Note: Our retrospective of under-the-radar players continues with Tom Pritchard. If there are any players you would like to see chronicled in the future, let us know in the comments.
Being a basketball player at Indiana comes with a lot of pressure. Every player who has ever donned the candy stripes can attest to the feeling that once you step inside Assembly Hall, you carry the weight of an entire state on your back. Basketball is serious business here, amplified by the figureheads of the program that are infamous for being hardasses. Sometimes, though, it can be a breath of fresh air to see someone break away from all of that pressure by carving their own path through their eccentricities. Tom Pritchard was that breath of fresh air.
Pritchard arrived on campus in the fall of 2008 after being recruited to Bloomington by Kelvin Sampson. As a top 100 recruit out of Cleveland, Ohio, Pritchard could have easily rescinded his commitment after the NCAA fiasco and dismissal of most of the previous year's roster. He didn't, though, and that mentality set the tone for the type of player and person that Pritchard would prove to be.
I. A Benjamin Button Career
How do you define a guy whose career had no logical progression? With a completely unknown roster to start the 2008-09 season, Pritchard burst out of the gates and onto the national scene as a freshman. In his first two games against Northwestern State and IUPUI, he became the first player in IU history to start his career with back-to-back double-doubles.
However, statistically and visually speaking, once better competition came through, that would prove to be a bar that was set way too high. Pritchard started all 31 games his freshman year and put up solid averages of 9.7 points and 6.4 rebounds, but struggled down the stretch as he failed to match the speed and athleticism that Big Ten teams doled out on a nightly basis.
Over the next few years, Pritchard's role diminished as more high-level talent was injected into the roster. While he was the focal point of his freshman year's offense, his numbers suffered when players like Christian Watford, Jordan Hulls, and Victor Oladipo arrived and were more capably suited to handle the offensive load.
By his senior year, though, Pritchard's game evolved, and he found his niche as an energy guy off the bench capable of racking up quality defensive minutes and turning the tides of games for a nationally-ranked IU squad. While his offensive game was sporadic, he had a flair for the dramatic, and when he had his moments, he REALLY made it worth the wait.
II. The Dunk
Some of you might say that the first half of a February game versus Minnesota in an overall forgettable 2010-11 season cannot be the setting for the defining moment of a player's career. You would also be wrong. As a passionate fan base looked for literally anything to grab onto as hope for the future, Hoosier fans found themselves going wild over a 12 point first half lead over a #20th ranked Minnesota team. As Verdell Jones III looked to extend the lead further, he pulled up for a 3. From the opposite side of the court, Pritchard raced in toward the hoop, and did this:
To this day, I can't think of a dunk that makes less sense than that one. For the entire year leading up to that point, Pritchard's lack of athleticism became his defining trait. Yet, in one thunderous dunk, Pritchard both brought the house down and gave fans the fuel that ignited a shifting perception of the big man that lasted well past his final game for Indiana. From that day on, the feeling among fans seemed to be that he was viewed differently, and instead of worrying about what he couldn't do, the IU faithful started celebrating what he could. For everyone's sake, this became an ideal scenario.
III. The Legend of Tom Pritchard
Seemingly overnight, Pritchard's status as a member of the IU student body took on a different feel. Every time he touched the ball, no matter where he was on the court, fans egged him on to "SHOOOOOOT IT". He became the guy that you loved to make fun of, but would be fiercely protective of if a rival fan would belittle his name.
Sure, he committed more fouls than points scored in his final two seasons and yes, he often looked disoriented in the way that you or I look after a night out. For Pritchard, there was always a nonzero chance that this was the case. But these were not faults, and they only added to his aura. Lastly, but definitely not least, the man was a fashion icon.
Tom Pritchard single-handedly made the extra large tee cool again. That is a fact and is not up for debate. Dem Franchise Boyz would have been a perfect sponsor for the Pritchard-led Hoosiers if anyone in IU's PR department had decided to use their brain. Before him, nobody dared to wear a shirt that was three sizes too big under his uniform. After him, there was still nobody who did it. But that didn't matter, because he looked damn good lumbering up and down the court in a shirt that Yao Ming would probably return for being too large.
During his senior year, as the Hoosiers returned to relevancy, fans of his around town grew by the day. Pritchard became a cult-like figure on campus, even having his number appear on a Kilroy's giveaway shirt, a recognition usually reserved for star players with an NBA future. His unintentionally hilarious senior speech remains my favorite of all-time, as my completely unscientific data states that he remains the only player that has ever thanked his frat bros and the Cleveland Cavaliers with more regard and passion than he did for his own parents.
Pritchard's star turn as a local celebrity did not end upon graduation, either. In the midst of the following season in which IU was ranked #1 in the country with a bevy of future NBA players on the court, it was Pritchard who received chants from the fans at Assembly Hall as he was spotted taking in a game near the Hoosier bench.
IU fans go into big "Tom Pritchard" chant as the recently graduated player is spotted near student section— Mike Pegram (@peegs) November 28, 2012
Pritchard found a way into fans' hearts through his goofy smile and his ability to adapt. Still the only player to ever play in every game of his 4 year career at Indiana, Pritchard persevered through ups and downs and became a crucial piece to a very fun team that made a Sweet 16 run. By finding a way to make an impact even when his basketball abilities were not at All-American levels, Tom Pritchard earned his candy stripes in ways that few before him have done, and for that, us fans are forever indebted to him.