ALBANY, N.Y. – Indiana’s NCAA Tournament date with Kent State -- the game was played at 10 p.m. Friday at Albany’s MVP Arena -- was rife with an unwelcome reminder of what the Hoosiers once were.
Think of Kent State coach Rob Senderoff as an Indiana Ghost Of Christmas Past.
Mentally, Indiana fans have been able to put the turmoil of the Kelvin Sampson coaching era from 2006-08 inside that box in the closet no one wants to talk about.
Senderoff coaching against the Hoosiers (and possibly Sampson himself next weekend) floods all of the bad memories back to mind again.
For me? Someone who only watched Indiana’s meltdown from afar back in 2008, and as someone who didn’t have emotion attached to it via fan loyalty in any case? I can look back on the whole brouhaha of the time with a different kind of jaundice than Indiana’s fan prism would provide.
The book that was thrown at Sampson, Senderoff and Indiana seems pretty silly in hindsight. Excessive phone calls and texts? Much of what got the parties in hot water is not even an NCAA violation anymore.
The transfer portal, and especially NIL, have completely changed the perception of college athletics itself. By today’s standard, the punishments levied don’t seem to fit what now seems like a puny crime.
Hindsight tells me it was the NCAA at its old-school worst. Excessive phone calls seem to me to be a weird hill to make an example of a program over.
Again, though, that’s easy for me to say from an emotionless viewpoint.
For Indiana fans, the era represents a repudiation of what Indiana stood for. It was the climax of those weird post-Bob Knight transitional years in the 2000s where even Indiana’s most diehard fans didn’t know how to feel about the Hoosiers.
After all, Knight may have been a temperamental despot, but he was a despot that made the academic and off-court trains run on time. The denouement of Indiana under Sampson (and Senderhoff) felt like a loss of values that helped smooth over Knight’s jagged edges that came with his winning.
It’s been a struggle for Indiana to recover its pride. Tom Crean did an admirable job building Indiana back from the ashes of the post-Sampson period, but he never achieved elite consistency and paid a price for it. Archie Miller never got out of gear.
If Senderoff is the Ghost Of Christmas Past, what does Mike Woodson represent on the other bench? This isn’t intended to be written as the epilogue to the season, though it could be by the time you read this. It’s as good a time as any to take the temperature of the Indiana program under Woodson.
Certainly, Indiana fans have to feel better than they did in 2008. Or 2018 (under Miller) for that matter, but it still sometimes feels like Indiana’s fanbase is perpetually reserving judgment.
I don’t mean the reaction of Indiana’s social media and message board community, which like every other community for every other passionately-followed program, is on ludicrous Defcon-1 triggered mode at all times.
Take the game-to-game emotion out of it and think of it on a more nuanced level. Do you feel Woodson is leading Indiana’s program to the place you want it to be?
Again, from my outsider view, I see a lot of evidence he’s pulling Indiana in the right direction. I also see some signs of concern. My personal feeling is the scales weigh more towards the former but not so much the concerns aren't legitimate.
Certainly being a scion of Indiana’s glorious past doesn’t hurt Woodson's cause. Woodson has done a great job of representing himself as the man who can bring back the pride because he genuinely has that pride, having represented Indiana at a Big Ten-championship level.
He never shirks the high standards Indiana fans have for the Hoosiers. That alone wins Woodson goodwill. His plain-spoken, no BS air is also appealing.
Talent has come into the program under Woodson. Jalen Hood-Schifino’s emergence is proof of that.
Woodson commands respect, too. With both his Indiana and NBA background, there’s no way Woodson’s voice isn’t listened to inside the locker room.
Most importantly, Indiana’s win total is on the rise. Twenty-two wins is the best since Crean’s last good season in 2016.
Indiana was .600 or better in the Big Ten for just the fourth time since the Sampson years. Indiana’s No. 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament is its best since 2013 and is only the fourth time a seed that high has been achieved since 1994.
Woodson has beefed up the schedule after years of weak and sometimes costly nonconference schedules under both Crean and Miller. There’s a lot to like.
There’s also some signs of concern. Indiana has repeated trouble with consistency, dropping eggs at inopportune moments.
Though it was hardly a failure of a season, it's worth remembering Indiana did perform below expectations. Remember Indiana was the preseason Big Ten favorite, an expectation put upon it by others but a responsibility the Hoosiers embraced.
I don’t feel qualified to judge Woodson on a X-and-O front, but the offense is grounded in traditional principles. The Hoosiers aren’t going to wow analytics lovers.
We still don’t know whether Woodson can win recruiting battles with peers, both out-of-state but more importantly for perception sake, inside the state.
There’s also the vacuum of quality that will be created when Trayce Jackson-Davis moves on.
Woodson deserves a lot of credit for developing Jackson-Davis into an elite college basketball talent, but it’s also legitimate to wonder where Indiana goes under Woodson without TJD?
Can he unearth the next elite level talent? It’s when the rubber of the Woodson era will meet the road.
Senderoff might be a temporary specter of Indiana’s past, but his presence is a good reminder of the recovery Indiana has made since but also, how far the Hoosiers still need to go.
Woodson is a beacon on the opposite sideline in comparison, but can Indiana fans head into his light to achieve the elite standing they believe is the Hoosiers’ rightful place?
We’ll see. Certainly, a tournament run will make it a much easier question to answer.
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