ATLANTA - At the Final Four last week, I was reminded that even without a team, Indiana was well represented.
It began at the United States Basketball Writers Association breakfast on the Friday morning before the national semifinals. The occasion was the presentation of the USBWA's Oscar Robertson Trophy to the player of the year, which happened to be Kevin Durant from Texas.
Robertson, the Crispus Attucks great who went on to star at the University of Cincinnati-and who was recognized (rightfully so, in my opinion) as college basketball's greatest player of the 20th century-was there to present the trophy that bears his name.
First, though, the Big O invited his former Attucks teammate Willie Merriweather to the podium to talk about a documentary titled "Something to Cheer About." It will be released April 26 and chronicles those barrier-breaking, back-to-back Attucks Indiana state champions of 1955 and '56.
What was especially neat for this old Indiana boy was to hear Robertson and Merriweather tell the breakfast audience about the influence of their coach, Ray Crowe, in their lives.
Then, the next day, during halftime of the game between Ohio State and Georgetown, Robertson, Bill Russell, Dean Smith, John Wooden and basketball's inventor, Dr. James Naismith, were recognized as the first inductees into the newly established College Basketball Hall of Fame, which opens this fall in Kansas City.
That 40 percent of that class is Indiana born-and-raised and college basketball's greatest player (Robertson) and coach (Wooden) are Hoosiers is something worth mentioning anytime you might have a basketball conversation with someone from, say, North Carolina or Kentucky.
Wooden, who, at 96, was unable to attend the Final Four, was nonetheless prominent, especially with UCLA there. At the Final Four salute presentation on Thursday night, UCLA coach Ben Howland paid tribute to Wooden on several occasions.
There was more Indiana influence to be found. When then Butler coach (and now athletic director) Barry Collier took over the reigns of his alma mater, he sought the knowledge and mentoring of Butler legend Tony Hinkle. And I'd like to think some of the Hinkle style was passed down from Collier to his protÃ©gÃ©, Thad Matta, who succeeded Collier at Butler and led Ohio State to the Final Four.
Of course, Matta's two Lawrence North recruits had a profound impact on the proceedings. Michael Conley Jr.'s amazing quickness and ballhandling carried the Buckeyes to victory over Georgetown in the Saturday semifinal. (By the way, I'd take Conley over Jamaal Tinsley right now, no questions asked).
Then, on Monday night, Greg Oden-despite Ohio State's defeat-sent confirmation to the nation that he is more than ready for the next level, if he so chooses. And, really, how can he turn down the pile of money that will be dumped on his doorstep?
Finally, the greatest Indiana influence-or the most ubiquitous-came courtesy of Indy/Carmel native Greg Shaheen, who is the NCAA's senior vice president for men's basketball and business strategies, as well as the tournament director.
Shaheen, who has been profiled in this column before, is leading the vision to evolve the Final Four from merely three basketball games to the five-day, Thursdaythrough-Monday mega-event.
Shaheen's grasp for the magnitude of the Final Four (as well as his self-deprecating humor) was on display twice as he met with representatives of future host cities, as well as a number of cities (Dallas, Minneapolis, St. Louis, New Orleans, Glendale, Ariz.) lined up to bid for the event.
He also shared plans of how the event will move into "in-the-round" seating configurations of 60,000 or more for the Final Fours in Detroit (Ford Field), Indy (Lucas Oil Stadium) and Houston (Reliant Stadium) from 2009-11.
Thanks to Lucas Oil Stadium and the agreement with the NCAA, the Indiana Sports Corp. and the city, Indianapolis is assured of having the event once every five years. It's not to be taken for granted, especially as you hear from other future or potential hosts how much they envy/admire the position Indy has staked out for itself. And I can't tell you the number of people-media, coaches, administrators, fans-who volunteered the opinion that they consider Indianapolis the ideal Final Four city.
Always good to hear.
Benner is associate director of communications for the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Benner also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.