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Indiana ready to regain reputation as a powerhouse in college basketball

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) -- Butler assistant coach Brandon Miller grew up living Indiana basketball.

He was a fan as a child, played high school and college ball in a state where the sport was king and after a three-year stint at Ohio State, returned to his roots.

Why? Well, for one thing, basketball here matters.

"If you talk to anybody in Indiana, basketball means something special," he said. "You have the support, the resources, and what really makes it special are the fans. They have a knowledge of the game that's different from other places."

Different, yes, and now the Hoosier state is rebuilding its reputation as a college basketball powerhouse.

With four teams headed to the NCAA tournament and another to the new College Basketball Invitational, half of the state's 10 Division I teams have earned postseason trips. California, with six, and Tennessee, with five, are the only states with more NCAA bids.

It's a stark contrast from three years ago when Indiana schools found themselves shut out of the NCAA tourney for the first time since 1972.

How things have changed.

-- Butler's roster is stacked with Indiana talent and spent its second straight season as one of the nation's most feared mid-majors.

-- Indiana nearly won its first outright Big Ten title since 1992-93 until NCAA allegations led to a midseason coaching change and a late-season swoon.

-- IUPUI won a school record 26 games this season and came within five minutes of upsetting Summit League champ Oral Roberts in its conference tournament title game before getting left out of all three postseason tourneys.

-- Notre Dame is ranked 15th, has a No. 5 seed and its best chance to reach a regional semi since 2003.

-- Purdue's "Baby Boilers" emerged as a Big Ten contender ahead of schedule under coach Matt Painter, himself an Indiana native and former Boilermaker.

-- And Valparaiso, once the NCAA tourney darling because of Bryce Drew's memorable buzzer-beater, has revitalized its program during coach Homer Drew's second stint. It won 21 games, reached the Horizon League tournament semifinals and will play in the new CBI tourney.

Team success isn't the only change.

Butler's Mike Green, Indiana's D.J. White, IUPUI's George Hill and Notre Dame's Luke Harangody all won conference player of the year awards. Butler's Matt Howard and Indiana's Eric Gordon also earned conference freshmen player of the year honors.

Gordon, Harangody, Hill and Howard are all Indiana natives and some view the in-state competition as a personal challenge.

"They always say Indiana has great shooters, so we try to live up to that and see who the best shooter is," Hill said. "We talk about it a lot when we work out. I've worked out with guys like (Greg) Oden and (Mike) Conley Jr., David Teague and Carl Landry, and I've worked out with guys like Eric, Jason Gardner and Chris Hill. You don't get much better than that."

Few states can match Indiana's tradition.

From the so-called Milan Miracle by the high school team portrayed in the movie "Hoosiers," to Butler's 80-year-old Hinkle Fieldhouse, to the long list of homegrown stars, basketball has often defined the state's image.

Two of college basketball's greatest coaches, Bob Knight and John Wooden, once called Indiana home. Knight won three national titles at Indiana University, while Wooden was an All-American at Purdue.

The list of memorable names include former stars like Oscar Robertson, Larry Bird, Rick Mount, George McGinnis, Kent Benson, Glenn Robinson, Steve Alford and Damon Bailey. More recently the names of Oden, Conley, Gardner, Sean May and Josh McRoberts joined that list.

So when only two teams, Valpo in 2004 and Indiana in 2006, received NCAA bids during a three-year span, it appeared Indiana's magic might be dissipating.

Now the state's college teams look stronger than ever.

"I think at that time, it was just a down year," IUPUI coach Ron Hunter said. "For a minute, there were a lot of kids leaving the state. Now they're staying home."

Gordon is an example of the new trend. He committed first to Illinois before deciding to play for his home-state Hoosiers.

Purdue's rebirth was fueled by five freshmen, all of whom stayed in state. Other Indiana players took a different route. Butler's A.J. Graves went virtually unnoticed in Switz City, Ind., one of those stereotypical rural areas where farm kids find fame with a basketball, and then became Butler's star in the Preseason NIT last season.

Clearly, the sport is viewed differently here.

"I think people take pride in it," said Butler forward Pete Campbell, who transferred from IPFW. "There's something unique here, something special here. People want to maintain that and there's a prestige about it."

And now that Indiana teams are winning, the passion some thought waned just a few years ago has returned in force.

"Traditionally, teams in Indiana are very good and I think it really goes back to Indiana high school coaches," Miller said. "The jobs the high school coaches do gets them ready for college so they have a great base to work with. Indiana has had some deep classes, and I think with any team at a high level it starts with talent.

"I think there's a sense of pride in playing your best every night, and that's what the fans like."

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