Team preview: Indiana

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(Information in this team report is as of October 1.)

Conventional coaching wisdom figured former Indiana coach Mike Davis, also known as the man who followed the Man in Assembly Hall, would serve the painful sentence of trying to replace a legend and make things better for all who followed. And for six years, Davis, the first-time head coach, sat on a perpetually hotter seat made worse by back-to-back seasons of missing the NCAA Tournament.

The pressures of not being Bobby Knight combined with the heavy expectations that weighed considerably on the well-intentioned Davis finally caught up to him last season. Before bowing out, Davis made all the right statements about IU bringing in a head coach who would unite the Hoosier faithful.

Enter Kelvin Sampson. And enter the same rumblings and turmoil that helped keep Davis' tenure a divisive one.

Sampson's hire became about the things that he was not. He was not a member of the IU family tree. (Iowa coach Steve Alford, who many viewed as the logical replacement given his Indiana pedigree, was not even interviewed.) Sampson was not on the list of hot coaches with sizzle like Gonzaga's Mark Few or Ohio State's Thad Matta.

Sampson's own dealings at Oklahoma fed to the disbelief, as the specter of NCAA sanctions lingered over his head and would eventually follow him to IU. Sampson and his staff made 577 impermissible phone calls to recruits over a four-year span. The NCAA stripped him of his right to recruit off campus and make recruiting phone calls for one year.

The day word leaked Sampson was set to replace Davis at IU, Sampson inherited his very own website, too. The same contingent that pressed for Davis' ouster quickly registered www.firekelvinsampson.com and had the site up and running before Sampson was officially hired. At least they gave Davis a full year before creating his site in December 2001.

Sampson put his own spin on the sometimes-obsessive fan base saying he shares with them a strong desire to put IU back among the elite.

"Expectations come from winning," Sampson said. "I want Indiana fans to have high expectations. That's part of being a coach at a great program like Indiana. You don't run from it, you embrace it. I want to win too. That's one thing we have in common."

The best thing going for Sampson that Davis did not have is experience. Davis had none as a head coach before being put in front of the 1,000-watt spotlight that is Indiana basketball. Sampson, while never coaching at a traditional basketball power, has had considerable dress rehearsals with stops at Washington State and Oklahoma.

"I'm a coach," Sampson said, "This isn't my first rodeo, so I'll be fine."

Sampson has never been on a ride quite like this, where winning is only part of the equation. IU folks want their teams to win a certain way. That includes getting it done primarily with Hoosier natives.

In that respect Sampson has already endeared himself to some fans while infuriating other league coaches with the recruitment of Eric Gordon from Indianapolis. Gordon is the state's top player and ranked as one of the best in the nation, but committed to Illinois last November.

Losing in-state recruits -- Sean May to North Carolina, Josh McRoberts to Duke and especially 7-foot center Greg Oden to Ohio State to name a few -- helped usher Davis out of town.

Because verbal commitments are non-binding, and because Gordon is considered that good, Sampson and his staff have unapologetically kept after him.

At the very least, it should add some spice to the Jan. 23 game when Sampson and Indiana travel to face Illinois and coach Bruce Weber for the first time.

Obviously, IU fans don't mind a coach with a little fight in him, especially with the Hoosiers starving for NCAA Tournament success. They haven't advanced past the second round of the NCAA tournament since Davis led them to the 2002 national title game.

No player remains from that squad, which, coincidentally, beat Sampson's Oklahoma team in the semifinals. But Sampson is just happy to retain the players he did from last year.

"When I got here, they were all leaving," Sampson said. "When we got here we had to recruit our team. Our best recruits for this year and '07 are probably the guys on this team."

That's not an exaggeration. Davis' players were loyal to Davis. Several, especially Robert Vaden, saw a certain level of hypocrisy coming from those who said they supported IU, but wanted Davis gone.

Vaden, who started all 60 games the last two seasons, did not come to Bloomington to play for Indiana, he came to play for Davis. So naturally he followed Davis to UAB.
Vaden (13.5 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 3.5 apg, 1.2 spg, .415 3PT) led the team in assists, steals and minutes played last season and would have returned as the Hoosiers' leading scorer, rebounder and three-point shooter.

He's leaving a big enough void, but had Vaden's roommate joined him, the prospects for this year at IU would be bleak.