INDIANA IS THE home of college basketball, both literally (the NCAA's headquarters are in Indianapolis) and spiritually. Kids there grow up dreaming of playing college hoops; the state's official logo ought to be a rim nailed to a barn. But lately the land of the Hoosiers and Hoosiers has been left out of its own party.
In 2000 the state sent six schools to the NCAA tournament: Ball State, Butler, Indiana, Indiana State, Purdue and Valparaiso. Last season, for just the second time in 42 years, the state was left out of the NCAAs. It won't be a shock if its 10 D-I programs go 0-for-March again in 2015.
The state's most prominent programs are all dealing with various challenges. Indiana, after going 17--15 a year ago, looks like a fringe contender for the field of 68, but the big problem in Bloomington is that six players have reportedly failed a drug test or been arrested, cited or mentioned in police reports involving alcohol since February. One of the six, Devin Davis, was hospitalized on Nov. 1 after, according to reports, he darted in front of another player's car after drinking. Head coach Tom Crean has vowed to be "sterner" with his players.
For years Purdue was seen as the epitome of overachievement, winning with a box-out here and a floor burn there, and going to 24 NCAA tournaments from 1980 to 2012. The Boilermakers have lost that identity over the last two seasons, during which they've gone 31--35. For this, head coach Matt Painter, who took over in West Lafayette in '05, blames himself. At Big Ten media day last month he said, "It hasn't been for a lack of talent. We had a great situation with guys playing together, having chemistry, and we haven't had that the last couple years."
In 2011, Butler was the talk of college basketball with its two straight appearances in the national title game and the sport's brightest young coach in Brad Stevens. Now Stevens coaches the Celtics. His replacement, Brandon Miller, went 14--17 last season and has taken a leave of absence for an undisclosed medical issue.
Notre Dame, meanwhile, must navigate its way through the coaches' wing of the Basketball Hall of Fame, also known as the Atlantic Coast Conference. The Fighting Irish should be better than last year, when they went 15--17 with star guard Jerian Grant suspended most of the year for academic reasons. But can they win consistently in a league featuring Duke, Louisville, North Carolina and Syracuse?
What's the matter with Indiana? You can't pin it on bad coaching, because Crean, Painter and Notre Dame's Mike Brey have combined to lead 25 teams to the NCAA tournament. Sometimes a state hits a talent drought, but Indiana still has plenty of quality players—at least four high school seniors in each of the past five years have been consensus top 100 recruits. ESPN's Dan Dakich, who played and coached at Indiana, sums up the fundamental problem: "Indiana kids are going other places and playing really well."
Indeed, the state has become basketball's universal blood donor, pumping life into other programs. The last three Indiana Mr. Basketballs left home, including 2014 winner Trey Lyles, now a freshman at Kentucky. Since 2011, Indiana natives have helped Michigan (Mitch McGary, Glenn Robinson III), Michigan State (Branden Dawson, Gary Harris) and Ohio State (Deshaun Thomas) reach Final Fours or win Big Ten titles. Of the 24 consensus top 100 players the state has produced this decade, just 10 chose to play college ball in the Hoosier State. Furthermore, guard Jalen Coleman-Lands, one of three top 100 players from Indiana in the class of 2015 Scout.com rankings and the only one to have committed to a school, picked Illinois.
It's easy to overreact to what is happening now. Indiana was a No. 1 NCAA seed in 2013, and this year aside, Crean's teams do not have a history of misbehavior. Painter is a Purdue alum and a proven coach who understands the program's ethos. And Brey averaged 23.9 wins in South Bend in the seven years before last season.
But fans in Indiana are discovering just how good they used to have it when the Hoosiers' Bob Knight and the Boilermakers' Gene Keady were battling for Big Ten titles in the 1980s and '90s. Those fans love a great underdog story. They can only hope they're watching the start of one.
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PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY NICOLE ZIGMONT: KEVIN RUSS/GETTY IMAGES (BASKET)
MIKE ROEMER/AP (RODGERS)
MOSTAFA FAWZY/FOTOLIA.COM (CASH)
CHARLIE NEIBERGALL/AP (HELMET)