Commentary

Hoosiers stay in Big Ten race as Sampson drama continues

Originally Published: February 17, 2008
By Andy Katz | ESPN.com

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Maybe Kelvin Sampson is in denial. Maybe he truly believes he'll be coaching Indiana for the rest of the season.

That might be the only way to explain the bizarre nature of what is happening here.

Indiana rocked Michigan State 80-61 Saturday night at Assembly Hall despite losing potential Big Ten player of the year D.J. White with a left knee injury after only 15 minutes of game action.

"I think basketball is so much bigger than one person," Sampson said of his own tenuous situation. "The game will always be about the players. I am happy for them. That was a tough loss the other night [to Wisconsin on a Brian Butch 3-pointer on the Badgers' final possession]. I mean it was. But to come back tonight, it is just a great win for those kids. You just can't go anywhere and people not see the situation."

The crisp February day started with a disgruntled Indiana fan from Louisville handing out "Bring Back Bobby [Knight]" T-shirts [for which he said he was asked to leave ESPN's "GameDay" show inside Assembly Hall]. Another man stood on the sidewalk across the street wearing a homemade version of the same shirt and holding a sign to match his slogan.

But when the evening concluded, Sampson was fist pumping during a timeout with less than two minutes left in the blowout and hugging his players as if IU had just clinched a Final Four berth. When the team got to the bench, the student section seemed to forget about the notice of the NCAA's major allegations announced Wednesday as they suddenly broke into a chorus chant of "Kel-vin Samp-son".

"Surreal," assistant coach Jeff Meyer said after the game.

"Surreal," echoed assistant coach Dan Dakich, who likely would be the one to replace Sampson if the head coach is removed or suspended by the school.

Although everyone else was talking about Sampson's situation, he would not.

"I don't have any comments about that stuff," he said. "We're practicing [Sunday] at 3 to get ready for Purdue."

What's happening in the locker room, it's all about focus. Coach Sampson hasn't changed a thing, and it's working. The players listen now just like they did three weeks ago. It's not a lot different. Everyone knows what's going on outside. We're just doing our thing.

--IU assistant coach Dan Dakich

But Sampson's days at Indiana appear numbered. The school might remove or suspend the coach on Friday when its seven-day deadline to investigate the NCAA's allegations expires. At that time, athletic director Rick Greenspan must give IU president Michael McRobbie a recommendation about Sampson's fate. The options can range from keeping him on the job and riding out the 90-day window to respond to the NCAA's notice; to going through the NCAA Committee of Infractions hearing in June and seeing how Indiana fares; to suspending him without pay and awaiting a 10-day appeal from Sampson if he so desires; to dismissing him outright with the potential for a settlement.

As surreal as it has been around Sampson, the Indiana staff insists it hasn't affected the team.

"What's happening in the locker room, it's all about focus," Dakich said. "Coach Sampson hasn't changed a thing, and it's working. The players listen now just like they did three weeks ago. It's not a lot different. Everyone knows what's going on outside. We're just doing our thing."

That thing they do is rely on the perimeter prowess of freshman Eric Gordon, who scored 28 points in 31 minutes against Michigan State. As a team, Indiana has become dominant on the perimeter, which is even more important now that White will have an MRI on his left knee Sunday. The Hoosiers made eight 3s. They also are getting contributions from everyone, especially role players Jamarcus Ellis, Jordan Crawford and power player DeAndre Thomas, who scored 10 points in 16 minutes in White's place. And, oh by the way, they forced Michigan State into 19 turnovers.

The win for the 12th-ranked Hoosiers, fresh off being swept by Wisconsin, which was swept by Purdue, puts IU squarely in range of the Boilermakers in their only meeting of the Big Ten season Tuesday night (ESPN, 7 ET). That game will conclude a chaotic stretch for the red-and-white-striped folks here.

Ten days ago, Gordon and the Hoosiers were thrown into a Roman-like coliseum when they won a double-overtime game at Illinois. Gordon once committed to the Illini.

The Hoosiers won at Ohio State three days later.

In the interim, Indiana received the notice of NCAA allegations. It wasn't made public until the day of the Wisconsin game on Wednesday.

Indiana (21-4, 10-2 Big Ten) lost that game and easily could have spun itself right out of the Big Ten race. Instead, it stormed past an early 11-point deficit Saturday night to topple ninth-ranked Michigan State and set up the showdown with in-state rival Purdue (21-5, 12-1 Big Ten).

Gordon and the rest of the players said they just tune out any of the chatter about Sampson's status.

But it's hard to ignore the elephant in the room.

[+] EnlargeD.J. White and Drew Naymick
AP Photo/Darron CummingsIndiana won without senior forward D.J. White, who missed most of the game with a left knee injury.

Greenspan told ESPN.com about an hour before Saturday's tip-off that a number of the NCAA's allegations were new to the school. He said IU didn't have access to the same AAU coaches, recruits and parents as the NCAA because the people not associated with Indiana didn't have to talk to the school.

"We don't have subpoena power, and we don't have the authority that the NCAA has to encourage people to comply," Greenspan said.

As Indiana investigates the NCAA's new allegations, Greenspan said the seven-day period is long enough to come up with a conclusion. But he added that there won't be any new interviews with any of the AAU coaches, recruits and parents. Instead, Indiana will just review all the documents, transcripts and interviews the NCAA's enforcement staff did from the time of Indiana's self-imposed sanctions in October to the release of the notice Feb. 8. ( Indiana imposed restrictions on the staff back in October, taking a $500,000 bonus from Sampson, docking a scholarship from the team, and limiting an assistant coaching position from going off campus for recruiting and in making phone calls.)

The difference between the NCAA's report and Indiana's initial report was that Indiana believed Sampson's statements were true. The NCAA alleges that Sampson wasn't truthful in his statements, a charge that helped push the case to "major" status.

"We're looking into the due process about how these allegations might impact us contractually [with Sampson], and that's why we're moving in the manner we are," Greenspan said.

Regardless of what happens with Sampson, the Hoosiers are headed for a hearing with the NCAA Committee of Infractions in Seattle in June. Sampson likely will attend, as an unemployed coach or as an employee of Indiana.

Firing or removing a coach at a school headed for the NCAA Tournament is rare. Georgia did it with Jim Harrick. Michigan did it with Bill Frieder.

If Indiana is going to do it with Sampson, he's certainly not bowing out quietly. He's going to coach this team until he is told he can't do so anymore, whether that is after Tuesday's game against Purdue, before Saturday's game at Northwestern or even deeper into the season -- if he can continue to convince the school that he's worth the fight.

For one moment on Saturday night, though, a part of the Indiana student section swung to his favor.

By the time you're reading this, it will be Sunday, five days before Greenspan's recommendation is due.

The clock is ticking.

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.

Andy Katz | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

ALSO SEE