What a difference a year makes for Hoosiers' Sampson

Updated: February 2, 2007, 12:53 PM ET
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Flushed with the thrill of a second-half lead on the No. 2 team in the country, the relentlessly rowdy Indiana student section filled the dead air of a dead-ball situation with an impromptu chant:

"Kel-vin Samp-son!" Clap, clap, clap-clap-clap.

"Kel-vin Samp-son!" Clap, clap, clap-clap-clap.

This was significant. Ten months ago, when he was surprisingly hired away from Oklahoma, the refrain in this state was dramatically different:

"Kel-vin Samp-son?" they asked, from Gary to Jeffersonville. "Why, why, why-why-why?"

In the wake of Indiana's 71-66 upset of Wisconsin Wednesday night in Assembly Hall, it is time to give the man in the blue collar full credit. He has turned question marks into exclamation points, doubters into believers, critics into a hallelujah chorus. He has returned Indiana basketball, one of the game's brand names, to national relevance.

Sampson spent the offseason shaking every Hoosier hand, kissing every Hoosier baby and swiping the one Hoosier recruit he had to have, Eric Gordon, from Illinois. Now he's done the most important thing, winning more games than anyone could have expected heading into February: 16 out of 21 to date, six out of eight in Big Ten play, and seven of the last eight.

Don't look now, but Indiana has made a three-team race out of what everyone thought was a two-team league. Ohio State and the Badgers, both 7-1, find the Hoosiers one game back feeling chesty. For that, there's a new name to consider in the national Coach of the Year debate.

Kel-vin Samp-son.

Everyone who was underwhelmed by the choice of Sampson as coach last spring -- and there were many -- would never admit it now.

Today it's all bliss in Hoosierland after Indiana cooled off America's hottest team. Sampson's team ended the longest winning streak in the country at 17 games, earned the program's biggest win since shocking Duke in the 2002 NCAA Tournament and sent a berserk horde of fans pouring out of the Assembly Hall stands and onto the court at the final horn.

"It was cool, you know," said IU hero A.J. Ratliff, who scored 20 points. "But a dude with a wig just came and tackled me. It was kind of scary."

Dudes with wigs and wild looks in their eyes were making tackles everywhere. The center-court slam dance might have stood hoops history on its head -- five-time national champion Indiana storming the floor for beating Wisconsin? -- but, hey, times have changed.

Nobody is more painfully aware of that than Indiana fans.

The traumatic end of the Bob Knight Era was followed by six divisive years of Mike Davis. In the four seasons since Davis took IU to the Final Four, he was just four games over .500 in Big Ten play and won just two NCAA Tournament games.

Then came a coaching search which failed to satisfy the faction demanding someone with Hoosier roots (Steve Alford, Randy Wittman, etc.) or the faction demanding a hot-sexy name (Jay Wright, Mark Few, Tom Crean, etc.). Instead athletic director Rick Greenspan delivered a guy whose program seemed to be sagging at Oklahoma, and who arrived with NCAA baggage.

Today he's the best Indiana import this side of Adam Vinatieri.

"I can't remember having fans rush the court like that," Sampson said postgame. "Just look at this group. I know the journey is still ongoing, there is nothing final about this tonight, but I go back to September with this group. I know where they started. I know what they looked like in September and October. Then you fast-forward to tonight. I'm just happy for them."

The obvious question: What did they look like in September and October?

"We had no identity," Sampson said. "… We had nothing we could really hang our hat on. It's been a climb. For these kids to be accomplishing something like tonight, I'm really, really happy for them."

The identity coalescing in Bloomington today mirror's the coach's longtime identity: This is a tough group. Not prone to the wild mood swings that seemed to characterize the Davis Era. Allergic to mail-it-in performances (IU's five losses are by a total of 28 points). And tenaciously defending home court (IU is three games away from its first undefeated season in Assembly Hall in 12 years).

The feverish home-court atmosphere counted plenty Wednesday night. But Indiana also was the more prepared team.

In the game's first 27 minutes, the Hoosiers exploited Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan's dogmatic interior defense: Thou shalt guard the post one-on-one. Big man D.J. White racked up all 16 of his points in that time. When the Badgers finally started using the athletic Marcus Landry to deny White the ball, Indiana went to its perimeter players for open jumpers or to take Wisconsin off the dribble.

In that respect, this Indiana team bears a slight resemblance to the '02 team: a standout big man (Jared Jeffries then, White now) surrounded by an experienced perimeter cast (Tom Coverdale, Dane Fife, Jeff Newton and Kyle Hornsby then, Rod Wilmont, Earl Calloway and Ratliff now). Not coincidentally, Indiana has its best Big Ten record after eight games since that team.

But defensively, Sampson did something Wednesday night that Davis rarely did and Knight would not do for all the money in the world: He threw a ton of zone defense at Wisconsin. More zone than the home team has played in this building in decades.

The result: The Badgers hoisted the most 3-pointers they've taken in more than a month (20, hitting only five), and only shot 17 free throws (10 less than their season average).

"You can't let them get to the free throw line," Sampson said. "I didn't anticipate playing one defense more than another -- it's one of those deals, you throw it against the wall and see what sticks. If the zone's working, why not stay in it?"

And if Ratliff is hitting jump shots, why not keep feeding him? The streaky junior went on his hottest tear of the year, personally breaking open the game with 18 second-half points. After Wisconsin rallied from 10 down to tie at 59, Ratliff scored nine of Indiana's last 12 points.

"It's big-time," Ratliff said of the victory. "I don't think we've ever beaten a huge, ranked, top-three team since I've been here."

You haven't, A.J. That's why the dude in the wig was tackling you.

And if you wake up bruised from that hit on Thursday, blame it on the man who made the madness possible.

Kel-vin Samp-son.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.

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