Relevant once again, Hoosiers still hated by hoops world
CHICAGO -- This Indiana basketball team is the most hated Big Ten team since ... well, since the last time an Indiana basketball team was worth hating, and it will be the most hated Big Ten team until Indiana puts together a team that is even more worthy of hating. Hopefully next season.
This is how it is supposed to work in the Big Ten. The Hoosiers did not come to the conference tournament to be liked, and the rest of the teams did not come here to like them.
"We know we're not going to be loved," Indiana point guard Kevin "Yogi" Ferrell says. "We know everyone pretty much doesn't like us. We expect that. We take that target and we use it."
And why don't they like you?
"Because, I mean, we're Indiana."
A Kansas man may have invented the game, but Indiana folks thinks they did, and -- keep this between us, please -- I love Indiana for that. The best way you can sum up Indiana basketball is this: For most of the last 20 years, the Hoosiers were not one of the country's best teams, and as soon as they became one of the best this year, it felt normal.
Indiana has Zeller and Victor Oladipo, the best duo in college basketball, and a solid supporting cast and great coaching. From the No. 1 ranking in the preseason to coach Tom Crean berating a Michigan assistant coach after winning the league's regular-season title last week, Indiana affirmed its status as the league's target.
"Indiana's been like that for a long time in this league," said Indiana director of basketball operations Calbert Cheaney, who was one of the best players in school history in the early 1990s. "And for a while, from the mid-90s until the 21st century, it fell on rough times. Now what Coach Crean and his staff have done have brought the program around to where, in my opinion, it's supposed to be. The relevance is there again."
At Indiana, relevance means that people around your league get physically ill when they see crimson and cream warmup pants. It means Crean paces in front of his bench all game and opposing fans glare at him. It means they complain that Indiana star Cody Zeller gets all the calls, when in fact he only gets 92 percent of them.
Zeller can flop over there and get in elbow in over there, and that's what we call "crafty." He is a great player who knows how to play great. Ferrell says "He can definitely get under the opponents' big man's skin," and that's far from Zeller's best skill, but it is his most obvious one.
One of the great things about college sports is that every conference has one or two teams that everybody else loathes. In Big Ten football, it is Michigan and Ohio State. (More Michigan, I think, but that's a long conversation. Anyway, it's close.) In Pac-12 basketball, it's UCLA; in Pac-12 football, it's USC.
In SEC basketball, it's Kentucky. In SEC football, it's Alabama. (Steve Spurrier's greatest feat was getting people to hate Florida more than they hated Alabama, at least for a while. That should be the first sentence in his obituary, ahead of his national championship and Heisman Trophy.)
In Big East basketball, it was always Syracuse and Georegtown, and in the Big 12, it's Texas (in football) and Kansas (in basketball). In the ACC: Duke.
In Big Ten basketball, it's still Indiana, even after all these years.
Other teams have tried to take the title. Michigan State has made six Final Fours since 1999, but most fans like Tom Izzo, and the Spartans haven't really dominated the league like you might think -- their best work has come in March, against non-league teams, when many Big Ten fans cheer for other Big Ten teams.
Wisconsin has been pretty well-hated under Bo Ryan, mostly because nobody outside the state of Wisconsin has ever enjoyed watching a Wisconsin basketball game. (For a while Friday, I thought "Michigan is just one run from blowing out Wisconsin," but then I remembered Wisconsin has not given up a run since 1998. And of course the Badgers won after one of the worst offensive halves in history, because it's what they do.)
Conference tournaments, the best of them, feel like part sporting event, part family reunion. It's a rare chance to mingle with fans from every other school in the league. And in Chicago this week, there are a lot of people peeking over at Indiana fans and saying "Dammit, those bastards are back." And it's a beautiful thing.
"You're gonna hear a lot," Cheaney said. "You probably hear a little worse than you would if you were some other team. Because we are Indiana. And that's just the way it is."