Bloomington, Ind. – Indiana Coach Kelvin Sampson is in need of some good news.
Ever since his introduction as Indiana's 26th head basketball coach in late March, there's been little for Sampson or the IU fan base to smile about.
Instead of a warm embrace from IU fans following his introduction, the former Oklahoma coach received a lukewarm reception thanks to a segment of the fanbase that wanted someone with Indiana ties to take over for Mike Davis.
Next up was a trip to Park City, Utah, for an appearance before the NCAA Infractions Committee, a visit that was expected to bring closure to the NCAA's investigation into excessive phone calls made by Sampson and his Oklahoma staff from 2000-04. But instead of a slap on the wrist, the NCAA handcuffed the new coach's IU recruiting for a year, prohibiting him from making recruiting phone calls or from traveling off campus to recruit until May of 2007.
Most recently, the Hoosiers have been coming up empty in its '07 recruiting efforts. First it was a quartet of in-state, top-100 players who all pledged to Purdue and Coach Matt Painter, signaling that there's a reversal of Purdue's dismal fortunes on the hardwood in the not-too-distant future. Mind you, it was as much Mike Davis' cold-shoulder recruiting approach to E'twaun Moore, Scott Martin and JuJuan Johnson that helped point them toward West Lafayette as anything, but it's Sampson and Co. that are paying the public relations price.
Then, late last night, seemingly the biggest name on the Hoosiers' recruiting board – DeAndre Jordan – announced he'll stay closer to his Houston, Texas, home and play his college basketball for Billy Gillespie at Texas A&M. The Hoosiers appeared to be in good position to lure the long, athletic Jordan to Bloomington thanks to the fact Sampson was recruiting him hard while at Oklahoma and assistant coach and former University of Houston head coach Ray McCallum is well connected in the city, but in the end it was another player scratched off Indiana's wish list.
And as if things couldn't get any worse, Indiana is being crucified publicly for having another player on its wish list. That person is Indianapolis' Eric Gordon, a top-five player nationally and arguably the best shooting guard in the '07 class. The problem is he's already verbally committed to Illinois, and has publicly said he's still destined to play for Bruce Weber's Illini.
That said, Gordon hasn't publicly – or presumably, privately – told Sampson or IU assistant coach Jeff Meyer to back off in their quest to get him to re-consider. Indiana's efforts have left Illini fans bristling, Weber bemoaning the situation, and a handful of national columnists bashing Sampson and staff for what they perceive to be questionable ethics on the recruiting front.
All of this has to have Sampson wondering…What happened to the honeymoon?
Generally, when a new coach takes over a program, there's a "grace period" of sorts. Optimism runs high – among fans and recruits alike - when a new person is put in charge. That's particularly true when they're replacing a coach like Davis who had failed to lead the Hoosiers to the NCAA tourney in both 2004 and 2005 and then came up woefully short of his own lofty expectations for 2006.
One would think that would be especially true when the program is one with the tradition of Indiana, and when the new man in charge has 455 career victories, nine consecutive 20-win seasons, and is a two-time National Coach of the Year.
But that hasn't been the case.
Not by a long shot.
What could change Sampson's fortunes? A verbal commitment from a player like Indianapolis' Jeff Teague would be nice, or one from top-40 power forward DeJuan Blair would be even better. Heck, even a pledge from the most fringe of recruits would create some positive talk among an IU fanbase that has been able to convince itself in recent years that players like Jessan Gray-Ashley and Daryl Pegram were ripe with possibilities.
Ultimately, if Sampson is going to win fans over and silence the critics, it's going to come down to what happens on the court beginning this winter. If a D.J. White and Earl Calloway-led squad can make a run at a Big Ten title and win a couple of games in the NCAA tourney, these last few months will be quickly forgotten, Sampson's slate will be wiped clean, and the foundation will be laid for a return to national prominence.
It's on the court where Sampson can win everyone over.
Because off the court, things can't get much worse…
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