Assessing the state of Indiana basketball
Given the importance of basketball to Indiana, it’s always March Madness here. But when there’s a tournament in town, Hoosier hysteria is made manifest.
This week, we present you four quarters of basketball, a way of wrapping up how we fare, currently, in the world of hoops. We give you a survey of high school basketball, a look at local college hoops and a glance at our two pro teams, the Pacers and the Fever. In our sports section (Pg. 7), you can get a hint of what to look forward to this week in the tournament.
Standing room only
Indiana high school basketball
By Dale Lawrence
Attending high school basketball games remains, if not the best reason to live in Indiana, then certainly the biggest bang for your winter entertainment buck. Five dollars and an hour’s drive buy you a seat, front-row center, at a (potentially) great athletic contest and, more importantly, a chance to get in touch with your inner Hoosier. High school hoops in this state is one of the last of the great American regional subcultures, one all too easy for natives to take for granted.
Among its many charms is the chance to see future college and NBA superstars in the making — perhaps never more so than the past several seasons. In Indianapolis alone, one could get up close with the likes of Eric Gordon, Greg Oden or Michael Conley, whenever the whim struck. As the years go by, the Lawrence North squad that took three state titles from 2004 to 2006 will probably look more and more like the greatest of all prep teams. A real case could be made for two of its starters, Oden and Conley, being the best big man and best point guard to ever play high school ball in Indiana.
This year, the law of averages began the process of evening out those last few heady seasons. As good as current prep stars Angel Garcia (East Chicago), Tyler Zeller (Washington) or Derek Elston (Tipton) are (and they are very good), they are not in the same general stratosphere as Oden or Gordon — or, for that matter, Dominick James or Josh McRoberts. The last few years really were off the charts for individual talent.
None of the superstars mentioned above are particularly known as shooters. It’s often said that jump shooting has become a lost art. If so, the turning point was undoubtedly the legalization of the slam-dunk — first in college, then high school ball. Suddenly, the focus of the game became the lane and the rim, rather than the perimeter. The very best players these days are inevitably the most athletic, not the most deadeye.
Still, when pure shooters do emerge at the high school level, they are always among the most fun players to watch. The best I saw this winter were Tommy Weakly (Edgewood), Stuart Douglas (Carmel), Zach Litteral (New Palestine) and Alexander Hutson (a freshman at Seeger). All are streaky, most are only the second-best player on their team and perhaps none will make the All-Star team, but all are supremely entertaining.
Another perk of going to games is the chance to visit beautiful, often historic, gymnasiums, from famous 8,000-seat field houses (Anderson, New Castle) to more intimate and obscure bandboxes (Barr-Reeve, LaCrosse). A good gym can add tremendously to the evening’s experience. Besides being often gorgeous, the best have a certain feel, a greatness, a layer of meaning that’s hard to pin down. It has something to do with knowing you’re in a specific room that people have been coming to on Friday nights for decades now, that this evening matters in part because of its relationship to the past and future, that the gymnasium in some way functions as a physical manifestation of that relationship. You might feel honored to be there.
But every single year, at least one of these old arenas is retired, in favor of an antiseptic (and unnecessary) new multipurpose facility. Aesthetics, or even consideration of involving fans in the action, are never taken into account in designing gyms anymore and game night atmosphere inevitably suffers. The very worst new gyms can actually drain life and energy from the room. There are some schools (Yorktown and Indianapolis Howe come to mind) where the gyms are so depressing, I refuse to attend games. Like the switch to class basketball, the impulse to abandon these old gyms appears driven by a profound undervaluing of tradition.
Locally, Avon, Zionsville and Brownsburg have all recently replaced truly amazing gyms with remarkably sterile ones. Just this season, Lapel stopped playing games at their venerable and postcard-pretty Doghouse. Most tragic of all, this was apparently the last season that South Ripley High School will use Tyson Auditorium, one of the most intensely atmospheric gyms in the state. Built in 1950, it is a striking green Art Deco structure (like every other building bequeathed to Versailles by favorite son and drugstore tycoon Big Jim Tyson), so beloved by the community that they’ve continued to use it, even after building a new cross-town high school 38 years ago.
It is a gym steeped not just in atmospherics but in history as well — it was the de facto home floor of the 1954 state champion Milan Indians, whose own gym was under reconstruction at the time. It will be missed, not just by Versailles, but by hoops fans across Indiana. (In fairness to South Ripley, I should note that the decision to replace Tyson is for once not the school’s, but the building’s current landlord.)
4. The tourney
But for me, the No. 1 draw of attending these games isn’t gyms or stars: It’s the chance to participate in something that still matters intensely to folks on a local level. In an age when “importance” has come to be equated with “big” (read: profitable), it’s nothing less than thrilling to find so much richness and pleasure in such a circumscribed realm, one with so little connection to Time-Warner. This winter I sat in packed houses at Columbus North, Kokomo, Seeger, cutthroat tournament games at Wawasee and Cambridge City Lincoln. Topping them all was a Tuesday night girls contest at Oak Hill that was beyond packed. Two thousand five hundred fans filled a gym built for 2,000, deep crowds standing in all four corners, to watch the Lady Eagles defeat Marion for only the second time in school history. The game was called with 35 seconds to play, when one of the Marion fans passed out from the 85 degree heat.
Regular-season games like that one have been only marginally affected by the switch to class basketball. Not so, of course, the state tournament. As much as I still look forward to the tourney, scouring the state for hot matchups, it’s never without mixed feelings and a sense of loss. Sectionals are no longer local, regionals are no longer regional and the state finals are more often than not anticlimactic. The one-game format drains the long day of drama. If we are going to stay with a four-class system, the IHSAA should really eliminate the semistate round altogether and go back to a four-field state-finals format.
More disturbing, so many seasons the best teams at the finals are spread out over different classes, playing subpar competition rather than each other. Case in point was the girls’ finals last Saturday: The Class 2A game involved two terrific teams: Heritage Christian (with two All-Star caliber juniors) vs. Oak Hill (whose two best players are sophomores). The trouble was that either of these teams was obviously good enough to win the 4A contest. Heritage Christian had already beaten the 4A runner-up, Carmel, (on Carmel’s home floor) by seven points in January. The chance to follow either of these schools to the Final Four of the old tournament would have had the entire state riveted. Instead, Heritage was simply awarded the 2A trophy, just as they were the past two seasons (just as they probably will be again a year from now), and the casual fan has no idea just how extraordinary a team they (or Oak Hill) are.
The old tournament is gone and it’s never coming back. But that doesn’t mean that the IHSAA should ever be let off the hook, that we should ever forget or cease to proclaim what an enormous cultural crime was committed in foisting the class system upon an unwilling populous. The state basketball tournament used to be just that, a tournament that involved the entire state, regardless of how well your team did or didn’t do. What we are left with today is like a parody of that tournament, involving only a handful of communities every season — along with a number of diehard hoops junkies like me, who would give anything to trash the current format and head back to the drawing board.
Dale Lawrence is author of Hoosier Hysteria Road Book: A Guide to the Byways of Indiana High School Basketball.
Indiana ballplayers elevating college ballBy Andrew Roberts
Indiana’s college basketball teams have declared a viable war against outsourcing. Butler, Indiana, Purdue and Notre Dame are all ranked nationally, returning the sacred divinity of Hoosier basketball to its rightful place at the top of the United States. More importantly, they’re doing it with our very own homemade athletes — ripe for the plucking from Indiana’s plentiful, golden amber fields of high school basketball.
Indy’s Northside hosts the best of the bunch, as the Butler Bulldogs starting roster claims three former Indiana high school standouts. Starting guard A.J. Graves, a 2007 Second Team All-American, spent his youth shooting the lights out in Switz City, while senior forward Drew Streicher was formulating his path to a 4.0 GPA and an equally impressive basketball IQ at Washington High School. But the diamond in the Bulldog rough this season has been a tenacious, undersized freshman named Matt Howard, who after breaking nearly every scoring record on file at Connersville, has landed himself a starting role as Butler’s tireless spark plug. He has played with a vintage fire that all successful collegiate programs lust for, and commands the ability to seamlessly make everyone around him better through skinned knees and fearless bulldozing beneath the basket.
Two weeks ago, Butler was ranked eighth in the ESPN/USA Today Top 25 polls; it was the school’s highest ranking in history. However, it has become a weekly tradition at Hinkle Fieldhouse for head coach Brad Stevens, following another Bulldog victory, to politely (with just a hint of condescension) repeat to the media that neither he nor any of his players are keen on the merit’s implication.
“Our goals are not necessarily tied to results,” he said modestly, with an air of scripted repetition. “Our goal is to represent Butler well on and off the court. If we do that, we think the results will take care of themselves.”
Slightly further south, near the heart of downtown, Broad Ripple grad George Hill has been earning all-conference honors on an almost weekly basis, as he earned his fourth Summit League Player of the Week award in early February for IUPUI. As a senior Rocket, Hill averaged 36 points a game, before deciding to stay in Indianapolis in favor of playing time and the warmth of home. Before the season, head coach Ron Hunter predicted the best season in school history, claiming that Hill was the second best player in the state, second only to IU’s D.J. White. Hunter’s claim was as questionable as it was ambitious, but the Jags have been pressing their run-and-gun offense all over the country to earn a No. 13 ranking in The CollegeInsider.com Top 25 Mid-Major poll, and are unquestionably gaining notoriety as a contender to have a full dance card come March.
The most popular hometown hero of modern-day Indianapolis basketball is North Central Panther Eric Gordon, who notoriously broke a verbal commitment to the University of Illinois for the greener pastures of Bloomington. As a Hoosier, “Air Gordon” has averaged over 20 points a game, and has gone on several sustained scoring rampages during the season to keep IU in the top 20, even amid the pending implosion caused by coach Sampson. Gordon’s premium on family and tradition has been the savior of Bloomington basketball. “Indiana is basketball,” Gordon said. “I just knew that this would be a good place for me in the future, even after basketball.”
Feb. 19, IU and Purdue played as nationally ranked teams — for only the second time in this millennium. Fourteen of the crimson chairs on Branch McCracken Court had Indiana-native rear ends in them, with nine Boilers and five Hoosiers fueling rejuvenated intensity to a match-up that has spent the last decade in an apathetic lull. Ultimately, IU won by double digits, but the game stood as testimony to a new era of basketball in Indiana, a revitalization of a rivalry that has spanned over a hundred years and nearly torn a state asunder in feverish passion.
Before IU and Purdue attempt to claw their way to a title on the theoretically neutral court of downtown Indy, Butler begins its own bid for a conference tournament championship 15 minutes north this Saturday at 6:30 p.m. The Bulldogs secured official hosting rights to the Horizon League Tournament (and a regular-season title) outright with a win over Wright state last Thursday, and a win on Saturday at Hinkle Fieldhouse will give them a spot in the championship round, to be played March 11 in front of the notorious “Dawg Pound.”
Despite the accolades and national attention sharply fixed on our hometown heroes, IU could face a total leaderless meltdown before next Tuesday. Purdue could implode under the weight of their unexpected success. Butler might rest their starters and blow a hard-earned home court advantage, a year’s worth of payoff. But the integrity of Indiana’s favored pastime is being preserved by its very own sons, and the weight of media pretension will have to battle with the mothers, fathers and friends who aided these youthful phenomenons to national relevance, while keeping them warmly grounded at home in Indiana.
The first round of the Big Ten Men’s Tournament begins March 13, and culminates on “Selection Sunday,” March 16. Single-session tickets are available for $30-$85. Tickets for the Horizon League Tournament (March 7-11) can be purchased at Hinkle Fieldhouse.
Andrew Roberts covers college ball (among other subjects) for NUVO. Check out his prognostications for the Big 10 basketball tournament this week and next week in our Sports section. Check out his blog at www. nuvo.net/nuvoblog.
Katie Douglas’ return to Indiana will keep Fever at the top
By Josh Flynn
The Indiana Fever wants a championship. At the start of the 2007 season, Tamika Catchings’ smile was radiant, feeling that an elusive title was finally within her grasp. But injuries to the All-Star during the season and again in the playoffs kept the WNBA title once again out of her reach. Two weeks ago, on the official first day of player movement, the Indiana Fever unleashed a blockbuster trade that brought Indianapolis native and WNBA All-Star Katie Douglas home, a move that keeps the Fever positioned as one of the top teams in the league.
“This sends a message we are serious about winning the Eastern Conference and serious about trying to win a WNBA championship,” said new head coach Lin Dunn, who replaced Brian Winters following the 2007 season. “When you bring someone of her caliber into this franchise it’s a big, big day.”
Douglas, a former Perry Meridian and Purdue University standout, has played many of her best games against the Fever. “Hopefully, I’ll get that shooting touch I had when I was a visiting player,” she said.
“Let’s not forget what we traded,” Fever general manager Kelly Krauskopf warned. “I don’t want to slight Tamika Whitmore and what she did for our franchise and a first round pick in a 2008 draft that is very deep and good.”
The trade reunites Douglas with Dunn, who recruited her to Purdue but left to coach in the upstart American Basketball League before Douglas arrived. Dunn brings a long history of experience to the Fever. In 1994, she took the Boilermakers to the NCAA Final Four. She coached the Portland Power in the ABL and earned Coach of the Year honors in 1998. In 2000, with the ABL disbanded, Dunn became the first coach and general manager for the Seattle Storm, setting the foundation for the Storm’s 2004 WNBA championship by drafting future two-time league MVP Lauren Jackson with the No. 1 pick in 2001 and Sue Bird in 2002.
Dunn, who has spent the last four years with the Fever, looks forward to taking over a veteran, talented team ready for a championship. “Expectations here are much different than at Seattle. In Seattle I was building an expansion team from the ground up with draft picks and trades. I’m not building a franchise here. I’m trying to take it to the highest level possible by winning the Eastern Conference and competing for a WNBA championship. It’s something at this point in my career I want to do.”
On the same day Douglas was traded to Indiana, the Fever announced they re-signed All-Star center Tammy Sutton-Brown. Sharp-shooting guard Anna DeForge signed with the Minnesota Lynx as a free agent, however, and Ann Strother, the seldom-used second-year guard, was lost earlier in February to the newest WNBA team, the Atlanta Dream, in the expansion draft.
With plenty of time left before training camp, and with only one second round draft pick, the Fever may look to bulk up its roster via free agency or trades. The team could benefit from another point guard for insurance purposes in case of injury to Tully Bevilaqua or Tan White. The addition of a second true forward could help Catchings as well, especially since she is expected to miss the beginning of the season as she continues to recover from her injury. Douglas will also miss the start of the season, fulfilling her overseas commitments in Spain.
And don’t think the Fever is the only team keeping busy in the off-season. Connecticut comes away from the Douglas trade as capable as ever. The addition of Whitmore gives the Sun the inside presence they lost when Taj McWilliams-Franklin was traded to Los Angeles last season. Two first round draft picks could have the team ready to compete for the WNBA title once again. Perennial Eastern Conference powerhouse Detroit also was active, trading All-Star Swin Cash to Seattle for the fourth pick in the draft.
Another big question facing the team is how they will react to a month-long break in August as players around the league head to China for the 2008 Olympics.
The WNBA is stacked with talent and nothing is guaranteed. Just ask the Fever. But with Tamika Catchings and Katie Douglas as franchise corner stones, Catchings may finally hoist the championship in the air.
For more on the Fever: www.wnba.com/fever.
Josh Flynn covers basketball and music for NUVO.
Desertion by fan base a shameful thingBy Steve Hammer
It’s tough to be an Indiana Pacers fan these days. The team is slogging through a disappointing season. Several of their players have been involved in off-the-court scandal. A number of key players seem to be permanently injured. Other players have retired or been traded. The team ranks dead last in attendance.
This could be the franchise’s darkest hour. The list of negatives goes on and on. But, despite the team’s woes, I still believe in the Indiana Pacers. The problems the team faces are not insurmountable. In fact, the steps taken over the past two years to rebuild the team are already beginning to pay off.
To paraphrase former President Clinton, there is nothing wrong with the Indiana Pacers that cannot be fixed by what is right with the Indiana Pacers. Fans should take a deep breath and look at where the team really stands right now.
Even with Jamaal Tinsley and Jermaine O’Neal likely sidelined by injuries for the next hundred years, the Pacers have a solid lineup of young players. Danny Granger is beginning to mature and grow into the great player many had predicted he’d be. Mike Dunleavy is a scrappy, hard-nosed player in the finest tradition of Pacers basketball.
That they’re losing so many close games attests to the fact that the team is one or two players away from being a major contender, not that the team is stuck in a permanent rut.
The people calling for the heads of Donnie Walsh and Larry Bird are the same people who were praising them as geniuses just a few years ago, before the infamous Pacers-Pistons brawl of 2004 disrupted the franchise and cancelled all their post-Reggie Miller plans.
Had the brawl never happened, if Ron Artest had not leapt from the scorer’s table and into the stands, the Pacers would be a championship-quality team today. That debacle shook the team to its core, led to internal dissension and put the Pacers into a recovery mode in which they remain.
If anyone is to blame for the woes of the team, it isn’t Walsh, Bird or even Artest. That responsibility falls squarely on John Green, the Detroit fan who threw the beer at Artest and instigated the historic mini-riot.
The brawl’s importance cannot be overstated as a factor in the team’s decline. But having been given lemons, Bird and Walsh have attempted to make lemonade. The fact that the drink isn’t particularly palatable right now is not entirely their fault.
Sooner rather than later, they will execute a trade or make a few key draft picks, the team will begin to gel again and winning basketball will return to Indianapolis. It has always been that way in the past.
Despite having their worst record in 15 years, the Pacers are still a fun team to watch, full of energy and heart. Conseco Fieldhouse is still the best arena in the NBA to watch a game. The team has the building blocks for success. What they need most now is some support from the fans.
During a recent home game against the defending champion San Antonio Spurs, the Pacers scored 34 points in the first quarter through exciting fast-break play and good perimeter shooting. When the champions’ defense locked down in the third quarter, the few fans in attendance began to file out. By the time the final horn sounded, there were about as many people on the court as in the stands, despite the fact that the outmatched Pacers had held even with the reigning champions.
The Pacers will rise again. They always have. The desertion of their fanbase is shameful. It’s not hard to love this team, no matter what their current record may be.
And attending a game at the Fieldhouse is still one of the best entertainment bargains in the city. The team has earned, through 40 years of devotion to the city, the benefit of the doubt. There are already signs of improvement. The probable departure of O’Neal will finally close the books on the Detroit brawl and give the Pacers a clean break from the past.
The Indiana Pacers have never stopped believing in us. We ought not to stop believing in them.
Steve Hammer’s column appears in NUVO each week.