CHICAGO – Christian Watford remembers the dark days of Indiana basketball all too well.
That’s why it feels so good for the senior forward and his teammates to be in the national spotlight.
“We’ve been on both sides of the fence,” Watford said Friday as he scanned his team’s locker room. “That whole growing process makes us tougher. It fuels us at the end of the day.”
It could fuel Indiana all the way toward its first NCAA championship in a generation.
Everybody knows the Hoosiers are going dancing, but they still are working hard to perfect their steps. They dominated Illinois for a 80-64 win in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten tournament, and a victory today against Wisconsin would match Indiana’s highest win total (28) since 1993.
Some of the current Hoosiers weren’t alive in 1993.
None of them was alive in 1987, the year of Indiana’s fifth and most recent championship.
Welcome to the rebirth of one of college basketball’s proudest programs.
No one is throwing chairs a la Bob Knight, but fans are throwing around big money in hopes of witnessing a part of history. At last check, lower-level tickets for today’s game were starting at more than $200 apiece online, while upper-deck seats were starting at more than $100 apiece.
The ticket market outside of the United Center was particularly one-sided Friday.
Everywhere, fans dressed in Hoosier red raised their fingers and barked out numbers.
Many must have found a way into the stadium, which was filled with red from the floor level to the top row of the upper deck. Sure, there were pockets of orange for the Fighting Illini, but Indiana fans filled anywhere from two-thirds to three-fourths of the building.
“We love it,” Indiana junior forward Will Sheehey said. “We want them to keep coming.”
They will, as long as the Hoosiers keep winning.
Fans who arrive will be treated to terrific defense, constant ball movement and at least a couple of NBA-caliber players. Sophomore center Cody Zeller is a dependable 7-footer who should have a long career at the next level, while junior guard Victor Oladipo is a tenacious defender who can make electrifying plays on offense.
Oladipo’s 360-degree slam in the final minutes against Illinois was something to behold.
To finish a four-on-zero break, Oladipo starred in a one-man dunk contest. He timed his steps, soared toward the rim, twisted his body and threw down a dunk that earned 10s from here to Evansville.
“It was just a last-second thought,” Oladipo said. “I thought about it while I was in the air. …
“And, no, that’s not my best one.”
Perhaps most impressive about Indiana is that outcomes do not hinge on one or two players. From pass-first guards to key role players, everyone seems to play a role in the group’s success.
It’s the type of formula that tends to work in March.
“Sitting where we’re sitting, the team has been the headline-maker,” coach Tom Crean said. “Because these guys are so unselfish and they’re so selfless with one another and the way that they work.”
A few years ago, Indiana would have been the last team in the Big Ten to make headlines.
The spotlight is only getting brighter.
“It feels good, but you can’t just sit back and relish in that moment right now,” Watford said. “There’s still work to be done.”
• Northwest Herald sports columnist Tom Musick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @tcmusick.