The line for autographs stretched from a landing on the Assembly Hall concourse ramp, down to the lobby, out the door and around Cook Hall and was constantly moving for about an hour and a half. Not everyone who came for a signature stayed for the awards ceremony, but there were still several hundred fans in the Assembly Hall stands just to watch speeches and videos.
It was just one more microcosm of the relationship the Hoosier fanbase had with this 2011-12 Indiana men’s basketball team, one that will maintain a special place in IU lore despite the fact that it not hang a sixth banner or even reach its ninth Final Four.
Indiana play-by-play broadcaster Don Fischer said during the ceremony that this team “brought the fun back to Indiana basketball,” by reaching the Sweet 16 and knocking off three top five teams just four years after the program imploded amidst the Kelvin Sampson recruiting scandal. Thursday night’s event — which came more than a month after the Hoosiers were eliminated from the NCAA Tournament but just before the end of the semester — was the fans’ last chance to thank this team, and this Hoosier squad’s last chance to return the favor as a unit.
“Tonight, this is probably, in all honesty, the last time we’ll ever all be together in this setting, like this,” Indiana coach Tom Crean said to the crowd before turning to his players. “… I hope you guys take it in. I really do. Take it in. This isn’t the last time you’re going to see each other, but it’s the last time we’re all going to be together like this. (He turned back to the crowd) There’s no way we wanted to do this without all of you. So thank you for being here.”
By the time it was over, every player, every coach and just about every support staff member had the microphone in his hands, trying in some way to express what made this team special and unique. Athletic trainer Tim Garl, who just finished up his 31st season with the staff, had the most blunt assessment of that, but perhaps the most apt.
“What pleases me the most — and the parents should be credited with this — is you don’t come to work in the morning and wonder what knucklehead did something stupid last night and you’ve gotta read it in the paper,” Garl said. “You don’t take kids and say, ‘Hey, there’s a drug test today,’ or something like that and worry about are they going to pass it or not? And if they don’t pass it, what are we going to have to put up with? … Winning is not the only thing. It’s awfully important, but another factor is we have great kids. We have something we can be really proud of.”
Now that this team is off to take its place in Indiana history, the Hoosiers that remain will try to again create something they can have pride in for the 2012-13 campaign. The group will stay just about as in tact as it possibly can. It loses four seniors — possibly five, depending on whether or not Matt Roth uses his fifth year of eligibility — but both IU players who considered leaving the program early for the NBA will return.
Junior forward Christian Watford refused to say where he heard he was projected to be taken in the draft had he left early, but said he felt compelled to stay to help next year’s squad go further.
“I just wanted to come back and be a part of this team,” Watford said. “That’s the main thing why I wanted to come back. I feel like we can do some great things next year. I’ll come back and help build on where we left off from.”
Freshman center Cody Zeller also had the opportunity to play professionally with projections saying he could be a lottery pick. However, the Big Ten’s Co-Freshman Player of the Year and the player voted by the Hoosiers as the team’s Most Outstanding Player wasn’t ready to leave.
“It’s a tough process,” Zeller said. “It’s a lot of money. That’s why a lot of people, a lot of the guys, the Kentucky guys, all those guys left. I’m just not ready to grow up yet. Paying rent or getting a house. Doing all that stuff. Becoming an adult, I’m not ready for all that. I’m enjoying my college career on and off the court. I’m definitely happy to be here.”
The returning Hoosiers have already learned that with those two back, next season will take on a much different dynamic than the one that just passed. The official preseason rankings won’t be out until deep into the fall, but the day after Kentucky won the national championship, numerous publications proclaimed that Indiana should be the favorite for the 2013 national title with its top five scorers returning and a top five recruiting class coming in.
For now, they’re trying to act like that won’t change anything.
“It’s pretty cool,” junior guard Jordan Hulls said. “We’re going to have a bigger target on our back this year, but we can just use that and it doesn’t change our approach one bit. We’re going to work hard every single day. … We’re just going to approach it the same way that we always do.”
But things will change, if for no other reason than that the Hoosiers will lose the players who were part of Crean’s first recruiting class at Indiana, the ones who suffered through a 6-25 season as freshmen. Roth may or may not stay, but Verdell Jones, Tom Pritchard, Daniel Moore and Kory Barnett were a big part of what drove the Hoosiers to end three seasons of losing and what made the team as beloved as it was.
They are the ones who felt it when Crean said the group would never be together again.
“That hit real close to home,” said Jones, who is recovering from his ACL tear in the Big Ten tournament and hoping to hire an agent to play professionally overseas. “These guys have been my brothers for the past four years. Every single day I’ve seen these guys. These are my best friends. We hang out, eat together, do everything together. That’s a big change for me now. I won’t be able to see these guys every single day. It’s real sad, but hopefully I’ll be visiting them soon.”
Awards-Voted on by players
Most Outstanding Player — Cody Zeller
Most Improved Player — Will Sheehey, Victor Oladipo, Christian Watford
Leadership Award — Jordan Hulls
Landon Turner Inspiration Award — Verdell Jones III
Toughness And Tenacity Award — Cody Zeller
Mr. Hustle — Will Sheehey
Best Defender — Victor Oladipo
Hoosier Award — Cody Zeller
Student Athlete Award — Remy Abell