OLIVER: Hoosiers Have Lost Their Way

HoosierNation.com columnist Matt Oliver says that ever since Kelvin Sampson left the program 24 days ago, the Hoosiers have become unglued and are understandably lost...

Minutes after Minnesota's last second-win over Indiana in the Big Ten quarterfinals Saturday, a long-time member of the IU press corps came running into the media room at Conseco Fieldhouse.

"Who hit the shot?" asked the panicked radio stringer.

"Hoffarber," answered Chicago Tribune basketball writer Skip Myslenski.

"Who hit the shot?" This time the radio guy, who was uncharacteristically dressed in a Sunday worthy suit, was yelling. He hadn't heard Myslenski's answer.

"Hoffarber," Myslenski barked this time, annoyed but still not the least bit taken back by the elementariness of the beat reporter's question.

Why should he be?

When it comes to Indiana University basketball this season, no one knows what's going on.

No one has known what's going on with these Hoosiers since Kelvin Sampson with his arm around his wife walked off the Assembly Hall court for the last time after IU beat Purdue in Bloomington. That was on a Wednesday.

Two days later, Sampson walked out of Assembly Hall for good, with $750,000 in one pocket and the remainder of the Hoosiers' season in the other.

That can be said because when Sampson left Assembly Hall for the last time a little over three weeks ago, it marked a symbolic and unfortunate end to what was turning out to be such a promising season for the Hoosiers.

Since then, it's hard to know what to expect from the Hoosiers.

Their fall from contenders to head scratchers has been quick and tough to swallow, enough to have some Indiana fans just asking for the season to end.

It has Dakich trying to do everything he can to make sure his kids are in the best position they can be, ready to win when their psyches catch up to their basketball skill.

It has him looking for answers many places, especially in the film room.

"Here's what I do," Dakich said. "It's sad. It's tragic, really. But I get to the office at 8:00 in the morning and I watch film ‘til practice and then I go to practice and then I watch more and then I go home."

But all the film time in the world won't matter to Indiana if the Hoosiers don't find a way to pull their heads out of their tails and start making some shots when the NCAA tourney kicks off on Thursday.

Because the next time Indiana loses, the season's over. And all that will be left is a cautionary tale about unachieved potential and unsavory character.

It will be a dark tale. There's no other way to describe this latest book of the Indiana University basketball archive, the once-proud basketball tradition that has been besieged by the accusations of deceit against its former coach and the unraveling of the team he put together.

A surreal, slow motion, front row look at heartbreak.

The sense of the sublime reached its acme at Friday's post-game press conference when Dakich addressed media.

It was not that Dakich himself was surreal.

The one-time Hoosier hoopster, Bob Knight assistant and MAC head coach was more humorous than anything, admitting, "I do two things when depression hits, one is I eat and the other is I try to make jokes."

He then surmised, "I'm gonna go have a frickin' half side of beef, while I'm telling Henny Youngman stories."

But rather than making a bee-line for the closest buffet line, Dakich stayed at the table, hoping to avoid the impending torture he was about to exact upon himself after the Hoosiers' latest letdown.

Which brings us to the surreal - how the heck did Danny Dakich become coach of the Indiana University basketball playing Hoosiers?

How did a man who brought his young family back to Bloomington after ten years in Bowling Green to become the director of basketball operations, first become an assistant coach back in October and finally the head coach back on February 22?

The question of course is rhetorical, as anyone who pays the slightest attention to college basketball can tell you the basic facts about the decline and fall of Kelvin Sampson.

No, Dakich's position in front of the "Head Coach" placard at the Conseco press table is just the poster shot of how unpredictable things have become when it comes to IU basketball.

So unpredictable that no one could have guessed that this season would become unglued so rapidly and that Indiana would regress to the point that at any moment you would swear the entire team could go into a collective fetal position?

That's the grim harsh reality this Selection Sunday 2008. There's no more getting out of the way of the truth.

If you do wish to properly chronologicalize the descent of the Hoosiers, just know these basics.

Kelvin Sampson came, he saw and he obliterated the heart and soul of Indiana basketball.

He gave the University, the fans and even former members of the Indiana basketball family hope that the Hoosiers had finally been rescued from the aftermath of the Bob Knight Era.

In Sampson's first year, they had made the NCAA and almost upset UCLA in the round of 32.

This season, after luring the country's No. 2 recruit away from archrival Illinois and surrounding him with returning big man D.J. White, the Hoosiers jumped out to a 17-1 record, before losing back-to-back games and then winning five out of their next six.

When Sampson walked off the court after beating Feb. 19, IU was 22-4 and 11-2, a threat to win the conference title along with Wisconsin and Purdue.

Since then, Indiana has gone three and three, culminating with Blake Hoffarber's left handed, off balance, one legged, all-net buzzer beater to hang an H-O-R-S and E on the Hoosiers at the Big Ten tourney.

It was an awful loss.

It was a win that could have been good for both the seeding and the soul of this team.

The come from behind win would have pitted IU against Illinois, a team Indiana had already beaten twice this year, in the Big Ten semifinals. Making the Saturday game would have erased some of the bitterness and memory of losing to Penn State in the regular season finale.

And the victory would have been the crowning achievement of the post-Sampson Hoosiers, a victory for this team, its confidence and its unity.

It would have been good for the lockerroom.

Instead, the loss became another strange footnote in a season full of footnotes.

Which led to Dakich sitting up on the dais with White and Gordon two days ago, chattering away at the media, because by his own admission "I'll sit here all day, cause I know as soon as I'm by myself, it's miserable. So I'd rather talk about it."

But eventually he would have to step behind the curtain, walk the long corridor of the Conseco Fieldhouse underbelly back to his Indiana lockerroom, lay his eyes on his team and realize how close they all are to having this season of hope finally just come crashing all the way in.

A one-and done loss in the NCAA will be just that - an emphatic final dagger to reinforce all that has gone awry since Sampson left, and the enormity of the effect it had on his players.

But like Dakich said, "There's no ‘ifs,' ‘ands' or ‘buts'" if this team wants to compete in the NCAA tourney, it has to get beyond its former coach's exit.

"Because he ain't coming back."

But no matter how it ends up, no matter how unreal all of it feels, the backlash and back steps weren't unpredicted.

Nope, it's just like Dakich said that night after his first win against the Wildcats.

"I'm sure everyone out here has an opinion on how this should have gone," he said. "Well your opinion is not based on being 18-22, 25 to 26 games into the season, with a guy that you came to play for, with a guy that you have worked with continuously, with a guy that you loved.

"I mean that's a difficult thing."

Even that night, after D.J. White hugged his new coach as the two left the court and after Dakich talked about the resiliency of youth in front of the media, he would go on to say that the healing would take time.

And time it has taken. To this point it has been 24 days of healing.

In this those three weeks the vision of what could become after the Hoosiers started off 22-4, had spiraled off the championship path and onto to the Yellowbrick road.

When you look at Indiana basketball now it's hard not see something else, it's coach, the former Indiana schoolboy, now a little older in the eyes and thinner on the scalp, crammed into his bomb shelter of a coach's office in the basement of Assembly Hall, watching hour after hour of film, searching for the answers that have not yet availed themselves.

Hoping somewhere in the footage, he'll figure out a way to fix the souls of his Hoosiers before it's too late.

Stopping only to bite into a side of beef, or recite a Henny Youngman anecdote to no one in particular.

Surreal indeed, that much is known.

But like the coach himself said, "It's been an interesting couple weeks."

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