Darkness fell in Bloomington last March. Selection Sunday arrived, and for the first time since 1985, Indiana turned up missing when the brackets were revealed. And if missing the NCAA tournament wasn't bad enough, IU couldn't even manage a winning record to qualify for the NIT.
Without legitimate depth or a scorer in the post, coach Mike Davis anticipated a struggle. However, he felt Indiana had enough talent to keep the NCAA streak alive until reinforcements arrived.
"We knew it would be a tough year, but we thought we could squeeze some wins out and buy time for this year's class," Davis said. "Now this year's class is in and we all feel really good about the season."
FRONTCOURTIndiana's play in the paint, or lack thereof, set the tone for last season's downfall. Davis foresees better days, thanks to a talent influx. The difference, he said, "is night and day."
The Hoosiers need a major contribution from true freshman D.J. White, and they need a healthy Sean Kline in the mix. Doctors are confident IU's junior forward will be ready for the season following knee surgery.
"Last year defenses played us heads-up in the post and the next couple of years they won't be able to," Davis said. "Now, you'll have to double-team and cheat off of someone."
Davis is betting heavily on White to be the Hoosiers' go-to guy in the post. It's an overwhelming burden for most first-year big men, but the coach said White's broad shoulders can handle a heavy offensive load. "When you go to D.J. White on the block, he will make plays and create a lot of open shots [for teammates]," Davis said. "He is a guy who can own the post."
Kline, the odds-on favorite to start opposite White, brings the toughness Indiana needs to rumble in the paint. Kline's blue-collar, physical style will set the mentality up front.
Davis does have more seasoned options and won't hesitate to go with senior Mike Roberts or sophomore Pat Ewing Jr. Roberts quietly does all the dirty work, while the high-flying, high-energy Ewing specializes in the dramatic.
The Hoosiers had been counting on the services of another true freshman in the post, 7-1 Robert Rothbart, but he opted to play professionally in Europe instead. Davis filled Rothbart's scholarship with Lucas Steijn, a 6-10 center from Muiderberg, Netherlands.
BACKCOURTThe free rides are over. The guards will have to earn every minute. That goes for everyone, including returning starters Bracey Wright and Marshall Strickland.
"The competition has really stepped up," Davis said. "Now nobody can relax and there is no guarantee anybody is going to play. There is no guarantee that Bracey is going to play 30 minutes a game. That is the position you want to be in."
Back surgery cost Wright four months of conditioning, and he wore down late in games. Still, Wright led Indiana and finished third in the Big Ten in scoring, averaging 18.5 points.
Critics question whether Strickland can effectively run a team. Davis, however, believes his point guard's development is right on schedule.
"Marshall will be fine because he is going to have four other guys that can make plays," Davis said.
Davis expects freshman Robert Vaden to be the final piece of the Hoosiers' three-guard attack. Another true freshman, A.J. Ratliff, could become Indiana's top backcourt reserve, but he'll have to outwork four veterans to earn that job.
Senior point guards Donald Perry and Ryan Tapak have starting experience, as does sophomore swingman Roderick Wilmont.
FINAL ANALYSISWithout question, Indiana enters the 2004-05 season better suited for success. The frontcourt remains the team's biggest concern, particularly if Kline can't go, but even an inexperienced White should stabilize the situation and free up the Hoosiers' talented guards.
"We have some real talent now," Davis said. "With this kind of talent in the system that we run ... we will be really good. I don't think people realize how good we are going to be."
In other words, the sun will rise again in Bloomington.