USA TODAY Sports
Tonight, Indiana fans say goodbye to a class that will long be remembered.
Tonight is Senior Night. IU's three seniors--Christian Watford, Jordan Hulls, and Derek Elston--will take the court at Assembly Hall for the final time. As freshmen, those three endured a 10-21/4-14 season. As sophomores, they were 12-20/3-15. All three of them, along with Maurice Creek, who is a junior thanks to a season missed because of injury, were thrown into the mix immediately. They didn't have the opportunity to work out the kinks of their game only in practice, or in mop-up time, or as complementary players on an experienced team. They had to adjust to college basketball in front of all of us. Obviously, they experienced little success in their early years. There were occasional successes: the win over Pitt at Madison Square Garden and a Big Ten opening win over Michigan when they were freshmen, wins over Minnesota when they were freshmen and sophomores, the win over Illinois when they were sophomores. Unfortunately, those years are remembered more for the losses to the likes of Loyola Maryland, Boston University, four losses to Iowa over a span in which the Hawkeyes won only eight Big Ten games, etc. Still, while it wasn't always obvious to those of us on the outside, the entire team, led in large part by these current seniors, continued to work and improve. By the time Hulls, Elston, and Watford were juniors, the program exploded back onto the national scene with a 27-8 season, including a Sweet 16 appearance and wins over top 5 teams Kentucky, Ohio State, and Michigan State.
Following that surprising resurgence, the Hoosiers entered the 2012-13 season facing higher expectations than had any IU team in decades. IU was ranked number one in both the AP and coaches' polls, and while the Hoosiers have now dropped to #2, they have lived up to the hype. Two years ago, on senior night, Jeremiah Rivers said goodbye after a ten point loss to Wisconsin that was the seventh loss in a nine-game losing streak to end the season. Tonight, the Hoosiers can clinch the Big Ten title outright with a win over the Buckeyes. It's an amazing turnaround for a senior class that endured so many losses and humiliations in their first two years on campus. Of course, I hope that IU never has to go through anything remotely like the three years of hell that followed the Sampson debacle. But (and this isn't an original thought) it seems likely that the experience of losing like that has helped forge this senior class in particular. What is so refreshing about this team is its total lack of selfishness. It's extremely rare to think of any guy on this team, "oh, he's trying to get his." This class deserves much of the credit. Unquestionably, IU's talent level is on the rise, seemingly with each recruiting class. Hopefully, the underclassmen who remain when these seniors (and likely Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo) depart will show the sort of leadership that these seniors have provided.
- Jordan Hulls. Hulls is one of 26 Indiana Mr. Basketball recipients to play at IU, but one of only two to hail from Bloomington and stay home for college. Hulls won the award without putting up gaudy scoring numbers, but as the do-it-all leader of an undefeated state champion. It must have been a tough transition to endure the sort of losing that these seniors faced during their first two years. Hulls, for most of his career, was pressed into point guard duty despite not being a great fit for the position at the collegiate level. Over the past two seasons, he has emerged as one of the nation's best three point shooters, shooting 50 percent from deep over the past two seasons. IU fans love a hometown hero, and it is fitting that the grandson of a former IU assistant is now IU's all-time leading scorer among Bloomington natives.
- Christian Watford. Watford was a top 50 recruit who chose to play for Tom Crean and a decimated IU program despite offers from Alabama, Louisville, and Memphis. Anyone remember the Paint Crew chanting "transfer, transfer" at Watford when he was a freshman? Thankfully, he didn't. Watford's scoring average hasn't changed much since his freshman year. He averaged 12 points per game then and 12.7 now. But he has become an incredibly efficient scorer, and makes nearly half of his three point attempts, in addition to contributing down low. Of course, his buzzer-beater against Kentucky, the greatest regular season moment in the history of Indiana basketball, assures that he will be remembered forever.
- Derek Elston. Elston, after spending his first three seasons as a solid role player, has had his senior year derailed to some extent by injuries. Elston is averaging only 7 minutes per game and 1.5 points per game. Still, Elston has been at his best recently. He's scored in only six games this season, but that includes the last three, and he played meaningful minutes in IU's win at Michigan State. An emergent Elston would be huge for IU's title hopes. Elston originally committed to Kelvin Sampson, and stuck with the Hoosiers as the program went through a coaching change and into decline. As with all of his classmates, he had other options, decided to be a Hoosier, and has been rewarded.
This class probably won't be considered the best senior class in IU history, but has an excellent chance to be the most beloved. No matter what happens in March (and hopefully April), this class has made its mark on IU history. But hopefully they will be permanently commemorated with a banner in the south end of Assembly Hall. Either way, thanks for everything, guys.