, when Zeller and Oladipo leave the NCAA, Yogi will remain for another three years, unless he joins the rank of NBA potentials.

As beloved as these starting five, the depth of the Indiana Hoosiers is what allows for so many invigorating second half comebacks. If it weren’t for some fresh energy and a drive to prove oneself play worthy, the Hoosiers would not be recognized as the team they are today—they wouldn’t have accomplished so many feats. Arguably the best sixth man in college basketball, number zero forward Will Sheehey storms the court, bringing an intensity and passion deserving of acknowledgement, if not, praise for his many contributing plays. I won’t bore you with a chart of his stats as compared to other players, although I almost thought of submitting one just as evidence. To sum it up, Sheehey’s numbers of made free throws and field goals, as well as number of rebounds, exceed those of other starters. As his title as “sixth man” would have it, Sheehey’s ranks third in the teams assists, one away from Zeller, and only significantly trailing Oladipo.

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This is what Sheehey does: he mans up for his team. He drives down the court with speed and agility, looking for that open spot, setting the pick, and finding the steal. So why isn’t Sheehey a starter? Firstly, as a forward on a team with Cody Zeller and Christian Watford already fulfilling the position, there isn’t much space to add the talent. Secondly, like most, sometimes he cracks under pressure. His dominant and aggressive manner can be a detriment; he can lose focus and miss an opportunity, drop the ball, or overshoot. Regardless, any game without Sheehey would hurt the team immensely. During a 40-minute game, that best sixth man is undeniably critical. This is exactly as the Big Ten recognized him this year, awarding him the title Big Ten Sixth man of the Year.

Another reason Sheehey is worthy of recognition? His passion and drive make him an emblem of Hoosier basketball. Sheehey plays hard all the time, fumble or on-point, he offers his 100% effort every time he is called on court. It’s ironic his jersey number is zero. Maybe it signifies zero percent slack.

The Revival

In the 2011-2012 college basketball season, the Indiana University student body experienced a rush of optimism unbeknownst since the Final Four upset against Duke. But in the NCAA Championship game of that 2002 season, Maryland claimed the national title over Indiana, and while fireworks illuminated the prideful Maryland, Bloomington was ignited in a very different way–extreme havoc had been unleashed on the campus.

I remember the 2002 Cinderella season. I was in third grade, and I hazily recall principal’s booming voice over the loud speaker as he announced proudly that the Hoosiers were advancing in the March Madness tournament. I honestly cannot tell you whether the team had just reached the Sweet Sixteen, Elite Eight, or Final Four, but I do remember that for two weeks our school hallway gleamed red. If you weren’t wearing a red shirt of some sort or black war paint, you better have on those silly candy-striped pants.  I distinctly remember when one girl in my class came to school in all blue, the color of our arch nemesis of the season—the Duke [Blue] Devils. When Indiana upset the Blue Devils in the Final Four, we all decided to forgive Cassie in order to fully enjoy and embrace the victory. But when the Hoosiers fell short in the National Championship, the aura of disappointment far transcended my elementary school grounds. The streets of Bloomington were chaotic as enraged students took the streets by storm.

They always say good things come to those who wait. Whoever they were, they were right. A decade later, the Hoosiers were back, fronted by forward Cody Zeller of Washington, Indiana. Zeller comes from a basketball dynasty. He follows in his brothers’ footsteps as both lead their NCAA teams to success before joining the ranks of NBA athletes.

When Zeller emerged as an outstanding freshman, the crowd started taking note of other critical players. Watford with the threes, Oladipo with the dunks—there was obvious talent to be taken advantage of. My classmate’s older brother Jordan Hulls, whom I know from high school as Jordie, became a familiar face to more than just the native Bloomington crowd. As a team leader, Hulls commanded the court, organizing his team as each play demanded, and the townies relished the success of their old high school star.

The moment that cemented the Hoosier Nation’s revival? Easy. Indiana Hoosiers buzzer defeat of number one ranked University of Kentucky. In that fateful game, basketball enthusiasts from across the world watched one of the most memorable match ups of the season. Maybe I’m slightly biased, but when I sat in my friend’s room, eyes glued to his 22 inch TV, in the company of friends who asked me “why are they using the term field goal in basketball?”,  I swear to have witnessed one of the most monumental moments of the year. In the last minute of the games, even those who were naïve to the workings of basketball were enthralled by the intensity of the last few minutes, but even I didn’t predict what was coming. Words can barely describe it adequately. If you missed it, watch this.  Of course, my friends were in that crowd of Hoosiers that rushed to the court. I’m really not bitter about having come to school in D.C. I love this place. But man, wouldn’t it be awesome to have experienced the energy of hundreds stampeding the Assembly Hall?!