Day 5: Indiana | Traveling Violations
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – It was stark and obvious and a clear sign of things to come. Walking into a preseason Indiana practice on last year's Road to College Hoops was seeing an Indiana team that didn't look like an Indiana team.
Talent? Not enough. Depth? Not enough. Experience? Not enough.
In the end that means not enough wins. IU went 14-15 to post its first losing season since 1970, two years before Bob Knight arrived to make the Hoosiers perhaps the nation's premier program. It lost seven games at home. There was discontent in the locker room.
It was bad.
A year later, in this case a sunny Southern Indiana Saturday, and everything is different.
Star guard Bracey Wright is healthy, not just trying to recover from a back injury. Returning guys such as Patrick Ewing Jr. and Marshall Strickland are older and bigger. Experienced transfers add practice depth.
A group of touted freshman led by forward D.J. White and Robert Vaden provide an infusion of talent.
This looks like the kind of team the Hoosiers long have fielded.
"You walked in last year and you walked in this year and it just jumped out at you," said Indiana coach Mike Davis, standing courtside after a physical three-hour practice. "Even when we played for the national championship [in 2002], Jared Jeffries is a monster, but who else is going to score for you?
"We had a really good team that played real good team basketball. But we didn't have this."
Davis was not, we repeat not, predicting another run to the national championship game, but it is clear that entering his fifth season as head coach he believes his program has turned the corner.
The reality is that it needs to. Indiana is not the kind of place you can string together losing seasons and survive as coach. Adding to the pressure is the challenge Davis still faces connecting with a fan base that includes plenty of Knight loyalists.
The soft-spoken Alabama native has no relationship with his former boss and still is trying to come into his own here. That makes this a critical year.
Davis bristles at some of the criticism, though.
"I don't really care what people say because I know I am doing a great job," Davis said. "I always say this and some people take it the wrong way [but] what I've done at Indiana with the personnel I've had has been unbelievable.
"From [the 2002 team] we've got one guy, Jared Jeffries, still playing basketball. Normally you play for the championship and you have two [NBA players] and three or four guys playing overseas.
"Yes, Indiana is Indiana but I have not had all of these McDonald's All-Americans, all these NBA players. Take anybody and give them my schedule and my personnel, and they win 80 games and play for a national championship and that's pretty good.
"They've done a good job."
The counterargument here is that Davis is the one in charge of bringing in that talent. The program is suffering from two weak recruiting years. Knight was fired on the eve of the 2000-01 season, and Davis was named interim coach. He worked to keep the job, not recruit what would now be his senior class.
Then after playing for the national title, Davis made a run at a number of high-profile recruits – Charlie Villanueva, Kris Humphries, Luol Deng, Lawrence Roberts and Sean May – and missed on all of them.
As a result he went into last season with almost no front line and limited depth. Adding to the problem was Wright's back. The guard couldn't even jog until September and never got his game fully on track.
IU wound up struggling to score – and struggling to win.
Now Davis has a great freshman class and another strong group of newcomers next year, including two Auburn transfers, an Australian big man and an athletic swingman from Arizona. Now he believes he will have the personnel to win.
He isn't getting any breaks from what might be the most competitive schedule in the nation. In December, IU plays a six-game stretch of North Carolina, at Connecticut, Notre Dame, Kentucky (in Louisville), at Missouri and Charlotte.
If Indiana is going to be better, it had better be better right away.
"We have better players now that can score," Davis said. "We have a lot more competitive practices."
That is obvious at first glance.
How this critical season looks at the end will determine a lot about the future at Indiana.