One last look back …

I am like you in this way, at least: as I watch the basketball games tonight my mind will flash back to September and the promise Indiana’s team seemed to have then.

Not because I am a fan. My job precludes me from that. But if you choose to make your living writing about sports, you must have some reason for caring about the games they play. Going into this year, I had this reason: I wanted to know what it took to become a truly elite team. I remember talking to some of my mentors and friends about the great teams they had covered. What made them great? When could you tell they would be great? What set them apart?

Say what you will about Kelvin Sampson — and many have and will continue to do so — but the guy knew how to motivate players. That seemed like it would be enough, given that he had Eric Gordon and D.J. White to work with. The rest of the ingredients didn’t seem to matter all that much; everyone just figured they would come along.

Of course, I learned nothing about what it takes to become a special team this year. I learned, mostly, about ruin. What causes it and what it causes.

Many of you who are subscribers to the Web site may have already read this series on Indiana’s season, but I thought I would offer it here for those who hadn’t. Because as much as everyone is ready to move on to another new era, there is no easy, instant escape from the events of the past year.

———-

IU BASKETBALL: SEASON IN REVIEW
Unlocking the mystery
Trip to Bahamas served as first step in revealing Hoosiers’ potential

By Chris Korman 331-4353 | [email protected]
March 25, 2008


 

Chris Korman and Zak Keefer talk about the end of IU’s season

 

Report: Skiles to interview with IU

News reports on Indiana’s search for a new basketball coach continue to be intermittent. The New York Daily News reported Sunday that Scott Skiles, the former Bulls coach who has a home in the area, was scheduled to interview for the position. The Daily News also quoted Knicks coach and former Indiana player Isaiah Thomas backing interim coach Dan Dakich for the job.

Meanwhile, spokespersons for Pittsburgh coach Jamie Dixon and Wright State coach Brad Brownell, both rumored to be possible candidates, said that neither would comment on his employment future when reached by the Herald-Times Monday.

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The Indiana men’s basketball team gathers for a cheer at midcourt of Assembly following introductions at the Hoosier Hysteria event to start the season on Oct. 12, 2007. Chris Howell | Herald-Times
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Members of Eric Gordon’s family cheer on the Hoosiers during a game in the Bahamas last September. Chris Korman | Herald-Times
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Editor’s note: This is the first in a five-part series reviewing the 2007-08 Indiana men’s basketball season.

It was a thick Sunday morning. The sun diffused across the sky in an unexpectedly dim way.

The players on the Indiana basketball team were tired. They stood, sat, slumped or leaned on the stairs and rails outside of the national gym of the Bahamas, a facility the likes of which many had not had to play in since they were young children.

The low-slung building contained one perpetually sweltering court and sat amid acres of land where grass could not fully take root, and the heat-hardened ground was unable to absorb the brief rain storm that had swept through earlier.

There they were, the mighty Indiana Hoosiers, hoping that someone would arrive to unlock the gym.

Head coach Kelvin Sampson stood near the door waiting. He did not appear agitated but did bite nervously at his finger nails. Sampson had led the Hoosiers to a tropical island over Labor Day weekend for what is commonly called a foreign tour. Any NCAA team can take one every four years, provided they leave the country and face non-NCAA competition.

Coaches generally reserve the trips for years of significance. Taking one gives a coach 10 extra practices with which to implement his system and, in some cases, harden the team with games against more mature teams that have been playing together for years.

So far, Indiana’s players had at least shown signs of becoming a Sampson team, hustling after loose balls in a gym where 50 people watched and the games meant nothing to any voters or selection committee members.

But they had done it against competition so inferior that it left them thoroughly bored — no other words fits — and, in retrospect, made their accomplishments seem suspect rather than a sure indication that a team with seven new players was ready to be coached.

Six of those players, led by a guard who was already a legend in Indiana when he stepped onto campus, Eric Gordon, had spent the early days of August barnstorming across the state, outclassing rag-tag teams every step of the way.

Indiana fans being Indiana fans, they did not merely marvel at the athleticism of Gordon as he zipped to the rim or the old-school smoothness of Jordan Crawford. A few focused on the fact that 320-pound forward DeAndre Thomas was too nimble to be true, or the way the ball followed Jamarcus Ellis, but the standard reaction went something like this: “Just wait until Sampson gets a hold of ’em.”

A year earlier, Sampson had cobbled together the parts left by Mike Davis — as well as two last-ditch junior college recruits of his own — into a team that finished third in the Big Ten and found a way to play with UCLA in the second round of the NCAA Tournament as the Bruins made their way to a second-straight Final Four.

Sampson took an overly amped point guard, Earl Calloway, and transformed him into a game-changing, on-ball defender. He channeled the boisterous fearlessness of an enigmatic guard with questionable shot selection into the unflinching bravery a leader needs, and Rod Wilmont was born anew. Sampson got the most out of gritty walk-on Errek Suhr, and nursed D.J. White back from foot injuries by challenging him like he’d never been challenged.

What would he do with a resurgent White and the once-prodigal Gordon?

Surely he’d better be able to shape his team in the second year of establishing his program. His ways were no longer a complete mystery. White and the other returning veterans had the entire summer to tell the new recruits about all the things that Sampson crowed about so frequently.

The 6 a.m. preseason workouts.

The dedication to the boring parts of the game, such as rebounding and diving for loose balls.

The lock-down defense.

The intensity. The toughness.

If Gordon and his crew of young talent could adapt, Indiana would become, few doubted, a legitimate player on the national stage.

It would return to where it belonged.

All of that seemed to be ahead of the Hoosiers as they idled outside the locked gym, most of them quiet and listening to music without so much as making eye contact with each other or any of the coaches.

What bothered Sampson was that he had lost control of the situation. Somewhere, someone had slept in. Or was enjoying an extended breakfast. Or was saying his goodbyes at church.

Whatever. As a result, Sampson’s team sat doing nothing but the opposite of what it needed to be doing to become his type of team.

His plan had been: walk off the bus, walk through the doors, make a brief stop at the locker room, get on the floor, run through drills, play the game, win by 50, make another brief stop in the locker room and get back on the bus.

Not a second wasted.

Finally, the key arrived. The Hoosiers did as Sampson had planned, until the part about playing a game. The other team had failed to show up on time.

Sampson, back in control, did not flinch. The team would practice. He would bark at them as they sweated through the unexpected, their legs already wobbly from two games that weekend.

When the opponent did arrive, the Hoosiers still had no trouble and won 115-63.

A month and a half of pre-season conditioning later, Sampson unveiled the team to the public at Hoosier Hysteria. Ever-eager to discuss his players’ off-the-court success, Sampson opened the night by discussing the fact that freshman Eli Holman had been declared eligible by the NCAA and Thomas had lost 50 pounds since arriving.

The players came bouncing out of the locker room, dancing and mugging for the cameras or waving for the fans to scream even louder, as if that were possible.

Sampson could not get them to stop chanting his name when he came out.

But he seized an opening.

“This night celebrates the start of a brand-new season,” he said. “And we can’t tell you how excited we are to get started.”

Two days later, Indiana sent out a press release headlined, “IU Discloses New Sanctions on Men’s Basketball Staff.”

Kelvin Sampson was in trouble.

Again.

———–

IU BASKETBALL: SEASON IN REVIEW
Winning made overlooking NCAA troubles easy
Gordon, top-10 ranking, 17-1 start had fan base in love with Sampson

By Chris Korman 331-4353 | [email protected]
March 26, 2008


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Assistant coach Rob Senderoff was the last coach to join Kelvin Sampson’s staff at Indiana, and the first to be dismissed when allegations of recruiting violations surfaced last summer. Jeremy Hogan | Herald-Times
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Editors’ note: This is the second in a series reviewing the 2007-08 Indiana men’s basketball season.

Shortly after he arrived at Indiana, Kelvin Sampson had one open spot on his coaching staff.

He needed a young assistant who had ties in the region and would never take a day off.

So he called coaches he knew in the MAC, since those schools generally recruited the Midwest heavily.

He was not seeking recommendations. He wanted information.

“Who’s the one assistant in your conference you’d most like to see leave?” he asked.

Who, in other words, is the toughest guy to compete against on the recruiting trail?

Repeatedly, the answer came: Rob Senderoff.

So he made their wishes come true and hired Senderoff.

Senderoff was then the top assistant at Kent State and, in his fourth year with the Golden Flashes, had developed a reputation for being the sort of recruiter who could find and lure difference-makers to a program that otherwise didn’t stand out from the teams it competed against.

He was ready for the a job like Indiana, and would provide the youthful ambition to a staff that already included veteran assistants with strong in-state ties in Jeff Meyer and Ray McCallum.

Senderoff would also become — either through his own over-zealousness or under the direction of the man who gave him a chance at a big school — the assistant coach most responsible for making sure that Sampson’s first full class at Indiana wouldn’t be hampered by sanctions or the usual slow-going when a program goes through change.

And so it was Senderoff’s name that appeared most often in a report compiled by Indiana and the Indianapolis law firm Ice Miller that detailed numerous possibly impermissible calls made to recruits during that first year. It was Senderoff who was charged with connecting recruits to Sampson through three-way calls, in violation of Sampson’s previous sanctions.

Indiana announced that it had discovered the new violations on Oct. 14, a gloomy Sunday less than a month from the start of the season.

How surreal.

Sampson’s arrival had been met with the most tepid of responses by IU fans who knew he was under investigation by the NCAA. When his punishment was announced less than two months later, it was harsher than anyone, including Sampson, had expected.

What Sampson deemed mistakes caused by sloppy record keeping, the NCAA had decided was “deliberate noncompliance.” As a result, Sampson would be unable to go on the road recruiting in his first year at Indiana, one in which the Hoosiers were already fighting to catch up on recruits who had dismissed Indiana but might reconsider with Sampson at the helm.

Then, a few things happened. A player named Eric Gordon did, in fact, change his mind because of Sampson’s arrival. Only the top guard in the country and an Indianapolis native, his decision in October 2006 began the process of Hoosiers fans ignoring Sampson’s faults and falling, falling, falling for the charismatic coach.

Then, they watched his first team diving all over the floor and taking pride in defense. They saw methodical Indiana basketball being played by Indiana, again and finally.

By March, they were in love and convinced, like only lovers can be, that nothing would ruin the feeling.

And, in truth, the revelation of more possible recruiting violations didn’t exactly wipe the feeling away. At least not immediately. Indiana had discovered the calls over the summer and gone into immediate damage control. The university hired Ice Miller to conduct a thorough investigation into the coaching staff’s actions.

Ice Miller has a history of hiring attorneys away from the NCAA to work with universities who must deal with the notoriously insular institution. As a result, their findings read more like the defense of a client written by a former prosecutor who thought they knew the game well enough from both sides to win any case.

It worked. In the court of opinion, at least. Fans were disheartened, but seemed to believe IU’s assertion that the infractions were secondary in nature and Sampson’s excuse that a lack of attention to detail and not anything more insidious had caused the latest problems.

It didn’t hurt that by then the pre-season speculation had begun churning. The Hoosiers were being talked about as Final Four contenders. They were seen as one of the top two teams in the Big Ten — along with Michigan State — and Gordon and D.J. White were seen as all-conference sure bets and possible All-Americans.

In a calculated public relations move, the university and athletic department reinforced the message that it would make sure the basketball team did things by the rules when it forced Senderoff to resign in late October and replaced him with Dan Dakich, the former Indiana player who had returned as Director of Basketball operations over the summer.

As part of his buyout package, Senderoff received a $46,000 payment and almost $20,000 for unused vacation time.

He had not taken a single day off since starting at Indiana.

The Hoosiers were ranked ninth in the country by both the coaches and the media, and began regular-season play on Nov. 12 at Assembly Hall against Chattanooga.

Indiana would eventually win 99-79, with Gordon scoring 33 points, dishing out four assists, making three steals and grabbing six rebounds. Him being everything he was supposed to be obscured the fact that Indiana had started slowly — it was behind 50-42 at half — and had allowed 12 offensive rebounds.

As Indiana barreled through a weak non-conference schedule, there was but one hiccup: a loss to Xavier in the final of the Chicago Invitational over Thanksgiving weekend. The loss shocked a young Hoosiers’ team that had hardly been tested. To Sampson, losing to the veteran Musketeers was part of a learning process.

“The thing that struck me as the game went on was how veteran their guards were,” Sampson said at the time. “They just took it to us.”

“We just need to get more mature. Our six new guys, you could see how immature they were.”

Over the next 13 games, the Hoosiers seemed to be maturing. Or at least Sampson seemed to be pushing them in that direction. Armon Bassett and Jordan Crawford served three-game suspensions, but along the way there were too many signs of growth to think that Indiana was doing anything but developing the way a team needs to. Crawford stepped in for an injured Gordon and scored 20 points in a win against Kentucky. White became a double-double player almost every night and had 22 rebounds and 21 points against Michigan. Gordon led the league in scoring and made up for an often disjointed offense by getting to the free throw line frequently — which is exactly what Sampson had said would happen.

Heading into a January non-conference game with Connecticut, the Hoosiers were 17-1 and ranked No. 7 in the country.

There was one main criticism, though: they’d yet to beat a top 50 team.

Then, the Huskies showed up.

———-

INDIANA BASKETBALL: SEASON IN REVIEW
Sampson did his thing ‘good’ at Indiana
Former coach could woo a crowd but was testy if criticized

By Chris Korman 331-4353 | [email protected]
March 27, 2008


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Indiana coach Kelvin Sampson waves to the fans after the Hoosiers’ 62-58 win over Illinois on Jan. 13. Chris Howell | Herald-Times
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Editors’ note: This is the third in a series reviewing the 2007-08 Indiana men’s basketball season.

After 23 years as the basketball coach at schools where basketball did not mean nearly what it does at Indiana — there are few places that it does, of course — Kelvin Sampson had difficulty adjusting to many parts of his new job.

Catering to and schmoozing with donors and former players came easily. Sampson was tough and folksy, quick to give impromptu nicknames or joke at the expense of a friend. He fully embraced the idea that, at most times, he was the most important person in the room. But at the same time he could and would talk to anyone.

At one fund-raising event he asked for $8,000 from the attendants and received more than $20,000.

But Sampson was just as comfortable at the soup kitchen, where he took his team to serve meals. He emphasized to his players the need to give back, and they so often did.

What Sampson could not deal with, though, was the inevitable criticism that comes with the Indiana coaching job.

His outrage at being questioned was often evidenced in only small ways: once a caller to his radio show suggested he should use the word “well” instead of the word “good.” Sampson would always say “We played good.”

After quickly dismissing the caller with a sarcastic thank you, Sampson spent the balance of the show emphasizing his use of “good” in all the wrong places.

Imagine how irritated Sampson was as his team raced to a 17-1 record with the spread-and-drive offense he had installed and all a good portion of the fan base did was complain about the spread-and-drive offense. They asked: Where were the screens? The back cuts? The perpetual motion that makes teams such as Butler look so insistent, so schooled, so full of extra hustle?

Sampson did not waiver. To him, having superior skill — Eric Gordon was the best player he ever coached, and D.J. White ended up being as good a big man as he’d ever had — meant using a less complicated offense.

If a 17-1 record — and one of the most successful offenses in the conference — would be enough to placate most fans, it merely stirred debate among fans who feel the same way about learning the game of basketball as natives of Hawaii do about being sun-tanned.

It just happens.

Then, back-to-back games sent the debate into a fervent rage.

First, Connecticut beat Indiana in Assembly Hall — Sampson had been undefeated in his first 27 games there — with size and athleticism. Faced with a team that could counter it physically, Indiana had no way to change the pace, minimize a significant mismatch at forward or handle A.J. Price, the point guard who burgeoned into one of the best in college basketball as the Huskies won 68-63.

Five days later at the Kohl Center — which does not give up many wins to road teams — Bo Ryan’s Wisconsin team cooperated its way to a 62-49 win, with three players scoring in double figures, and the other four players chipping in at least four points each.

For Indiana, D.J. White scored 22 points, Eric Gordon scored 16 and no one else scored more than four.

Minutes after the game, Sampson attributed the loss to poor shooting and the jitters of young players still making their way through the Big Ten for the first time.

But two days later, on a Saturday, he held a soul-searching question and answer session with a small group or reporters after practice.

Sampson hardly ever had press availability of this sort. Generally, a press conference would be called for a weekday well ahead of time so television stations could arrange to travel to Bloomington.

Sampson would sit at a podium and answer questions for about a half hour, often chafing at and mocking the seemingly forced formality of the interaction.

But the surprise Saturday interview opportunity had drawn just one camera, belonging to the student television station. Only a few print reporters had made the trip, and because Indiana’s players were using the press room the session took place in the landing between the two sets of stairs that led from the South Entrance to the Indiana locker room.

In this setting, Sampson was more at ease and went immediately into what was on his mind, offering up the first question to the group.

“Why are we playing so badly?” he asked.

His answer seemed to be in line with what the fans had been saying. He took blame for the Hoosiers not playing together.

“We’re not doing things as a team, and that’s going to be our focus here as we move forward,” he said. “It’s not a shame, it’s not a crime, losing at Wisconsin. But you know what? We’re missing something. And as a coach, I’ve got to find it. That’s my job.”

At the time, Sampson’s heart-felt speech seemed to be the calculated posturing of a coach trying to deflect criticism from his players midway through the conference season.

Indiana beat Northwestern the next day as Gordon, who had injured his left wrist prior to the Wisconsin game and was playing with it wrapped, scored 29 points.

The Hoosiers went on the road later that week and beat Illinois in double-overtime, with Gordon’s banked 3-pointer to tie the game late in regulation ending up as the most memorable play of his trip to the gym where he — and the orange-clad fans who inhabit it — once thought his home games would be played.

The Hoosiers then went to Ohio State, still looking for a so-called signature win against a tournament-worthy team. White took over the game, scoring 21 points, and Indiana won 59-53.

Sampson called his team “slow-developing, by anyone’s standards” but expressed hope.

“This team keeps improving,” he said. “Sometimes it’s hard to see, but of course you see what you want to see.”

And so Sampson chose to see the potential his team still had.

Privately, though, he was wondering how he could possibly shepherd his players through what was to come.

Days earlier, Sampson had learned that the NCAA planned to charge him and his program with major violations.

But on this Sunday, he basked in the apparent simplicity of the situation: he was the coach of a basketball team that, midway through February, still seemed to have limitless potential. He lingered in the hallway, taking extra questions from reporters and bantering with national writers who had made the trip to see if Sampson’s team was the real thing — and had come away satisfied that it was.

Within days, those same writers would be calling for Sampson’s firing.

——–

IU BASKETBALL: SEASON IN REVIEW
Adversity breeds success
Coaches saw Sampson’s fall coming, but players remained loyal with two big victories

By Chris Korman 331-4353 | [email protected]
March 28, 2008


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Indiana guard Armon Bassett gives coach Kelvin Sampson a big hug during the last timeout of the second half during the Hoosiers’ 80-61 win over Michigan State on Feb. 16. Chris Howell | Herald-Times
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Editor’s note: This is the fourth in a series reviewing the 2007-08 Indiana men’s basketball season.

Coaches talk.

What they say depends on who they are talking to.

When they are talking to their peers — which is very often the case — they talk about basketball in a most gossipy way, indulging in chatter like the busiest body in a high school lunchroom.

As Indiana went through a two-game losing streak and then struggled to beat a sub-par Illinois team, assistant coaches within the Big Ten Conference were saying two things about the Hoosiers.

First, that Kelvin Sampson had lost control of his team. They were not basing this merely on the fact that two players, Jordan Crawford and Armon Bassett had been suspended prior to the Big Ten season. Those things happen, as they knew as well as anyone.

They saw the Hoosiers slipping away from Sampson because of what they didn’t do. They simply were not a Sampson team, and Sampson was not the kind of coach who negotiated with or made wiggle room for his players.

The second thing they discussed was what they knew would come soon: allegations levied by the NCAA against Indiana and Sampson.

The coaching staffs in the Big Ten — many harboring suspicions, if not downright anger, about the way Eric Gordon had been recruited after making a verbal commitment to Illinois — could predict the troubles that eventually befell Sampson because the NCAA’s case was substantially built on the testimony of players who were now playing for other schools, including Big Ten programs.

Only half of the buzz turned out to be true: on Feb. 13, with the Hoosiers scheduled to play Wisconsin later that night, Indiana University released the NCAA’s official letter of allegations.

But the coaches were wrong about Sampson losing his team. As the next ten days proved, the Hoosiers were so fiercely loyal to the coach that they were largely incapacitated by his eventual dismissal.

If Sampson had failed to mold his team the way he wanted to, it had been more a result of his difficulties dealing with a young, often immature team that was given a great deal of offensive freedom but ended up playing defense the same way — relying on its perceived athletic superiority and not paying enough attention to positioning or technique.

But there was also the fact that, according to multiple sources, much of Sampson’s time and energy throughout the year had been spent dealing with the NCAA investigation and trying to find a way to keep his job.

As his team prepared to play Wisconsin at home, with the chance to avenge an earlier loss and keep a share of first place in the conference, Sampson found himself dealing with charges that he “repeatedly provided the institution (Indiana) and the (NCAA) enforcement staff false information regarding his involvement in violations.”

Yet his team — which, according to the sources, was spared from Sampson’s stress by his insistence on keeping the same routine with the players — played well enough to win. But a tie-up (which Sampson thought should have been a travel on the Badgers) gave possession to Wisconsin with 15 seconds left and Brian Butch hit a banked 3-pointer with 4.5 seconds left to give Wisconsin a 68-66 win.

Afterward, Sampson read a statement declaring his innocence but declined to answer questions. Senior captain D.J. White said that the scandal would not hurt the team’s play.

By that time, discussions were already underway between top-ranking university administrators and the small group of athletic department leaders trusted by athletic director Rick Greenspan. As public opinion swayed heavily against Sampson — both in the media and from fans — they hatched a plan that would allow them to get rid of Sampson in the least financially harmful way.

University President Michael McRobbie announced the plan himself, standing in a moot court room at the law school. He owned the podium, his thick Australian accent an added tinge to his impatience, his anger, at having to deal with this situation — repeatedly — so early in his presidency.

He had appointed Greenspan and two others to review the NCAA’s allegations and decide if they were credible. Then, the committee would make a recommendation about what to do with Sampson.

For all the pomp of the announcement ceremony, it was ultimately transparent: Greenspan, everyone knew, was charged with finding a way to get rid of Sampson without paying him the balance of his due salary ($2.5 million) or putting the school at risk for a law suit.

He had seven days to solve the problem.

The two games that Indiana played in those seven days became the highlight of Indiana’s season.

The next day, Michigan State came to Bloomington, as did the popular ESPN show College GameDay for the first time in its two seasons on the air.

Assembly Hall filled early that morning with students eager to get on television. Some supported Sampsons — “Sampson can call me anytime,” their signs said — while others attempted to express their displeasure with the situation, only to be thwarted. Negative signs and shirts, some reading “Bring Back Integrity” had been confiscated and were piled near the turnstiles.

But Indiana could not control what the ESPN announcers said, and they talked almost exclusively about Sampson and his place in coaching purgatory. The students eventually chanted for them to “Talk about the game!”

Later that night, the game became worth talking about and even bought Sampson some good will. The Hoosiers clung together, finally finding a need to play a team game, and beat the Spartans 80-61 despite not having D.J. White in the second half because of injury. Gordon was irrepressible, scoring 28 points. Guards Armon Bassett and Jordan Crawford accepted their roles as offensive conductors and had five assists each.

Just three days later, the Hoosiers were eager to display once again that the heat on their coach had forged a team as good as any in the country. That included D.J. White, who returned from his strained knee and had 19 points and 15 rebounds as Indiana beat Purdue 77-68 despite 23 turnovers.

They did, in what would be their final game with him as coach, what Sampson had wanted them to do — the Hoosiers out-rebounded the Boilermakers, 46-30.

Niether Sampson nor the players acknowledged the finality of what happened at Assembly Hall that night. Sampson said he planned to continue coaching; Gordon said he didn’t expect Sampson to leave anytime soon.

But the way Sampson had hugged a few of his players near the end of the game told the truth, and powerfully.

This was the end, and they were saying goodbye not only to each other but to the team they had been destined to become.

——–

IU BASKETBALL: SEASON IN REVIEW
Waiting the hardest part
Week of turmoil ends with Sampson accepting buyout, Dakich named interim head coach

By Chris Korman 331-4353 | [email protected]
March 29, 2008


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Members of the media surround IU guard Armon Bassett as he calls for a ride outside of Assembly Hall on Feb. 22. Bassett made no comment as everyone awaited word of coach Kelvin Sampson’s fate. Chris Howell | Herald-Times
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Editor’s note: This is the fifth in a series reviewing the 2007-08 Indiana men’s basketball season.

Karen Sampson was drinking a soda.

As she walked with her husband, Kelvin, down the ramp at Assembly Hall on his final day of work in that building, she held the 12-ounce, aluminum can and it shined, as did her smile, as a symbol of how startlingly life goes on even as dreams die.

It was shortly after 11 a.m. on Friday, Feb. 22, and Sampson was in the process of agreeing to a buyout that would pay him $750,000 sever his ties to a program he had come to restore and lead to a national title to close out his hall-of-fame career.

Until the night before, Sampson had passionately fought to keep his job. He pleaded with the university, invoking many of the themes he used to coach his teams: he wanted Indiana to show him loyalty, wanted the athletic department and administration to stand together with him in defiance of the favored — but beatable, he thought — opponent, the NCAA.

Athletic director Rick Greenspan would not stand with him.

University president Michael McRobbie would not stand with him.

With no teammates, Sampson saw no other option. He took the hush money and meandered away.

Bloomington had been buzzing with reporters and cameramen from around the country since Thursday afternoon. They had gathered in anticipation of something happening with Sampson because Greenspan had been asked by McRobbie to make a decision about the coach’s future by Friday.

On Thursday, the players came and went from Assembly Hall for a compliance meeting only to face questions and camera lenses, which they shrugged off or dodged.

D.J. White, who was catching the flu and going through his second mid-season coaching saga, had tried to cover his entire face with the hoodie on his gray Indiana sweatshirt. Having failed, he gently nudged a television crew away as it tried to follow.

These were days that no one enjoyed. The turmoil was even reflected in the weather: it switched from ice to snow to rain but rarely ceased. Something was always falling. Something was always making a mess of the ground below.

Late into Thursday night, Greenspan and his top deputy, Tim Fitzpatrick, huddled in the executive office suite at Assembly Hall. A small group of reporters waited outside. They were wondering what Greenspan had told the team earlier in the evening. They’d come to him in hopes that their unison would be a reason to listen.

Small groups of players — including D.J. White and Eric Gordon — had already met with university administrators and Greenspan earlier in the day and were quickly figuring out that, while they were being nodded and smiled at, they were not being given the full story or the chance to have a say in what happened to Sampson — in what happened to their own lives.

Greenspan told them, in that full-team meeting, that he was not sure what was going to happen with Sampson. Technically, that was true. Sampson was still hedging at the thought of resigning, and Indiana did not yet have the money needed to buy him out.

But the players had heard what was being reported widely: one way or another, Sampson would not be their coach after Friday. So they made a push to make sure that the team was still theirs; they asked that Ray McCallum, an assistant who had come with Samspon from Oklahoma and was involved in recruiting many of them, take over instead of Dan Dakich.

The players left Greenspan’s office at about 7:30 p.m., not knowing what would happen.

Shortly after midnight, Fitzpatrick ducked out the front door while Greenspan tried to scoot out the side door. He refused comment when the reporters successfully read the play and were able to catch him on his way out.

Friday brought more reporters and more intrigue, despite the forgone conclusion. Indiana had planned a 2 p.m. press conference to announce what it was doing with Sampson. As such, workers began setting up the Hoosier Room (a large dining hall in Memorial Stadium) shortly after lunch for that purpose.

Rick Greenspan finally sat down at the microphone at about 9 p.m.

Here is what took him so long: early in the day, Sampson was pushing for more money than Indiana was willing to give. Then, an anonymous donor offered to kick in a substantial amount to meet Sampson’s demands.

Shortly after a rough sketch of the financial deal was in place — with $550,000 of Sampson’s buyout coming from the donor — Greenspan called Dakich to his office to offer him the interim job. He held his first team meeting at about 12:30 that afternoon and his first practice three hours later.

The players had shown up to the team meeting. Seven out of 13 did not show up for the practice. The brief talk of a mutiny — it had at least been discussed by some of the players — was quashed when they all returned for a walk-through later that night.

At the press conference, Greenspan said that he felt the players would be able to move on with its promising season.

“It’s my expectation that as they heal emotionally,” he said, “and re-familiarize themselves with the coaching staff in new roles, they’ll continue to perform at a high level.”

The next morning, all 13 of Indiana’s players boarded a bus and then a plane and traveled to Evanston, Ill., for a game against a Northwestern team that had yet to win a conference game.

The Hoosiers shot well enough over the Wildcats’ zone — Armon Bassett was 4-for-7 from 3 and Jordan Crawford was 5-for-5 — to overcome a listless defensive game.

The re-familiarization with the coaching staff had begun.

The healing had not.

——–

IU BASKETBALL: SEASON IN REVIEW
Hoosiers’ last stand short-lived
Dakich issued final challenge at halftime of NCAA Tournament game, but IU could not answer

By Chris Korman 331-4353 | [email protected]
April 1, 2008


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Indiana guard Armon Bassett speaks glumly with the media in the locker room following the Hoosiers’ 86-72 loss to Arkansas in the first round of the NCAA Tournament at the RBC Center in Raleigh, N.C., on March 22. Chris Howell | Herald-Times
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Editor’s note: This is the last in a series reviewing the 2007-08 Indiana men’s basketball season.

Something happened in the locker room at the RBC Center.

It was halftime, and Indiana was only 20 minutes away from ending its season in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

Dan Dakich, the interim coach who had played for and been mentored by Bob Knight, no longer had a reason to coddle the Hoosiers.

He had taken over on Feb. 22 and immediately shown understanding when seven kids skipped his first practice. He didn’t take offense when the players wrote KS — for Kelvin Sampson — on their shoes the next day, or when many of them received text messages from their former coach later that night after narrowly beating Northwestern.

As the weeks wore on after Sampson’s departure, Dakich tried to take whatever control of the team he could. He was successful in getting the Hoosiers to play effective man-to-man defense in spurts but not with anything nearing consistent energy. Indiana was run out of the gym at Michigan State, then could not muster the care to handle a Penn State team depleted by injuries.

At the team’s post-season banquet — which took place between the Penn State loss and Big Ten Tournament — Dakich gently urged the team to move on from its disappointment over what happened with Sampson. After Indiana’s stunning loss to Minnesota on Blake Hoffarber’s last-second shot in its first game of the conference tournament, Dakich went public with his feeling that the time for mourning and moping had passed.

As he looked out upon the locker room a week later in Raleigh, N.C., the Hoosiers only trailed 37-30. Arkansas’ versatile wing man Sonny Weems had 13 points and big man Darian Townes had 10 points and six rebounds. Neither of those facts seemed to portend the end of Indiana’s season — it didn’t have a natural matchup for either of those guys and had expected them to get their points.

Indiana did have two All-Americans in D.J. White and Eric Gordon. That should have been enough to counter Arkansas.

But Gordon was struggling — he had two points on 1-of-7 shooting — and White was playing valiantly — 11 points, five rebounds — but his body was wearing down quickly. He’d need IV fluids after the game, as he had after several games since Sampson left.

Dakich, who admits to being “confrontational,” saw no other recourse but to try to motivate the team the ways he knew how. He challenged the players.

What happened next only the people in that locker room know for sure. By most accounts, the players did not lock their jaws and set out to prove Dakich wrong, the way Knight’s old teams did. There had been too much strife for that to happen, and there’s a good chance that Dakich — who has not spoken to the media since that night — foresaw what his outburst would cause. He wanted to see emotion — even if it was anger directed at him.

White responded. First in the locker room, with a blow up of his own.

Then, on the court.

Weems scored the first bucket of the second half.

White responded with a jumper in the paint. Half a minute later, he made a block and grabbed the rebound. He hit another jump shot at 18:34, then grabbed a defensive rebound and finished his flurry at 17:56 with a basket that made it 40-36.

It was not enough.

The Razorbacks shot 68.2 percent from the field in the second half and pulled away. White’s surge turned out to be Indiana’s last stand.

As the final seconds of his career ticked away, he sat on the bench with doctors kneading furiously at his cramped legs.

His face did not reflect their urgency. It was calm.

At the podium high above a small sea of reporters about half an hour later, Dakich made an impassioned plea to keep the job. He spoke of changing cultures and turning Indiana back to a program that did things the right way.

“I understand there’s a culture at Indiana, given the timing of all this,” he said. “There’s a lot of things transpiring behind the scenes with where the program has to go, and it has to be somebody that understands it. Or else you’re going to get yourself in a situation, just like we are.”

Less than two weeks later, most of what’s happening with Indiana basketball is still happening behind the scenes. Dakich is still holding out hope that he will keep the job and a growing number of former players support him.

On Monday, he dismissed two of the Hoosiers better returning players, Jamarcus Ellis and Armon Bassett. Both are veterans who have a strong following among the young players who remain in the program.

If a search committee led by Rick Greenspan opts for a coach other than Dakich — Washington State’s Tony Bennett and Tennessee’s Bruce Pearl have already turned down the job — the new coach would take over a program in shambles. Even if the most talented players on the current roster — Jordan Crawford, Brandon McGee and Eli Holman — do return, they are young and inexperienced. The top two recruits for the incoming class, Devin Ebanks and Terrell Holloway, have already opted out of their scholarships and are currently finding other places to play.

The new coach will be severely handicapped in his own recruiting efforts; Dakich and Sampson used most of the allotted recruiting days already and Indiana is still under self-sanctions that take away a scholarship and limit one assistant to on-campus recruiting only.

Meanwhile, fans and former players are weary. They have been led to believe that they were watching the new dawn of the program too often the past few seasons.

This time, they must know how long the night will be.

And how dark.

8 comments

  1. I’m not so sure I buy into that Sampson “knew how to motivate players” as you suggested.

    The only time they played with real passion this year was when his job was on the line.

    Xavier should not have destroyed us. UConn shouldn’t have either.

    And he sure didn’t leave them with any “Win one for the Gipper” speeches before he left as they completely folded.

  2. Laffy, I’ve watched Kelvin Sampson coach basketball for fifteen years; he knows how to motivate players.

    And, by the way, Laffy, teams lose games. It happens.

  3. These articles were fantastic, with great insight on just how big a mess this program was in, and still is. The articles also proved what we all knew: the only player with any heart or pride in his school, team, or the game itself was DJ.

    Despite what it will mean on the court next year, I am now convinced that Ellis and Bassett should not be allowed to return.

  4. He may have motivated them the other years, but he sure didn’t with this team.

    We played 3 decent, not great teams…..and they all KICKED OUR BUTTS.

    And, like I said, if he was such a great motivator, why did the team quit after he left?

  5. This is a great series and an accurate review of the season. I believe that Kelvin sold out to this team. Listening to folks that have watched him coach over the years, all were surprised at how this Sampson team played. The lack of effort, mouthing off to officials, and lack of defensive intensity were not part of Sampson’s past teams but were a part of this year.

    I think that when Kelvin convinced EJ to come to IU for one year, he believed he had a chance at a final four team and went for broke recruiting kids from the JC level that did not have the foundation to play disciplined team-first ball. He probably believed that he could manage these kids but there is a reason these young men were playing at the JC level and not at big time programs out of high school. I think that even Kelvin realized the problems late in the year as he was bringing in people like Kyle Taber, installing a zone defense, and just doing anything he could to keep the wheels on until the end of the season when he knew he would be rebuilding anyway.

    Kelvin sold out to try and have one good run and the lack of character of the kids he brought in came home to roost. Unlike when Knight was fired and you had kids like Fife, Hornsby, Coverdale, etc. these kids did not have the maturity necessary to overcome adversity and reverted to selfish and destructive behavior. Unfortunately for them, they will pay the biggest price in the end and will either be quickly forgotten or only be remembered for being part of one of the darkest chapters in IU’s basketball history.

  6. “And, like I said, if he was such a great motivator, why did the team quit after he left?”

    Umm…hmm…maybe because he was no longer in charge?

    How can you motivate a team you no longer coach?

    In addition, it looks to me like Kelvin has raised a pretty good kid in Kellen. In fact, he’s raised a great kid. Something tells me he demands discipline.

    Plus, like I’ve said, I’ve followed him for fifteen years. I think I know what I’m talking about. I’ve been in practices, and I have seen how Kelvin operates. I’ve taken classes with his players, and I know what he demands of them.

    You are pointing to one quote from a player with no context around it — and it’s not even a first hand quote.

    I’m here to tell you I know exactly what Sampson demands first hand, because I’ve been there — in the gym — to see it.

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