It's hard to believe, but the most anticipated Indiana basketball season in quite some time will soon be coming to a close, which means we won't get to watch this group of Hoosiers much longer.
Indiana will (hopefully) have No. 1 teams in the future, but it's going to be tough for a group of players to be more beloved than this one.
Over the past two years, this group has carved out a special place in the collective heart of Hoosier Nation, going from a 3-15 Big Ten season in 2010-11 to last year's exhilarating 27-win campaign to the top-ranked juggernaut it currently is. The names of the core players -- Victor Oladpio, Jordan Hulls, Remy Abell, Derek Elston, Christian Watford, Will Sheehey and Cody Zeller, along with coach Tom Crean -- will go down in Indiana history as the guys who returned the program to national relevance. For me personally, they will be the ones who made watching Indiana fun again.
Two years ago, when the Hoosiers won just three Big Ten games, turning on the television to watch Indiana was downright scary. For the Hoosiers to stay in games -- forget winning them -- a lot of things had to go right. You tuned in hoping for the best, but in the back of your mind, you knew it wasn't going to go well.
How bad were things? The Hoosiers had separate nine- and six-game losing streaks, and Indiana fans stormed the court after a win over No. 21 Illinois -- and it was justifiable (to most).
Heading in to last season, with Zeller on board, even the most optimistic fans could only hope for a .500 Big Ten record and a possible NCAA Tournament berth. Even that, though, seemed like a long shot. I can't speak for every Indiana fan, but after going 7-29 in league play over the last two years, I had become rather numb to losing. If you wanted to feel good about Indiana, you had to get on Rivals.com and get excited about the future.
But the 2011-12 team changed everything. Indiana started the year with five blowout wins over pancakes, smacked Butler and picked up a road victory -- something the program had become allergic to -- at North Carolina State.
Then, it happened.
IU Buzzer Beater vs. Kentucky (HD) (via John Moore)
Watford nailed one of the biggest shots in Indiana history, a buzzer-beating 3-pointer, as the Hoosiers knocked off almighty Kentucky. Pandemonium ensued. It's hard not to watch the reaction of the crowd and players (and Crean) and feel like everyone let loose years of frustration.
Before the Kentucky game, Indiana fans were starting to subscribe to the thought that things were turning around. After the win, there wasn't much debate.
The Hoosiers followed with wins over No. 2 Ohio State, No. 13 Michigan and No. 5 Michigan State. Assembly Hall was electric again, Hoosier Nation was buzzing all year and fans, I believe, appreciated winning more than ever before.
Like I alluded to earlier: they made it fun to watch Indiana basketball again.
Coming in to this season, expectations were through the roof. With essentially everyone back and the addition of "The Movement," specifically point guard Yogi Ferrell, Indiana entered the year ranked No. 1. Think about that for a second -- a team that won three conference games in 2010-11 was now going to enter the 2012-13 season as the No. 1 team. That's one heck of a turnaround.
Hoosier Nation went from "we'd be thrilled with a berth in the Big Dance" to "championship or bust" in hardly no time. Yet, somehow, this group keeps delivering.
Indiana hasn't run roughshod over everyone like some people prognosticated, but, for the most part, the season has lived up to expectations. The Hoosiers -- one of the nation's top squads all year -- have marquee wins over (ranking at the time of game) No. 13 Michigan State, No. 8 Minnesota, No. 1 Michigan and No. 10 Ohio State, with the win over the Buckeyes coming in Columbus.
What makes this team so memorable and enjoyable isn't that they win; it's how they win. This group plays the game the way it's supposed to be played, showcasing an unselfishness that's uncommon at any level of basketball. They play hard, they share the ball, they shoot it well and they have fun.
And this group doesn't just work hard during games. With the improvements they've all made -- each and every one of them -- in their individual skills, it's obvious that they work extremely hard in practice and during the offseason. It's always nice to see players reap the benefits of good, old-fashioned hard work.
With just six regular season games remaining, the window is closing on this group. And it just won't be the same after this year. Watford and Hulls will graduate while Oladipo and Zeller figure to leave early for the NBA. That's four of the five starters. But it's also guys who have -- with the exception of Zeller -- been on awful teams and played integral roles in the program's resurgence. It's four guys who represent Indiana basketball the right way. It's four fan favorites.
While I have no worries about Crean's ability to continue to recruit top-notch talent to Bloomington, it's going to be a wake-up call next season when I tune in to an Indiana game and don't see Hulls burying 3-pointers, Watford pulling down tough rebounds or Oladipo harassing ballhandlers.
I'm going to say it: this is my favorite Indiana team of all-time.
We as Indiana fans have been extremely spoiled over the past 15 months. Let's not take getting to watch this group -- one which will go down as one of the more memorable in the hallowed history of Indiana hoops -- for granted.