College basketball season is upon us.
Thank goodness. Here in Indiana, it can serve to take our minds off college football.
Indeed, this may be the most highly anticipated, can’t-wait-for-tipoff season we’ve had in a while.
Sure, Purdue University won’t have Robbie Hummel, and no matter who your team of choice might be, you had to feel a punch to the gut upon hearing the news of his second season-ending knee injury. But the Boilermakers still have the goods to compete for another Big Ten title behind first-team preseason all-American JuJuan Johnson and his running mate, E’Twaun Moore.
And remember, even with a short adjustment time to the loss of Hummel before last year’s tournament, the Boilers still gave eventual national champion Duke University a tough go before losing in the NCAA regional.
Yes, Butler University lost Gordon Hayward to the National Basketball Association and the Utah Jazz. But the Bulldogs kept Coach Brad Stevens and return a roster that makes Hinkle Fieldhouse a destination for must-see basketball. Shelvin Mack is an emerging star and senior Matt Howard is a proven one. But if you’re simply a fan of basketball and how the game can/should be played, the Bulldogs are your ticket.
Of course, the resurrection of Indiana University basketball is still very much a work in progress. But it is apparent that Indiana is on the road to becoming Indiana again. That’s why I’m floored by those who already are putting make-or-break dates on Tom Crean’s career at Indiana. Obviously, they’ve forgotten the wasteland of utter devastation inherited from Kelvin Sampson.
At any rate, the addition of Washington’s Cody Zeller in 2011, with LaPorte LaLumiere’s 6-foot 10-inch Hanner Perea already in the fold for 2012, should buy Crean more time from all but the most impatient of Indiana fans.
So, as the leaves fall and the temperatures drop, you can feel a rising sense of anticipation. Maybe it’s leftover buzz from Butler’s amazing run to the championship game of the NCAA Tournament at Lucas Oil Stadium that came within one basket of being the greatest story ever told in intercollegiate athletics. Maybe it’s the sense of unfinished business for Matt Painter at Purdue, who has gotten the Boilermakers to the Sweet Sixteen two years running and just seems due—overdue—for some good fortune to balance the scales of losing Hummel. Maybe it’s the feeling that Indiana, a fully healthy Indiana (recall that Maurice Creek went down before Christmas last year) might actually surprise some of the predictors this year and be better than a second-division team in what should be an ultra-competitive Big Ten.
Locally, the irrepressible Ron Hunter at IUPUI will try to make Jaguars contenders in the Summit League and will do it with a roster stocked with local talent: seven of his players are from the Indianapolis area. Before the season even “officially” opened, we also got a glimpse of what the University of Indianapolis might be capable of. The Greyhounds of third-year Coach Stan Gouard won an exhibition game at 23rd-ranked University of Tennessee. And not to be overlooked is the venerable John Grimes at Marian University. Grimes is merely in his 34th season with the Knights.
Here are a few other reasons to welcome college basketball.
For starters, unlike football, college basketball leaves no ambiguity. Come the first Monday of April, there is a national champion. Undisputed.
College basketball also doesn’t leave the little guy on the outside looking in. Five teams last year reached the Sweet Sixteen from non-Bowl Championship Series conferences and, of course, there was Butler. Under the current college football system, there never will be a Butler in the BCS Championship game. Shoot, the BCS is determined to shut out Boise State or Texas Christian.
Last, one more reason to embrace college basketball: the women.
And the women’s Final Four—also known as the University of Connecticut Invitational—takes place at Conseco Fieldhouse next April. More hoops and lots of hoopla for the city.•
Benner is senior associate commissioner for external affairs for the Horizon League college athletic conference and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at [email protected] He also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.