Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Jalen Courtney

I'd like to be able to say that I have enough knowledge to somewhat intelligently talk about most teams in college basketball right now. That would be a lie. I simply don't have enough time (or enough TV channels) to catch all the games during the week. As a consequence, I admit that, nationally, I only know the big sports stories around the country. On the other hand, anyone who has read this blog before knows that I'm a Michigan State fan and follow Big Ten sports quite passionately. While I can't provide much insight for basketball teams from the SEC or ACC, I pride myself on being pretty knowledgable on the happenings in the Big Ten. As a result, I'm going to do something I've never done before and, in the days leading up to the start of conference play, I'm going to write a blog for each Big Ten team, focusing on their 'big' story of the season thus far and taking a look at how their season has been going. Big Ten men's basketball conference play begins on December 27. That gives me approximately 7 1/2 days to come up with 12 blogs. Let's go.

I'll start with the only undefeated team left in the Big Ten - the Indiana Hoosiers. Yesterday, I caught the tail end of their game against Howard University. The point differential was 57. A score such as this hasn't been unusual for Indiana in the last few years; they haven't had a winning season since 07-08 and their last three seasons they've finished 6-25, 10-21, and 12-20 and, rest assured, there were some hardy blowouts in there. What made this game so astonishing wasn't so much the final score, but the fact that it was Indiana who won by 57.

As I mentioned, the last few years have been quite tumultuous for the Hoosiers, but their problems started before the 2008 season. To understand the significance of this win (and others this season), you should probably go back to 1971, the year Bobby Knight first began coaching at Indiana. Under Knight, the Hoosiers were Big Ten Conference champions 11 times, reached the Final Four 5 times, and won 4 national championships. They were undefeated in conference play from 1974-1976 and lost only one game outside of conference during that time as well; the 1976 Hoosiers basketball team is the last NCAA team to finish with an undefeated season. Under Knight, Indiana became a basketball powerhouse.

At the same time, however, Knight was one of the most controversial coaches in NCAA history. During his time as Indiana's coach, he famously threw a chair onto the court during a game, to give one example (out of many) of his out of control temper. In May 2000, the school adopted a "zero tolerance" policy for Knight after a video of him choking a former player was aired on CNN. By September that same year, numerous complaints were filed against Knight for breaking the zero-tolerance policy and, after Knight refused to resign, he was fired.

Indiana has not yet regained their former glory. Since 2000, they've gone through 4 coaches and reached the NCAA tournament only 6 times, winning one game or less in 5 of those years. Tom Crean became the head coach in 2008 after Kelvin Sampson was fired for recruiting violations. That season was the worst in school history. Crean made due with 2 returning players, one on scholarship. They finished dead last in the Big Ten. The following year, adding 4 top 100 recruits to the roster, Indiana finished tied for 10th. Last year, Crean's Indiana defeated their first ranked opponent (Illinois) and followed with an encore six days later (Minnesota) only to finish last in the Big Ten again.

This season, Crean added 3 five star players to his roster. Yesterday, they defeated Howard University by 57. On December 10, in a game that was not nearly as close as the final score shows, they upset #1 Kentucky on a buzzer beating 3 point shot from Christian Wafford, their first victory over a number 1 team since 2001. They're 11-0; last time they started a season this well, they won the national championship.

That's not to say that I expect Indiana to win the national championship; if they do, I promise to put on a gorilla costume (and my family has one) and run around the neighborhood handing out candy. Don't get your hopes up. They're undefeated but, like most teams in the nation, their pre-conference games haven't been the most challenging, Kentucky game aside. They've beaten Notre Dame (which sounds great but the 8-5 team isn't the same as it has been in past years), Butler (who has a similar story to Notre Dame, though did just beat Purdue), North Carolina State during the Big Ten-ACC challenge, and a number of unknown mid-major programs (does anyone know where Howard University is?). The Big Ten schedule is going to be much harder than their out-of-conference schedule. Up until this year, though, Indiana was losing these out-of-conference games to these nobody colleges. And not just losing - they were getting pulverized. Most teams set up easy out-of-conference games, with one or two exceptions, in order to beef up their resume and establish some team chemistry. You're supposed to win most of them. Indiana is finally doing that.

The good news for Indiana is, despite some easy non-conference games, they are a good team, as the Kentucky game demonstrated. They're also underrated. They're shooting 52%, 4th best in the nation, and averaging 85 ppg, 7th best in the nation. They're one of six remaining undefeated teams and yet they're ranked 18, behind several 1 and 2 loss teams, with substantially better wins than most of them. They should be ranked higher, but sometimes it's better to fly under the radar a little bit. Voters in the coaches poll are hesitant to rank them higher because of their miserable past 3 seasons but my prediction is that soon Indiana will be a definite threat. Eventually, coaches and spectators will have to acknowledge that Tom Crean is bringing Indiana basketball back and, with the incoming recruiting class of 2012 ranked 8th in the nation, it appears that he's bringing them back to stay.

I haven't done one of these in a while, but here is something for you to watch. The State Street Singer's performed an NFL-inspired version of the "12 Days of Christmas"in Central Park, complete with cartoon drawings. It'll get you all set for the holidays.

Jalen Courtney is the player today's blog is named after. He's the #14 sophomore forward for the LSU tigers basketball team. I wonder, after football season, does anyone down at LSU have the energy to care about their 8-3 basketball team? But that's beside the point. Courtney is averaging 6.4 minutes per game this season, an improvement from the 4.8 last season. He's a 43% 3-point shooter but averages only 2.1 points per game. He did not play in LSU's victory over Marquette, dropping Marquette down from the ranks of the undefeated.

Over and out.
The Sports Nerd

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