Sacramento, Cal. – Kelvin Sampson followed through on his promise to Earl Calloway, Rod Wilmont and D.J. White.
When Sampson first set foot in Bloomington last spring as Indiana's new head coach, one of his first tasks was to win over the players who were left over from Mike Davis' team. Among that group were the likes of White, Calloway and Wilmont, a trio that was devotedly loyal to their former head coach.
But Sampson called the three into his office and talked about his vision for his first season on the IU sidelines.
"In the beginning of the year he took Earl, D.J. and myself, told us it's our team, and just follow his lead and he'd lead us to the tournament and we'd have a great season," Wilmont said.
That pledge has been fulfilled. Indiana won 20 regular season games for the first time since the 1999-2000 season, finished alone in third place in the Big Ten, and will play Gonzaga in the first-round of the NCAA Tournament Thursday at 9:55 p.m. EST at Arco Arena in Sacramento.
While it won't go down as the greatest season in IU history – far from it – it's still been a significant accomplishment for a squad that even Sampson admits looked a little ragged when practice first got underway last fall.
"Starting in October…I knew it was going to be tough for this group, because you almost have to change the culture a little bit," Sampson said.
What Sampson wanted to instill was an identity. And for him, that meant putting a team on the floor that played hard defensively, rebounded the basketball, and competed on both ends of the floor. When he didn't see that – such as in IU's Nov. 28 game at Duke – he wasn't shy about thinking big picture.
The Hoosiers quickly fell behind by 15 early on at Cameron Indoor Stadium, and Sampson response was swift – he benced veterans Wilmont, Calloway and A.J. Ratliff in favor of freshmen Armon Bassett and Joey Shaw along with walk-on Errek Suhr. The result was a big IU comeback, a last-second loss, and ultimately a message that still resonates with this year's team.
"Even though we lost, the second half we put together something that we thought was special that started us off playing his style, which is defense and rebounding and toughness," D.J. White said. "That's the game that jump started us."
Sampson found himself sitting on the sidelines watching his team unravel and decided it was as good a time as any to send a message about what he expected.
"I just remember being down 15 early in that game, and all the work we had put in in October and November it just seemed to me that it quickly went down the drain because I saw kids revert," Sampson said. "It wasn't disheartening, it wasn't even frustrating, it was disappointing.
"You look for opportunities during the season to pound your point home."
Sampson did that, and both newcomers and veterans responded. The end result has been an Indiana team that went 15-0 at home and has a chance to avenge last year's NCAA Tournament loss to Gonzaga tomorrow night. It's probably exceeded the expectations of many considering the losses from last year's squad, but Sampson doesn't necessarily want to say this group has done that.
"I don't like the word overachieved - I prefer you play as good as you are," Sampson said. "I think these kids have played to their ability level."
That ability level, though, is still a work in progress. While the Hoosiers might be the Big Ten's most proficient 3-point shooting team and it has a dominating presence inside in D.J. White, it still has some liabilities that Sampson is more than willing to admit.
"We're not a great team," Sampson said. "For those who have covered Indiana, you've heard me say that a lot. That's the truth. We are what we are. We're very capable of winning tomorrow, but so is Gonzaga."
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