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Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Indiana signals return to elite with Final Four appearance

Tuesday, March 26, 2002

LEXINGTON, Ky. - Tom Coverdale was leaning on Jared Jeffries and Dane Fife just to stand.

The net seemed so far away, but Coverdale, leaning, limping, hopping made it up there on one foot and teammates' shoulders he'd never known were so broad - one rung at a time.

Jeffries had told him as he left the court to have his injured left ankle x-rayed not to worry that the Hoosiers were "going to get this one" for him.

They did, too, beating back feisty, glass-slippered Kent State. Cinderella had never been treated so badly - not even by her wicked stepfamily. IU shot Kent State out of the game early and every time they tried to get back into it, some IU player would deliver another 3-pointer to leave no doubt which team belonged in the Final Four.

This Indiana team hasn't always been shooting lights out from the arc nor has it always been limping, but it certainly seems like it. Regardless, it just keeps going, one step, one rung at a time. Now there's only one more step to climb.

And that precious, unbelievable step to the Final Four - and dare to dream now of a sixth National Championship for IU - seems so far away from where it all started, it might as well be Pluto.

I can take you there, to the beginning - to a room without a view of anything but the past. It was Assembly Hall, Midnight Madness 2000. One sign said, "We drank the Kool-Aid," a reference to Bob Knight's Jim-Jonesian effect on some of the IU faithful. When Mike Davis entered the arena, some fans turned their backs.

Those were the first steps, the baby steps that led us here, with Coverdale painfully climbing a ladder at Rupp Arena Saturday night. Kent State and so many other ghosts and been exorcised you'd think the entire staff at The Vatican had been on full-time duty here this weekend.

By closing time, it was a full-fledged love-fest with Davis at its center and IU players proclaiming they had put IU basketball back where it belonged. Coverdale was down from the ladder being pushed around the court by Jeffries in a wheelchair, which Jeffries called, "the Jeff Gordon victory lap."

This time, the signs said things like, "We love Davis" and "Knight-time is over. It's a new Da-vis for IU." No one turned away. The sea of red that filled Rupp Arena made it seem like an Assembly Hall annex, which is a much friendlier place these days.

"The fans have come to know Mike Davis," said IU president Myles Brand, once hung in effigy at the school. "This is the future of Indiana basketball. It's Mike Davis and this team."

It has been 10 years since IU has been to a Final Four. By beating Kent State, the Hoosiers had won more games in this NCAA Tournament than they had in that decade of tourney futility.

"We felt like last year was a warmup," said Jeffries. "It means a lot because of what we've started here. There was a tradition that had been kind of exiled when Coach Knight left.

"We've started a new tradition. . . . We hope we've started to build a dynasty like Duke."

It's been a while since IU was mentioned in the same breath with the Dukes of the world. Too much recent history has included recent failure for that. Over the past decade, IU had joined the ranks of the good but not great. It was troubled by a post-season malaise that seemed incurable until now.

The Hoosiers were always good enough to get into the NCAA Tournament, but never good enough to do any damage.

This year, the damage has been done - to Duke, to Cinderella, to pretenders such as Utah and UNC-Wilmington.

And IU is still standing for a change.

Still climbing, still making their way up that ladder one laborious step at a time.

It's a painful thing of beauty.

Fife leans back and takes it in. This is the only place he wanted to be when he came to IU. It's all he wanted through the Knight storm and through the Midnight Madness when the Hoosiers started to climb a ladder they could only dream would end here.

"This," he said, "is where this program belongs."

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