This post originally appeared at AssemblyCall.com, where we will be hosting a special edition of The Assembly Call IU Postgame Show tonight after Indiana and Purdue face off in Bloomington. Tonight’s show will start as soon as the Senior Speeches end.
Nearly four years ago today, in March of 2008, I flew into Dallas from Indianapolis and landed just in time to watch Indiana’s first round NCAA Tournament game with Arkansas.
It turned out to be a particularly awful game to watch as the 8th-seeded Hoosiers lost to the 9th-seeded Razorbacks 86-72. A year that had begun with such promise ended with a whimper.
Little did I know that game was merely one more crashing swing of a wrecking ball that was intent on obliterating Indiana basketball.
And obliterate it did.
By the time October of 2008 came around, all that was left from the team that took the floor against Arkansas was two walk-ons. Everything else was new, including the coach. And what followed was an experience that we all remember all to well: our immensely proud program, one used to winning 20 games a season, losing at least 20 games for three straight seasons.
Until this year.
As we sit here today, on March 4th, the Indiana Hoosiers are 23-7, 10-7 in the Big Ten. We have beaten three top-5 teams in Assembly Hall. We are not just a lock to make our triumphant return to the NCAA Tournament, we are a win over Purdue and a strong showing in the Big Ten Tournament away from a potential #3 seed.
We are, in almost every sense of the word, back.
And while Cody Zeller, Victor Oladipo, Will Sheehey, Jordan Hulls, Christian Watford, Derek Elston, Maurice Creek, Remy Abell, and Austin Etherington all have played a part in the resurgence of Indiana basketball this season, there is something those guys do not have in common with five of their current teammates, with Tom Crean, and with the legions of devoted fans across the globe who never once gave up on this program we love so much.
Those guys weren’t around from the rubble. From Ground Zero. They didn’t endure the worst of the worst: the 6-25 debacle of a season in which everyone felt blessed by the stars to just get one Big Ten win.
But Verdell Jones, Tom Pritchard, Matt Roth, Daniel Moore, and Kory Barnett were around for that season, and for the 10-21 season that followed, and for the 12-20 season that followed that. And they are still here, now ready to take on Purdue with a 24th overall win, an 11th conference win, and 5th place in the Big Ten on the line, in Assembly Hall, on Senior Day.
And as far as I’m concerned, these five young men deserve as loud an ovation as has ever been given to a group of IU seniors.
For context: I came of age as an IU fan in the late 80s and early 90s. My dad, by virtue of his assistant coaching position under the great Bill Mallory, had season tickets – and good ones too, just a handful of a rows behind the IU bench. He originally took my mom, but after Bob Knight grabbed a fistful of Delray Books’ jersey one game, she decided IU basketball wasn’t for her. I’m glad she made that decision, because it most definitely was for me.
The first IU team I have vivid memories of is the 89-90 Hoosiers. I was 8. That squad featured a freshman you may have heard of: Calbert Cheaney. (Remember, as much as people are hyping the 2012 Indiana recruiting class, that 1989 IU recruiting class was among the best in the country, perhaps even the best in history, and remains one of the most fruitful in IU basketball history.)
I tell you this because it sets the stage for me explaining why Senior Day 1993 has always been by far the most memorable for me…and why it means so much to compare this year’s group to that year’s.
On that day, and I was in attendance, Calbert, Greg Graham, Matt Nover, and Chris Reynolds all spoke, having wrapped up a 17-1 Big Ten season, a #1 seed in the tournament, and sitting on the cusp of what we all thought was a surefire run to the Final Four even with Alan Henderson gimping around on his busted knee. Things didn’t turn out that way, but I didn’t know that while listening to my heroes speak, especially Calbert, who remains my favorite athlete of all-time to this day.
I never thought I’d ever respect a class of IU seniors like 11-year old me respected those four.
But I was wrong.
I may not worship Verdell Jones like I worshiped Calbert Cheaney; and I will never discuss Matt Roth nor Tom Pritchard among the best players in IU history like I do Greg Graham; and neither Daniel Moore nor Kory Barnett may have played, combined, the minutes that Chris Reynolds and Matt Nover played in a single season; but what Verdell, Matt, Tom, Daniel, and Kory have done for IU basketball means as much to 30-year old me as what the 1993 seniors’ accomplishments meant to 11-year old me.
What’s funny, I suppose, is that 30-year old me still views IU athletics in the same idyllic way I did back then. When Bill Mallory and Bob Knight were in charge of the football and basketball programs, respectively, Indiana won and did so with class, by the rules, and with kids who were good students and positive representatives of the university. I always felt that IU athletics were different, that we were proof you could win and be proud of it, with little capitulation.
Obviously both programs have given me plenty of reason to question that childhood belief over the past decade. With respect to basketball specifically, I never thought I’d have to be embarrassed to be an IU fan, but I was during the last fourth of that 2007-08 season and the awful aftermath that followed it.
Not only was our program revealed to be breaking rules, but it was filled with kids who did not embody the characteristics I’ve always ascribed to IU student athletes. It’s not that I think athletes, especially IU athletes, need to be perfect; but I don’t think that asking scholarship athletes at one of the most storied basketball programs in the country to take school seriously, stay away from drugs, and give maximum effort over time is too much to ask. But, as we learned, our program was filled with kids who felt otherwise.
Ultimately, when all the dust and potted plants had settled, it left us with two walk-ons, some transfers, and an unheralded group of freshmen for Tom Crean’s first season, the aforementioned 6-25 debacle.
But oh how we’ve grown since then, and so much credit goes to the five seniors who will suiting up today for the final time in Assembly Hall.
23-7 is great. 10-7 in conference is great. Getting back to the tournament is wonderful. But doing it with class and in a way we can all be 100% proud of is what has made this such a special season.
- Did you know that, after dipping to a low of 818, our current APR is a perfect 1,000?
- While other in-state schools are being forced to kick players off of their team and deal with key starters being jailed, there has not been one peep of off-court trouble from the Hoosiers.
- And while the quality of IU’s recruits seems to increase by the year, no one thinks Tom Crean is using anything other than his indefatigable work ethic and every edge within the rules to leverage the awesome power of the program he leads into convincing the best of the best in the state of Indiana to stay home and play for the state school.
Granted, that last bullet point has very little to do with this year’s seniors, but it is another example of how everything is falling into place for IU basketball fans who a) never gave up on this program and b) never compromised what IU basketball stands for.
To me, and to many others, it’s always stood for more than winning. IU basketball has stood for winning the right way. Tom Crean and these five seniors have done a great job of leading this program over the last four years back to a place where we are winning, and doing the it in that right way.
So I want to say thank you to Kory Barnett for being a humble, hard-working, valiant practice player who helped to make everyone in this program better. He is now the “human victory cigar” and he’s earned such a moniker. His contributions may not show up in the box score, but they are valuable.
And I want to say thank you to Daniel Moore, who has played his fair share of big minutes for Indiana over the past four years. This is a kid who could have gone elsewhere to play basketball, but he followed his dreams and became a Hoosier when it wasn’t necessarily convenient to do so. Daniel is incapable of not providing a spark when he comes into a game; he just is a spark. For a program that has been so unsuccessful for the last three years before this one, we’ve needed every spark we can get. Daniel brought it.
I also want to thank Matt Roth. We all remember his amazing shooting performance against Penn State this year, much like his ridiculous performance against Ohio State before that in which he hit nine 3-pointers in one game. This year, Roth has led by example in filling his role about as well as any player can, which includes making a ridiculous 55.4% from downtown. I’ve always felt a special kinship with Roth because I too was almost exclusively a long-range marksman when I played in high school. Players like us have value and can fill important roles. Roth has, as evidenced by his ability to continue filling a pivotal role even as the roster continues to get more talented.
Of course I want to thank Tom Pritchard. Not only did Pritch give us one of the single greatest moments of the last four years when he threw down this dunk against Minnesota, but he too, like Roth, has found a way to evolve as the roster has evolved and become a crucially important player this year. Pritchard has sparked IU on a number of occasions this year with hustle plays, rebounds, and tough D. He’s been through the battles and plays like a man. We’ve needed it. And Pritch has brought it.
And, finally, I want to thank Verdell Jones.
Verdell has, as we all know, been a lightning rod for consternation from IU fans over the last four years. I understand why, and I’ve chimed right in with my “Damnit Verdell!” moments; but when you take a step back and look at this kid’s career, I don’t see how you can be anything but impressed.
Coming into today’s game against Purdue, Verdell has scored 1,340 points. That’s a lot of points. Only a select few players in IU’s storied history have reached the 1,000 point barrier, and Verdell Jones is one of them.
Has his defensive effort and attentiveness lacked at times? Yes.
Has his offensive decision making lacked at times? Yes.
But ask yourself this: when, other than the last handful of games since he returned from injury, has Verdell truly played a role that’s suited both his considerable skills as well as his limitations? I’ll posit: never. And have you noticed how his overall efficiency and effectiveness have improved?
Verdell isn’t AJ Guyton; he isn’t Greg Graham; he isn’t Michael Lewis; and he isn’t Tom Coverdale; even though people seem to have, at different times, wanted him to be one of those guys or all of them rolled into one. Let’s be blunt: Verdell Jones isn’t a guy who should have been starting from Day One as one of the go-to scorers on a Big Ten team. He was thrust into that role – and the responsibility and accountability that comes along with it – because of the carnage IU’s program had become when he got here.
I understand every ounce of the frustration that has accompanied Verdell’s time as a Hoosier, but how can you look at the totality of Verdell’s contributions to IU basketball and not consider them to be a resounding success?
I know we wished he played a bit more focused on defense sometimes, but I’m willing to cut him some slack for being part of a Hoosier resurgence in the classroom.
And I know that we’ve all wished some of those dribbles were more heads up, and that the passes were more on point, but I’m willing to cut him some slack because clearly his decisions off the court have been much better than some of the turnovers on the court that caused so much frustration.
My point is this: Verdell Jones has represented this program incredibly well off the court during his four years, and when you consider the circumstances of his playing career, he’s represented it pretty damn well on the court as well.
If you need proof of both, look no further than his mature acceptance of a new role since returning from injury, and how he is thriving in it. Finally, after four years, Verdell is playing the role he always should have had at Indiana. And he’s kicking ass. Keep that in mind when you put his career into perspective.
It’s 3:49 am where I’m at right now, and I cleared 2,000 words a while ago. I could probably write another 5,000 and still feel like things were left unsaid for this group and what they mean to me personally.
Let me just wrap everything up by saying this, to Verdell, Tom, Matt, Daniel, and Kory:
Thank you for helping to lead this program out of the depths from 6-25 to 23-7.
But much more than that, thank you for leading this program from 818 to 1,000, and from fear and shame to pride and excitement.
People think we Indiana fans are crazy for actually believing there is more to college sports than just winning. Maybe we are. But I’ll never apologize for being committed to demanding both: winning and doing it the right way.
You guys embody it. You’ve led us back to it. You are it.
Verdell, Tom, Matt, Daniel, and Kory, the best compliment I can give you five is that you guys are Indiana basketball. You represent everything IU basketball was, everything we hoped it could become again four years ago, and everything it is now. The winning finally came this year, but the most important elements came four years ago. You guys came: guys who cared, who worked hard, who did the right things, and who set the right examples.
There have been a lot of great senior classes come through Indiana during my time as a fan and student. None have ever compared to the 1993 class. Until today.
I can’t wait to listen to your speeches, and I can’t wait to hear the ovation you get from the folks in Assembly Hall. I firmly believe it should be one of the loudest that any senior class has ever gotten. You five deserve it.
Thank you for persevering, and never giving in to defeat, criticism, frustration, or fear. Thank you for helping to rebuild this program I love so much.
Indiana basketball is back, and it’s back because of you.
- Jones finally feeling rewards of his journey – Inside The Hall
- Indiana seniors take long road back – Washington Post